2014 Versa Note is a winning economy car
Looking back, it would be easy to conclude that the Nissan Versa is the Rodney Dangerfield of economy cars.
Dangerfield, who died in 2004, was a standup comedian whose shtick was a sad face -- and the complaint that he never got any respect. But he became famous and, of course, was financially successful.
The same can be said of the Versa, which made its debut as a four-door hatchback in 2007. It was remarkable because it was marketed as a subcompact economy car but actually, because of its interior space for passengers and cargo, qualified as a mid-size car under the U.S. government's definition.
Over the years since, Nissan offered a standard sedan version as well, including a stripped model that was the lowest priced car on the market. Partly because of that, as well as carping from some critics that the interior used cheap plastic materials, the Versa rarely got any respect.
But that didn't matter to the customers, who every year made it the best-selling car in the entry-level economy class. In 2012, it was the only one with six-digit sales, a total of 113,327, besting such names as the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Toyota Yaris and Ford Fiesta.
No doubt contributing to its popularity has been the outstanding interior room, low price and an above-average reliability rating from Consumer Reports.
For 2012, Nissan introduced a new Versa sedan but carried over the old hatchback. Now, two years later, there's a new hatchback as well, with a new name: the Versa Note. It's a distinction that identifies the hatchback and also brings the name in line with versions sold in other world markets.
The 2014 model features new styling inside and out. It is 6 inches shorter and considerably lighter than its predecessor. "We took a 300-pound linebacker out of this car," says John Curl, the senior manager of product planning.
One result is an EPA city/highway/combined fuel economy rating of 31/40/35 mpg from the Versa Note's 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine. That's with Nissan's efficient continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), which uses a system of belts and pulleys to seamlessly adjust the engine's power to the wheels.
The tested Versa Note S, however, was the base model with a five-speed manual gearbox. It is a testimony to the CVT state of the art at Nissan that the manual actually delivers less fuel economy, at 27/36/30 mpg.
However, the five-speed is among the lowest-priced cars you can buy, with a sticker price of $14,780. It is a bare-bones car of a type seldom seen any more but should appeal to the frugal. You must hand crank the windows and there are no power mirrors, door locks, cruise control or remote locking -- features that are increasingly found on economy cars. The wheels are steel with plastic wheel covers.
If you don't want to shift for yourself, you can move up to the S model with the CVT transmission, which has a price tag of $16,030 and also includes cruise control and an automatic shutter in the grille to control wind flow and enhance fuel economy. All Versa Notes also have a so-called smart alternator that charges the battery but reduces drag on the engine.
A fully loaded Versa Note comes with a suggested list price of $19,280, which includes heated outside mirrors, a navigation system and -- a first for a car in this class --Nissan's around-view monitoring. The system, which made its debut on the Infiniti EX crossover, uses cameras and computers to provide an overhead view of the car on the dashboard screen. It's valuable, especially for spotting objects around the car when parking, such as a kitten in the gutter or a low post on the side.
Any way you equip it, the Versa Note is a versatile, useful vehicle. With 94 cubic feet of passenger space, it delivers stretch-out room in the back seat, although the center rear position is cramped. The cargo area of 21 cubic feet is larger than the crossover Buick Encore's 19 cubic feet and rivals the trunk space of some full-size cars. The rear seatbacks fold to expand the cargo area.
On the road, the Versa Note delivers stable handling, good straight-line tracking and a comfortable, quiet interior, thanks to an acoustic glass windshield, additional insulation, door welts and absorbent materials inside the doors and wheel housings. There's still a good bit of hard plastic inside but it doesn't resonate.
Model: 2014 Nissan Versa Note S four-door hatchback.
Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder, 109 horsepower.
Transmission: Five-speed manual.
Overall length: 13 feet 7 inches.
EPA passenger/cargo volume: 94/21 cubic feet.
Weight: 2,412 pounds.
EPA city/highway/combined fuel consumption: 27/36/30 mpg.
Base price, including destination charge: $14,780.
Price as tested: $14,780.