At the New York Auto Show in April 2012, Nissan made it clear that it had a busy 15 months planned.
The Japanese automaker announced that it would overhaul its aging lineup with five completely redesigned vehicles. Since then, Nissan has brought us new versions of the mid-size Altima, the seven-passenger Pathfinder crossover, and the compact Sentra.
The renewed attention to these volume-sellers has been a success; through May, Nissan said its sales are up 8.1% from a year earlier.
PHOTOS: Nissan's all-new Versa Note hatchback
Hoping to maintain this momentum, the automaker in June put on sale the 2014 Versa Note, a subcompact hatchback. It's the five-door complement to Nissan's uber-cheap Versa sedan, a popular car whose $12,780 starting price makes it the cheapest available in the U.S.
This all-new Note hatchback starts at $14,750 (including destination charges) and is aimed at hatchbacks such as the Hyundai Accent, Chevy Sonic and Ford Fiesta. It's a group of cars that place a premium on economy, efficiency and practicality.
But it's Honda's Fit that remains the car to beat in this class. Nothing else mixes so well the ability to consume cargo, drive with a smile on its face, and do so efficiently.
Despite the segment traditionally aiming for a slice of car buyers who generally skew younger, Nissan made it clear that the conservatively styled Note isn't necessarily targeting the same group.
"We're not going quite as youthful as our competitors," said Julie Lynch, a senior market manager at Nissan. "We're looking for people who are past their crazy 20s."
Thus, it's couples either before or after children toward whom Nissan will soon start pushing the car in its marketing.
Highway 1 recently spent a day with a loaded Nissan Note to see whether it can topple Honda's gem. On paper, the Note has a number of advantages that will at least lure buyers into Nissan showrooms.
By shedding about 300 pounds from the previous Versa hatchback and adding a fuel-sipping continuously variable transmission, this new Note can lay claim to the best combined fuel economy in the class, at 35 miles per gallon. It's rated at 31 mpg in the city and 40 mpg on the highway.
This CVT isn't standard: budget at least $16,030 for it, an upcharge which also includes cruise control.
If you have your eye on the $14,750 base price, expect a five-speed manual transmission and city/highway/combined mileage of 27/36/30.
Regardless of transmission, all Notes come with a 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine that puts out 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque.
Our day with the car didn't include time in the manual, though Nissan said it expects just 10% of Note buyers to opt for this model. We logged roughly 60 miles in a loaded $19,280 Note SL with the CVT.
During acceleration, the CVT makes you pay for its efficiency. It pushes the engine to rev loudly with an annoying droning that floods into the cabin as the car lopes up to the speed you want.
This sound incursion isn't a fault limited to the Note; the same problem plagues Nissan's larger and otherwise decent Sentra sedan. Nor is it limited to the Nissan brand; plenty of other cars have been lured in by a CVT's siren song of efficiency only to burden passengers with the noisy unpleasantness.
But there are cars on the market that have figured out how to have the best of both worlds. So if the Note's impressive fuel economy justifiably pulls you into a Nissan dealership, just know what to expect.
That efficiency did pay off. On freeways and city streets, we averaged 35.5 mph, with the car showing it had almost 300 miles of range left. But this efficiency also comes at the expense of meaningful acceleration.
A Ferrari-like push isn't expected from anything in this segment, but the aforementioned peers from Hyundai, Honda and Ford all have more lively chutzpah from the gas pedal.
At least the Note is an adept handler. The steering is tight and communicative, and the smartly tuned suspension holds the car to the road without being harsh. Nicely bolstered seats hold occupants in place. Wind and road noise is nicely isolated from the cabin, and the car never sounds or feels cheap.
That is, until you get inside and see the center console. A trio of flimsy plastic knobs work the climate control, and everything about them reminds one of the cheap econoboxes of the mid-1990s. It's almost like Nissan wasn't even trying. Anything else in this segment shows far more attention and class.
Yet the rest of the Note's interior is nicely done and should prove to be a key selling point for this car.
Despite shaving six inches from the length of the previous Versa hatchback, this Nissan is incredibly spacious inside. It leads the segment in rear legroom by a mile (four inches is a mile with these guys), and the Note also boasts the most cargo room and passenger room.
Because our Aspen white Note SL was the loaded model, it included a full range of useful kit. This means a 5.8-inch touchscreen navigation system that uses Google Maps, a backup camera with bird's-eye viewpoint, Bluetooth streaming audio, Sirius XM satellite radio, 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, heated front seats and keyless entry with pushbutton start.
So chalk up excellent interior space, appreciable handling, and good fuel economy as the Versa Note's strengths, while dinging it for an unrefined drivetrain and lagging acceleration. The combination certainly makes Nissan a player in the subcompact space. It's just not a strong enough overall package to knock the Honda Fit from its perch.