SAN DIEGO -- Nissan gives the hatchback version of its popular entry-level Versa its own name and styling for 2014, calling it the Versa Note -- at least until it drops the "Versa" part entirely.
And why not?
The hatchback already is marketed around the world as the Note. But more important, the Versa leads the U.S. subcompact car segment and Nissan envisions capitalizing on that success by giving some separate marketing attention to the Note now.
The basics: The Note is redesigned
for 2014, with a slightly shorter body than the 2012 Versa Hatchback it replaces, a new base engine, a re-engineered continuously variable transmission, better fuel economy, a $670 price reduction on the base model and more technology.
Nissan's strategy is clear: It's betting that price-sensitive consumers will gladly choose a somewhat basic car with adequate performance, as long as they get the latest in technology, standout fuel economy and plenty of legroom.
With a $12,780 base price, including shipping, on the sedan version of the Versa introduced in 2012, the nameplate can already claim the title of least expensive car in America. The Note comes in as an intentionally more upscale entry subcompact, exactly $2,000 higher, with a base price of $14,780, including shipping.
But there are more bells and whistles. Among its three trim levels -- the S, S-Plus and SV -- Nissan offers heated seats, back-up camera, navigation with voice-recognition hands-free texting, Around View Monitor and Bluetooth streaming audio.
With the Note, Nissan now claims best-in-class fuel economy for the entry segment. The model gets 40 mpg for highway driving on CVT-equipped models, with 31 mpg city and 35 combined, according to EPA figures. That represents an improvement of 6 mpg/highway over the outgoing hatch, and it follows last year's Altima and Pathfinder as the third recent Nissan redesign to take the best-in-class mpg spot in its segment.
Getting there required a long list of engineering enhancements for improved aerodynamics and a 381-pound reduction in body weight. It also required switching to a smaller engine, a 1.6-liter 16-valve four-cylinder engine that produces 109 hp and 107 pounds-feet of torque. The previous hatch's engine was a 1.8-liter four-cylinder with 122 hp.
Notable features: The target issues for the Note, cited at the press introduction of the car here, were fuel economy, price, roominess and a sense that buyers are getting a little more than the segment usually offers. The roomy rear seat will be a competitive selling point. By Nissan's reckoning, the car boasts best-in-class rear legroom, at 38.3 inches -- more than half a foot roomier than the Ford Fiesta. It is ample enough to seat three 6-foot-plus people comfortably. Front and rear headroom also are plentiful.
The cockpit is simple and uncluttered compared with higher-segment vehicles. Beneath the navigation and radio display, the heat and air controls are analog dials rather than digital controls.
The cabin is quiet, thanks in part to added insulation in the doors, carpet and cargo area, at the wheels and even on the windshield.
Engineers also gave the Note's CVT a wider gear ratio and reduced friction to make accelerating smoother and quieter. For an entry-level car with a 109-hp engine, acceleration is whine-free and adequate.