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The Nissan Note offers more space and practicality than the average supermini, and a decent drive too

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The Note, Nissan says, is a B+ segment car which, in layman’s terms, means it competes with a bunch of inflated superminis at inflated supermini prices. There were just two such cars in 1998, but at the time that Nissan launched the Note in 2006, it reckoned there were 12, including the Honda Jazz, Vauxhall Meriva and Renault Modus, with which the Note shares its architecture. Several big-brand additions have since verified Nissan’s decision to invest in the ‘B-MPV’ segment and suggested that there’s even further potential for growth within it, among them the Hyundai ix20, Skoda Roomster and the capacious Citroen C3 Picasso.

The Note has a greater significance for UK buyers because it’s one of three Nissan’s currently build in Britain, at Nissan’s ‘NMUK’ manufacturing facility at Washington, Tyne and Wear, alongside the Qashqai and Juke crossovers. 

Nissan was late to the mini-MPV market, but the Note was worth the wait

The Note doesn’t have much in the locker in terms of overall dimensions. At 4080mm long, it’s barely bigger than the latest regular superminis. It is only 50mm longer than the Peugeot 207 and Fiat Punto, and has about 80mm over the Renault Clio. A high roofline makes for significantly better headroom and a more airy cabin than most normal small hatchbacks, however, while some intelligent and flexible interior features, paired with generous oddment storage for passengers and an easily accessed raised driving position, go a long way in justifying prices that are about 10 percent above a like-for-like Nissan Micra or Vauxhall Corsa.

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Engines range, in fairly limited fashion, up from an 87bhp 1.4-litre entry-level petrol option to a 108bhp 1.6, which is the only engine with the option of an automatic gearbox. An 89bhp 1.5-litre dCi is the only diesel, which comes to Nissan via its alliance with Renault; it has CO2 emissions of 110g/km, and is by a distance the most economical version of the car, with a claimed combined fuel economy of 67.3mpg.

DESIGN & STYLING

Nissan Note alloy wheels

Although its dimensions looked more typical of the segment at launch, the Nissan Note has become a particularly compact entrant in its class as the years have passed. That lends it a likable sense of efficiency and authenticity as a genuinely small but still very useful family car – even amongst rivals as compact and practical as the Note’s. But, like every other car of its ilk, the Note’s appearance is compromised by proportions as impossible to avoid as they are to disguise.

In due reasonable spirit, of cars that offer this much usable cabin space, in an overall package this small, it’s plain unreasonable to expect much in the way of instant visual desirability. High sides, square corners, a short wheelbase, short overhangs and tall windows are all challenges for a vehicle stylist, particularly when it comes to injecting character and dynamism into the visual mix.

Looks not as noteworthy as a contemporary Micra’s, but Note is smart and pleasant

Given those hurdles, you’d say those behind the Note’s design had done a competent, if uninspiring job. The car’s rising shoulderline, curved roof and taut body surfaces make it appear less boxy than some junior people-movers, while the detailing gives your eye a few highlights to alight on. The car’s elongated headlights add much-needed visual interest at the front, while at the rear wraparound taillights, which extend forwards along the Note’s roofline as well as downwards along its rump, make for a memorable flourish.

All but the baseline version of the Note come with alloy wheels as standard, and colours include metallic blues, greys and silvers – all smart enough, if a little lacking in exuberance. 

And when all is said and done, that lack of charm is telling – because while the Note certainly isn’t a bad-looking car, neither is it a charismatic one. A Citroen C3 Picasso makes it look very pedestrian indeed – and while those with mature tastes aren’t likely to mind that much, the young families alleged to make up the heartland demographic for cars like this can’t fail to notice.

INTERIOR

Nissan Note dashboard

On the inside, the Nissan Note sets the right tone with a well-assembled interior, the harmony only spoiled by the great swathes of black, hard plastic. But although the switchgear operates smoothly and with decent feel, there’s little to surprise and delight. A wider bandwidth of materials and textures would certainly make for a warmer and less austere ambience.

There’s little wrong with the Note’s driving position, however, even though the steering wheel adjusts for rake alone. The driver’s seat gets a folding centre-side armrest, ratchet height adjustment and a rotary knob to adjust the backrest – welcome touches that give a clue to the fact that the Note was designed and engineered in the UK rather than Japan.

The dashboard is conventional, but simple and well built

The little Nissan scores highly on practicality, too, with a 280-litre, flat-floored boot that can accommodate more than 1300 litres of luggage at its maximum. The floor is false, and there are two easily reversible, removable sections, with carpet topside and wipe-clean plastic on the underside. They’re good quality, and you wouldn’t hesitate in landing a heavy load on them. There’s more storage space underneath, and the rear seatback splits 60/40 and folds at the nudge of a lever. That leaves a quite high, flat floor because the seat squabs don’t fold. Those back seats do slide back and forth however and, in the rearmost position, give bags of rear legroom; thank a sizable 2600mm wheelbase for that one. The front passenger seat also folds to allow loads of up to 2.4m long to be threaded through.

There are plenty of useful cubbies, too. The door pockets are relatively small, but there’s a glovebox and large map pocket in the dash, as well as a couple of front cupholders, supplemented by trays and seat pockets for rear passengers.

Safety and convenience equipment is also generous – provided you don’t go for the cheapest specification. Mid-spec cars offer six airbags, air conditioning, cruise control, Bluetooth and USB connectivity. Entry-graders only get four airbags and manual rear windows, and don’t get Bluetooth, air con, a USB jack or underfloor storage in the boot.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Nissan Note engine bay

The cheapest Nissan Note powered by the base engine – a 1.4-litre, 87bhp, 94lb ft petrol unit driving the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox – inspires no serious complaint with any element in the set-up. It’s quiet at idle and responds willingly, and although it’s not the last word in refinement, noise levels remain acceptable in general driving – until you seek to extract the engine’s maximum power or drive much above the motorway speed limit. Take a Note to 80mph (as, let’s face it, plenty of drivers will), and at 4000rpm or so there’s noticeable sound intrusion, although it’s rarely coarse.

At 1146kg, the 1.4-litre Note is more than 150kg heavier than some new superminis, but even so manages 0-60mph in a competitive 12.9sec. 30- to 50mph in 4th gear, a more telling indicator of real world accelerative potential, takes 9.7sec – leisurely pace, but respectable. The Note’s gearbox is slick and smooth, with only a little notch between gears, while the pedals – if a touch on the light side of nicely weighted – offer deft progression and are evenly matched in feel.

Acceleration is competitive with other similar models

Nissan’s 1.6-litre engine is welcome more for its 113lb ft of torque than its headline power output, making the more expensive Note more relaxing and assured to drive rather than noticeable faster or more responsive. Its at its best paired with the regular five-speed manual gearbox, however; the four-speed auto, although preferable to the continuously variable transmissions that Nissan flirted with previously, would only be recommended for cars that’ll spend their life in busy, urban, stop-start traffic.

Better-than-average mechanical refinement and good throttle response make the Renault-sourced, 1.5-litre, 88bhp dCi diesel the most commendable powerplant in the real world. It’s quite flexible for a small capacity turbodiesel, with 148lb ft of torque from 1750rpm and instant, clean pulling power available even lower in the rev range. It also remains smooth and relatively well-mannered above 3500rpm.

Under hard braking the Note pitches quite hard, but outright stopping power is reasonable; under damp, chilly test conditions, our test car stopped from 70mph in 53.1 metres. Which suggests that a mid-spec Note on larger alloy wheels, in drier conditions, could be expected to stop in less than 50 metres – just as urgently as most four-metre hatchbacks, in other words.

RIDE & HANDLING

Nissan Note alloy wheels

Lower, more conventional superminis like the Renault Clio (which shares the Note’s platform) may ultimately be more agile and involving to drive, but the Nissan is no slouch. Mini-MPVs aren’t the obvious choice for those seeking sporting thrills, and we’d be overstating things to suggest that the Note could really entertain. Nonetheless, its dynamic performance is up there with the class best; good enough to make it the most agreeable car to actually drive, in a class where adequate handling is normally as good as it gets.

The Note’s secondary ride (ability to deal with bumps, lumps and patchwork Tarmac) is better than the primary ride (how the body copes with dips and crests), but both are the measure of rivals like the Meriva and Modus. And while the Citroen C3 Picasso’s softer chassis setup provides an even more pillowy kind of rolling refinement, the Nissan’s blend of agile chassis balance, progressive response, good rolling comfort and equally good bump isolation is the more convincing overall.

The Note isn't the last word in refinement

Why? Because the Note is actually reasonably good fun to punt down a twisty road. On 15-inch alloys shod with 185/65 rubber, grip levels are as modest as you’d imagine, but well matched with reasonable body control to unexpectedly harmonious dynamic effect. There’s simple satisfaction to be had from enjoying the driveline’s refinement and quite carefully honed, three-dimensional handling. The electromechanically assisted power steering is light but responsive and accurate; press on and you’ll find it devoid of feel, but at normal speeds it’s a very natural setup.

With only an inch in wheel rim size separating the smallest and largest alloys in the Note’s range, there’s very little penalty to be paid in terms of ride comfort if you opt for a highly equipped version. There is, however, just over 100kg of difference in noseweight between the slightest (1.4 manual) and heaviest (1.6 auto) versions of the car – which shows itself in a slightly less taut primary ride, and a little more understeer, in the case of the latter.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Nissan Note 2006-2013

The Note’s market segment is now mature enough to contain entrants of various sizes and types, among them budget-brand newbies and second-generation, fully mature sophisticates. The Nissan sits right in the middle of the crowd. It’s neither brimming with standard equipment and obvious value-for-money, nor suffused with the kind of space, quality, style or premium brand appeal that customers would be expected to pay that bit extra for.

The cheapest Note undercuts most entry-level MPVs, some by as much as £2000, but it’s not as generously equipped as budget brand options at a similar price. Air conditioning and ESP don’t feature on the basic Nissan, for example: the Kia Venga offers both as standard.

Its a little dearer than rivals to buy, but running costs are reasonable

Move higher up the Note range, however, and the value for money quota improves. A mid-spec 1.6 comes with cruise control, ESP, electric windows all round, heated mirrors, a leather steering wheel, Bluetooth and body coloured mouldings; a Skoda Roomster at the same equipment level and power output will cost you about 12 percent more though, admittedly, it is a bigger car.

Ownership costs are competitive. The 110g/km diesel Note qualifies for a £20-a-year tax disc – although rivals are slightly cheaper to insure.

Our 1.4-litre test car returned 49mpg on our touring economy route, which is better than many petrol-engined cars of its type. Its 35.8mpg average return is a little underwhelming, but the touring result suggests that anyone willing to drive with conservatism can expect to do almost as well as Nissan’s 53.3mpg extra-urban economy claim suggests. Even getting 49 to the gallon, you could expect to put 465 miles between visits to the pump, which is a very commendable cruising range for a car of this type.

VERDICT

4 star Nissan Note

With the latest breed of superminis offering plenty of added space for not much extra cash, the Nissan Note needs to offer something special to grab buyers’ attention. And its spaciousness, comfort and cabin versatility ensure that it just about does that, while distinguishing dynamic performance, wrapped in an appealingly compact overall package, seals the deal.

And yet, while it’s not the most square, utilitarian-looking ‘monobox’ in the class, the Nissan’s shortage of visual charisma and charm is regrettable. Other cars in the class make this one look bland: they woo buyers with a more instantly appealing warmth of character, and by doing so, carve out a niche for themselves with greater authority. The gap between superminis and small family hatches is now narrower than ever, after all – and those looking to maximise passenger and cargo space while minimizing financial outlay will find more sheer space elsewhere, as well as a more disarming sense of fun.

Offers more than the average supermini, and a decent drive too

But accepting all of that, in the tiny sliver of daylight that remains, there is room for the Note. Although its entry-level specification is less than generous, the Nissan is well-priced, well-packaged, seems robust and well-built, and appeals in a slowly percolating but lasting, sensible fashion. Some might call it boring, but one or two of the detractors may be won over by the rounded maturity of its handling and ride, the refinement of its cabin, the versatility of its seating or the efficiency of its engines. Because, although the Note’s light is definitely hidden under a bushel, there’s plenty to like here.

Steve Cropley

Steve Cropley Autocar
Title: Editor-in-chief

Steve Cropley is the oldest of Autocar’s editorial team, or the most experienced if you want to be polite about it. He joined over 30 years ago, and has driven many cars and interviewed many people in half a century in the business. 

Cropley, who regards himself as the magazine’s “long stop”, has seen many changes since Autocar was a print-only affair, but claims that in such a fast moving environment he has little appetite for looking back. 

He has been surprised and delighted by the generous reception afforded the My Week In Cars podcast he makes with long suffering colleague Matt Prior, and calls it the most enjoyable part of his working week.

Nissan Note 2006-2013 First drives