When the Nissan Versa Note was delivered, the delivery driver said, “This car needs a good review.” Apparently someone too used to European performance and luxury cars being floated his or her way had summarily trashed it. After spending a week with it, however, I think it might be the second coming of Nissan’s ever-popular Versa Hatch — which is as good for Nissan as it is for commuters who choose the car.
Yes, I know the Versa Note is, for the North American market, the second generation of the quirky-looking Versa Hatchback model. But a lot changed underneath the also-changed sheet metal. Principally, the Versa Note has a smaller engine than the old Hatch did (1.6 versus 1.8 liters) and it’s not as powerful (109 versus 122 horsepower), just like the change that happened in the engine room of the Versa Sedan when it was redesigned a couple years ago.
That change does make the Versa Note feel a little less eager than the previous generation, especially when pulling long hills. The Xtronic CVT in our Versa Note SV test car did as good a job as ever keeping the engine in its optimal powerband for the best mix of efficiency and power, but the car just didn’t feel as quick to accelerate in a variety of situations, from mountain-climbing to passing to pulling away at stoplights — a comparison I base on the Nissan cube I own and that shares its powertrain and much of its chassis with the previous-generation Versa Hatch. That said, the payback is sweet for commuters, as the Versa Note is rated at 40 MPG highway by the EPA when equipped with the CVT, while the old Versa Hatch with CVT was rated at just 34 MPG highway.
Inside the car, much has been made of the Versa Note’s somewhat cheapened interior compared to the old Hatch. True, some of the plastics, most notably the arm rests on the doors, are hard where the old Hatch had soft-touch materials. Also, I did notice a slight mismatch in panel fit on the passenger front airbag cover, which almost looked like it was trying to bubble up as if it had already been exposed to a lifetime of heat and cold. But otherwise, I don’t see what all the fuss is about. The seats were supportive and had a surprising amount of side-bolstering for an economy car, the steering wheel was leather-wrapped and comfortable to hold, the back seat still had more room than many cars two classes larger, and all the knobs, vents, and switches felt solidly built — those last two superlatives being things I couldn’t say for the similarly priced and much smaller Fiat 500 Sport I tested the week prior. In all respects, the Versa Note seemed like it would be a fine commuter wagon. Just like the previous Versa Hatch was.
For many buyers, I suppose this will make it attractive as anything else in the segment. A Honda Fit might have slightly better handling and those magic seats, but it’s often reviewed as being buzzy on the highway — something the Versa Note decidedly wasn’t, with its CVT providing a relaxed cruising attitude. A Toyota Yaris feels slightly more refined in terms of how its chassis handles being driven at speed on a curvy road, but typically costs more when similarly equipped and gets worse fuel economy, with a highway rating of 37 MPG. I suspect that in comparing the Versa Note with its principal competitors, a good many buyers will think the Nissan strikes the best balance between cost, efficiency, features, and driving manners to make it their commuter car of choice. The same way they did en masse with the Versa Hatch, making it far and away the best-selling model in the segment when combined with the other third of buyers who chose the Versa Sedan.
That’s not to say there aren’t things I’d like to improve. More about that in my next installment of this review series.
Disclosure: Nissan provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas.