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Nissan's small car excels at affordability

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Photo - This undated product image provided by Nissan shows the 2015 Nissan Versa Note SR. The five-door hatchback is one of the lowest-priced new cars in the U.S. market and is affordable at the gas pump. (AP Photo/Nissan)
This undated product image provided by Nissan shows the 2015 Nissan Versa Note SR. The five-door hatchback is one of the lowest-priced new cars in the U.S. market and is affordable at the gas pump. (AP Photo/Nissan)
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The 2015 Nissan Versa Note five-door hatchback is one of the lowest-priced new cars in the U.S. market and is affordable at the gas pump, too.

Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for a base, front-wheel drive, 2015 Versa Note with five-speed manual transmission: just $14,990. This makes it one of the lowest-priced new cars in the U.S. market.

A 2015 Versa Note with continuously variable transmission (CVT) that a driver operates like an automatic is $16,240. But even at that price, you could buy two Versa Notes for the price of an average new vehicle these days.

Gasoline mileage is another reward for budget-conscious shoppers. The top federal government fuel economy ratings for the 2015 Versa Note are a noteworthy 31 miles per gallon in city driving and 40 mpg on the highway, for an average of 35 mpg — the third-best figures for any non-hybrid and non-electric hatchback.

This is for the 2015 Versa Note with CVT and standard, active grille shutters that improve aerodynamics by automatically closing off some grille openings once the car is moving at more than 20 miles per hour.

In fact, filling the car's 10.8-gallon tank costs only $37 at today's prices, and a full tank can take you an estimated 378 miles.

And this is no cramped compact. The extremely roomy back seat' can easily accommodate adults. Indeed, the 38.3 inches and 38 inches of back-seat legroom and headroom, respectively, in the compact Versa Note are more than that of the back seat of the larger, 2015 Chevrolet Malibu sedan.

Competitors to the Versa Note include low-priced, five-door hatchbacks such as the 2015 Honda Fit, which starts at $16,315 with six-speed manual and $17,115 with CVT. There's also the 2015 Kia Rio 5-Door with a starting MSRP, including destination charge of $14,790 with five-speed manual and $17,900 with automatic transmission.

Don't confuse the Versa Note with the plainer-looking Nissan Versa sedan that has a starting retail price of $12,800. The Versa Note's tall hatchback body style is more attractive and makes for more practical interior space. But the 15-inch base wheels look small on the 5-foot-tall Versa Note.

Not much has changed for the 2015 model year, which is only the model's second year.

Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity is now a standard feature on all models, and there are two new trim levels — SR and SV — that have more features.

The test car was an SR, which included stylish, suede seats, rear spoiler, fog lamps, sport grille and front and rear fascias, rearview camera and 16-inch, alloy wheels. Yet despite the sporty add-ons, the SR had the fuel-saving CVT and the same, 109-horsepower four cylinder that's in all Versa Notes.

Acceleration was not quick, but it was steady and was accompanied by droning sounds from the CVT. Drivers who are accustomed to regular automatics, which have defined shift points that drop the engine revs, will wait and wait for the Versa Note's high rev sounds to die down.

Torque from the Versa Note's 1.6-liter, double overhead cam four cylinder peaks at a meager 109 foot-pounds at 4,400 rpm. This is less than the 114 foot-pounds of torque at 4,600 rpm that the 130-horsepower four cylinder in the Honda Fit generates. It's also less than the 123 foot-pounds at 4,850 rpm that the Kia Rio's 138-horsepower, 1.6-liter four cylinder generates.

The power difference — and the Versa Note's light weight of just 2,414 pounds to 2,543 pounds — pays off in fuel mileage.

The test Versa Note SR averaged nearly 32 mpg in driving that was a majority city travel, and that was without the driver trying to maximize fuel economy.

Seats are perched a good bit from the car floor. But cushioning felt cheap and could be improved.

Front-seat passengers have good views out. There are good driver views out, too, while making right-hand turns, thanks to a small triangular window that's built into the base of each windshield pillar — a feature not found in some other cars with upright body styles and thick window pillars.

The Versa Note SR, riding on 16-inch, rather than 15-inch, all-season tires, communicated a good amount of road noise to the passenger cabin, partly because all Versa Note tires are the low rolling resistance kind that are designed to maximize fuel economy.

The car was a nimble handler and easy to maneuver and park, especially in tight parking garages.

And with a car this inexpensive and devoid of flash, a driver doesn't worry much about leaving it parked on a street, either.

The liftgate at the back opens wide, and a low floor in the Versa Note makes loading easier than in some car trunks.

Total cargo room behind the rear seats is greater than in many car trunks — 18.8 cubic feet. Cargo space expands to 38.3 cubic feet when back seats are folded down.

There is a lot of hard, utilitarian plastic inside the Versa Note on the dashboard and interior doors. It's not rich-looking.

The 2015 Versa Note earned four out of five stars in federal government crash tests. The car did best in side crash testing, where it garnered a full five stars. The overall average was pulled down, however, by frontal crash testing that rated only three out of five stars for passenger protection.

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