The British-built Note is at its most appealing in 1.2 DIG-S supercharged petrol guise. Jonathan Crouch explains why.
Ten Second Review
Nissan has tried to move the second generation version of its British-built Note more towards the conventional supermini sector but it's still set to be a family favourite, continuing its role as the brand's third best selling model. Better quality, sharper styling, interesting safety gear and the option of a fascinating DIG-S supercharged three-cylinder engine are the highlights here, along with enough space and versatility to also ensure continued appeal in the supermini-MPV segment.
As the small car market becomes more diverse, the definitions between its various niche segments become more difficult to define. 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 all the time that alongside the Note, the brand had its Micra to hoover up supermini sales. But that's not really the case today. Though the Micra continues in the brand's line-up, its appeal these days is very much limited to the budget end of a sector in which it was once a controlling force. It's now Nissan's tool to take on cheaper small cars from the Korean and emerging Chinese brands - but no longer really a credible Fiesta, Clio or Polo supermini rival. That role now falls to this second generation Note. And it brings to the task the efficient firepower for the 1.2-litre supercharged DIG-S engine we look at here.
Nissan offers an entry-level normally aspirated 80PS 12v unit for Note buyers but before choosing it, I'd suggest you insist that your dealer lets you have a run in its 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. I'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.
Design and Build
The old Note was a neatly styled if somewhat anonymous-looking thing. The latest car has a good deal more styling going on and a more expensive look and feel, both in and out. You'll spot the 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. There's a decent amount of room and the materials quality has improved considerably, although some of the minor switchgear still looks old and cheap. The dash is all hard-finish plastic, although the piano-black centre console lifts things. It's a bit odd that the door pulls are the only items finished in chrome in the whole front cabin too. The rear isn't bad for legroom thanks to a sliding rear bench, although taller occupants may find headroom a push. They'll also have to watch out for the fixed grab handles that can deliver a good clonk to your head as you get in and out. The luggage compartment features a dual height boot floor and can become quite pinched when the rear seats are slid to their rearmost position.
Market and Model
The Nissan Note used to be a supermini-MPV: a small five-seat runabout with a bit of extra space and practicality - like a Ford B-MAX or a Vauxhall Meriva. This second generation version is more spacious, more versatile and more practical than its predecessor but, according to its makers, is now apparently just an ordinary Fiesta or Corsa-style supermini. You could see that as being confusing. Or as an answer to your prayers. Here, after all, is a compact family runabout with small MPV versatility but without the price premium and potentially compromised driving dynamics that might have previously put you off buying a B-MAX or a Meriva. So let's get down to specifics. For this supercharged DIG-S, you're looking at prices starting from around £14,000, so about £1,000 more than the base petrol 1.2-litre variant at mid-range Accenta trim, the spec you'll want to get the clever cabin flexibility features that really make this car. A DIG-S variant will save you about £1,000 over the equivalent 1.5 dCi diesel model, yet give you most of that car's economy if you drive it carefully. There's also the option of an XTronic auto gearbox.
Cost of Ownership
The Note has long campaigned on the basis of low running costs and that isn't about to change with Generation Two. The supermini buyers it now targets would usually like the cleanliness and frugality that diesel motoring would bring but by and large, it's rarely worth them finding the substantial price premium that a diesel engine demands in comparison to a petrol unit. So this Note range offers a solution. The supercharged 98PS 1.2 DIG-S version uses petrol but its figures - 65.6mpg on the combined cycle and 99g/km of CO2 - have a black pump feel about them. That fuel figure is within a whisker of the return you'll get from base diesel versions of rival cars like Ford's Fiesta, Volkswagen's Polo or SEAT's Ibiza - and the CO2 reading is actually a touch better. Yet the three cars I've just mentioned - like most other rival diesel models in this segment - are 20% slower and run on pricier fuel. The Polo costs more too. This supercharged engine's combination of performance and frugality isn't unique in this segment - the 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol engine Ford fits to the Fiesta can directly match it - but you'll need over £1,000 more for one of those once you equip it to the standard of a comparable Note. It's for all those reasons that I'll nominate this Nissan's supercharged powerplant as one of the very best kept secrets in this sector, an achievement all the more impressive in the light of conventional wisdom suggesting that supercharged engines are thirstier than ordinary normally aspirated ones, not more frugal. Not here they're not.
Nissan used to be a maker keen to rebel against established market segments. Even today, it still doesn't have a conventional Focus-sized family hatch or Mondeo-shaped medium range model in its line-up. But it does, in this second generation Note, now have a car that might actually suit many private buyers in both of those categories quite well. A model that we're told is a conventional supermini but which actually offers even more versatility than its MPV-derived predecessor. It certainly seems to strike the right chord amongst the things that usually tend to matter amongst practically-minded end-users. So it's easy to drive, spacious to sit in, large in loadspace and can offer enough hi-tech hardware to guarantee showroom sensation. It's cheap to run too in the fiendishly clever DIG-S supercharged petrol guise we've been looking at here. An awful lot of attributes then, to set against the fact that there are certainly more dynamic and stylish superminis out there. . A model then, that may be trying to shake off its past but which at the same time has been moulded by it into the kind of small car that an awful lot of families ought to be looking at. Other brands will be taking note.