As someone with the very pleasant opportunity to drive a whole lot of new cars each year — inexpensive, in between and unbelievably costly — I’m often asked if there’s much out there that I would simply not recommend at all.
In the recent past, I suggested that the re-launched Nissan Versa — at one time an entirely pleasant, basic automotive offering, but deeply troubled by the addition of a nearly mid-sized body on its tiny frame — was Patient Zero for bad news on four wheels.
Little did I know that the increasingly stylized Versa hatchback, called the Note, would drop things down a notch. Sad, largely, as it’s a pleasant enough, super-basic car, proclaimed as America’s best-selling entry hatch model. Available in bare-bones guise for $10 short of $14K. The problems make me think you should save your coins and go bigger, if you’re absolutely dead set on buying the least expensive new car you can get.
It was largely disappointing as the SV variant, which starts at just under $16K and was $19,545 when I got it with the Tech and SL packages, dangles so many big-boy amenities that you feel like you’re headed in “real car” directions. A rear-view camera with the around-view system borrowed from Infiniti, push-button starter, heated seats, Bluetooth, shiny aluminum wheels and more.
The Note I drove, in retrospect, had a litany of issues that made me wonder if perhaps it had been up to its eyeballs in floodwater at some point in its recent life; all I can report are my experiences in said vehicle, and they were not pleasant.
While most continuously variable transmissions — a fuel-saving, essentially single-speed system — have improved immeasurably, especially among Nissan’s higher-end offerings, the Versa’s CVT is abominable. Trying to get the 2,400-pound car up to speed from a stop is a soul-draining experience — there is a 1.6-liter engine in there, with 109 horsepower — but putting that limited power into action was awful. Creeping away from a light is especially sad, and I found that the Versa defaulted to a sad, slack, powerless netherworld with anything less than absolutely full throttle put into it.
The painful getting-to-go part was bookended by an equally abysmal stopping part, with whining brakes — rear drum brakes, to add to the joy.
My suspicion of damaged goods was upped by the fact that the car fogged over when I drove it, even with the A/C on full blast, and I never seemed to be able to get a decent flow of fresh air into the cabin.
Some stuff was less a matter of issues related to one potentially soggy tester and more the whole line itself. Like, forward visibility. The A-pillars in the Versa Note are absolutely gigantic, compared with the elfin proportions of the rest of the car, and when combined with large and ill-placed side mirrors, your ability to see ahead as you take corners is iffy at best.
The navigation system, part of the $800 technology package, does indeed do some surprising things — voice control, and you can even send stuff to the system via Google — but it’s painfully, painfully slow to generate navigation instructions. Par for the course.
The final straw for me was gas mileage, which came to almost exactly the EPA mpg figure listed on the window sticker, 35 mpg combined. In a 2,400-pound car. Shouldn’t that connote something crazy, like 50 mpg? When a full-sized Camry or Malibu can get about 40 mpg? Good lord.
On the upside, Versa Note is practically gigantic compared with the even smaller vehicles you can purchase overseas; for domestic use, I would think twice about making that choice.