A year ago, I found myself making a serious plea to my wife that I should buy an $11,000, 8,000-mile Nissan Versa Note for family car duties. After I had to rent one recently, I am re-thinking whether I would have ultimately been happy with the buying decision we ultimately didn’t make.
I had reviewed two examples of Nissan’s cheapest hatchback in America previous to my seeing the manual transmission Versa Note S in the Certified Pre-Owned inventory of our local Nissan dealer, and the generally good experience and spectacular fuel economy I experienced with those review cars had given me a positive outlook on the model. The interior was cheap, but in the loaded-up test models I got, it was livable — decent seat materials, touchscreen audio and navigation, and decent-looking exteriors.
After my wife hit a large raccoon with our 2014 Nissan cube a few days ago, I had to take the cube to the body shop for some minor repairs to the front bumper cover. Lo and behold, my rental car for the weekend was a 2013 Nissan Versa Note SV in Magnetic Gray.
This should be a good opportunity to see if the Versa Note holds up to abuse, I thought. Or, put another way, it would be an opportunity to see whether Nissan’s press fleet was some sort of exception to the rule when it comes to Versa Notes — the term “press ringer” comes to mind.
The SV was trimmed much more humbly than the SL and SR Versa Notes I tested previously. While it still had a CVT and the same 1.6-liter, 109-horsepower engine, it was not equipped with niceties like the NissanConnect touchscreen head unit, the much-ballyhooed Around View Monitor, or pushbutton ignition with touch sensors on the door handles.
In other words, this was the Nissan Versa Note I would have bought if I had purchased the lightly used example from my local dealer last fall, with the exception of the gray paint, cruise control, and the CVT automatic gearbox. In truth, I would have preferred the manual transmission and the Fresh Powder white paint anyway.
But would I have preferred the Versa Note S over the solution my wife and I ultimately settled on, buying a second Nissan cube? Not a chance, if it would have aged like the rental. For starters, the rental had 42,000 miles on it, but felt like it might as well have 142,000 on it. Perhaps that’s a result of the merciless beating some rental cars take. But even assuming my own ownership would be far kinder to the car, there are areas where it falls short of my 2010 cube:
The interior of the cube is much more comfortable with nicer materials, such as seats that sit just far enough off the ground to improve upon entry and egress, not to mention long-distance ride comfort.
The MR18DE 1.8-liter four-cylinder in the cube is no powerhouse, at 122 ponies, but its power delivery through Nissan’s Xtronic CVT is much smoother and more willing when called upon to merge onto a highway or pass slower traffic on a two-lane road.
Important for those of us who enjoy rockin’ our tunes, the cube’s Clarion-supplied head unit and speakers provide much better sound quality than the basic Versa Note head unit and speakers.
Finally, the cube is orders of magnitude easier to see out of — the Versa Note’s narrow, laid-back windshield making for a more distorted view of the world than the cube’s upright front glass.
In truth, just about the only ways the Versa Note handily beats the cube is in pricing and fuel economy. Our modestly trimmed cube S carried a price of nearly $19,000 where a brand new Versa Note S can be had for about $5,000 less without even trying to haggle. The Versa Note returned an easy 40 MPG in my mixed city-highway driving where the cube returns 35, in our experience.
Having said all that, I might still buy a Nissan Versa Note if I found myself in a hard spot — which is where I was when we were considering that purchase a year ago. But I’d definitely buy the base model, because ponying up the extra money for an SL or SR trim really only gets a few small improvements that, in my view, do not justify the jump in sticker price. Also, anything above the S trim cannot be equipped with a stick shift — it’s all CVT, all the time. While I have no beef with a well-executed CVT, and I do believe Nissan does it better than most, I vastly prefer to row my own.
Bottom line: As a $100-a-month car, I’d rather have a nearly-new Versa Note S than many similarly priced used cars of unknown previous ownership. However, I might not particularly enjoy keeping a Versa Note in my driveway other than for its frugality and likely reliability. As a friend of mine recently said, “You can tell they’re building the cheapest car in America.” Truer words have seldom been spoken.
Nissan Versa Note
2015 base price: $14,180
Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder gasoline, 109 horsepower at 6,000 RPM and 107 ft-lbs of torque at 4,400 RPM
Curb weight: 2,460 lbs
EPA fuel economy: 31 MPG city/40 MPG highway
- Cheap to buy
- Likely very cheap to own
- Spacious back seat
- Cheapness made obvious in interior appointments
- Gutless powertrain
- Crummy stereo