In which your author buys a new car: A Nissan Versa Note

A few weeks ago, my wife and I bought a Nissan Versa Note. With our van still locked in a container somewhere on the high seas and my old Nissan Hardbody unable to transport our family of five, we were in a bit of a bind. We tried renting a van for a while but with the charges stacking up and with no end in sight, we figured we could just take the thousands of dollars we were likely to pay out anyhow and use them to buy something. How we ended up buying a car that a great many people think is an also-ran in the small car segment is the subject of this story. Perhaps there is a lesson in it somewhere.

Having made an international move a number of times now, I know that it takes my wife a while to get comfortable in her new surroundings. It doesn’t matter where we go, whether it’s back to the States or “home” to Japan, settling in is a difficult process. This time around, thanks to an unpleasant encounter with an officer from our nation’s Citizenship and Immigration Services at the airport, she was especially apprehensive. She wasn’t in our new home an hour before she was already expressing her desire to abandon our current adventure and go back to Japan. If I wanted to nip that in the bud, I needed to act fast.

Getting my wife a car is always a big step towards getting her back on to the road to a normal life. Despite the fact that it was pretty much identical to our Town & Country, she hated driving our rental Grand Caravan – it was just too big – and, as a result, she decided not to use it. After a week of watching the charges pile up while the van just sat there unused in the driveway, I decided to return it. But, my wife’s dislike of the Grand Caravan set off alarm bells. If she couldn’t/wouldn’t drive the Grand Caravan, what was going to happen when our T&C finally arrived? Clearly we needed a small car.

I started out by searching for something used. We looked at what, in the online ads at least, appeared to be a nice Ford Focus, but a series of dents on the passenger side and my fear of a transmission issue that seemed to be the subject of a great many on-line complaints caused us to put that aside. We did drive it, however, and while I liked it my wife felt that it was too big and too difficult to see out of. There were a few other used cars in the area, but my wife’s unhappiness with the Ford’s size told me that we were going to need to step down out a compact into a subcompact and that left us with only a few choices.

The good news is that our step down meant the budget I had allotted for a used car could be stretched to cover a new car and, because we have tentatively decided to put down roots and stay in one place for a few years, that meant we could actually hang on to whatever we chose to buy long enough to get some real value out of it. Also, although it still seems a bit of a stretch, I have a son who will be turning 12 soon and I, realizing that in just four or five short years we will have another licensed driver at home, thought that we could eventually pass down whatever we buy to him.

Once we decided to go small, there were only two cars that sprung to mind. The Chevy Sonic and the Nissan Note. There are, of course, other fine small cars but they were eliminated for various reasons, some of which are probably silly but valid to me just the same. I hate the look of the Yaris, chose not to shop the Koreans and the idea of buying a small European car was so far off my radar that I didn’t even think of the possibility until I sat down to write this.

I have a bit of a history with the Nissan Note – I rented one for several weeks when my VW Golf self-destructed in Okinawa and, the truth is, I liked it a lot. That association alone was enough to cause us to hit our local Nissan shop first and what we found there was an updated version of the small car that remains packed with the same qualities I had admired before. The Note is a lot of car in a small package. There is room for five and I find that my 260 pound 6’1” all-American ass felt comfortable behind the wheel AND in the back seat. My much smaller wife appreciated its small size and ease of use. Overall, it has a Japanese aesthetic that works well for her and she felt at home behind the wheel almost immediately. Even better, the dealer was willing to deal and offered me a killer price – a Versa Note SV with the 15” black alloy wheels, including tax, licensing, destination and the whole shebang, for just $17K!

We sat on that offer and went up the road to our local Chevrolet dealer and were soundly unimpressed with the Sonic but did stop to look at a couple of leftover 2016 Cruzes. I was happy enough with the Cruze and my wife gave it serious consideration, but the dealership just wasn’t willing to work with us – even though 2019s are starting to hit the lot! What’s more, they were aghast when I told them about the deal we were offered on the little Nissan and begged off by telling us that these two cars shouldn’t be comparison shopped. Perhaps they are right and the Cruze is a lot more car, but to be honest I felt like they didn’t even try to sway us. They just stood there and let us go as we walked out and headed back over to the Nissan shop.

In the few weeks we’ve had the Note it has done well. My wife loves it and so do I. While it’s not a barn burner, it’s a zippy little car that does well in traffic. The much complained about CVT is not an issue for my mash-the-gas-and-go wife and, after consciously modifying my driving style to stop trying to initiate shifts, have found it OK to live with. Inside, it’s a nice enough place to be and visibility is certainly fine. The car sports a back-up camera, satellite radio, an accessory plug for streaming audio from your phone and Bluetooth integration for hands free calling too. I guess that’s all normal these days, but it’s a huge step up from the last small car I bought new – a 1994 Geo Metro.

On the downside, the seats are a scratchy kind of synthetic fiber with blue threads woven into the charcoal cloth and, while I can live with the scratchiness, I think red threads would look better. Also, the digital display screen in the center of the speedometer offers several functions including a trip meter, an ambient air temp gauge, miles per gallon and distance to your next fill-up but these are all bits of information that I, as a driver, do not need real-time updates on – a digital speedometer option would be better. Also, the mid and bottom and middle of the market versions of the Versa don’t offer Navigation even as an extra cost option. This is something that should, at the very least, be a dealer installed option as extra gravy for the dealerships. These are small things, perhaps, but still negatives, in my opinion, that Nissan should think about rectifying.

Since we brought the little Note home, a few things have happened. To begin with I added a $130 rear cargo cover to make sure people couldn’t see what we have in the back and have done a couple of other little things I will detail in an upcoming article. But generally the car is being run just the way we got it and I’m quite happy with it. In fact, when we do grocery runs or do other things that involve taking the kids along, I am more likely to drive the Versa than I am the Town & Country which arrived just about a month after we bought the car.

And why am I not using the van you ask? Well, because – believe it or not – my wife has decided she loves the big T&C and pretty much uses it as her full time daily driver now. If I get in it and mess up her seat and mirror settings, she gets unhappy. And, that’s where I think the lesson lies. It’s in there somewhere, I’m sure but damned if I can find it, though. If you find it, let me know…

34 Replies to “In which your author buys a new car: A Nissan Versa Note”

  1. Lucas Zaffuto

    A coworker of mine bought the Versa sedan (which I like a lot less than the Note) a few years ago. He paid nothing for it and it has needed nothing but gas, oil, and tires in over 60k miles. I believe the only thing ever done to it was a single recall. These get terrible reviews from the autojournos because they are the most basic form of transportation you can buy, but they are in fact decent cars. If Nissan would put the turbo engine from the Juke in one of these I’d be signing the purchasing contract tomorrow.

    Reply
    • Disinterested-Observer

      I bet the journos would sing a different tune if Nissan would fly them (business class, of course) to Suzuka or Fuji the next time they facelift the GT-R.

      Reply
  2. silentsod

    I actually found the Versa Note compelling enough after a few rentals that when it was time for a relative of mine to get his first car it was on the short list. The Note does have great visibility, it is a packaging miracle (he’s big and fits fine, four people can be inside very comfortably), nothing has gone wrong in his (3?) years of ownership, it gets great mileage about town, and it has nowhere near enough power on tap to get him in trouble in anyway.

    Reply
  3. Josh Howard

    We have a ’15 SR. 17,2k OTD back in August of ’15. It’s been far and away the best car we’ve ever owned aside from paint that’s awfully thin and seats that could use more lateral support. But, we’ve moved an entire house with it. Just hitting 50k miles now. They are a TON of car for the money. Like Bark, I looked and was interested in a Fiesta. However, The Note had 4 cubic foot of extra room in the rear AND seated 6 foot adults in the back like it was going out a style. It is unfortunate that the market moved away from this car. But, it lives on in the Kicks which does everything the Note does PLUS adds more storage space in the rear. It’ll be our next vehicle when I feel like the Note is underperforming. If you ever need to know anything about your Note, ask Jack and he’ll forward you my number.

    If I can recommend a single thing, definitely get OFF the 5k mile oil change if you do shorter commutes. I started switching to 3500 miles due to a bit more oil consumption than I’d prefer. If only to keep on top of the oil quality after more miles.

    Reply
  4. -Nate

    A cute looking little car it is .

    It doesn’t look like the 3/4 rear view is any good, this is critical in Los Angeles dense traffic .

    I see lots of trees so I imagine you’re Down East somewheres.

    I see the Nissan Versa here and there in So. Cal., out on the road too, far from anywhere so I imagine they’re good little cars .

    I don’t know if the Versa and Note are the same car, different trim levels or what ? .

    One of these dayze I will be forced to buy a modern can and this looks like a good one .

    -Nate

    Reply
    • Thomas KreutzerThomas Kreutzer Post author

      So the Versa is the model and the Versa “Note” is the hatchback. For whatever it is worth, in Japan this car is just the “Note” and I have never seen anything other than the hatchback. Not sure why so many of the Japanese automakers feel like they need to tack on a trunk for the American market, but the result, I think, always looks terrible. I can say that if there was no hatchback version of this car, I would not have shopped it.

      Reply
      • Josh Howard

        If I recall correctly, the Versa is an older version of the platform while the Note was a significantly refreshed version of a more global platform. Many of the hard points are the same. Just small tweaks to make it more feasible to build with the Juke, Leaf, and Cube on the assembly lines. (back in the day)

        Reply
    • Dirty Dingus McGee

      “One of these dayze I will be forced to buy a modern car”

      Resist. My newest personal vehicle is a 2006 Dodge dually diesel. Next newest is an 86 Dodge Shelby I bought new. Oldest is my 60 Lark.

      A number of years ago there was a TV commercial ( can’t remember what it was for), that showed a worn baseball glove, an Indian motorcycle, and a few other older things. The tag line at the end was; “I like new things, when they get old”.

      Reply
      • -Nate

        Thanx all ;

        Yes, I’m holding out as best I can but the reality is I’m pretty badly broken up and may not be able to keep maintaining my own stuff as long as I’ll hopefully be ambulatory and interested in going places .

        One of the down sides of being a Journeyman Mechanic is : I may drive/ride old hooptie rigs but I’m *very* picky about how they’re maintained and some little missing 6MM wave washer makes a BIG difference to me when I’m 75 miles down a very bad road or in “White folks stay away after sunset” etc. so I have to deal with reality, not dreams and/or wishes .
        For some odd reason I like to put on my vehicles like a pair of gloves ~ no bigger than necessary .

        -Nate

        Reply
      • Disinterested-Observer

        We just dumped somewhere between $3k-$4k into the Outback just to avoid the nannies and automatic transmission. Jack wrote an article about it. Well not us, but people who own more homes than cars.

        Reply
  5. Fred Lee

    I bought a the EV brethren of the Versa, a Leaf, a couple years ago. Used off lease, 5K miles, had all the goodies, and priced right around $12K if I remember correctly. I’m 6’3″, and the little Leaf fits me very well. In a garage that included at the time a Ford Focus RS, a BMW 4-series, a Ford F-150, and a KLR650, I found myself choosing the Leaf to commute in over any of the objectively “nicer” vehicles.

    Why? It just does its thing, without complaining. In the 2 years since owning it the only maintenance has been a tire replacement after a particularly nasty pothole, and re-filling the wiper fluid. Of course never stopping at the gas station is a super nice benefit.

    It has given me a new appreciation for cheap sub-compact cars. I hit a deer with the Leaf and dented up the hood a little. Don’t care, didn’t fix it. Nobody notices my car on the highway, so certainly nobody notices the dent. My girlfriend commutes in the Leaf now and has commented that it helps quell her urge to drive aggressively. It’s fast enough, but not so fast that you’re going to find yourself trying to pass where you shouldn’t.

    So kudos on the new car. It’s not the flashiest out there (but it does look pretty sweet with the black wheels). I bet you’ll get a lot of trouble-free miles out of it, and it’ll be a great car for the kids when the time comes.

    Reply
  6. JustPassinThru

    I won’t fault the author’s choice – I have no contact with the car; Nissan today needs a lot of love; and perhaps their tie-up with Renault can actually bring some good, beyond the drop in quality that’s been seen over the years. BUT…I myself, being “up against it” took a flyer on a used Kia – and I’m tremendously impressed. With, when I bought it, 89,000 miles…and the initial buyer was a rental agency…everything was and is, tight, working, comfortable. Some suspension issues, leading to a shimmy at speeds over 70. That can happen to any car that’s seen such mileage.

    Whether the Korean cars put together by the remnants of GM-Daewoo, are as good, is fodder for another screed.

    It’s off the topic, but I’m fascinated by the disappearance of your van. Did it just get lost? Lost at sea/destroyed, as in, vids online of container ships tipping and spilling, or, worse, breaking and sinking? Tracking, in this age of satellite communications, should be easy. And the insurance company should be paying off.

    Reply
    • Thomas KreutzerThomas Kreutzer Post author

      It was, in my opinion, an exceptionally long transit. I shipped the T&C in late June and it landed here in the middle of September. My wife and kids got here August 1 so we would have been five, maybe six weeks without a family car when we needed to be getting the kids ready for school, etc.

      I’m not going to say that the Korean cars are bad, In fact, if I actually pulled the trigger on one I suspect that I would be totally satisfied but I have yet to develop any trust in the Korean brands. I’ve just never been around them.

      Reply
  7. Booty_Toucher

    Good thing you avoided that Focus, what a POS. I just had one as a two week rental while my car was in the body shop, and have rented them before. At first blush, they seem very solid with slightly better materials and handling than their competitors. After two weeks I wanted to ghost ride it into a brick wall.

    The transmission is such a piece; when you push the gas, you have no idea what’s going to happen. I was making a fast lane change in traffic, gunned the accelerator with the car in drive, and the car revved up to ~5k RPM (as if in neutral) before the clutch finally grabbed and jolted forward. Terrifying. Every push of the gas beyond highway cruising is a roll of the dice. Not even joking.

    In retrospect, I should have taken the Sentra or Accent they also offered. I agree with your assessment that just because a car is supposedly in another “higher” class, doesn’t make it better. Many of those subcompacts are much more pleasant than larger cars.

    Reply
  8. John C.

    I can relate to a wife wanting the smallest car possible. My wife drives a Prius C and keeps remarking that Fiats and Smarts are even smaller. She means it as a compliment. Happy motoring.

    Reply
  9. SixspeedSi

    Ah, women, you have to love them. Love the story, Tom.

    The Note isn’t my favorite car on earth and I prefer a larger more ‘Murica appropriate car, you really can’t fault these. I’ve been in many and the usefulness is excellent. Rides and handles well enough, too! Doesn’t look half bad with the black-on-black package either!

    Welcome back!

    Reply
  10. stingray65

    My wife has a first generation Smart and I bought a Mini Clubman (5 door version – not current) to replace it at her request. She quickly decided that she hated the Mini because it was “too big” and therefore refused to sell the Smart, which she also incidentally hated when she first got it. Funny thing is the Mini is a smaller car than any other car she has ever owned or driven prior to the Smart. I can’t complain because I find the Mini very fun to drive (S version), but logic and women are definitely not synonyms when it comes to cars.

    Reply
    • Thomas KreutzerThomas Kreutzer Post author

      You know, that’s a good question. I hate to say it, but like the Euro cars, getting a Honda wasn’t really on my radar. My sister has a Fit and the Mobilio my wife drove in Japan was basically a bread delivery truck on a Fit chassis, but going and test driving one never really occurred to me.

      Chances are I would have liked it. In fact, I had to admit to my wife that I liked all the cars we drove – I just love cars – but I think a lot of what we chose comes down to how attractive I think the vehicle is. For example I am sure that the Yaris hatchback is a wonderful, reliable little car but Toyota’s stodgy styling and that ugly catfish mouth they have festooned upon so many of their US bound cars kept me right out of the showroom. Same with the Fit, honestly, it’s just blah to look at whereas I think the Fit’s V-motion grill and overall exterior styling are really cool. Now, I’m not sure how it will age and in 10 years it may look so 2018 that I can’t bear it, but right now it is fresh.

      I get that the manufacturers don’t make a lot of profit on this class of cars, but I remember a time when the Japanese paid a lot of attention to selling these cars because the were an entry point into the brand. Making them stodgy, like the Yaris, or decontenting them, like the lack of available Nav on my SV level Note, is stupid. They need to make these cars cool again and get people in on the ground floor of their brand. I mean, there is a reason why I, the son of a man who only bought GM cars for 30 years, am a Chrysler loyalist and that all tracks back to my first new car purchase in the late 80s. I came for the turbo and stayed pretty much for life.

      Reply
      • Eric H

        The Versa is an ‘entry level’ car, meant for young people who care more about theire phones then their car. Why pay for nav when they will have a better one on their phone?

        Reply
    • Netsy

      I found the Fit to be too small for my 5’11” frame. It seemed like a fantastic car, but as soon as I started driving it I realized there was just not enough legroom for me. I was uncomfortable enough driving it out around the dealership that I knew any two hour drives would be hellish. (Wound up with a Scion xB, which saw some good discounts in its final model year. No way I was going to even sniff at something like a Versa Note when I could have a roomier car with a solid Camry engine for not much more money.)

      Can definitely respect Thomas’ endorsement of a Versa Note here, though. It’s pretty amazing what you can get out of a bottom-of-the-barrel economy car these days! I feel like the Versa Note is a wholly respectable appliance. Nobody should be ashamed to drive one.

      Reply
  11. Don Curton

    “And, that’s where I think the lesson lies. It’s in there somewhere, I’m sure but damned if I can find it, though. If you find it, let me know… ”

    My wife and I spent over 3 months looking at every new and used mid-sized SUV in my price range one time. She wanted a SUV and no buts about it. But every one we looked at got shot down by her. Till finally, she suggested we look at another SUV at this particular car lot. Once there, she “fell in love” with a slightly used Oldsmobile mini-van that “just happened to be parked out front” when we pulled in. I didn’t even bother asking. I just grabbed the salesman and told him we’re ready to talk price. She drove that van for over 6 years and absolutely loved it.

    Lesson learned? Women will never actually tell you what they want. Never. Just roll with the flow, man.

    Reply
  12. safe as milk

    before i bought my van, i was zip carriing and i drove a number of vehicles in this segment including the regular versa. the econobox that i liked best by far was the fit. however, i don’t think you could get one fo $17k. there’s nothing wrong with sticking to a bodget and i’m sure the not will be a solid daily driver. also, the much maligned cvt is fine in small cars.

    my wife also much prefers small cars. she really doesn’t get the concept of driving dynamics. she wants something small, cute with good visibility.

    Reply
  13. -Nate

    “Lesson learned? Women will never actually tell you what they want. Never. Just roll with the flow, man.”

    _THIS_ ~

    With the exception of asking me to get her a Mercedes Diesel Sedan (I know, I know) she never tells me straight out what it is she wants so I’m flummoxed and often do the *Decidedly* wrong thing .

    To bad toots, you didn’t tell me what you wanted so now you’re stuck with this .

    Good thing she likes (more like tolerates) me and I’m ever so fond of her, right ? .

    Thomas, send me an E-Mail off site and ask me about NAV for your new Note, O.K. ? .

    I don’t seem to have your E-Mail addy .

    -Nate

    Reply
    • Thomas KreutzerThomas Kreutzer Post author

      My email is my last name at hotmail.com, Nate. Write me any time.

      We solved the Nav issue with our i-phone, of course, which works out well for us because we can shift the language options and my wife can get directions in Japanese. How we mounted it is one of the little additions I’ve made to the car that I plan to detail in an article next week.

      Thing is, as an older guy, I don’t immediately think about using my phone for that sort of thing. It seems a little akin to me using a Walkman in my car because someone decided I wouldn’t need a radio. I always think about a built-in solution and I probably would have been willing to pay up to an extra $600 for what should, I think, amount to nothing more than an extra circuit card and a bit of software. I mean the screen is already there, why not have those extra features available?

      Reply
  14. Adam Dixon

    Welcome back to the US, Thomas. I’ve really enjoyed your articles on TTAC over the years. It’s funny that you came down to the Note vs. the Sonic, because that’s were I was four years ago. I ended up with the Sonic, as I liked the turbo engine and I just couldn’t warm to the styling of the Note (although I’m sure my kids would have appreciated the significantly bigger back seat of the Note). I’d like to know what about the Sonic singularly “unimpressed” you? I also feel that all cars with permanently back-lit instruments need automatic headlamps, which is standard in the Sonic and wasn’t available at all on the Note in 2014.

    Reply
    • Thomas KreutzerThomas Kreutzer Post author

      That’s a fair question, Adam, and I think my reaction has a lot to do with the fact that we already had what we thought was a good deal in our back pocket and that we needed some extra “oomph” to get us off of the course we were on. I didn’t feel like the base model Sonics we were seeing had anything that would win us over. That’s probably one of the reasons we ended up looking at the Cruzes – if we were going to change our minds, there needed to be some sort of reason.

      If I were looking at a Turbo RS or something like that, I think perhaps the Sonic is a direction we might have gone. I think there are more possibilities and the various option packages available would have allowed us to tailor the car to exactly what we wanted. In the base-level trims, however, the car seemed sort of generic and blah – and I suppose some people would say the Note is pretty generic and blah, too, but it’s generic and blah in the way in which my wife and I have become accustomed. I’m not sure if that makes sense, but that Japanese aesthetic is important to my wife because, as everyone should probably know by now, she is Japanese. The Note made her feel right at home the minute she slipped behind the wheel and the Sonic didn’t.

      I’ll say too that I was really disappointed in our local Chevrolet dealer. We went in on a Friday evening and I know people were probably looking to go home, but they paid us scant attention. The gal who was working with us didn’t seem experienced and when we got to talking about the various price points and I started probing her for a deal, some other guy – the sales manager I presume – came over and told us the cars we were looking at weren’t on any kind of programs and that if we wanted any real deals we would need to come back another time – blah, blah, blah. We left and were back at the Nissan shop wrapping up our deal not 10 minutes later.

      Reply
      • Adam Dixon

        I will never understand dealers who don’t seem to want to sell a car. No deals on a Sonic? Really?
        Actually, the Japanese vs. American styling makes perfect sense, and, no, your wife would never be happy with a Sonic regardless of trim. Fortunately, I had a great dealer experience and did tailor it to my tastes – Tapaz blue LT (did not like the pleather seats in the LTZ) with the turbo, sunroof, 16″ wheels, fog lamps and back-up camera. It’s a sharp little car that handles great with a nice mid-range punch, which is perfect for opening up holes in traffic during my downtown Hartford commute!

        Reply
        • JustPassinThru

          Why don’t they want to sell a car?

          Because of pressures by the sales manager – to move A PARTICULAR model.

          Coming out of the Navy, in 1995, I needed a car – quick. I didn’t want to buy a used car – back then, the idea of a car lasting XXX,XXX miles was a new one; and I’d had bad experiences with used cars in the past.

          A Navy friend had a Geo Metro. I’d driven it; thought it was a great car for pure transportation. But, as I found out, Colorado Chevrolet dealers DID NOT WANT TO SELL METROS. I got hit with the spiel, three times: “For the same monthly payment, you can have a Malibu blah-blah-blah.”

          I did not WANT a Malibu. My memory of Chevrolets made by Chevrolet was still fresh, with my self-destructing Chevette. The floor-doods at the three Denver dealers I was at, wanted to sell Malibus or nothing.

          I bought a Nissan pickup instead.

          Reply
  15. Cdotson

    The lesson, in less than civil language:

    Bitches gonna bitch. Suffer through it in silence or indulge your frustration and tell them to shut their pie holes and suffer through the bitching with bruises. Attempt to preemptively thwart the bitching and suffer through bitching with car payments.

    Reply
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