Review and road test of the Nissan Note (2013-2017)
HITTING THE RIGHT NOTE?
By Jonathan Crouch
Nissan tried to move the second generation version of its British-built Note model more towards the conventional supermini sector but it was still more of a supermini-MPV, which was no bad thing. Better quality, sharper styling, interesting safety gear and the option of a fascinating supercharged three-cylinder engine were highlights of this MK2 model. Does it stack up as a used buy? Let's find out.
5dr Hatch (1.2 12v, 1.2 DIG-S, 1.5 dCi)
As the small car market becomes more diverse, the definitions between its various niche segments become more difficult to tie down. Here's a case in point, Nissan's second generation Note. The original MK1 version of this car was launched in 2006 to pioneer a new category of super-small people carriers - so-called supermini-MPVs. Which was fine for Nssan all the time that alongside the Note, the brand had its Micra to hoover up supermini sales. That wasn't really the case when this MK2 model Note was launched in 2013. That was a time when the fourth generation Micra model of the period was no longer being considered as a credible Fiesta, Clio or Polo supermini rival. With a MK5 Micra still four years away, Nissan decided to re-position this second generation Note as more of a supermini in order to fill the gap.
Today of course, it doesn't matter much how Nissan originally tried to classify this car. What's important is what it offers for the money - and on paper, that's quite a lot, the idea with the Note being to effectively create two cars in one. So you get the pricing and driving dynamics of a Ford Fiesta-style supermini: and the roomier cabin and intelligent interior packaging of a Ford B-MAX-style supermini-MPV. Other brands have claimed this kind of thing in the past - Honda tried to do it with their little Jazz - but here, with extra space, greater comfort, new technologies and a more sophisticated driving environment, we seem to have a design that fits the bill a little more convincingly. A small car that's less limited by its smallness than almost any we can think of. This second generation Note model was phased out in early 2017.
What You Get
Previous generation Note models looked neat but rather anonymous. This MK2 model though, is a touch more eye-catching, thanks in part to a roof height lowered by 20mm to try and give it a more stylish, supermini feel. At the front, you'll spot a distinctive chrome grille that seems to take a bite out of each headlight, the nicely chamfered wheel arches and the detail lines in the flanks that help avoid a slab-sided look. Nissan calls this the 'Squash Line' because it was apparently inspired by the angles a squash ball takes around a court.
There's not too much squashing going on inside. On the contrary, this is arguably the roomiest small car you can buy from this period - and yes, in saying that, we're including in that consideration Vauxhall Meriva and Ford B-MAX-style supermini-MPVs, as well as the conventional Fiesta-shaped superminis Nissan says this car is supposed to compete with. In fact, you get an idea of what's to come as soon as you pull back doors that open to an uncommonly wide 90-degree angle for easier entry and exit. Inside, it's very spacious for rear folk. Though the seat backs don't recline, the whole bench does slide back and forth, providing you avoid entry-level trim. It also offers a centre armrest with hidden cupholders and if you push the thing right back, you'll find yourself with an enormous 639mm of knee room - more even than you'd get in a huge BMW 7 Series luxury saloon. Of course, you won't always need all of that, so the bench has 160mm of fore and aft travel and even with it pushed right forward, it's possible for two 5ft 10-inch adults to sit in reasonable comfort. Either way, it should be possible to find the perfect compromise between space on offer for people and the packages they must carry behind.
On that subject, what about the cargo bay? It's accessed via a rear end characterised by an up-swept C-pillar that combines with smart wraparound rear light clusters. Lift the light tailgate and with the seat pushed right back, there's still 325-litres on offer, 20% bigger than a Fiesta or a Corsa from this period and 45-litres more than the MK1 Note model could offer. Push that bench right forward and the figure rises to 411-litres, way more than you'd get from a Focus-sized family hatch from the next class up. You can really use this space too: there's a deep space beneath the boot floor and, on models with the sliding rear bench, a Flexi board multi-level panel that can be used to divide the load area and stop shopping bags from rolling around if you haven't attached them to the two hooks provided. If you do need more space, then pushing forward the 60/40 split-folding seatbacks can free up as much as 2,012-litres, a figure no other compact car from this period can match.
And up front? Well the driving position is quite high-set and supermini-MPV-like in style while surrounding you with trim and design that, despite the brand's protestations of trendiness, errs very firmly on the sensible side of stylish. To be fair, you can see that some efforts have been made here - the glossy black centre stack with its trendy circular climate control console looks fashionable enough - but you'll mostly look in vain for soft-touch plastics and splashes of chrome. Still, it's a practical cabin which makes up for its small door pockets with plenty of cupholders and a double-deck glovebox that neatly shuts away devices you might have connected to the USB and aux-in sockets you'll find there. Overall build quality from the UK factory in Sunderland seems strong and the materials should certainly be hard-wearing.
This being the second generation Note, you'd have thought that the designers would have got round to providing the kind of fully adjustable steering wheel that almost every other maker offers across its range. Sadly not. It can move up and down but not in and out. Which can make getting comfortable difficult if you're in an entry-level variant also lacking a height-adjustable driver's seat. Through the three-spoke wheel, you glimpse a neat set of instrument dials with a floating-style digital display in the centre, a layout which offers the option of switching on various coloured lighting-driven eco functions that monitor the efficiency of your driving.
Plusher models get a dash dominated by the larger 5.8-inch screen of the NissanConnect navigation and communication system. As well as operating the usual audio, trip computer and Bluetooth 'phone functions, it can tell you stuff like weather, traffic information and fuel prices plus, amongst other things, find you the most efficient route, score the green-friendliness of your driving or offer you Google 'Send-To-Car' technology so that you can plan your route on your PC before you go, then forward the instructions on to your Note. Google's Point of Interest search system is also included, as well as access to things like weather forecasts, local fuel prices and flight information. Plus, if you've specified the 'Around View Monitor', this screen will display a 360-degree 'helicopter view' overhead image to simplify tight parking manoeuvres.
What to Look For
Most owners of second generation Note models seem to be pretty satisfied with their cars but inevitably, we did come across a few issues. Some owners experienced electrical problems, with things like sticking powered windows. Another had to replace a wheel bearing. One owner of a CVT auto variant experienced issues with the engine dying on uphill ascents when 'D' was selected. Others were irritated by the stop-start system constantly cutting in prematurely. One owner noticed a knock when driving over small bumps. Apparently also, the dash and door panels are easily scratched. Other than these things, simply check for the usual small hatch problems - kerbed alloys and interior trim scratches caused by unruly kids.
(approx based on a 2013 Note 1.5 dCi ex VAT) An air filter will be priced in the £5 to £9 bracket, an oil filter will sit in the £5 to £10 bracket, a timing belt will be in the £54 to £73 bracket and a drive belt will be around £15 to £17 (though go for a pricier brand and you could pay as much as £86 for one). A water pump will be around £90 to £105. The brake discs we came across cost around £46, though pricier brands could cost you as much as around £82. Brake pads are in the £26 to £46 bracket. Wiper blades cost in the £4 to £15 bracket. A headlamp will cost around £195.
On the Road
Nissan fine-tunes all its small cars for European roads but, in contrast to the smaller Micra, the difference here is that it actually feels like it. Though the steering's light, it's also far more precise and responsive than the helm you get in a fourth generation Micra supermini - and the ride quality is leagues better. Yes, it's on the firm side but broken surfaces can still be covered with supple ease and a poise that makes you far more likely to want to take this car over longer distances. We'd think twice about a lengthy cross-country jaunt in a MK4 Micra but in a Note, the prospect wouldn't bother us at all.
A comfortable small car then - if not an especially dynamic one. The Note has never been that. Those used to superminis like Fiestas and Polos are likely to notice the earlier point at which the chassis nears its limits and the body starts to move about. But then this car has been primarily engineered for the overwhelmingly urban-based needs of likely buyers who'll probably be more than happy with the ride and handling balance that Nissan's Cranfield engineers decided upon. Thanks to the stiff, light V-platform you'll find underneath, it's certainly a useful step forward from its predecessor. Couple that with excellent all-round visibility and a tight 10.7-metre turning circle and here's a small car that you feel you could slot in anywhere.
As for engines, well by 2013, it had become quite common for auto makers to do what Nissan did here and switch from four to three cylinder units in their small cars in the quest for greater efficiency. The downside of that is that a three cylinder layout is fundamentally unbalanced - and usually feels it from the moment you set off and your ears begin to adjust to what in many cases is a bit of a din. But not here. The smaller MK4 Micra from this era uses the same powerplants and as with that car, there's a tone from beneath the bonnet so smooth and melodious that unless someone told you, it wouldn't be obvious that three cylinders were beating there.
There are - whichever flavour of 1.2-litre petrol power is chosen. The cheapest option is an entry-level normally aspirated 80PS 12v unit, but before choosing it, we'd suggest you also consider this variant's pokier 98PS supercharged stablemate. That car's badged the '1.2 DIG-S', the letters standing for 'Direct Injection Gasoline unit with a Supercharger' and designating technology delivering the appealing combination of perky performance with near diesel-levels of efficiency. To be specific, rest to 62mph in a whisker over 12s, yet a car that if driven more carefully, can potentially return over 65mpg and put out less than 100g/km of CO2. In the supermini segment, only Ford's Fiesta 1.0-litre EcoBoost 100PS model can match eager acceleration with green-minded economy in this way - and that car will cost you a bit more.
So how has Nissan done it? Like most brands, this Japanese maker has been trying to find an alternative approach to extracting plenty of power from a small engine whilst using minimal fuel. Other makers have turned to turbochargers to do this - the Fiesta's EcoBoost powerplant is a good example of that - where an air pump is powered by exhaust gases and used to force air into the engine rather than relying on that engine to suck it in. Nissan engineers looked at this too - but decided they had a better idea: supercharging. With a Note DIG-S, beneath the bonnet, you also get an air pump that forces air into the engine under pressure - but in this case, it's not driven by exhaust gases but by a connection to the engine itself.
At this point, we'd usually say that you don't have to understand how it works: just enjoy what it does. Except that in this case, you kind of do if you're to make this powerplant work for you. A supercharger is an inherently thirsty thing and if you're constantly thrashing your Note about and making full use of that part of the engine, then running cost returns will be even more disappointing than they would normally be if you treated a supermini in this way. The clever thing here though, is that at low speeds and under light acceleration, the supercharger is automatically disconnected and the engine's airflow bypasses it to avoid wasting energy. Which is when you get a much more impressive set of fuel and CO2 figures. As long as you understand that and keep the ultimate performance only for when you absolutely need it, you can really make this car work for you.
We'd certainly recommend that petrol people try and stretch to a DIG-S Note variant: apart from the attributes of its engine, you also get a standard handling pack which slightly stiffens the suspension to complement the extra power on offer. It'll help that the supercharged supplement over the baseline 80PS 1.2 12v version isn't excessive and the advantage in performance and efficiency is surprising. After all, without supercharging technology, an ordinary 1.2 12v Note model struggles to top 100mph, takes nearly 14s to get to 62mph and, despite offering 20% less power, still manages to cost a small but significant amount more to run.
Not that you have to have 1.2-litre petrol power in your Note. Unlike its MK4 Micra stablemate, this car can offer a diesel alternative - if you don't mind paying the price premium for it. It's the familiar 1.5-litre dCi 90 unit also used by the rival Renault Clio and capable of giving this car a useful turn of pace that isn't immediately obvious from performance stats suggesting that 62mph is 11.9s away en route to 111mph. Ultimately though, you don't buy or drive this car with speed in mind. Which will suit most supermini customers just fine.
It's surprising that this second generation Note model didn't prove to be more successful for Nissan. In principle after all, it seemed to strike the right chord amongst the things that usually tend to matter amongst practically-minded end-users looking for a small, affordable car. So it's easy to drive, cheap to run, spacious to sit in, large in loadspace and can offer enough hi-tech hardware to guarantee showroom sensation.
An awful lot of attributes then, to set against the fact that there are certainly more dynamic and stylish superminis out there. That was this Nissan's problem. It was a little dull. If you don't care about that and can find a good one, you might find that it makes a lot of sense.
Nissan Note (2013-2017) review by Jonathan Crouch