Test Drive: 2016 Nissan Versa Note SL

Introduced as a 2014 model, the Nissan Versa Note came out with guns a blazin’ – bold, angular body work, great fuel economy, surprising rear leg room and a clever split floor hatch arrangement.

If you’re not in a great hurry, and value a smooth ride and quiet cabin over on-ramp histrionics, the Note might be your cup of tea.

But this reborn four-door compact hatchback wasn’t on sale for a year before the bratty Nissan Micra came along and stole its thunder. Trumpeted as the cheapest… er, least expensive car in Canada at $9,998, the ovoid little Micra got more press than a Kardashian butt lift.

Things have now settled down in the lower end of the Nissan spectrum, so let’s have another look at the Versa Note, here a 2016 model in top SL trim at $19,748. Below it are the “sporty” SR ($18,898), the SV ($16,398) and base S ($14,498).

All Notes are powered by a 1.6L four that makes a tepid 109 hp, 107 lb-ft of torque and is hooked to either a five-speed manual or a continuously variable transmission (CVT) – a device that Nissan uses widely across its model range. The CVT is a $1,300 upgrade on the S and SV, and standard issue on the SR and SL.

To reign in costs, Nissan didn’t go for direct fuel injection. A host of other fuel-saving strategies were incorporated: low rolling resistance tires, careful aerodynamic tuning, a CVT with reduced internal friction and wider ratio span, and a “smart” alternator that charges the battery on deceleration.

So here’s the deal with the Versa Note. If you’re looking for hot-hatchy performance to match its rakish good looks, you are totally barking up the wrong tree. However, if you’re not in a great hurry, and value a smooth ride and quiet cabin over on-ramp histrionics, the Note might be your cup of tea.

Nissan went to great lengths to reduce cabin noise with the adoption of double sealed doors, acoustic windshield and plenty of strategic insulation.

The serene cabin comes with one caveat however – when real acceleration is needed, your foot will be to the floor and the CVT will have the 1.6L four moaning like a love-sick yak while the car slowly plays catch up. Once up to speed, things settle down nicely. When not hoofing it, the CVT keeps the revs barely above idle. The payoff is good fuel economy. The Versa Note with CVT gets an Energuide rating of 7.5 L/100 km city and 6.0 L/100 hwy. My week of mixed driving netted 6.9 L/100 km.

At close to 20 grand, Nissan has thrown a lot of kit at this SL to justify its sticker. Standard are heated front seats, air conditioning, fog lights, 360-degree aroundview monitor, CVT, 16-inch alloys, heated mirrors, proximity key with push-button start and navigation with 5.8-inch touchscreen. As can be expected from a car aimed at a connected-obsessed demographic, it offers Bluetooth audio streaming, hands free texting assist, USB, SiriusXM and NissanConnect Mobile Apps (smartphone integration for Facebook, Twitter and TuneIn Radio).

The four-speaker AM/FM/CD/Aux-in audio isn’t terrible (how’s that for an endorsement?) and the three large rotary knobs for HVAC control are what I call luxury in this age of obtuse menu-obsessed touchscreen interface madness.

Another “luxury” touch here is the piano black treatment of the centre stack. This fairly recent acceptance of polished black surfaces as a high-end commodity must surely be a boon to the makers of cheaper cars. In a Bentley or Mercedes S Class, piano black means real wood, lovingly lacquered and buffed to a Steinway finish. In a Versa it’s just shiny plastic. Looks pretty much the same to me.

Otherwise, the cabin is fairly bland with plenty of hard plastic surfaces. The steering wheel does not tilt and I didn’t find the front seats particularly coddling – certainly not uncomfortable but far from remarkable.

As a low stress runabout, the Nissan Versa Note succeeds. It’s a completely user-friendly device. I love the clear “Fine Vision” backlit gauges that stare back from the binnacle. Want to turn up the radio volume? Reach for the knob. You can’t do that in a Honda anymore.

The handling is not sporty, but neither can you call it wobbly or indifferent. It goes where you point it with no drama. The Versa Note’s main strengths are its accommodation and comfort. This is a roomy hatch with plenty of headroom, great outward visibility and generous rear seat legroom that eclipses the others in this segment – the Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Ford Fiesta, Chevy Sonic and Toyota Yaris.

The SL gets the nifty Divide-N-Hide bi-level cargo floor that allows for maximum load capacity in its lower position, and when in the upper slot there’s a flat load floor with the rear seats folded and a covered security compartment below. Nissan is claiming best-in-class total passenger and cargo volume, although nothing beats the clever packaging and wondrous rear Magic Seat of the Honda Fit.

Indeed, the Honda Fit is the Note’s biggest threat. With 130 hp and zippy handling it will run circles around the Note. But the Note is less expensive and has a calmer ride. Feature for feature, the closest Honda Fit to this Note SL is the $23,304 EX-L Navi, although the top-line Fit comes with leather.

As a somewhat stylish, functional appliance, the Nissan Versa Note delivers on value, economy and comfort. If it’s performance you’re after, look elsewhere.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000 km; 5 years/100,000 km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 3 years/60,000 km roadside assistance

Competitors:
Ford Fiesta
Honda Fit
Hyundai Accent
Kia Rio
Toyota Yaris

2016 Nissan Versa Note SL
articles_PricingType 2016 Nissan Versa Note SL
Base Price $19,748
Optional Equipment Equipment: Three-Coat Paint $300
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1600
Price as Tested $21,748
Optional Equipment
10 0
Scoring breakdowns 6.6
7 Exterior Styling
5 Performance
6 Interior
7 Comfort
8 Fuel Economy