Car companies generally do not like to provide base models for review because they fear harsh judgment for what those vehicles lack. And with the new Nissan Versa Note, we will indeed judge harshly, though justifiably. But first, a question: Why is Nissan entering the cheapest-car-in-America contest, anyway?
The 545-hp GT-R and the Leaf electric already create an identity crisis for the brand that also builds New York City taxis. Yet, even amid this confusion, the Versa seems off message. Irrespective of their successes or failures, those other Nissans at least have noble missions. The Versa is just a cut-rate econobox, a car so ruthlessly accounted that, by modern standards, it is barely more than a rolling chassis with a capacious back seat. We would list the common equipment missing from this $14,800 hatch, but then we’d have so many words on the page that there would be no room for pictures of the car. Which would be unfortunate, as Nissan’s fresh take on five-door styling is the Note’s most redeeming quality.Sadly, the Versas note is more of a moanthe kind of low, plaintive bleat you might hear around the barnyard in late fall.
Just like the Versa sedan, the Note is powered by a 1.6-liter inline-four making 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque. If you want a manual transmission, you’ll have to give up everything else because a five-speed is only available in the stripper trim, appropriately designated with an “S.” How cheap is it? Nissan didn’t even put a stripe of orange paint on the manual door locks. Two decades ago, before ubiquitous power door locks, a central locking system might have been included, though you won’t find one here. The windows are also manual, but at least air conditioning is standard. The Note’s signature feature is a rather clever method of securing the rear seatbelts out of the way of the split-folding seatbacks, but it’s just a slot cut into the plastic trim for inserting the male end of the buckle.
All this cheapness might be forgiven if the Versa Note drove better, but a soft suspension and poor roadholding mean there’s as little joy to be had behind the wheel as Nissan’s designers brought to the drab cabin. Not even the manual shift lever warrants any enthusiasm with its imprecise engagement and lazy throws. Our test car was slow, loud, sloppy, and as much fun as living below the poverty level. Even if you do find yourself there, you can do better. A Honda Fit comes to mind. So do a lot of used cars.
You can do worse, too. Spending an extra $1250 for the S Plus trim buys you a CVT. The price goes up to $16,800 for the SV, which includes such luxuries as power windows and door locks and keyless entry. Loading up your Note with the SL Tech package, which includes Nissan’s Around View Monitor and a hands-free text-messaging system, means spending nearly $20,000. That’s real money that would be better spent on almost anything else.