Hatchbacks are making a comeback these days, and the all-new 2014 Nissan Versa Note could be the latest success story. Replacing the popular but odd-looking Versa hatchback in Nissan's lineup, the Versa Note promises more of what hatchback customers crave, from value and fuel economy to versatility and style. But does it deliver? Can it compete with hotshot hatches like the Chevrolet Sonic and Honda Fit? We wanted answers, so we headed for sunny San Diego, Calif., to put the Versa Note through its paces.

Extreme Makeover

Compact cars have grown much more stylish over the past few years, and the Versa Note continues this trend. Although the 102.4-inch wheelbase is unchanged from the previous model, the front and rear overhangs are shorter now, giving the Versa Note a taut, athletic profile. We also like the dramatic new character line that runs down the side of the car. Styling is subjective, of course, but we think the Versa Note looks both classier and more modern than the old Versa hatchback.

Value Proposition

The Versa nameplate always has been synonymous with value, so it's no surprise that the Versa Note starts at just $13,990 -- $680 less than the old car -- in base S trim. Just don't expect many frills at that price. In case you've forgotten about crank windows, the Versa S is happy to take you back in time, and it's only offered with a 5-speed manual transmission. Fortunately, the S Plus ($15,240) and SV ($15,990) trim levels provide much more available content, including heated seats, iPod/USB connectivity, Bluetooth with streaming audio, keyless entry/ignition and even a 360-degree parking camera that used to be for luxury models only. Smart shoppers should have no trouble finding a well-equipped Versa Note that fits their budget.

Power and MPG

The 2014 Versa Note actually uses a smaller engine than before, but the 1.6-liter inline-4 keeps up with traffic well enough despite its meager 109-horsepower output. That's largely because Nissan's compact hatch lost an incredible 300 pounds during the redesign, now tipping the scales at just 2,416 pounds with the manual transmission. Speaking of the stick shift, it may keep the initial cost down, but it'll run up a bigger tab at the pump: the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) projects a below average fuel economy of 27 mpg city/36 mpg highway. Pay more for the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) and you'll be rewarded with 31/40 mpg, which puts the Versa Note at the head of its class. The CVT comes standard on both the S Plus and SV models.

Family-Size Interior

You won't believe how much space there is in the Versa Note's back seat. Legroom is ample even with the front seats slid all the way back, and there's enough headroom for a 10-gallon hat. It's frankly amazing that such a small car could have such generous rear quarters; we've tested some midsize sedans that have less room back there. The Versa Note also offers a competitive 21.4 cu ft of cargo space behind the rear seat backs, and almost twice as much if you fold those seat backs down. Moreover, the nifty Divide-N-Hide storage system adds a concealed cargo-floor compartment with a cover that can be lowered or removed entirely to increase hauling capacity. It really works, and it's something we haven't seen from any other manufacturer.

So How's It Drive?

The first thing we noticed from behind the wheel of the 2014 Nissan Versa Note is that the wheel itself doesn't telescope out -- and it's a stretch for long-legged drivers. But if you can find a comfortable driving position, we think you'll like the way the Versa Note goes down the road. Cruising at highway speeds is no problem, and the Versa Note zips around town with surprising pep in its step. We enjoy the steering, too: It's light and direct in turns yet reassuringly stable on the freeway. Road noise can be intrusive on certain surfaces, but the Versa Note's agreeable ride quality is fair compensation. We wouldn't quite call this Nissan fun to drive, but it's a legitimate player in this fast-growing segment.

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Josh Sadlier is an automotive journalist based in Los Angeles and has contributed to such publications as Edmunds.com and DriverSide.com. He holds arguably the most unexpected degree in his profession: a master's in Theological Studies.

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