Nissan Versa delivers good mileage, great price

GRACE NOTE: Nissan’s Versa Note offers contemporary hatchback styling accented by what the company calls a “squash” line on each side. From the rear, you have wraparound taillights and a rear view camera to help with visibility.
GRACE NOTE: Nissan’s Versa Note offers contemporary hatchback styling accented by what the company calls a “squash” line on each side. From the rear, you have wraparound taillights and a rear view camera to help with visibility.
PHOTO: BILL GRIFFITH

Playing to your strengths almost always is a good idea, and it’s something that today’s test car, the 2014 Nissan Versa Note hatchback, does extremely well.

This five-door Versa has four major strengths, also known as selling points: price, space (both interior and cargo), exterior styling, and fuel economy.

Pricewise, the Note comes in three trim levels, S, S Plus, and SV. The base S starts at $14,780 (including destination). Our SV started at $16,780 (including destination). An SL Package ($1,700), Technology Package ($800), mats ($175), and cargo cover ($90) brought the bottom line to $19,545.

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In the old days, we’d have called the Versa Note a basic car, but the industry is changing.

Automakers know that city dwellers, older drivers, hatchback lovers, penny-conscious consumers, and bargain hunters all are potential customers in this subcompact segment.

So, while our test car might seem a bit pricey, it also represents the industry trend of offering well-equipped small cars. In this case, Nissan is offering a fuel-thrifty subcompact with midsize interior room, a surprising amount of technology, and the prospect of a long and useful lifespan.

The SL Package contains 18-inch alloy wheels, keyless entry with push button ignition, heated front seats, fog lights, rear view monitor, rear armrest with cup holders, and a “divide and hide” cargo floor.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, we had houseguests for a day. We also had the choice of several vehicles to take for a trip to run errands and play tourist.

The Versa won over a Toyota Camry Solara (no one wanted to deal with rear seats in a coupe) and a Honda Accord (our guests’ German shepherd had been “in residence” back there for several days on the road).

All three of my passengers rode in back (two at a time), and all came away amazed at the space and comfort. I got back there both to test legroom and use the rear seat as a perch for taking photos of the dashboard, and I was similarly impressed.

The Note is rated at 31 miles per gallon in city driving, 40 on the highway, and 35 in combined driving. Ours averaged 37.9 in a week of varied driving.

Parking was a breeze, thanks to the Versa’s short overall length (163 inches), a good rear view camera, and bird’s-eye 360-degree panoramic view. The last is part of the technology package that adds a 5.8-inch touch screen, navigation with traffic and weather, Google send-to-car compatibility, heated side mirrors, and that 360-degree surround view.

The cargo cover (and tinted rear window) kept gear out of sight, and the space behind the rear seat, though it looked relatively small, was able to accommodate a week’s worth of groceries. There’s also additional hidden space under the cargo floor.

On the road, the ride was comfortable enough, though far from the refined experience found in today’s mid-size sedans.

So, if the Versa has such obvious strengths, what are the lesser features?

Performance is one. The 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine puts out 109 horsepower and 107 lb.-ft. of torque. Coupling it with Nissan’s latest continuously variable transmission tilts the performance-economy equation well towards the economy side and away from performance. Acceleration with normal accelerator pedal pressure is pokey. Get your foot into it and you keep up with traffic and merge well coming off highway on- ramps.

Asking for that extra oomph, however, also makes for greater engine noise, though the Note is quiet enough inside at highway speeds.

Outside noise is another drawback. Insulation and noise control mean weight, and Nissan has kept the Note on the light side at 2,482 pounds, a 300-pound reduction from its predecessor.

That means there’s some road noise in the cabin, but it’s only the tires and suspension doing their jobs.

Average-size drivers should find the Versa comfortable to drive; however, the lack of a telescoping wheel (it does tilt) can make finding your perfect driving position a bit time consuming.

It was surprising that there was no outside temperature readout even though heated seats are part of the SV package. We found the cup holders in the center console too close to the center stack for tall cups. Overall, the interior is on the bland side.

The outside styling, however, is sharp. The Note revels in being a hatchback with its steeply sloped windshield and aerodynamic lines. The doors are deeply sculpted, and Nissan calls the side “character line” a squash line—inspired by the trajectory of a squash ball hitting the wall, bouncing off the floor and back to the players.

Nissan has stretched the wheelbase to 102.4 inches (out of a 163-inch overall length) to maximize the interior space. That also resulted in shorter overhangs than its predecessor had and easier parking maneuverability.

Spend some time with this hatchback and, depending on your driving needs, you’ll likely fall in love with its strengths.

2014 Nissan Versa Note Hatchback

THE BASICS

Price, base/as tested (with destination): $16,780/$19,545. Fuel economy, EPA estimated: 31 city/40 highway/35 combined. Fuel economy, Globe observed: 37.9 mpg. Drivetrain: 1.6-liter I-4 engine, CVT, front-wheel-drive. Body: 5-door, 5-passenger hatchback.

THE SPECIFICS

Horsepower: 109. Torque: 107 lb.-ft. Overall length: 163 in. Wheelbase: 102.4 in.

Height: 60.5 in. Width: 66.7 in. Curb weight: 2,482 lbs.

THE GOOD

Price, interior space, fuel economy, exterior styling.

THE BAD

Power, interior noise.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Economical transportation with amazing interior room for both passengers and cargo and a surprising amount of upscale technology both standard and optional.

ALSO CONSIDER

Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Toyota Yaris.