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If you want cheap transportation—and the benefits of having a new car (and a new-car warranty)—and you're okay forgoing some refinement, style, and technology in the name of that goal, then the 2014 Nissan Versa sedan and Versa Note do belong on your shopping list.
It is, certainly, a matter of managed expectations—of cars that can strike you as quite sophisticated for the money, provided you're not too tuned in to the details. The Versa Sedan gets your hopes up from some paces away, where its curvy roofline and flowing sheetmetal actually manage to look a little Infiniti-influenced from some angles. The proportions don't work out as well from the side or rear, where the Versa Sedan can be a bit awkward. As for the Versa Note, it gets a far more interesting design on the outside—with different sheetmetal, details (like sportier designs for the headlights and taillights), proportions that make it less homely than its sedan counterpart. Inside, the Note is much the same as the sedan, however. Essentially, it's back to small-car tradition, with an undeniably basic, almost parts-bin look to the collection of cues and switchgear.
Nissan has, with the its latest 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) managed to boost gas mileage by several mpg versus the last-generation Versa models, and now for 2014 the new Note takes advantage of that, too, with ratings of up to 40 mpg highway. Unfortunately, the Versa isn't very enjoyable to drive—especially with the CVT and its sluggish responses, in addition to 11.5-second 0-60 mph times. The 109-horsepower, 1.6-liter engine can also be had with a traditional four-speed automatic transmission or five-speed manual, but both of those are only offered in base Versa S versions. While the steering is reasonably well-weighted, it's just too light and requires too many small corrections at speed. Add it all up and you have a car that has no pretensions of being sporty or fun (and isn't).
What the Versa Sedan and Versa Note do provide is impressive ride comfort. The soft suspension manages to soak up road imperfections without losing its composure—an impressive feat in this class. Few clunks or thunks make their way into the cabin; and with more sound deadening and better aerodynamics, it's reasonably quiet as long as you're not pressing the powertrain. Space efficiency is the other major strength; either of these models are very spacious considering the exterior size, but we wouldn't try to make four taller adults try to travel together here. The seats are short and flat and not all that comfortable, and in back it's surprising that in most Versa Sedans the rear seatbacks don't fold—not even as a single piece. The trunk is huge, though. Hatchbacks do better with versatility, of course, and they have a new Divide-N-Hide feature that lets you hide items in back while keeping a flat cargo floor.
The Versa's safety information is confusing, to say the least. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the Versa Sedan top ratings in all categories, as well as the Top Safety Pick designation. Meanwhile in recent model years the Sedan has earned just three stars for frontal impact from the federal government (with four stars for side impact and overall). It does include roof-mounted side airbags covering all outboard occupants, plus standard electronic stability control and front side-impact torso airbags, all the basic small-car safety bases are covered.Base 2014 Nissan Versa S models come with manual wind-up windows, no power mirrors, and strictly the basics, but air conditioning is included in all trims. The S model is the only model offering either the manual transmission or a four-speed automatic transmission. Above that, there's a new Versa Sedan S Plus CVT model, replacing the S CVT and adding standard cruise control along with active grille shutters. Mid-level Versa SV models add Bluetooth, upgraded cloth seats with six-way adjustability for the driver, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and chrome and silver interior accents. And on the top SL, you can option up to things like fog lamps, heated seats, and a navigation system with NissanConnect (XM NavTraffic, app capability, and point-of-interest features) and an Around View Monitor.