2014 Nissan Versa Note may be ultimate practical car

The 2014 Nissan Versa Note is six inches

The 2014 Nissan Versa Note is six inches shorter than the retired Versa wagon, but since it's also 300 pounds lighter, it doesn't feel overly weak with the 109-horsepower 1.6-liter engine. Fuel economy is estimated at 40 mpg on the highway, which is par for the course in this category. (Credit: Nissan)

It just seems right that a test drive of the Nissan Versa Note takes place in the city of Montreal.

In a region where fuel costs are among the highest in North America - somewhere around $5.50 a gallon - small cars abound, especially those that are specifically shaped to maximize passenger and cargo space.

The original Versa wagon - a 2007-model-year arrival - excelled on both counts. Paradoxically, its replacement, called the Versa Note, expands on that theme by actually shrinking in size, although not where it really counts. Nissan's designers shortened the Versa hatchback's overall length by more than six inches (it's 13 inches shorter than the sedan) without reducing the distance between the front and rear wheels or the interior volume, which has actually increased slightly.


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Curtailing the size contributes to a new car that's 300 pounds lighter than the retired 2,700-pound wagon. That's significant for any vehicle, but for the Note, it's nothing short of massive.

Virtually all of the shrinkage occurs ahead of the front wheels where the aerodynamic nose slopes downward in a way that's reminiscent of the Honda Fit.

The front end is finished off with a stylish grille and an attractive pair of "boomerang" headlights. The remaining bodywork is similarly appealing and makes the original Versa seem frumpy by comparison. Indeed the Versa sedan, which has a two-model-year head start on the Note, can't match the new car's youthful presence.

Both Versa sedan and Note wagon lead their respective entry-level categories in cabin space, but the Note's clever interior packaging gives it a clear advantage. Open the hatch and the load-floor height is 1.7 inches lower than its 2012 predecessor (there was no 2013 wagon).

There are all sorts of storage spots for drinks, while an optional adjustable-height load floor called "Hide-N-Divide" can be raised to match the height of the rear seats when they're folded flat, all the while creating a hidden storage spot below.

There's the expected and expansive degree of head and legroom, along with comfortable, supportive seats that put some other entry-point cars to shame. Like the sedan, the dash and door panels are on the plasticky side, but the fit and finish is generally solid and doesn't seem out of place on a vehicle that emphasizes a low base price.

Fuel economy is usually a major consideration for buyers in this class and the Note's 109-horsepower 1.6-liter engine comes through with an estimated 31 mpg in the city and 40 on the highway. That's with the optional continuously variable transmission. Those numbers best the previous wagon's 28/34 numbers by a wide margin. For comparison, the Note's standard five-speed manual transmission earns a 27/36 rating.

The CVT is unique in that it also has an auxiliary fixed-ratio gear. It functions at lower speeds to keep the engine from annoyingly buzzing at high revs while the car speeds up, which is a major CVT drawback.

Helping out fuel economy are grille shutters that automatically close at highway speeds and reduce aerodynamic drag by keeping air out of the engine compartment, thereby reducing the parachute effect.

Trim levels begin with the $14,800 1.6 S that, except for air conditioning and a basic radio/CD player, is pretty plain.

You can add options or step up to the SV with its upgraded seats, hands-free Bluetooth wireless connectivity and other niceties. The SV trim is required if you want a navigation system or Nissan's "Around View Monitor" that shows a 360-degree depiction of the vehicle in relation to its surroundings.

The monitor might be useful for some, but it's not crucial for the neatly sized Nissan Note that's already a breeze to park and also places frugality and affordability high on its agenda whether in Los Angeles, Calif., or here in Montreal.


What you should know: 2014 Nissan Versa Note
Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive sub-compact wagon
Engine (hp): 1.6-liter DOHC I4 (109)
Transmissions: Five-speed manual; continuously variable (opt.)
Market position: Sales of sub-compact cars ebb and flow with the state of the economy and/or the price of gas, both have which have helped pump new product into the category. The Note is a smaller replacement for the Versa wagon.
Points: Redesign has improved Versa's attractiveness; Base four-cylinder engine pulls down good fuel economy; Upgraded continuously variable transmission a significant improvement ; Interior trim could stand an upgrade to keep the Note competitive; A friendly enough wagon that should easily outsell its sedan counterpart.
Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.
MPG (city/hwy) 31/40 (CVT, est.)
Base price (incl. destination) $14,800

BY COMPARISON

Honda Fit
Base price: $16,200
Highly touted and practical wagon due for a complete makeover for 2015.

Chevrolet Sonic
Base price: $15,600
Wagon edition is peppy and thrifty; quiet ride and sporty handling.

Hyundai Accent
Base price: $15,300
New-for-2012 hatch keeps the weight down and the refinement up.
 

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