Notes on the Economy Hatch: Your Door to More (Money)

2015 Nissan Note SR

Nissan’s Note SR offers subcompact size, almost midsize price

At the end of 1966 my parents, having relocated to an Omaha suburb, found themselves in need of a second car. With money tight, the folks took what was at the time a no-brainer decision: the purchase of a brand-new VW Beetle. With a 4-speed manual and no a/c, the only option they popped for was – if fading memory serves – a set of dealer-installed floor mats. The sticker price of around $1,800 was also the selling price, despite being near the end of the model year. And how I wish for that simplicity in today’s economy segment. Almost fifty years later Nissan’s Versa Note SR is in my drive, with a window sticker – in uplevel SR trim – of $18,370 plus destination, or roughly ten times that of the Beetle’s window in ’66.

Nissan Altima

Nissan’s midsize Altima – 2013 shown

While in those fifty years any number of improvements to performance, efficiency, safety and emissions have been made, small hatches such as Nissan’s Note have morphed from their minimalistic roots to price points not far removed from those of midsized sedans. And while compacts and subcompact hatches have very little profit and little in the way of price flexibility, purveyors of Altimas, Camrys and Accords have a volume model that typically gives dealers enough price flexibility to actually change the affordability of those particular purchases.

Nissan’s Note SR, priced north of $19K, is comfortable and composed. And it  proved capable for errand running, the morning commute and a long weekend drive. But with 1.6 underachieving liters connected to Nissan’s Xtronic CVT, the Note’s vehicular dynamics and capabilities were so far removed from those of a Nissan Altima (or Camry or Accord) as to not even merit comparison. But we’ll do it anyway…

Let’s start with the footprint. The Note’s tidy profile sits atop a wheelbase of 102.4 inches, and enjoys an overall length of 163 inches. Its width is 66.7 inches, with a height of just over five feet. With five doors providing access, the interior affords its occupants 94 cubic feet of passenger space; it’s almost 113 cubic feet when adding the Note’s available cargo space. If you live in a major urban area, where parking is in short supply and – if you can find it – invariably short in length, 163 inches will look pretty good. But if you’re in the ‘burbs, have your own garage and doing urban combat with Tahoes and Yukons, know that you’ll fare better – at least psychologically – behind the wheel of a midsize sedan.

Nissan’s 4-door Altima may not boast best-in-class anything (except – perhaps – efficiency), but its overall competence, along with an aggressive price point, sustains its popularity. The Altima sits on a wheelbase almost seven inches longer than the Note’s (109.3 inches), with an overall length of 191.5 inches, and overall width of 72 inches. Notably, its overall height is actually two inches lower than the Note’s, at just under 58 inches. The Altima’s interior volume is 101.9 cubic feet, to which you’ll enjoy an additional 15 cubic feet of separate cargo space in the trunk. That, of course, is separated from the Altima’s passenger compartment, but accessible via a folding rear seat.

Under the hood, the Note offers the aforementioned 1.6 liters of DOHC four, delivering 109 horsepower (@ 6,000 rpm) and 107 lb-ft of torque. Connected to the available CVT, the smallish four is prone to drone, while offering just enough responsiveness to get out of its own way. In contrast, the Altima delivers 2.5 liters of four cylinder (a V6 is optional), delivering 182 horsepower at just 4,000 rpm. Along with those 182 horsepower you’ll enjoy 180 lb-ft of torque, all of which – again – is transmitted to the front wheels via Nissan’s CVT. But if you’re worried about an efficiency penalty associated with the Altima’s bigger mill and larger footprint, don’t be. While the Note is obviously more efficient, with an EPA estimate of 31 City/40 Highway, the Altima is no slouch, providing users with a 27 City/38 Highway rating. We’d guess a real world estimate of 26-28 in town for the Note, 23-25 in town for the Altima.

As this is written, unleaded regular is $3/gallon. If driving the Note 12,000 miles a year with an average of 28 miles per gallon, you’ll consume roughly 430 gallons of fuel. If driving the Altima the same number of miles while getting around 25 miles per gallon will consume 480 gallons of fuel. That ‘delta’ is but 50 gallons of gas a year, or no more than $150 out of pocket. When contrasted in those terms the ‘economy’ of the Note is an artificial economy, and the relative savings doesn’t begin to justify the loss in comfort or capability.

The Note SR was some $3K less expensive – at $19K – than the base Altima. And that differential, when financed over 48 monthlies, will cost you about $75 per month; many will spend that much at a Starbucks per week. If you must get Nissan’s Note, note this: the base 5-speed is but $15K. Buy that one.