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2014 Nissan Versa Note Road Test and Review: Introduction

When most people finally decide that their old car isn’t worth fixing anymore, and they’ve decided to buy a new car. they have simple requirements to fulfill. The new car needs to fit their budget, it needs to fit their lifestyle, it needs to be reliable, and it needs to get good gas mileage. Safety, design and technology are also important considerations, but less so than matters of practicality and price.

Nissan intends the new 2014 Versa Note to help this kind of car buyer check the boxes on that list of simple requirements, but the automaker misses the mark in a couple of important areas.

Before we get started, though, let’s clear up some confusion. The new 2014 Nissan Versa Note covered in this car review is not the same vehicle as the Nissan Versa Sedan, even if it shares the “Versa” portion of its name and certain bits and pieces. Instead, the Versa Note is the U.S. version of the globally sold Nissan Note, while the Versa Sedan is the U.S. version of the Nissan Sunny offered in other parts of the world.

Yeah, that didn’t really clear up any confusion, did it?

Let’s try this. A Nissan Versa Sedan is affordable, roomy, functional and dowdy basic transportation. A Nissan Versa Note is affordable, roomy, functional and stylish basic transportation. Comparatively speaking, of course.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Road Test and Review: Models and Prices

A 2014 Versa Note is $2,000 more expensive than its Versa Sedan counterpart, further underlining the differences between the two models. The Versa Note starts at $14,800 for the S model, including the $810 destination charge, and tops out at $19,300 for the SV model equipped with every factory option. Nissan salespeople can liberate another $4,000 in dealer-installed extras if you let ‘em.

The Versa Note S is basic in terms of equipment, but it does have air conditioning, power exterior mirrors, and a stereo with a CD player and an auxiliary audio input jack. Choose the S Plus trim level and the car comes with a continuously variable transmission (CVT), active grille shutters, and cruise control.

The Versa Note SV adds many of the features most people want in a car, including Bluetooth connectivity, power windows, power door locks, and remote keyless entry. Upgraded interior trim includes silver dashboard accents, chrome door handle pulls, nicer seat cloth, a premium headliner, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with controls that are illuminated at night. This model also has a height adjustable driver’s seat, Nissan Intelligent Key passive entry with push-button starting, visor mirrors, a map light, and more.

As an option, the SV model can be upgraded with an SL Trim Package. Models with this upgrade wear good-looking 16-inch aluminum wheels and fog lights. Additional upgrades include heated front seats, a rear-seat center armrest, a Divide-N-Hide adjustable cargo floor, and variable wipers. A reversing camera is also included in this option package, along with Nissan Intelligent Key with push-button starting, and an upgraded stereo with a 4.3-inch display screen, satellite radio, a USB port, and an iPod connection. An Easy Fill Tire Alert system is also included with this package, making it easier to maintain proper tire pressures, which is key to getting the best gas mileage.

To this, buyers can add the SL Tech Package. It contains a NissanConnect infotainment system with a 5.8-inch touchscreen display, Bluetooth streaming audio, a hands-free text-messaging assistant, a navigation system, and an AroundView Monitor system. My test car had this package, plus a set of carpeted floor mats and a cargo mat, for a total of $19,475.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Road Test and Review: Design

  • The “squash line” debuts
  • Active grille shutters on most models
  • Taillights inspired by the 370Z and Juke

Do you like this color? Its called Metallic Peacock, and it is an attention getter. Normally, I’m not a fan of bright, jellybean colors on cars, but this appropriately named hue is more refined than expected, lacking that cheap sparkle often present in brightly colored paint. If Metallic Peacock remains an affront to your retinas, know that Nissan offers seven other colors for this car, and they’re all more subdued than this.

As for the Versa Note’s styling, I’ll say this. It’s better looking than a Versa Sedan, and I prefer this car’s more conservative lines to most of the other cars in this class.

To add a little pizzazz, the Versa Note’s grille – which on most models includes active grille shutters to improve aerodynamics – bleeds into the headlights. Nissan also stamps a design cue that it calls a squash line into the doors, and installs what the company refers to as boomerang taillights patterned after the Juke and 370Z.

Inside, the Versa Note exhibits both form and function. Given that the quality, textures, and tones of my test car’s interior materials are impressive for what is an entry-level econobox, we’d say the upgrades associated with choosing the SV trim level are worth the extra cost.

While the cabin stylish, exactly, it does exhibit hints of style and, in my loaded test sample, did not look or feel particularly cheap. Even the sun visors proved sturdy, and were equipped with extending sunshades. The only real clues that this is a car stickering for less than $20,000 are the hard plastic door armrests. Seriously, what would it cost per car to make those soft? I’m sure Versa Note SV buyers would pay it.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Road Test and Review: Comfort and Cargo

  • Roomy front seat
  • Huge back seat
  • Large trunk
  • Divide-N-Hide system

The Versa Note represents further proof that cars that are small on the outside don’t necessarily need to be small on the inside. This may come as a shock, but I prefer the Versa’s back seat to its front seat. I am not a small man, having continued a college-sparked expansion of my waistline for the past two decades, and I have gigantic size 12 feet. Yet I find the Versa’s back seat just as comfortable, or more so, than the front seats.

While my Versa SV with SL Tech Package did have a seat height adjuster for the driver’s seat, when the bottom cushion is raised it lacks thigh support. As a result, I slouched behind the wheel, and this got uncomfortable after a couple of hours. My test car did, however, have a soft inboard armrest, so there’s at least one soft place to rest an elbow.

Back on the subject of the rear seat, with the driver’s seat adjusted all the way back in its track, I can easily cross my legs while sitting behind it, and they don’t come close to touching the soft front seatback. Even if they did, the front seatbacks are soft and plush instead of hard and plastic, which means they are kind to knees and shins. My test car also had a wide, softly padded center armrest with cupholders. The Versa Note’s rear seat space and comfort levels are astonishing, really, which is one reason why I think they’re the best seats in the house.

There’s also a surprising amount of space behind the Versa Note’s back seat, especially considering the shallow well under what Nissan calls a Divide-N-Hide cover. I actually used this for its intended purpose, to store a wrapped birthday gift hidden from view while the car was parked in a public lot in the city.

Nissan says this little car holds 18.8 cu.-ft. of cargo with the rear seats in place, which is about as much as a Chevy Impala. To expand cargo capacity, grab the release, flop the standard 60/40-split folding seatbacks down, and you’ve got 38.3 cu.-ft of space to fill. And while the Versa Note’s bottom seat cushion doesn’t flip up like the Honda Fit ’s so-called Magic Seat, there is so much space between the front seat and the folded rear seat that you can still carry tall items in this car, like a plant home from the nursery.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Road Test and Review: Features and Controls

  • NissanConnect technology
  • AroundView Monitor system

Given this Nissan’s low starting price, it comes as no surprise to find that the Versa Note’s interior is extremely easy to use. All of the car’s controls are located right where you expect to find them, and operate intuitively. Drive a Versa Note for a while, and you’ll wonder why car companies find it necessary to rethink what already works so well.

This is not to say that my test car’s SL Tech Package lacks sophistication. It adds a NissanConnect infotainment system with a number of useful features, including a 5.8-inch touchscreen, a navigation system, a hands-free text-messaging assistant, Bluetooth streaming audio, and Pandora Internet radio. Not bad for under 20 grand, eh?

Unfortunately, the NissanConnect system’s screen washes out in bright sunlight, making it hard to use. And with a greenhouse the size of the Versa Note’s, there’s plenty of sunshine entering the cabin throughout the day.

If that’s not enough stuff, my test car came equipped with Nissan Intelligent Key passive entry with push-button starting, a reversing camera system, and an AroundView parking assistance monitoring system. That latter feature is uncommon in luxury car classes, let alone in an entry-level subcompact.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Road Test and Review: Safety and Ratings

  • Easy Fill Tire Alert system
  • Hands-free text messaging
  • Sub-par NHTSA crash-test ratings

All the good safety stuff is packed into the SL Trim Package and the SL Tech Package. Choose the former, and the Versa Note is equipped with a reversing camera and an Easy Fill Tire Alert system. Upgrade to the latter, and the Versa Note is equipped with a hands-free text-messaging assistant and the aforementioned AroundView monitor.

Of these, my favorite is Nissan’s Easy Fill Tire Alert system. The tire pressure monitoring system indicates when a tire might require air, and when you stop to perform the task, it’s easy to know when you’re done because the horn will chirp when you’ve reached the proper pressure.

Here’s the other reason the Versa Note’s back seat is the best in the house. Frontal-impact test scores are mediocre at best. In testing conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Versa Note’s frontal-impact rating for the driver is 3 stars, while front passenger protection rates just 2 stars. Disappointingly, these ratings match the previous Versa Hatchback, though the new Note definitely performs better in side-impact testing than the vehicle it replaces. Side-impact ratings for the driver and rear passenger are 5 stars.

Nevertheless, when you consider these ratings in light of the featherweight 2,412-pound curb weight, you don’t need a doctoral degree in physics to figure out that if you’re driving a Versa Note, you don’t want to collide with something bigger than your car.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Road Test and Review: Engines and Fuel Economy

The Versa Note’s powertrain isn’t terribly sophisticated. It’s got a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine good for 109 horsepower. Even in a car this light, this amount of power is adequate at best. And if you stick four people into this car, it just gets slower and slower.

Plus, the Versa Note is not very fuel-efficient. The EPA says this car will get 35 mpg in combined driving, but I’m averaging just 31.2 mpg. Believe it or not, though, that’s better than the last Honda Fit I drove.

The best thing about the Versa Note’s powertrain is its continuously variable transmission, or CVT. It really helps to maximize fuel economy, power the car up hills, and contributes to what is a surprisingly quiet little car.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Road Test and Review: Driving Impressions

While it’s true that the Versa Note isn’t very fast, or very exciting to drive, it’s better than you might expect. The CVT does a great job of making the car feel energetic in the city, and of keeping the car at speed when climbing hills. Accelerating onto the freeway requires a heavy foot on the gas pedal, but the car is powerful enough to match the flow of traffic except at the end of the shortest on-ramps. Yes, its steady-state drone is irritating, but I speak from experience when I say owners of vehicles with CVTs get used to it.

The lightweight Versa Note impresses with its unexpectedly tossable handling and competent body control, and the standard all-season low-rolling resistance tires don’t squeal under duress. Throw in a comfortable, absorbent ride quality, and the Versa Note feels very European. Better yet, this is a surprisingly quiet car. Most small cars are loud inside, but not the Versa Note. Even when driving into a coastal headwind, I could detect only a hint of wind noise.

The front disc/rear drum brakes offer surprisingly good feel and modulation. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the Versa Note’s wooden, lifeless steering. Nevertheless, it sure is easy to twirl at low speeds.

Dynamically, the Versa Note meets, and sometimes exceeds, expectations for a small, inexpensive car. In my opinion, the least impressive aspect of driving this Nissan is its fuel economy, which falls well short of expectations.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Road Test and Review: Final Thoughts

The Nissan Versa Note is an unexpectedly refined and surprisingly roomy entry-level car that easily does double-duty as a grocery getter or a kid schlepper, and offers modern technology and tasteful style at an affordable price point. It could be one of the most compelling compacts on the market, if not for its two most significant failings.

First, I can’t figure out how the Versa Note flunks the NHTSA frontal-impact crash test. The standards haven’t changed since 2011. Before I could recommend this vehicle, it would need to get 4-star ratings for the driver and the front passenger. And let’s not forget that results are not yet in from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which tends to be a harsher critic.

Second, during my test drive, I missed the official EPA combined driving rating of 35 mpg by more than 10%. Of course, everyone’s mileage will vary, but that’s a pretty big difference.

Add a warranty that is among the least competitive in the class, and the fact that Nissan doesn’t offer roadside assistance like most automakers do, or a free maintenance program like Toyota does for the Scion xD and Toyota Yaris. and a Nissan Versa Note sure starts to look like a tough sell.

I want to recommend this car. I really do. From a design standpoint, it is incredibly practical. From an engineering standpoint, it is incredibly simple. From a technology standpoint, it offers exactly what the target buyer wants. But until Nissan addresses this car’s crash-test performance, I can’t.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Road Test and Review: Pros and Cons

  • Large interior
  • Roomy cargo area
  • Affordable price tag
  • Decent driving dynamics
  • Impressive SL Package equipment
  • Unimpressive frontal crash-test rating
  • 35 mpg is more figment than reality
  • Weak warranty coverage
  • No roadside assistance program
  • NissanConnect screen washes out in sunlight

2014 Nissan Versa Note Test Drive & Compact Car Video Review

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