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car review

Nissan Versa Note.

For a car company, nothing presents a bigger challenge than making a $13,000 car. There's no margin for error, obviously, and buyers are finicky beyond belief.

If you are this buyer, you're pinched for cash and you expect your car to be reliable, durable, fuel-efficient, and something less than an embarrassment overall.

If you're a car company making one of these, the profit margin is slim as a Paris runway model. You want to make a car good enough to attract customers, but not so good it pulls in shoppers who might otherwise spend more money on something better and more profitable.

The point is, the true test of excellence at any car company is what it is capable of with its cheapest cars. The measure of excellence at Ford is the Fiesta, at Honda the Fit, at Toyota the Yaris, Chevrolet the Sonic, Hyundai the Accent, Kia the Rio, Mazda the 2 and Nissan the Versa and Versa Note.

If you're not familiar with the Note, don't be embarrassed. The Note is simply the long-awaited hatchback version of the Versa sedan, which was reinvented slightly more than a year ago and not to great acclaim.

A word of warning: don't confuse the Versa Note with the Versa sedan. The latter is not the most remarkable subcompact for sale in Canada, while the former risks being considered just the opposite. Where the Versa is uninspired, the Versa Note hatchback is, well – dazzling might be too strong a word for a car that starts at $13,348. It's hard to envision a "dazzling" $13,000 car. But, on balance, this new Nissan for the budget-challenged masses is an eye-opener.

You can see for yourself that the styling is pretty enough. Perhaps the design is the most interesting in this class. That's saying something.

The Accent is bold, but the Note is bolder. The Fiesta looks sporty, but that look has been on the road for few years and it no longer startles bystanders in a good way. The Fit is super-functional, but as square as a bread box. The Rio won a Red Dot award for design excellence in 2012, but I personally prefer the Note. The Mazda2 is an aged, though not offensive, design.

Most important, though, the Note is roomy inside. Rear legroom is best in class. Front legroom is among the best; overall, the cabin is bigger than anything else in this range and no one has more cargo room. If you have just $13,000 to spend on a car, you want it to be functional and, if it looks good, all the better.

The Note is all the better for many reasons, including its slick shape. Indeed, the drag coefficient is an impressive 0.30, which Nissan Canada product planning chief Tim Franklin happily points out is "lower than many sports cars." One reason for the aerodynamic efficiency, he adds: "vented" tail-lamps that help "optimize" airflow. Have a look at them; quite interesting, these lights with the little holes in them to improve aerodynamics.

Hacking away at wind resistance is important for fuel economy and here Franklin is in his element, being an engineer by training. The official combined fuel economy is 5.5 litres/100 km, using regular gas and that beats all competitors.

Highway fuel economy of 4.8 litres/100 km is exactly what you get in a Toyota Prius v hybrid wagon for more than twice the money ($27,425). (Aside: Now you know why hybrids are a tough sell. For half the money, you can get a traditional gas ride that uses the same amount of gas.)

What's Nissan fuel economy secret? A combination of things. This Versa hatchback has shed 137 kilograms or 302 pounds versus the last one (a 2012; there was not 2013 model). On top of that, the tires are low-rolling-resistance rubber. That's all good. Even better is a small, 109-horsepower engine with dual fuel injectors (not direct fuel injection, by the way) that's tied to a small continuously variable transmission (CVT).

CVTs use belts and pulleys to vary gear ratios infinitely, which means theoretically you are always in the performance sweet spot – both power-wise and for fuel economy. Nissan's latest CVT here is acceptable for a commuter car, but if you're looking for the excitement of snapping through stepped gears, up and down, look elsewhere.

If you do, compare cabins, head to head. The Note has more space than I expected and the finishings were prettier than I'd imagined. The cabin isn't fancy, but it's immensely functional, right down to the twin cupholders in the centre console and the push-button start. Heck, you can even get heated seats. The rear seatbacks fold flat and there's an adjustable shelf in the cargo area.

Most surprisingly, at highway speeds,this car is quiet. You'll like this when you're hooking up with optional voice-recognition technology. It's always good when your car can hear what you're telling it to do.

Imagine that in a $13,000 car.

Tech specs

2014 Nissan Versa Note

Type: Subcompact hatchback

Price range: $13,348-$19,018 (freight $1,567)

Engine: 1.6-litre,four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 109 hp/107 lb-ft

Transmission: CVT

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.1 city/4.8 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Mazda2