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Nissan Versa Note strikes the right tone with budget-minded shoppers

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2014 Nissan Versa Note SL

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Introduced in July 2006 as an early 2007 model, the Versa debuted to critical acclaim in a choice of a 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback. It was based off the Latin American model of the Tiida sedan, which is still assembled along with the current Versa models by Nissan Mexicana SA de CV in Aguascalientes, Mexico.

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Model year 2012 saw the debut of the second-generation Versa sedan, which at the time was marketed as the least expensive car sold in America, at an under $12,000. Last summer was the hatchback’s turn to receive its new set of clothes, debuting as the 2014 Versa Note. In the process it gained some much needed oomph in the styling department. It was announced just this week at the New York Auto Show that the Versa sedan will receive its third refresh, appearing more to be a junior clone to the Sentra and Altima.

According to an early Nissan press release back in 2008, "versa" is short for "versatile space" meant to imply the spaciousness of the interior and configurable cargo arrangements. For the Versa Note that couldn’t be a truer statement.

Though bigger than its original intended B-Segment category, the Versa competes with models such as the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Mazda 2, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent 5-door, Kia Rio 5-door and Mitsubishi Mirage. Because the Versa has grown even larger with this second generation it is now categorized as a C platform, although within Nissan’s internal styling language it’s known as the V platform.

Of interesting note (no pun intended): The Versa is the only Nissan-badged passenger sedan in U.S. and Canada to be sold globally, since the Sentra, Altima and Maxima are exclusive to North America and Middle Eastern market.

The facts

Referred as the Versa Note with its now year-old refresh, this 5-door hatchback offers an exceptional combination of versatility, technology and value. It’s designed to address the needs with sleek styling and unique features like a class exclusive Around View Monitor – all at an attractive and affordable pricepoint.

With a starting Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price (MSRP) of $13,990 for the base S model, the Versa Note is the least expensive of its peer group, but that’s all relative. A more detail explanation is forthcoming.

The Versa Note is offered in a wide range of trim and package combinations: S, S Plus and SV, with four available packages for the SV trim level. Due later this year, the Versa Note gains a sporty SR model.

All Versa models are equipped with an advanced 1.6-liter DOHC 4-cylinder engine with dual fuel injection and Twin CVTC (Continuously Variable Timing Control).

Where the CVT-equipped Versa Note is rated at a best-in-class rating of 31/40/35 mpg city/hwy/combined (CVT-equipped models), the S model, which comes only with a 5-speed manual transmission, receives a less impressive 27/36/31 mpg city/hwy/combined, yet still on par with the competition.

Although the Versa Note S is the least expensive in it segment at $13,995 MSRP, it’s not without compromises. With only a manual tranny and crank-up windows and non-power door locks the S model seems better suited for fleet use than someone’s personal vehicle. But as the saying goes: different strokes for different folks.

Next up from the Versa Note S is the Versa Note S Plus, which at a $15,240 MSRP adds Nissan’s Xtronic CVT, cruise control and Active Grille Shutter. But you still wind up with manual operated windows and door locks. Another shortcoming with both S models is that the audio system is a crude (in today’s standards) two-speaker CD setup that, while includes an auxiliary input, does not include Bluetooth or a USB port, which are features that come standard in most of the Versa’s advisories. But hey, at least air conditioning comes standard.

Next up from the Versa Note S Plus is the model really worth consideration, the Versa Note SV. At a $15,990 base MSRP (that’s a mere $750 extra over the S Plus) it includes power windows with one-touch down feature, power door locks with speed-sensing auto-lock, Remote Keyless Entry, Bluetooth Hands-free Phone System, leather-wrapped steering wheel, chrome and silver interior accents, map light with key-linked illuminated entry system, driver's seat armrest, upgraded seat cloth and stitching and much more. Four equipment optional packages are offered for the SV: the SV Convenience Package, SL Package, SL Tech Package and Sport Value Package.

The SV Convenience Package ($540) includes wide 2-DIN Display Audio with AM/FM/CD/iPod/Aux 4.3-inch display, SiriusXM subscription Satellite Radio, USB input w/iPod control, RearView Monitor, rear seat armrest with cupholders and Divide-N-Hide Adjustable Floor.

The SL Package ($1,700) includes the SV Convenience Package, in addition to 16-inch aluminum-alloy wheels on 195/55R16 tires, front fog lights, variable intermittent front wipers, heated front seats, Nissan Intelligent Key with Push Button Ignition, Easy Fill Tire Alert and SL badges (which replaces the SV badging). Why Nissan just didn’t reflect the price difference and call it a SL model is anyone’s guess.

In Nissan-speak the main differentiation between SL and SV trim is generally an upgrade to leather seating in lieu of cloth. I mention this because the SL Package for the Versa Note does not offer this amenity. While it’s not been a major deal breaker for this segment thus far, it is staring to appear on more models, like as the Ford Fiesta Titanium. Honda, for the first time, will offer factory leather seating on its redesigned 2015 Fit. Another minor omission is the lack of a power glass sunroof, which can be found on models such as the Ford Fiesta, Chevrolet Sonic and Honda Fit.

The Technology Package ($800), which requires at least the SV Convenience Package, includes NissanConnect with Navigation System, 5.8-inch color touch-screen display, Nissan Voice Recognition for audio and navigation, NavTraffic and NavWeather, POIs powered by Google, Google Send-to-Car, Streaming audio via Bluetooth, Hands-free Text Messaging Assistant, Around View Monitor and heated sideview mirrors.

The stand-alone Sport Value Package ($760), available for all trim levels, includes 15-inch aluminum-alloy wheels and a rear spoiler.

Introduced at this year’s Chicago Auto Show, the Versa Note SR was an interesting take on what can be done to a mundane people carrier by adding some spice of life to it. But when the Versa Note SR comes to market later in the year it will have to be more than just cosmetics if it plans to go head-to-head with such models as the Fiesta ST and Sonic RS, which both offer beefed up turbocharged engines and six gears for their manual and automatic transmissions. If they haven’t already Nissan should think seriously of using the 188 horsepower 1.6-liter turbocharged I4 of the Juke for motivation. That shouldn’t be all that difficult since the same powerplant combo is already being used for the global market.

So far what is known about the SR package is that it is all cosmetics, which includes a unique fascia and grille combination with a dark headlight treatment and standard fog lights with black and chrome accents. Body-color side spoilers and redesigned side mirrors with integrated turn signals complement Versa Note's distinctive "squash line" side profile. The exterior silhouette is capped off by a unique rear spoiler, SR badging and high-contrast machine-finished 16-inch sport aluminum-alloy wheels with dark paint mounted with 195/55R16 all-season tires.

Interior enhancements include a unique 370Z-inspired leather-wrapped steering wheel, suede-like fabric seats with sporty orange accents and double stitching, a redesigned piano black center instrument panel with silver accents and chrome knobs, and Euro-inspired Fine Vision triple-dial gauge cluster with floating trip computer.

So at least for the moment the Versa is only offered with Nissan’s 1.6-liter HR16DE I4, rated at 109 horsepower @ 6,000 rpm and 107 lb-ft of torque @ 4,400 rpm. This proven engine includes a range of cutting-edge technologies, including a dual fuel injector system that allows a wider injection of fuel (versus traditional single injector systems), with the smaller nozzles delivering a spray approximately 57 percent finer than the previous generation single injector design's particle size to help achieve more complete combustion.

Is the Versa ripe to be environmentally friendly like the Fit EV? The answer to that is, yes. The EV-11, a prototype based on the Tiida, used an 80 kW/280 N·m (210 lb·ft) electric motor, 24kWh lithium-ion battery pack rated 160 km distance, navigation system, EV remote control and monitoring. It was unveiled in Nissan's Yokohama headquarters on February 8, 2009. A Production was set to begin for US and Japan sales in 2010, but a pure EV called the Leaf made it to the head of the class first.

The Versa Note is offered in eight exterior colors: Metallic Blue, Red Brick, Brilliant Silver, Magnetic Gray, Super Black, Aspen White and two all-new colors - Metallic Peacock and Morning Sky Blue.

The Versa Note featured for this evaluation came in a Metallic Blue with Charcoal cloth interior. Optional equipment included the SL Package and Technology Package, as well as carpeted floor mats ($175) and a highly recommended rear cargo cover ($90), bringing total options to $2,765, with a final window sticker of $19,545 including designation charges of $790.

Summary

Although rival models can outshine the Versa with better equipment packaging, more spirited performance and higher safety scores, the Versa Note’s cavernous cabin and bargain-basement pricing make it an extremely attractive choice. The Versa Note may not be the most exhilarating to drive, but it does what’s its intended, which is provide responsive and agile handling along with one of the most quiet and comfortable rides in its segment.

The Versa Note offers legible gauges and clearly marked controls that are logically-placed. Available features like keyless access and push-button start is one of Nissan’s strongest attributes. The brand also has one of the best back up camera systems on the market, called Around View Monitor, which ironically remains exclusive to its CUVs and SUV line up, and now to my surprise, the Versa Note.

So with its tall roof, nifty hidden compartments, loads of cargo and generous passenger volume, not to mention easy ingress/egress, is the Versa Note a versatile sub-compact hatchback or more a ‘cute ute’? That’s difficult to define; and Honda has now made that easier to distinguish with the addition of its all-new Fit-based 2015 HR-V CUV. It seems just a matter of time before Nissan follows suit.

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