2014 Nissan Versa Note review
Nissan lightens up and adds active aerodynamics to take the class lead in the fuel-efficiency wars.
- 300 pounds lighter than outgoing model
- Lots of aero tricks for fuel efficiency
- Good steering feel
- Live axle rear suspension
- Interior noisy at speed
- Suspension is a little stiff
The 2014 Versa Note is Nissan's all-new candidate in the ultracompetitive entry-level segment. Already a better value than the outgoing Versa hatchback, Nissan is hoping to lure buyers with class-leading fuel-efficiency, cool techno-bits, uniquely good looks and an impressive list of options not always found in this segment. Are these improvements enough to hand the 2014 entry-level crown to Nissan?
The 2014 Nissan Versa Note is available in three trim levels: S, with a base price of $13,990; S Plus, which offers more interior amenities for a base price of $15,240; and the feature-laden SV, with its base price of $15,990. All trims come standard with 15-inch wheels with 16-inch alloys as an option with the SV continuously variable transmission. While the S and S Plus trims are similarly equipped, the SV adds a ton of standard features, such as one-touch power windows, power door locks with speed-sensing autolock, remote keyless entry, a Bluetooth hands-free phone system, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, chrome and silver interior accents and a whole lot more. Not bad for an additional $1,250. One small gripe: You can only get the manual transmission with the S trim. And in the S, you can't get active grille shutter — and the resulting improved fuel economy — as Nissan chose to only offer that on the S Plus and SV.
Under the hood
The only offered source of motivation for all 2014 Nissan Versa Notes is a 1.6-liter double-overhead-cam inline 4-cylinder engine producing 109 horsepower and 107 lb-ft of torque, featuring twin continuously variable timing control on both the intake and exhaust and dual injectors per cylinder. The dual injectors are a neat technology infusion for the Note. Since the injectors are smaller, they are able to produce a finer spray of fuel particles over a wider area, leading to a more complete combustion in the cylinder. While the outgoing model had a slightly torquier 1.8-liter 4-cylinder, Nissan saw fit to downsize and go after the ever-important fuel-economy numbers. The Versa Note S comes standard with a 5-speed transmission, while the S Plus and SV trim levels are only available with Nissan's Xtronic CVT — disappointing for an enthusiast, but definitely logical for prospective buyers.
With seating for five, the cabin is remarkably open and spacious. Rear-seat legroom comes in at 38.3 inches — 3.7 inches more than the Chevrolet Sonic. Even with the increased legroom, Nissan managed to increase cargo space from 17.8 to18.8 cubic feet. An available option to increase the utility of the Versa Note is the Divide-N-Hide adjustable floor. When you lower the standard 60-40 split-folding rear seats, you end up with an expanded flat cargo area that also creates additional storage underneath, just in case you need to stash anything of value while hauling bigger things above.
The list of standard features is pretty common: AM/FM/CD/aux-in audio system with four speakers, 12-volt power outlet, front door pockets with bottle holders, dual front and rear cupholders, front seatback pockets and so on. The cloth seats are standard fare with 4-way adjustability in the S and S Plus trims, and 6-way adjustment in the SV. Available upgrades include heated seats, navigation with real-time updates, USB input with iPod control, and steering-wheel-mounted audio and Bluetooth controls.
One interior option that really stands out is in the SL Tech package. Nissan is bringing technology normally found in much more expensive cars to the Versa Note with its around-view monitor. In a nutshell, it's a system of wide-angle cameras that provide a virtual 360-degree view around the car, assisting with parking in tight spots. You can even select close-ups from a specific camera — front, rear, curb — for a perfect park every time.
On the road
The Versa Note is an enjoyable drive. The steering is direct with great turn-in. It's not as quick as that of the Honda Fit, but Nissan says that it intentionally slowed the steering a little in an effort to attract a larger customer base. The little 1.6-liter engine is very responsive to throttle input, although it feels overly sensitive in some situations. Braking feels confident and comes from power-assisted front disc/rear drums with anti-lock braking standard, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist.
But you're not buying a Versa Note for high-performance driving. It's very economical, delivering an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated 31 mpg city/40 mpg highway/35 mpg combined. Even with hybridlike fuel economy, the car doesn't feel horribly slow. Of note (no pun intended): You can only get these mileage numbers with the CVT-equipped trims. While the CVT performed well in the road test, it was a bit indecisive with how much power to apply in a few cases, and there's an unmistakable whine at speed. Things are a little loud in the cabin at highway speeds, which, compounded with the whine from the CVT, serves to remind you that you're driving an economy car after all.
In order to achieve the class-leading fuel economy, Nissan added a few tricks to the Versa Note. First, it put the car on a diet to lose 300 pounds, with over 200 pounds realized through structure optimization and an additional 50 pounds shed with the new engine, CVT and driveshafts. Nissan also added an active grille shutter to the trims equipped with a CVT that limits airflow into the engine bay — a first for the company. At speeds over 20 miles per hour, the front grille shuts, which results in a reduction of air resistance by 0.01 coefficient of drag. Nissan even went so far as to vent the taillights in the name of improved aerodynamics. Their efforts paid off, though, with a 9 percent coefficient of drag improvement over the outgoing Versa hatchback.
Right for you?
If you're looking for an affordable, economical new car to take you from point A to point B with some special features, this is probably the car for you. It looks good and it's not a total bore to drive, either. The active aerodynamics and weight reduction will please your inner hypermiler (it's in there somewhere), while the around-view monitor will keep your techno-geek side satiated. Bottom line: We'd buy it, although we wish we could get the manual transmission in the higher trim levels.
(As part of a sponsored press event, the automaker provided MSN with travel and accommodations to facilitate this report.)
James Tate cut his teeth in the business as a race team crew member before moving to the editorial side as Senior Editor of Sport Compact Car, and his work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Automobile, Motor Trend and European Car. When not writing, Tate is usually fantasizing about a vintage Porsche 911.