Hertz USA have had the Versa Note – as I should remember to call it – on fleet since launch and thanks to the fact that there is clearly a huge partnership between Hertz and Nissan (there are more of their vehicles than any other on fleet at present), there have always been loads at their rental facility. It was, of course, on my list of cars to sample, but never really got to the top of that list, as, well, when there are more exciting things on offer, they tend to get priority when I am choosing, but every now and them, my budget and I are brought down to earth and I sample something that is in Group B, or a “sub-compact”. I had already tried the current Versa Sedan, and found that although it has roominess on its side, it was in some ways a step backwards from its predecessor, and it proved particularly noisy (a flaw that also afflicted the current Sentra when it was launched). As there is lots that is different between that Sedan and the Note hatch, it was time to find out what this one was like.
Just like the Versa Sedan, US market Versa Note models only have one engine available, a 109 bhp 1.6 litre four cylinder petrol unit. To a European, that may sound pretty decent, but by class standards in the US, this is well below average, with most rivals, such as the Chevrolet Sonic and US spec Ford Fiesta offering around 20 bhp more. As with a lot of Nissan models, there is a CVT gearbox rather than one with defined ratios. In urban motoring, all appears well. The Note seems peppy enough, and rather quieter in this car than in the Sedan version. The gearbox works well, vindicating the decision to offer the continuously variable technology, as the car is smooth on accelerating, and even seems to come to a rest without the jerkiness you sometimes get when the gearbox takes an instant to work out what the driver’s right foot has just done. However, show the Note some hills and the picture is not quite so good. I took the test car up into the hilly area on Route 87 north east of Phoenix, heading towards Payson, and although the gradients are not, by European standards, all that steep, they are long and they reduce trucks to a crawl, and prove quite difficult for some cars. Here the Note had to work a lot harder than it did in the city. It coped, but you could tell that it did not find it easy. Noise levels increase. On the freeway, it was a bit of wind noise that was most obvious, but up in the hills, the engine note (no pun intended!) became the dominant source of disturbance. The gearbox was less of an issue than can sometimes be the case, helping to make the most of the power and torque that is available. The fuel gauge dropped from showing Full within less than 10 miles of leaving Hertz and the bars on the gauge kept going out with alarming frequency as I carried on further away from Phoenix, leaving me to wonder not just how poor the consumption was going to be, but also how limited the range was. Of course, the return journey has a lot more downhill to it, which eased matters. After driving 190 miles, I needed to put 6.87 US gallons of regular in to fill it up. This computes to 27.65 mpg US or 33.04 mpg Imperial, a decidedly unimpressive figure, but one that I think is probably unfair, as I suspect that the car was returned with anything up to 2 gallons more fuel than when I received it.
I was slightly surprised to find a leather wrapped wheel in the car. It did not feel as budget-oriented as wheels generally do in this class of car, and it made the driving experience all the better. You can tell that this car is not designed solely for the American market. The suspension may be tuned to meet local expectations, but this feels like the slightly tall supermini that Europeans see it as. That means that whilst in no way exciting to drive (it has not got enough power for that, anyway), it is very acceptable. The steering is light, but not overlight, which makes manoeuvering this small car easy. but there is ample feel so you know what the steered wheels are going go do. You know it will go round bends, in true front wheel drive fashion in all the ways that made this popular and indeed preferable when the market switched over from driving the rear wheels around 30 years ago. There is not much in the way of body roll, probably because I could not go fast enough to generate any, and similarly there was no real sign of understeer, doubtless for the same reasons, though I have no doubt that if you could really push the Versa Note, these are the traits you would experience. The Versa Note is show with what must be among the smaller narrower and higher profile tyres out there, namely 185/65 R16s, and these no doubt help, along with a lengthy wheelbase for the overall size of the car, for a comfortable ride. There are few rough surfaces in the Phoenix area, so this is not the place to discover the worst characteristics of any car’s ride, but the Note seemed to glide along, smoothly and provided the surface was flat, quite calmly. There was no question about the effectiveness of the brakes, though I did find them a little bit “grabby”, almost too effective. I suspect this is probably a consequence of that CVT transmission, as brakes have to work harder when coming to a rest from any significant speed. There is a conventional pull-up handbrake fitted between the seats. Visibility is a strong suit of the car. The windscreen is huge, as it is at quite an angle, so Nissan have put a small triangular quarter-light in the A pillar to ensure that there are no blind spots from the front, and these are effective. With a stubby front and a near vertical rear end, judging the extremities of the Versa Note is easy, and although there is a reversing camera fitted, you almost don’t need it. There was a good field of view from the door mirrors.
This is a budget car, so you don’t expect a luxurious interior, and you don’t get one. But nor does it look anything like as cheap as offerings at this price point used to only recently. For sure, there is a lot of plastic on the dash and the door casings, but the texture is such that it does not look that bad, and there are cloth inserts on the door casings that match the seat material. The dominant colour is black, with a gloss black trim insert in the centre of the dash around the audio unit and there are some gunmetal inserts around the edge of this and on the steering wheel spokes to provide some visual contrast. There is an honest simplicity to the instrument layout. Three dials are grouped together, their circumferences slightly overlapping, under a single cowl. The central and largest is the speedometer and to the left is the rev counter. The right hand one contains a bar chart styled fuel gauge in an arc around the circumference, and in the middle there is a small digital display for trip computer data. There are twin column stalks, the left hand one containing lights as a twist function on the end of the indicator stalk, and that on the right operating the wipers. The centre of the dash is angled slightly, with air vents at the top and then a traditional audio unit, with AM, FM and XM Satellite radio functions, which are operated using buttons and knobs to either side of the unit. In audio unit use, the screen is monochrome, but it has a colour capability as with the SV trim, you get a reversing camera which projects an image onto this screen. Below it are the knobs for the air conditioning system. The USB and AUX ports are in between the seats. There are numerous very small and slightly fiddly buttons on the steering wheel spokes, for some audio unit repeater functions and for cruise control. And that is it. Simple, easy to use and uncluttered to look at. Only one minor irritation became apparent, which was that at night, there was a reflection high in the windscreen of the strong lighting for the instrument panel. This was clearly a consequence of the seat position, as if I moved very slightly, the reflection disappeared. I only drove the Note a few miles in the dark, but on a long journey, this would be quite irksome. One thing I did discover is that although the main architecture of the dash is the same as the European models, complete with the raised and protruding round air vents at either end of the dash, the central bit is different. European models get another pair of these raised up round air vents in the middle and a single control wheel at the base of the central part for the air conditioning functions, whereas the test car had two rectangular central air vents flush with the panel they were mounted in, and a different set of knobs for the air conditioning. The dash is similar to the Versa Sedan, though the audio unit in the SV version of that I tested in 2014 was different again.
There was another slightly regrettable thing I found when getting in and trying to make myself comfortable. There was nothing on the driver’s seat belt to stop the buckle from falling all the way to the floor, and to retrieve it you had to open the door and reach right down to fish it out. Indeed, when I got the car, and could not find anything on the seat belt to plug in, I wondered if there was some oddity to the design, but eventually I found what was needed so I could belt up. As I was in and out of the Note a lot when doing photos, this was a bit of a pain. All adjustments to get yourself comfortable are of course manual. But there is a height adjuster for the seat as well as the expected fore/aft and backrest rake, the latter being a stepped lever rather than continuous turn wheel, as is generally the case in US market cars. The steering column lacked an in/out function, but set to its highest position, and the seat altered for my short legs, I was perfectly positioned. Seat trim, cloth, of course, was not as cheap feeling as you sometimes experience at the budget end of the market, and the perch itself proved comfortable, though I did not sit on it for any sustained long journey in the time I had the car.
Open the rear doors, and prepare to be surprised at just how much space there is. The Versa Note may have compact dimensions externally, but the packaging has been thought out really well, as this is an impressively roomy car. There is an almost flat floor, with just a slightly raised bit in the middle. With the front seat set well forward, as it was for my driving position, there is a simply vast amount of legroom, and even if you pull the seat well back, there is still a lot of space. Thanks to the tall-styling, there is also a lot of headroom. The Versa Note is not that wide, so fitting three burly adults across the seat would be tight, but children would certainly fit and there are three belts, the middle one suspended from the roof.
You get a good sized boot considering the compact dimensions of the car. It is a nice regular shape, and is quite deep from top to bottom. There was no load cover to hide contents from prying eyes. There are indents on the side which suggest that you could put in a false floor – usually done with the parcel shelf, the advantage being that this would give you a shallow underfloor area (though there already is that under the main floor) and would level the boot when the rear seats are folded down. They are asymmetrically split, and you simply push the backrests down. They are not flush with the main boot floor level. There were a few signs of cheap quality in the boot, the floor covering not fitting very well, and simple holes had been cut on the rear face of the seat backrests through which the hooks for securing luggage stuck out. Inside the cabin you get the vast glovebox which extends forwards ever such a long way, a trait of all Nissans, and there is an upper level above it, which is not that big, but still useful. There are bins on the front doors and there are a number of small recesses in the centre console as well as a pair of cup holders positioned in front of the gearlever. There is no central cubby as the armrest – and only the driver gets one – is anchored to the side of the seat. There is one map pocket, on the back of the front passenger seat for occupants in the back.
Trim levels of the Versa Note mirror those of the Sedan. Five different ones are offered and it is a measure of how basic the lower-specced models are that the test car came from near the top of the range, whereas most rental cars tend to be from the bottom end. Gone are the days of the sub $10,000 Versa, but the entry level prices are still low, starting for 2016 models at $11,990 for an S Sedan. The S spec in both models gets you a four-speaker audio system, an auxiliary audio input, steering wheel-mounted audio controls, a five-speed manual transmission, and Bluetooth phone connectivity, which allows you to make and receive voice calls using the car’s speakers. Like many rivals, including the Kia Rio, Chevrolet Sonic, and Ford Fiesta, the Versa S doesn’t come standard with power windows or power door locks. There is quite a cost difference between the Sedan and the Versa Note S, which listed at $14,230. It came with the same features as the Versa S sedan. Next up was the S Plus trim, which narrowed the price gap between the two models: $14,040 for a Sedan and $15,480 for a Note. This adds just a few features like cruise control, a rear spoiler, and a CVT. The $15,580 Versa SV adds power windows, power door locks, remote keyless entry, power steering, a USB port, a six-way manual driver’s seat, and 60/40 split-folding rear seats for additional cargo space. This is the first trim available with options. A $700 tech package adds a 5.8-inch colour touch screen with voice recognition and navigation, NissanConnect with smartphone app integration, satellite radio, and a rearview camera. The Versa Note SV starts at $16,380 and comes with a 5-inch colour display, a rearview camera, and what Nissan call a “customisable cargo area”. The Versa Note SR hatchback, starting at $17,980, adds sporty styling features like side sills, a rear spoiler, a sport grille, 16-inch aluminium-alloy wheels, sport suede seats with orange accent stitching, and outside mirrors with LED turn signals. The top trim, the Versa SL, costs $17,140. It comes standard with many of the Versa SV’s available features including a rearview camera, satellite radio, and a NissanConnect infotainment system with navigation. Also standard are push-button start, 16-inch alloy wheels, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. The Versa Note SL is priced at $18,710 and comes with the same features while adding an Around View monitor that creates a 360-degree view around the car.
If you are looking for a cheap urban car, the Versa Note has much to commend it. It scores particularly highly for its roominess and versatility. Whilst no ball of fire, in town traffic, it keeps up well enough with the flow, and is decently refined. It is nicely built, and although far from luxurious, provided you start at the SV trim, all the must-haves are there. It is not a car that I would recommend for longer distances or for those who live in hilly areas, but then few cars of this class are really designed for such usage. Is it better than its main supermini, or subcompact rivals? That is a different list in the US than it is in Europe, of course. In America it must fend off the Chevrolet Sonic, the Toyota Yaris, the Mitsubishi Mirage, the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent and that’s pretty much it. I’ve not sampled a US spec Fiesta (yet), but would guess that it is the one for the keen driver, but it would lose out on space. The Sonic is a good car, nicely finished and goes well with its 138 bhp engine, but it is more costly and less spacious. The Yaris I don’t like and the Mirage is truly awful. That leaves the Korean pair, both of which are very good. They are physically bigger, and are going to cost more to buy, but in rental car land, these all come in the same category. Given the choice, I would probably take one of them, but if I had no choice and a Versa Note had my name on it, it would not be the end of the world.
That leaves one final thought. I think Nissan USA got it wrong by calling it a Versa Note. The Versa Sedan model has a reputation and almost a “cheap and nasty” stigma that will be hard to shake off. The Note version is really very different, and is a good enough product to survive on its own just simply as the Note.