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Car Review: 2017 Nissan Versa Note

Driving.ca logo Driving.ca 2017-04-11 Brian Harper
2017 Nissan Versa Note © Brian Harper, Driving 2017 Nissan Versa Note

As kids we all go through that stage, where, at least to some parental authority figure, we appear to be ungrateful for what we have been provided. At a predetermined point, usually when escape is impossible, said parental unit will shame us back into line, trotting out a version of how tough they had it as a youth, starting with “Back in my day …” or “When I was your age …” (You know the cliché: “When I was your age, I walked to school. Five miles. Uphill both ways … in the snow!!”)

So, as much as it pains me to do this, let me say to any and all who, due to limited funds, feel they have it rough by not being able to move up the automotive ladder beyond subcompact, sub-$20K transportation – you don’t know how good you have it. Back in my day…

Seriously, I’ve been puttering about town in Nissan’s cheap and somewhat cheerful Versa Note hatchback, grooving to the oldies on satellite radio, toasting my backside on still-cool mornings courtesy of the seat heaters, flicking on the A/C as the sun warms the day, locking the door with key fob, and otherwise enjoying the car’s impressive list (in SV trim) of standard amenities. Plus, safety features include both vehicle dynamic control and traction control systems. And I was thinking of all the features my bright yellow 1978 Ford Fiesta (bought slightly used) had when I was fresh out of school and making my way into the city to my first job. The list began and ended with an AM radio.

Amenities aside, though, the mildly refreshed 2017 Versa Note SV is very much an econo-car, with all the expectations and realities that come with that designation. On the cost-cutting side, the $16,898 hatchback is still fitted with rear drum brakes, though ABS as well as traction control and stability control are standard. And the manual transmission, with five forward gears, seems to be missing an overdrive cog that would reduce the engine revs at highway speeds — it’s turning 3,500 rpm at 115 km/h — and, thus, the busy-ness of the car’s hardworking, 109-horsepower 1.6-litre four-cylinder.

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Yes, most customers will gravitate to the available Xtronic continuously variable transmission ($1,300). I chose the manual to a) keep the car’s cost down and b) see if rowing through the gears provided some measure of sportiness. It doesn’t, though the shifter’s rubbery actuation would be good practice for someone learning to drive stick, before moving on to a car with a more precise gearbox.

Fuel economy, a major reason for purchase next to cheapness, was quite acceptable; I averaged 8 L/100 km during a week that saw about a 60/40 split of highway and city use.

The Versa comes with a decently long 2,600-millimetre wheelbase, which helps maximize the subcompact’s interior roominess as well as minimizes any ride choppiness. Oh, it’s by no means limo-like, but you don’t feel like a SAM has blown you out of the sky every time you roll over a set of railway tracks. Handling is not high on the car’s resume; there’s a significant weight bias toward the front (60/40 front to back) and not a huge amount of grip from the P185/65HR15 winter tires, so keep your speed proper and your drifting and apex clipping to a minimum. (Low-rolling-resistance tires are standard on all trim levels.) I also found the lightweight Note (just 1,127 kilograms) to be susceptible to crosswinds, skittish whenever a strong breeze caught it flush.

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Subcompacts, especially hatches, tend to be regarded as cute — at best — rather than attractive. In fact, I’ve heard the descriptor “bug-ugly” used on numerous occasions to describe many of the players in the segment. While not stunning in its own right, the cosmetic upgrades to the aerodynamically styled Versa Note have improved its looks, though the tester’s vibrant Monarch Orange paint (a new colour for 2017) is the biggest contributor to that sentiment. The new front fascia, “V-Motion” grille and swept-back halogen headlights separate the revamped model from last year’s, and help with a closer family resemblance to the larger Sentra, Altima and Maxima models. In addition, Versa Note S, SV and SL trims receive the sportier rear fascia previously available only on the SR.

Inside, the 2017 Note includes a number of customer input-driven changes, such as larger cup holders and the relocation of the USB auxiliary port to the front of the centre console. Considering the car’s overall size, there’s an impressive amount of cabin space: interior volume measures 112.9 cubic feet, plus cargo space of 18.8 cu. ft. In practical terms, it means the back seats will accommodate six-footers though there won’t be much in the way of stretch-out room. However, up front — and being 6-foot-2 myself — I found the front seat cushion too short, ending mid-thigh and numbing my legs on longer drives.

The biggest problem for any car in the subcompact class is not so much the consumer flight to sport-utes and crossovers, as in other car segments, but that spending a bit more money moves you up into the compact class, where there’s more room, more refinement and features, and a broader choice of powertrains.

Beyond that, though, is that while the Versa Note is good, it doesn’t stand out among the runabouts. More to the point, its engine is down about 30 hp compared with rivals such as the segment-leading Hyundai Accent as well as — for example — the Honda Fit, Chevy Sonic and Kia Rio, which also offer six-speed manual transmissions and better handling. If price, fuel economy and creature comforts are key concerns in your purchase decision, by all means put the Versa Note on your shopping list. Just leave room for the others.

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