Nissan strikes chord with Versa Note

07/18/2014 7:00 PM

07/21/2014 11:08 AM

Form follows function, and that is certainly true of subcompact hatchbacks. Fuel efficiency, maneuverability, a versatile interior and an affordable price are important criteria that drive companies to produce cars such as the Nissan Versa Note, a pleasantly styled hatchback that delivers on each item.

This is the second year for the Note, a companion to the more conservatively styled Versa sedan.

In general, subcompacts are not huge sellers in this country, but the cost of fuel is increasingly important for many consumers. I often think that it is harder for manufacturers to build an excellent small car with a small price because it requires intense discipline.

The Note is an excellent example. Its spunky styling has an aggressive face and a well-proportioned body. The accent line on the side is said to resemble the arc of a squash ball as it bounces off a wall. A well-equipped model sells for less than $20,000 and fuel economy is rated at 31 miles per gallon in the city and 40 on the highway. Competitors include cars such as the Honda Fit, Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic, Toyota Yaris and the Mazda2, to name a few.

There are five trim levels – S, S Plus, SV, SR and SL – and prices range from $14,180 to $17,960. I drove an SR from Nissan’s press fleet, and it had a sticker price of $19,180. While base versions are fairly plain, the SR and SL models are nicely equipped. Nissan Connect, optional on lesser models and standard on the SL, has mobile apps, hands-free text messaging, Bluetooth audio streaming and a navigation system that provides speed-limit information and warnings for curves.

The Versa’s engine is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 109 horsepower. Considering that the curb weight is just more than 2,500 pounds, 109 horsepower moved the Note with reasonable pep. Nissan’s Xtronic continuously variable transmission (CVT) is standard on all but the S, which has a five-speed manual. The Xtronic is the most fuel-efficient gearbox, but it doesn’t shift like a regular transmission. Rather it continuously changes gear ratios by varying the size of two pulleys, much like the transmission of a snowmobile or ATV, and it doesn’t accelerate quickly unless you mash the throttle.

Note models with Xtronic also have Nissan’s first-ever active grille shutter that usually closes at speeds above 20 miles per hour. That reduces drag and improves fuel economy.

I averaged 35 mpg in a week of mixed city and highway driving.

The cabin is reasonably large for a car in this segment. The tall roof and upright seating position yield 40.8 inches of headroom in front and rear legroom of 38.3 inches, more than enough for adults. Putting down the split-folding rear seat creates 18.8 cubic feet of storage space. The liftover height has been reduced by 1.7 inches over the previous Versa hatchback. Valuables can be stored in a hidden area under the cargo floor.

The test car’s black cloth seats had a patterned inset accented with a red stripe. The instrument panel plastic is fairly plain, but the gauges are bright and easy to read. Engine and road noise are moderate.

Price

The base price of the Note SR is $17,530. Options included Nissan Connect, Sirius satellite radio, backup camera, Bluetooth audio and carpeted floor mats. The sticker price was $19,180.

Warranty

The warranty is for three years or 36,000 miles with a five-year, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty.

Tom Strongman’s e-mail is tstrongman@gmail.com

2015 Nissan Versa Note SR

Engine: 1.6-liter, 109-horsepower four-cylinder

Transmission: Continuously variable transmission, front-wheel drive

Wheelbase: 102.4 inches

Curb weight: 2,523 pounds

Base price: $17,530

As driven: $19,180

MPG rating: 31 in the city, 40 on the highway

At A Glance

Point: The Versa Note is more versatile than the sedan and it has a livelier style. The engine is not overly powerful but it gets excellent fuel economy. The cabin is surprisingly roomy for a subcompact.

Counterpoint: The CVT feels different, and that takes some adjustment. The interior plastic pieces are plain.

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