It's logical that the less money you spend on a car, the less car you should expect. But as I've heard repeatedly from automakers, small-car customers in this country have the same lofty expectations as other types of shoppers.
That partly explains why so many cars at the bottom of the price ladder now offer leather interiors, fancy navigation systems and turbocharged engines. Even denuded of options, most economy cars on the dealer's lot will give you air-conditioning, power windows and power locks -- features that, in many parts of the world, would qualify a car as a luxury model.
The 2014 Nissan Versa Note, the four-door hatchback version of the second-generation Versa, offers options like heated seats, keyless ignition and Around View, a monitor that uses four wide-angle cameras to stitch together a bird's-eye view of the car -- all items you'd find on a $50,000 Infiniti. The Versa Note's base price is $14,780.
With the makeover for the Versa's new generation, Nissan decided to call the hatchback version the Versa Note, which is what it's called in the rest of the world. Here's a simple way to remember the difference: If you're comparing the Versa Note versus the Versa sedan, note that the first Versa is more versatile.
This Versa hatchback is, to my eyes, much better looking than the angular first-generation car.
Nissan, champion of the creatively tortured styling explanation (describing the original Infiniti FX as a "bionic cheetah" is still tops in my book), now bequeaths us the term "squash line." That refers not to a row of gourds, but to the plunging crease stamped into the side of the Versa Note's body panels.
Nissan says that the shape of this line is inspired by the trajectory of a squash ball hitting a wall, bouncing on the floor and returning to the player. Hey, sure! I think it would be fun to sit in a field someday with Nissan designers and look at clouds.
Among a number of thoughtful interior touches that the Note can be ordered with is Divide-N-Hide, which is not a combat tactic but a clever multiposition rear floor setup with hidden cargo compartments. There seems to be a trend here: the Dodge Dart has a passenger-seat hidey-hole, and behind certain Chevy navigation screens are covert dashboard cubbies. I want to know what everyone has taken to stashing in their cars.
On the in-car electronics front, the Note offers Pandora radio capability (which works only with iPhones) and hands-free text messaging (which works only with non-iPhones). Then there's Google Send-to-Car, which lets you beam an address to the navigation system straight from your home computer. At last, a way to program a GPS that involves extra steps.
I drove a Versa with an automatic transmission, which in a Nissan usually means a continuously variable transmission, or C.V.T. The C.V.T. does not have conventional fixed gear ratios, instead using a belt and pulley system to constantly vary the drive ratio according to the demands of your right foot.
If you're not in a rush, C.V.T.'s are smooth and can keep the engine from ever reaching high r.p.m. C.V.T.'s also tend to deliver great fuel economy, which in the case of the Note is an E.P.A.-rated 31 miles per gallon in the city and 40 on the highway.
The downside: C.V.T.'s are never very much fun.
Try to hustle the car and the poor little 4-cylinder under the hood is obliged to rev until you let off the gas -- the engine just wails its anguished drone until you reach the desired speed or let off the throttle in an act of mercy.
The least expensive Versa Note, the S model, comes with a 5-speed manual transmission. Getting more fun for less money sounds like a good call to me, although the old-school transmission has a fuel-economy drawback: 30 m.p.g. on the E.P.A. combined cycle, down 5 m.p.g. from the C.V.T. models.
Whichever transmission you specify, the Versa Note accelerates with the urgency of a placid Pacific sunset, a limitation imposed by a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine that squeaks out 109 horsepower at 6,000 r.p.m. The second-generation Versa did drop about 300 pounds compared with its predecessor, but you still might wear a hole in the carpet under the gas pedal.
Perhaps Versa buyers aren't out to set records at the local dragstrip, but the little Nissan's rivals offer substantially more power for about the same money. The Note SV I drove included the $540 Convenience Package (backup camera, Divide-N-Hide floor and XM stereo), for a total of $17,320. So let's say our price bogie is about $17,000.
A Hyundai Accent GS hatchback with a 6-speed automatic and 138 horsepower starts at $16,790. A Chevy Sonic hatch LS -- also with 138 horses and a 6-speed automatic -- goes for $16,690. With roughly a fourth more horsepower and conventional automatic transmissions, either car offers a significantly more satisfying driving experience. True, a C.V.T.-equipped Versa gets better mileage, but you'll have to drive a long way to take advantage of the difference between the Versa's 35 m.p.g. combined rating and the Accent's 31.
Among all the other expectations -- efficiency, spaciousness, comfort -- should I also demand that a $17,000 car be moderately quick and entertaining to drive? Speaking for the spoiled American new-car buyer, I'm afraid so.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.