First Drive Report: 2014 Nissan Versa Note Plays the Right Subcompact Car Melody

2014 Nissan VersaWe’ll be brutally honest about our expectations for the new 2014 Nissan Versa Note five-door hatchback that we recently drove in and around San Diego. Our preconceived notions had everything to do with our initial impressions of the hot-selling sedan about a year ago when it came out.

You see, the Versa sedan is the least expensive car in the country, and while that means plenty of high school and college graduates got new Versas this year, it’s too bad their parents didn’t see the merit of buying an $11,000 used car instead. To our recollection, the sedan came with no sound-deadening material, a raucously tepid motor so loud that it makes you want to drive slowly, and an interior whose trim quality screamed “cost-cutting.”

Nevertheless, the Versa sedan has been a huge hit for Nissan, with sales far outpacing every car in the subcompact class, including the Hyundai Accent, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Chevy Sonic, Kia Rio, Mazda2, and the equally lackluster Toyota Yaris.

Of that group, we preferred the Honda Fit, hands down. Even though the Fit is getting a bit long in the tooth and doesn’t sell in the same numbers as in years past, we always felt that its combination of fun-to-drive pizazz and unparalleled utility made it unbeatable.

Well, not that we were expecting the new 2014 Nissan Note to revolutionize our small car expectations, but it very well did.

2014 Nissan VersaUnique Features of the 2014 Nissan Versa Note

We hope that Nissan understands that they’re going to need to up production of the Versa Note more than their projected 20% over the next four years. This hatch is going to steal sales not only from the Fit and Fiesta, but also from the Versa sedan as well.

Clearly the low, low price of the base model Versa sedan plays a big part in how well it sells now — as does the fact that it comes standard with air conditioning, an AM/FM/CD player, wheel covers, a steering wheel, doors, and the same 1.6-liter 109 horsepower four-cylinder engine found in the Note hatchback. Both the Versa sedan and hatch return EPA fuel economy estimates of 31 city/40 highway when equipped with the standard CVT automatic, which by some miracle is now quiet, refined, and apes the function of a conventional automatic as much as possible.

Granted, you can option up your Versa sedan with more features like power windows, power door locks, Bluetooth, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, USB/i-pod integration, and even an in-dash navigation system with a back-up camera. And although the 2014 Nissan Versa Note does have a higher MSRP when fully loaded (yet still manages to stay under $19,000), it comes with more luxuries like heated front seats, a multi-camera “around view” system that helps you park the car in tight spots via the navigation screen, it will read your texts back to you, the interior fabrics and trim feel more durable and of a higher quality while stylistically it also runs circles around everything in its class.

The most compelling value item in the 2014 Nissan Note lineup is the SV trim, which starts at $15,990 and comes with power windows and door locks, Bluetooth, steering wheel mounted audio controls, Bluetooth, halogen headlamps, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and very dressy chrome interior accents. A much more basic model called the S that will serve as the value leader starts at just $13,990 if that sounds like more than you need. The one thing we didn’t care for on the SV models were the plastic wheel covers, but Nissan had an answer for that by telling us they are offering both 16 and 17-inch stand-alone optional alloys on all models. If it were our car, we’d recommend investing in the alloys as it really does make the car look more grown up and expensive.

Or you could do what we would do and just go the whole hog by purchasing your 2014 Nissan Note in full SL trim, which adds the aforementioned 16-inch alloys, heated front seats, a back-up camera that works through the center dash mounted screen, USB/i-Pod integration, XM radio, fog lamps, push button start and keyless entry, as well a 60/40 split rear seat with an armrest and a false cargo floor system that Nissan calls Divide-N-Hide. This system allows you to not only hide valuables but it also gives the Versa Note a very handy and usefully flat load floor. The SL comes to $17,690, and if you add the Tech Package — which includes the navigation, around-the-vehicle camera system, Pandora radio, heated outside power mirrors, and Bluetooth audio streaming — you’re still at just $18,490, which to our mind is still a huge bargain for a car that can do this much.

2014 Nissan VersaInterior and Exterior Styling of the 2014 Nissan Note

This is really where the 2014 Nissan Note shines, thanks to its aerodynamic and artistically shaped headlamps and tail lamp assemblies that keep the car moving through the air with a fuel-saving .29 coefficient of drag. Not only is the whole look of the hatchback Note very cohesive, it’s downright stylish, with none of the cheap-looking design cues that haunt so many other subcompact hatchbacks. In fact, the Note looks more expensive and robust than the rather scrawny Versa sedan.

The inside is where you can see Nissan spent time improving the quality look and feel of the interior plastics, fabrics, and controls. The Note also has two large gloveboxes in the dash to hide your really valuable junk — not that you’ll be short of storage space with the 21.8 cubic foot cargo hold behind the rear seats that grows to 38.3 cubic feet when the back row is folded flat. The only negative is that your friends might ask you to lend a hand the next time they move.

2014 Nissan VersaDriving Impressions

First off, let’s talk about how much quieter and more refined the 2014 Nissan Note felt when we were cruising along at the Southern California freeway speeds that left us frazzled and nervous in the last Versa sedan. The Versa Note shames most all of its competition when it comes to steering, handling, and absorbing bumps like a grown-up car. But don’t think the Versa Note is softly sprung with springs and dampers made from recycled waffles: when you’re in the mood, the steering comes alive in your hands, body roll is kept nicely in check, and yes, you can have fun driving this car with just a 1.6 liter 109 horsepower four-cylinder simply because in this application, the motor is so willing to rev, remaining a smooth operator at all times.

Clearly, the Note underwent lots of noise-, vibration-, and harshness-tinkering, as well as suspension-tuning before its release, so different is the driving experience in these two Nissans. The Versa Note also feels faster thanks to the 300 or so pounds that it lost in its recent redesign, which translates into a car that you’d (mistakenly) assume to be out of its element at 80 miles an hour. In fact, at freeway speed the Versa Note had plenty of stamina to accelerate with ease when a large pickup barreled down on our fender at 95 miles an hour. The Versa Note accelerated and swerved out of the way, demonstrating nothing but the utmost in control — which is good, because otherwise my drive partner and I would have been flat as a pancake. Or at least a waffle.

Lastly, we admit: we usually hate CVT automatic transmissions with a fiery, unabated passion. Under heavy acceleration, they make the engine sit at redline as if somehow the CVT wants to punish the engine for being bad. Then in many cases, the belt-driven CVT makes its own sort of animalistic moo-ing noise that is so off putting it has made us just want to walk away from certain cars — with the keys still in them and the engine running.

But the updated CVT in this Nissan Versa Note is different. It’s quiet, refined, and it even mimics the action of changing gears, so the engine isn’t always running so hard. This second generation CVT is smaller and lighter than the unit it is replacing. It uses low-friction internal fluid whose 30% improvement in wear-reduction results in enhanced durability and uses a much larger ratio spread for the metal CVT belt’s “gearing”. Nissan also introduced a two-speed planetary gearbox to ensure owners got the feeling of an actual shifting sensation from their transmission. How revolutionary!

If you’re in the market for a subcompact hatchback, you owe it to yourself to test drive the 2014 Nissan Note, which is at dealerships now. Make sure you drive it on city streets and the freeway, and you’ll see one of the most solid, complete, grown-up small hatchbacks that this country has ever seen. It looks like the competition has some work to do.

Now, Should You Buy This Car?

We may never be entirely enthusiastic about its four-door sedan sibling, but after spending time with the 2014 Nissan Versa Note we came away believers that this is the new class leader in the segment — and not just because of its low starting price. Driving the 2014 Nissan Note is an enjoyable experience: relaxing and soothing when you want it to be, and zippy and engaging when you’re in the mood for a bit of fun.

Don’t get us wrong, the Versa Note is not a sports car, but we can think of few cars that do this many things right for a price as low as what Nissan is charging for it. Hurry on down to a Nissan dealer before they come to their senses.

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