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Wheels: Versa Note 1.6 S Is Affordable, but Lacks Thrills

The numbers say the 2014 Nissan Versa Note 1.6 S hatchback, with a base price of $13,900, makes perfect marketing sense. It is all most of us can comfortably afford in a new car.

The numbers, collected from a variety of sources in the automotive and financial industries, are sobering. To wit:

∎ The average price of a new car sold in the United States in 2012 was $30,500.

∎ Barely 19 percent of the U.S. population bought the estimated 16 million new cars and trucks sold in this country last year.

∎ Residents of only one metropolitan area — Washington, with an average household income of $86,680 — could comfortably handle the monthly payments on a new automobile costing $31,000 or more.

“Comfortably” means buyers can make due car notes without jeopardizing rent, mortgage, utility, food or other necessary payments. In the Washington metropolitan area, the home of hundreds of thousands of federal employees, it also means a government that does not periodically shut down to entertain adolescent political squabbles.

∎ Of the 25 large U.S. metropolitan areas in the 2013 Car Affordability Study, the primary source of this column’s data, produced by Interest.com, a company specializing in personal finance, residents of the last-ranked metropolis in terms of average household income, Tampa, Fla., with $43,832 annually, could comfortably afford a new automobile priced at $14,516.

So, Tampa, the new Nissan Versa Note 1.6 S is for you, as it is for all of us more interested in getting from one place to another than we are in making statements our bank accounts can’t afford.

It’s not such a bad deal. It just requires understanding and significant attitude adjustment. To wit: The Versa Note 1.6 S is a basic subcompact automobile engineered to carry five people and their stuff safely, reliably, efficiently (27 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway using regular unleaded gasoline) without drama, good or bad.

If you approach this car with Walter Mitty racetrack performance fantasies, you are looking at the wrong automobile. The 1.6-liter in-line four-cylinder engine in the Versa Note 1.6 S gets a maximum 109 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque — not exactly the stuff of throttle-jockey yore.

The little car’s interior is several steps above mediocre. Hard plastics abound and the cloth seats are, well, cloth — washable, cleanable cloth. Spill, stain, clean, let dry overnight. Drive the next day.

Let none of this mislead you into thinking that the Versa Note 1.6 S is “cheap” in all of the derisive meaning of that word. The subcompact car is well made. Fit and finish are excellent — all the plastic interior pieces fit well. And there are certain options — onboard navigation, electronic keyless entry, high-definition backup camera, sound system with radio data and speed-sensitive volume control — that make the Versa Note 1.6 S feel a tad upper-class.

Credit a growing awareness among global automobile manufacturers that most of the people in the 99 percent earnings group have 1 percent tastes. The trick is to satisfy those askew longings without busting manufacturing or marketing budgets.

Nissan seems to have done a good job of performing that magic with the Versa Note 1.6 S. It is a small economy car that does not make you feel bad about driving economy. It is reasonably attractive and, with front and rear head air bags as standard equipment, reasonably safe.

The Versa Note 1.6 S is not the sexiest ride in the world. But it understands the value of commitment. It will take you home when you’re laid off, help you get to the unemployment benefits office, and bring you back to work when that time comes. In the interim, you should be able to make monthly payments — even if you live in Tampa.