Driver's Seat: Nissan Versa Note a small package with pep

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2014 Nissan Versa Note SV: cuteness at a good price.

Price: $20,015 as tested ($15,990 base price, and a bare-bones stick can be had for $13,990).

Marketer's pitch: "Innovation that excites."

Conventional wisdom: Consumer Reports liked the "space, access, versatility, fuel economy, controls" but not the driving position, unsupportive front seats, acceleration, quirky continuously variable transmission."

Reality: some sour noises, but overall a pleasant Note.

Cute is catchy: Nissan has taken the Versa -- which I find attractive in a pathetic, hound dog sort of way -- and punched it up a bit with the Versa Note. Its cute, grinning-baby eyes and grille make it look like a refugee from an anime studio, and the hatchback package completes the round-little-piggy styling.

Cute to drive? As much as I like an attractive package, a little car like this has to offer some fun on the road or it's "game over."

The 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine provides enough pep to move the little car in a lively manner. And contrary to Consumer Reports' review, Nissan's continuously variable transmissions are getting better or I'm getting used to them, because I didn't find it the typical performance-sucking experience I'd grown accustomed to. But I miss the rhythms of shifting even from an automatic transmission.

On the curves: "Handling is almost fun," I wrote in my notes. The small and nimble Versa Note stands a little tall, a drawback to handling. But the steering is tight and it's almost a joy to drive.

OK, shorty: The basic cloth seats were a little on the hard side. But most noticeable, and first pointed out to me by Mrs. Passenger Seat, is how short the seat itself is, from front to back. The front of the seat bottom doesn't even come close to the back of my knees, and I'm a fairly compact 5-feet-10.

And seats that are this heavy on the lumbar make it tough to find a good position.

Commanding view: The cool Nissan-Infiniti AroundView monitor/backup camera came as part of the $800 technology package (which also included navigation, 5.8-inch screen, Google Send-To-Car capability and more). I'm technologically averse, but the monitor is among the most impressive backup cameras available.

Good visibility: It's nice that Nissan offers this monitor for a not-terrible price on such an entry-level vehicle, but the Versa Note visibility is so good that it hardly warrants it. The only challenging event for seeing is in passing other cars on the highway, and the monitor will not help you here. The little corner windows in the back are hard to see through.

Friends and stuff: The rear seat provides a surprising amount of leg room for such a small car, and it's actually kind of comfortable. The 18.8 cubic feet of storage behind the rear seat seems tight, but is actually just slightly below the Honda Fit's 20.6. Heads enjoy plenty of room.

No center console bin came in the test version. It did have a mini-glove box over the big one, but it's a little small and can't hold CDs. A small slot next to the emergency brake lever holds your phone, but it's not in a good spot for remembering said phone. Cup-holders in front of the gearshift can be awkward.

Night shift: The interior lighting in the test model interfered with the driver's ability to see. A lone big, bright light in the front by the rearview mirror shone too brightly, while the center dome light did not shine brightly enough to offer an alternative.

Keeping warm (and cool): Heater controls are easy to use. Three dials control the fan, mode and heat level, and the fan control is set a little above the others to make on-the-fly adjustments more intuitive. Round vents on the outside adjust and direct airflow easily, but the square vents in the middle -- not so much.

Play some tunes: The stereo has enough buttons on the outside to be useful, allowing you to select AM-FM-XM, CD or auxiliary. Drivers can even turn the camera on from a button.

Upgrade: The steering wheel-mounted controls and the interior door handles are more polished than one would expect from the Versa's price grade. Both are touched in brushed silver, as are the interior trim pieces. Nissan has long made small cars not feel cheap.

Fuel economy: I observed a sippy 35.7 mpg from the Versa Note.

Where it's built: Aguas, Mexico.

How it's built: The Versa Hatchback that the Note replaces has done well in Consumer Reports reliability testing, but its overall reliability prediction is just average. A low "Owner Satisfaction" score is its weakest point.

In the end: Neither the 2014 Ford Fiesta in last week's test nor the Versa Note rate recommendations from Consumer Reports. But the lack of reliability issues coupled with the positive driving experience make me lean toward the Versa Note among the two. In automatic/CVT form, the Versa Note is the definite winner over the reportedly troublesome Fiesta automatic, but I'd really like to try manual versions of both cars.

Scott Sturgis, a freelance auto writer, can be reached at

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