Monday, August 19, 2013

Nissan Versa Note - Entry Level Never Looked so Good

The Versa is Nissan's lowest-priced car. Assembled in Mexico, it leads the pack of entry transportation modules, too, and it's no surprise. The previous Versa hatchback and sedan provided a lot for the money, giving upstart Hyundai and Kia a real contest.

Well, nothing stays constant in the car business (or anywhere else, it seems these days), so for 2013, Nissan brought in a brand-new Versa sedan. It was nice enough, but not that exciting. The 2014 Versa Note is something different, though.

Called simply the Note in other places it's sold, it's a five-door hatchback--a very useful configuration. It has the kind of eye-catching look that you'd find on, say, a Mazda3, with plenty of motion and character. My test car, in a bright, unpretentious metallic blue, seemed happy to be a car.

My first look at the Versa Note was when I saw the back of one on a transporter truck on the freeway next to me. It looked different--but sort of familiar, too. Then, I went by a dealership and took one out on the road with a friendly salesman. But my blue test car was mine for a week, and I took it all over the place.

Despite driving cars as exotic as the BMW M6 I had in April, there's nothing like a simple, straightforward little car. Despite its modest 109-horsepower 1.6-liter engine with 107 lb.-ft. of torque, the Note sings just fine out in traffic. The electric power steering delivers safe, secure, and responsive steering. The transmission, a continuously-variable automatic favored by Nissan in many of its cars, takes care of business. The brakes, front disc and  rear drum, have antilock, Electronic Brake force Distribution, and Brake Assist--modern technology that gives you confidence out there in the driving jungle.

The Versa has always been an economical car. The new one, with the CVT transmission, averages 35 mpg, with 31 City and the coveted 40 mpg Highway, per the EPA. I got 32.6 mpg, still better than most cars out there. And the the EPA's website gives the Note a 6 for Smog and a sensational 9 for Greenhouse Gas. It's SmartWay approved.

The basic car, the "S" model, comes with a five-speed manual transmission and some worthwhile items. It also offers a low base price of under $14,000. Step up to the S Plus and get the CVT automatic, as well as cruise control and an interesting and unusual feature - Active Grill Shutter. This controls airflow for slightly better aerodynamics--which means better fuel economy, too. The SV is the likely bread-and-butter model, with power windows and locks, keyless remote, Bluetooth, a leather steering wheel, and more. It starts to feel fancier at that point.

My test car was the top-level SL, with the SL Package ($1,700) and SL Tech Package ($800.). That $2,500 give the car everything you'd want short of a true luxury rig. You get nice 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, and variable intermittent wipers outside. Inside, enjoy Sirius Satellite Radio, a USB port for your iPod, heated front seats, and even a rear-seat armrest with cupholders.

The SL Tech Package adds a 5.8-inch color touch-screen display for navigation and also a ton of amusing electronic features normally found in cars higher up the food chain. You can even order Nissan's "Around View Monitor," which works along with the rear view camera to give you a bird's-eye view of your car for excellent parking.

I tried out the Navigation system and Satellite Radio, but never got around to using the hands-free text message assist. Apparently, it will read your messages to you. I'm sorry I didn't get to it, because if it's like the one on my wife's voicemail at work, it makes a lot of hilarious machine-brain-only mistakes.

From $14,800 for the S to $19,280 (including shipping), you go from basic to super. $20,000 is now the starting price for a car with modern electronics--and most people expect those features in any car today.

One nice little item was the Divide-N-Hide rear floor. Working something like an old-fashioned Monopoly board, a hard panel sits at exactly liftover height to make a flat floor when the seats are down, for easy loading. If you need more height, pull and fold it (it explains the process right there in the car) and you've got more space. If you like that space to be private, lift up a corner of the floor and stash a briefcase or laptop out of sight.

I wasn't expecting greatness for the price and market position, but I came away thinking, "I could live with this one for a long time." I got listenable sound from the audio system, high fuel economy, incredible rear seat leg room (shockingly like a limo), modest price, and effective upright bass hauling ability, and the car was actually enjoyable to drive. You can pick colors such as Metallic Peacock and MorningSky Blue to stand out.

It's never been so good at the bottom of the market as it is today, especially at the top of the bottom like my Versa Note tester. This is what the family car looks like in some countries, and it's a great way to keep it modest without pain.

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