SAN DIEGO – The’14 Nissan Versa Note has a lot of things going for it: it’s peppy, stylish,    fuel-efficient, but most importantly, inexpensive.

In the ultracompetitive U.S. B-car market, affordability is the name of the game, as most consumers in the segment are first-time buyers or typically have driven used cars. As such, price often is an important purchase consideration.

The new Nissan hatchback starts at $13,990, which stacks up favorably against competitors such as the Kia Soul at $14,400 and Chevrolet Sonic at $14,785.

But aiming at and shooting for the lowest popular price point doesn’t come without its setbacks, and the old adage “you get what you pay for” rings true in some areas of the Versa Note, in particular the interior.

Although the cabin is well laid out, with intuitive, easy-to-reach controls and reasonably supportive seats, it is lined throughout with some of the hardest plastic in the industry. There are no soft-touch points here. Even the armrests feel like slabs of concrete, making long drives extremely uncomfortable after just an hour or so.

The base-level Versa Note S is equipped sparingly, but higher trim levels come with a number of high-tech options, including the NissanConnect infotainment system with navigation, push-button start, hands-free phone system and rear-view monitor.

Whatever money Nissan saved on interior surfaces apparently went toward improving other aspects of the vehicle, especially in the area of noise reduction. The new Versa hatch is noticeably quieter at highway speeds compared with the outgoing model.

Nissan engineers say there is more liberal use of damping materials in the latest Versa, and it shows. Noise countermeasures found on the ’14 Versa Note include a rear-wheel housing insulator, B-pillar seal, acoustic windshield and door absorption material.

Noise, vibration and harshness levels used to be an afterthought in the entry-level B-segment, but competitors such as Ford with the Fiesta have stepped up their game in this area, and Nissan is wise to follow suit.

For a B-segment car, there is plenty of usable interior space. Nissan says both the Versa Note’s 115.5 cu.-ft. (3.2 cu.-m) of total interior volume and 21.4 cu.-ft. (0.6 cu.-m) of cargo space are best-in-class. Front headroom is 40.8 ins. (103.6 cm), enough to accommodate taller drivers, while rear legroom is 38.3 ins. (97.2 cm), more than enough for children and adequate for a normal-sized adult.

One nifty little feature is Nissan’s “Divide-N-Hide” adjustable floor. With the standard 60/40-split fold-down rear seat folded, a large flat cargo area is created. Lifting the floorboard reveals a hidden area underneath, perfect for keeping smaller valuables, such as a laptop, out of sight.

The exterior undergoes a significant facelift with an eye on reducing aerodynamic drag and infusing the sheetmetal with what Nissan calls its “Energetic Design” language.

A main element of that language is the “squash line” designers say was inspired by the way a squash ball ricochets off a wall to the floor and back to the player. While it’s a neat way to describe the design, it’s hard to see the inspiration in the actual metal.

That’s not to say the Versa Note’s design is less fluid than that of the outgoing model; rather, it features a sleek roofline, sculpted doors and a sloped windshield. It’s a definite improvement over the previous generation, but is unlikely to turn many heads.

Nissan says the exterior styling changes help the Versa Note achieve a coefficient of drag of 0.298, a 9% improvement over the outgoing model.

Other features helping cut drag include an active-grille shutter, which limits the amount of air entering the engine compartment, a front spoiler, front- and rear-tire deflectors and fuel-tank deflectors.

The Versa Note is powered by a 1.6L DOHC 4-cyl. engine with dual fuel injection and continuously variable timing control making 109 hp and 107 lb.-ft. (145 Nm) of torque. Nissan says dual fuel injection allows a wider fuel pattern than in traditional single injectors, with smaller nozzles delivering spray 57% finer than the previous-generation system.

Although the Versa Note’s power output lags some competitors, including the Fiesta’s 120 hp and 112 lb.-ft. (151 Nm) and the Honda Fit’s 117 hp and 106 lb.-ft. (143 Nm), it doesn’t feel underpowered.

The hatch is quick to get up to highway speeds and the continuously variable transmission delivers power smoothly, largely lacking the rubber-band feel of other CVTs thanks to a unique setup that incorporates an integrated auxiliary gearbox using planetary gearing.

The Versa Note’s CVT has a ratio of 7.3:1, which Nissan says is better than those of conventional CVTs and most 7-speed automatic transmissions. A 5-speed manual also is offered but was not made available to a test drive here.

The new engine technologies combined with the upgrades to the CVT and aerodynamic improvements help the hatchback achieve an impressive 31/40 mpg (7.5-5.8 L/100 km) city/highway fuel-economy rating.

While a lot of auto makers are advertising 40-mpg-highway capability, not many achieve it in real-world driving. The Versa Note actually does, averaging 35 mpg (6.7 L/100 km) here in combined city/highway driving on some challenging roads.

Nissan hopes the Versa Note will help it maintain leadership in the U.S. B-segment, which is becoming increasingly competitive as more auto makers add features typically found in costlier vehicles.

Nissan officials say the key to success in the B-segment is to offer just the right amount of features without sacrificing a low price point, and this model strikes that balance despite shortcomings such as the interior.

For those looking for a good alternative to a used car, or just want an inexpensive daily driver that’s easy on fuel, they could do a lot worse than the ’14 Nissan Versa Note.

bpope@wardsauto.com

 

'14 Nissan Versa Note
Vehicle type 5-passenger FWD 5-door hatchback
Engine 1.6L DOHC inline 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 109 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 107 hp @ 4,400 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 78.0 x 83.6
Compression ratio 9.8:1
Transmission Continuously variable
Wheelbase 102.4 ins.
Overall length 163.0 ins.
Overall width 66.7 ins.
Overall height 60.5 ins.
Curb weight 1,500 lbs.
Base price $13,990
Fuel economy 31/40 mpg city/highway (7.5-5.8 L/100 km)
Competition Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Kia Soul, Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Sonic
Pros Cons
Updated design No “wow” factor
Functional interior Hard plastics abound
Sophisticated powertrain technology Less powerful than competitors