This review is part of a seven-car comparison of subcompact hatchbacks. The Versa Note is ranked in second place of seven.
Many subcompact cars try very hard to avoid looking or feeling like basic transportation. These models use flashy styling or upscale interior trim or sophisticated driving dynamics in an effort to distance themselves from the reputation of an economy car.
The Nissan Versa Note, meanwhile, is happy to embrace economy. It’s affordable and fuel-efficient, with a lower price than any direct competitor and better gas mileage than all but one. It’s even roomy, with an airy, comfortable, useful cabin.
Sure, the rock-hard plastic dashboard wasn’t designed to impress, despite a 2015-model update. The 109-horsepower engine won’t win many races, even against its competitors. And the plain exterior is more about utility than style.
Note that even if Nissan’s decision to prioritize affordability has you nodding approvingly, there are a couple of things that could have been executed better. In particular, the Versa Note’s crash test ratings leave something to be desired, and the folded rear seat isn’t nearly flush with the cargo floor unless you buy an optional “adjustable floor.”
But for an estimated $15,337 out the door, it’s hard to be too picky, especially considering that Nissan was generous enough to even include a cavernous interior with comfortable seats to go along with its tremendous value. If you’re picky about style, interior quality, power, or quietness, though, you probably won’t have a very happy ownership experience in the Versa Note.
To look at
The Nissan Versa Note was all-new for 2014, but it doesn’t look it. Its boxy shape and plainly rounded details would have matched small hatchbacks dating back as far as 2003. It’s just not a car that’s designed to attract much attention.
Design details do differ from the Nissan Versa sedan that’s been on sale since 2012, though; the two cars share no sheetmetal, and the Versa Note has fewer awkward bulges than the sedan.
Plainness continues inside the Versa Note. The instrument panel saw an emergency redesign for 2015, removing a bulge around the climate controls, ditching some particularly cheap-looking silver-colored plastic on the HVAC knobs, and replacing some dull gray plastic with glossy black. The new look is less objectionable than the 2014 model, but the design is still quite plain, and cheap plastic still pervades the rest of the cabin. There’s also still a chintzy feel to the HVAC knobs.
The car’s gauges are classy, at least; they were one of the nicer parts of the 2014 Versa Note’s interior and are even more so after the 2015 update. Ergonomics are user-friendly.
To be in
To its credit, as basic as the Versa Note’s interior is, Nissan doesn’t skimp on seats. A few subcompact cars in the past have had thin, hard seats; these are decently padded and substantial. A high seating position and large windows help visibility.
Rear seat room is outstanding, the best in this comparison and better than many larger cars. Head and leg room is abundant, and the high-mounted cushion is supportive. There’s only a small center hump, making a third passenger seem feasible in the rear seat.
Cargo space is also impressive. The Versa Note’s specs are on the low end for this class, especially its maximum volume of 38.3 cubic feet, but that’s not reflected in the car’s boxy, user-friendly cargo hold. The rear seat drops flat easily, but except on models with an optional adjustable floor, there’s a large ledge between the cargo floor and the tops of the folded seatbacks.
As noted, there is also a subcompact Nissan sedan called the Versa, but it has a number of cosmetic and mechanical differences from the Versa Note.
A weak point in the Versa Note is its engine performance. It only barely edges out the Toyota Yaris to avoid last place with 109 horsepower, but the 106-hp Toyota is about 150 pounds lighter.
With its continuously variable automatic transmission, the Versa Note is unexpectedly adequate, almost peppy, right off the line in relatively gentle driving. But this Nissan can deceive you – keep pushing on the throttle for more go and you’ll realize that gentle is about all the Versa Note can muster, especially when you try to accelerate at speed. To be sure, it’s a modern car, and no modern cars in the U.S. market have trouble keeping up with highway traffic. The Versa Note will just be louder and slower than most as it works its way up to that speed.
As with other cars with the same transmission type, the Versa Note’s CVT varies the gear ratios constantly to ensure the sweet spot for powertrain efficiency, which yields a steady drone at a constant RPM from the little engine. And as with the Yaris, buyers who make use of this Nissan’s impressive interior volume will see available zip dwindle further.
The Versa Note does certainly impress, though, for its gas mileage – it handily beats the class norm and is only slightly behind the class leader. The EPA projects 31 miles per gallon in the city, 40 mpg on the highway, and 35 mpg in mixed driving.
Besides the engine, the steering and handling also favor gentle driving. When it’s not asked to explore its limits, the Versa Note feels almost agile. Push harder, though, and the suspension loses some composure, and the steering feels increasingly over-light and disconnected, reducing confidence.
The suspension absorbs bumps well but the car doesn’t feel as tied-down and substantial as several competitors, with some float and jiggling motions detracting from the ride quality. Noise levels are decent for an economy car except for the engine’s drone under moderate to hard acceleration.
The Versa Note is the best deal on paper among subcompact hatchbacks. Comparably equipped to the competition in this comparison – with an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; and Bluetooth connectivity – it has a sticker price of $17,335 that buyers can expect to haggle down by about $2,000. The lowest price in the comparison and very impressive gas mileage make this Nissan quite a compelling value.
Fortunately, there’s more to the Versa Note than just its cost. A spacious cabin with comfortable seats is another important plus. And although it offers little sense of luxury or sportiness, it is still adequate for a cheap car.
But “adequate” isn’t to everyone’s tastes. Nor would a buyer used to a higher class of car necessarily find the Versa Note adequate, while they might be satisfied with the level of refinement, safety, performance, and design cleverness found in a few other subcompacts. Spend a little more, and you might find yourself with a lot more car.
Overall grade: B+
More from this comparison:
– Next review: 2015 Honda Fit LX (1st place)
– Previous review: 2015 Kia Rio EX (3rd place)
– Rating the seven subcompact hatchbacks
– Ranking the seven subcompact hatchbacks
– Introduction to this comparison
More about the 2015 Nissan Versa Note SV:
– Photo gallery
– Report card — how does it compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
– Report card — how does it stack up for different types of buyers?
2015 Nissan Versa Note SV
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $14,180
Version tested: SV (2014)
Version base price (MSRP): $16,330
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $17,735
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP)*: $17,335
Estimated transaction price as comparable**: $15,337
Test vehicle provided by: Antwerpen Nissan; Clarksville, Md.
Length: 163.7 inches
Width: 66.7 inches
Height: 60.5 inches
Wheelbase: 102.4 inches
Weight: 2,482 pounds
Cargo volume behind rear seat: 18.8 cubic feet
Cargo volume with seat folded: 38.3 cubic feet
Turning circle: 34.2 feet
Engine: 1.6-liter I4 with 109 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): CVT automatic
EPA city mileage: 31 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 40 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 35 miles per gallon
Fuel capacity: 10.8 gallons
Assembly location: Mexico
For more information: Nissan website
Review: 2014 Nissan Sentra SV
Review: 2014 Nissan Pathfinder SL
Review: 2012 Nissan Versa SL sedan
* Prices as comparable reflect vehicles equipped with the same features: an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; cruise control; and Bluetooth connectivity.
** Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.