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Rotten Rental Car Review: 2015 Nissan Versa Note SV

Greg Kachadurian October 28, 2015 Reviews, Rotten Rental Car Reviews 27 Comments

It may not be obvious, but the rental car industry is a tough and very stressful place to work. Having friends that have worked in it before, I’ve always been conscious about making sure I never make someone’s job harder when renting a car. One of the sure ways to make that happen is to walk into a branch amidst general chaos and – without any advanced reservation or warning – say “I need a car NOW!” Yeah, you and the eight other people in line.

I was that person. I didn’t want to be and I didn’t plan on it, but when a part for my only car was delayed after the drivetrain was already taken apart, I had no choice.

This was my punishment.

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Cue the 2015 Nissan Versa Note SV, a five-door subcompact that you can pick up for under $17,000 brand new – or $33/day. It was cheap, lightly used with 29,000 miles on the odometer, and it ended up being an interesting car to be stuck with.

I’m coming from a 2007 BMW 328i but I came in with an open mind. I love trying new cars of all types and price points. This year alone I’ve been spoiled with several cars I can’t afford, so how about I try one that I can? For under $17,000 it can’t be that bad, can it? It’s complicated. I left the Nissan Versa Note SV with mixed emotions. It excels in some areas you’d expect it to but also greatly surprises in some ways that you wouldn’t. But then it’s anywhere from “average” to “set this on fire” in others.

Here’s the run-down.

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Crystal clear

The mechanical specs on the car are about what you’d expect from an inexpensive car meant for practicality and efficiency above all. It’s powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine cranking out 109 whole horsepowers and 107 lb.-ft. of torque and paired with a beloved CVT. If you’re not afraid to bury the throttle, merging isn’t a problem in most situations. At no point in my driving did I feel the CVT was a limitation; it fits the car’s character pretty well and certainly does its job. After about 70 miles of mixed environment driving, I averaged a little over 36 mpg according to the in-car display.

Ride quality is a bit more refined than I was expecting for a car like this. It’s not the best I’ve felt on a car of that size and it does bounce a bit more than it probably should, but the ride quality is not what I would call uncomfortable. Perhaps most importantly, you can cruise at highway speeds with little drama.

Another area where the Versa Note excels at surprisingly well is how much space they give you in most of the car. I’m 6’1″ and fat-hundred pounds but I could “sit behind myself” by setting the driver’s seat how I like it and then sitting in the seat behind it. My knees were nowhere near the seat in front of me and my head had at least in inch or two of clearance. The rear seats are more spacious than the ones in my 3 Series… this is a subcompact we’re talking about!

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Four adults and maybe a fifth person you hate can fit easily in this car, but their luggage is another story. The industry’s standard metric for measuring cargo room is a set of golf clubs, but I don’t have any of those and it probably wouldn’t fit anyway so I’m going to use 12-packs of Mountain Dew Game Fuel instead. Rest assured knowing you can fit several of those back there with some room to spare… they’re hard to find, okay? *sips*

Unfortunately, that’s where the good things end.

I mentioned the Versa Note gave you exceptional space in “most of the car”. The part of the car that’s not included in that statement is the driver’s seat which was the most cramped spot in the car. I was never able to adjust my seating position without having to open the door, there wasn’t as much forward leg room thanks to the limited driving position options, and the lower center console area protruded into my leg whenever I was on the throttle a bit more than it should have.

Despite having tons of headroom and a rather large greenhouse effect in the cabin, I still felt very cramped in the driver’s seat. Combine that with a steering wheel doesn’t telescope and the limited options for adjusting the seat [with the door open], it was hell for someone as tall as I am.  They were nice enough to tack on an arm rest to the side of the driver’s seat, but it’s not one the passenger could use. “You want an arm rest? Here… take your filthy arm rest”.

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Worse than some of the space issues up front were the materials of everything inside. It has the ergonomics of a racing game at an arcade. There are no soft touch points to be found and the seats feel like bricks once you’ve sat there for more than ten minutes. Nothing in there feels like it will last and it didn’t exactly inspire confidence as I was driving around cars twice my size.

I just couldn’t imagine being on a road trip in this car. When I put on my big boy journalist pants and drove around town to get some final thoughts on the car for this review, I had to cut my drive short at just 30 minutes to save my back. I used to drive a golf cart to school and even that was more comfortable on equally long drives. If someone tries to sell you a Versa Note SV with the standard seats, take them out and burn them before you bring that bad juju home with you.

The task of actually driving the car is only worrisome when getting on the brakes. They’re powerful enough but very grabby, but that might just be related to it being a rental car with 29,000 miles. The steering is weighted a bit heavier than I would have expected but it wasn’t a problem. It’s responsive, at least.

Lastly, and most annoyingly, the digital fuel gauge makes filling up the tank to a certain point (as rental companies require) a hopeless game. I had to return the car with half a tank and I had only brought it down two ticks. It’s a ten gallon tank so I figured I’d be nice and fill up with just two gallons… the gauge didn’t budge. I drove around a bit to see if it could readjust the reading at all before I went over to the lot, but it had no effect. I added another two gallons of fuel for good measure and to avoid penalties. Magically, that was enough for the fuel gauge to shoot up to a tick below full.

This is the same company that builds the GT-R.

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So to sum up the 2015 Nissan Versa Note SV as a rental car, it’s great at being cheap, efficient, and carrying backseat passengers across town. It’s bad at doing any of that comfortably and for long distances. This could be the perfect subcompact car you can get for cheap as a rental but it’s a let down where it matters. It’s probably fine for any cross-town expeditions you may encounter, but I’d say it’s a definite no-go for longer drives. And don’t try to be precise with your fill-ups.

[Images © 2015 Redusernab/Greg Kachadurian  – honestly, why would you want to steal these photos]

  • Citric

    Another annoyance I just noticed: No temp gauge, even though there’s plenty of room. Makers of cheap transport really, really need to stop doing that.

    • So many cars don’t have these now.

      • Tiller188

        As I understand it, even those that do, kinda don’t. Apparently, most often the temp gauge is not really “calibrated” in a meaningful sense, and tends to just sit nice and calmly in the center of the range unless something goes quite wrong. Then it will show “hot”. During warmup, sure, it’ll climb off of the “cold” side of the gauge, but even then it seems to be not really accurate. (I notice that in my car, my oil pressure gauge seems to be the better indicator of when the car has warmed up, because I know what sort of pressure it typically idles at, and even after the temp gauge has reached “normal”, the oil pressure will usually still be high for a little while before settling into “normal” range.)

        I also remember that when I had to drive a giant rented Penske box truck on a trip, I was very impressed by its temp gauge, because not only was it actually labeled in graduated units (“hey, there are numbers on my coolant temp gauge, lookit that!”), but I could actually see it moving around as the engine came under load, the radiator fan kicked on and off, etc.

        TL;DR: I’m with you, I want more data, but I want real data. However, for most people, “normal”, “hot”, or “cold” is good enough, and at this point, really it seems like most people don’t want to be bothered.

        • I got a Scangauge II for my Escape – the factory gauges are the same “won’t move unless it’s a catastrophe” crap. The Scangauge has exact temp, oil pressure, etc., etc.

  • CruisinTime

    I like it,even with the drawbacks.Versatile little buggy for that money.

    • I reviewed it some time ago and I liked it better than the Fit.

      • CruisinTime

        For a local runner , it would be nice.

      • dukeisduke

        That says a lot about the Fit, doesn’t it? And I used to think that the Fit (at least the old Fit Sport) would be the most desirable of these cars.

        • You know, I was really surprised by loaded Versa I reviewed, which had more features (which were also easier to use) and was still cheaper than the Fit.

  • Maymar

    I feel like some time around when the first generation Versa was due for replacement, the rumor was Nissan was going to make the Versa sedan the budget option, and make the Versa Note a little nicer. Nope, they went regressive and made the Note about as cheap, awful, and mostly functional as the sedan.

    That said, I feel like this would be a lot more tolerable as a budget hot hatch – the 1.6T from the Juke should slot right in (shared chassis, right?), and if they can do a $20k Juke, they could feasibly at least make a more entertaining Versa that’d undercut the FiST. But why would they? I have no idea what Nissan wants to be these days.

    • Citric

      The weird thing is that the Note has the same engine as the Micra, except the Micra is lighter and cheaper. So if you’re going to get a cheap Nissan, why wouldn’t you get the Micra?

      Though I guess that doesn’t apply to US customers.

      • Maymar

        The Versa’s definitely a little more spacious, but yeah, I could see it being a hard sell now.

  • “…paired with a beloved CVT.”

    In my experience, as long as I remember to carry a spare belt or two they’re fine.

    • Vairship

      Spare belt? It’s not a Corvair! 😉

  • Sounds like “good concept, bad execution”
    I.e., Nissan taking a shot at the Fit and missing by a country mile

  • peugeotdude505

    I had one of these for a rental last summer, drove all over Ontario and to Montreal on the 401. It wasn’t bad, great on gas. Easily cruised at 120-130km/h all day

  • CruisinTime

    $14,180 staring priceMSRP.109Hp 5 spd. Built mine black / black.

    • Greg Kachadurian

      For $14K that’s actually a great value for anyone that just needs a reliable daily driver. If the seats could be upgraded I would actually recommend it. Looking back at it, the seating was what I hated most about it.

      • CruisinTime

        Tilt ,cruise, a/c and bluetooth are standard.

  • dukeisduke

    The instrument lens looks like they used interior (vinyl) cleaner on it. On my ’95 F-150, the owners manual said don’t do that, as it would fog up the plastic. I looked at a used F-150 on a Ford dealer’s lot one time (I was heading to the parts counter to get something for mine), and they had done exactly that when detailing it. Terrible.

  • dukeisduke

    And WTH is “Pure Drive”, anyway? Whenever I see that blue on the emblem (and on the emblems on a Leaf), I want to go up and try to peel it off, like that protective stuff they stick on stainless steel.

    • Drives Dead Marques

      I’ll let Nissan answer that:

    • Tiller188

      Huh, that is what that shade of blue looks like. …not gonna be able to un-see that now.

  • Drives Dead Marques

    I got a rental for vacation, supposed to get something Focus sized, they gave me a Rio. I, like you just nodded, took the keys and went on my merry way. My only regret was it didn’t have cruise control. Seats were nice, had enough but not plenty of room, and the Bluetooth connection to the stereo was good since my wife is Dutch, and we have a playlist on the iPod with half Dutch/half English music.

    The rental guy said it got 40mpg. *nods head* Well, I also only got 28mpg, and on the highway got nothing near the “40” Hyundai/Kia got caught lying about. He also said the Rio was now a size up/equal to the Focus. *nods head* My guess is he didn’t have anything in the Focus’s size, and didn’t want to free upgrade me into a Malibu or something.

    Needless to say, I did write a letter to the rental place to complain. Wound up getting a $50 credit.

  • HoondavanDude

    I rented the last generation for a road trip. It seemed OK for such a cheap car ($14k or $14k at the time)…until I tried to hit the brakes in the rain. NO ABS. Way to make that price point, Nissan.

  • mve

    Those seats look horrible for long trips.

  • The digital gas guage in my Prius has 10 “blips”. When I fill up, it takes a couple of minutes for it to go to full. It doesn’t change at all for 30-60 seconds. The owner’s manual also says, I believe, that it doesn’t even register added fuel less than 3 gallons. If you run out, don’t bring back less than 3 because it still won’t run.

    There it’s in part due to the maddening bladder fuel tank that the gen 2 Prius is saddled with which has a flexible membrane inside a rigid tank. It means that the effective tank size shrinks in cold weather and at some pumps it simply won’t take much gas at all. I assume that this doesn’t have one of those.

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