Nissan Note1.5 dCi

Loads of passenger room, an ingenious folding boot floor, great handling - the Nissan Note is music to John Simister's ears. And at less than £10,000, you can pick up one for a song...

Price: £11,995 (range starts at £9,995 and goes up to £12,995)
Engine: 1,461cc, four cylinders, eight valves, 86bhp @ 3,750rpm, 148lb ft @ 1,900rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 104mph, 0 to 60mph in 12.7 seconds, 55.4mpg official average
CO2: 135g/km

Feeling crotchety? Me? Not at all - I had a minimum of social liquor last night, thus staving off any thick-headedness and quavery speech this morning, and I'm enjoying this new Nissan to a surprising degree.

What new Nissan is this, then? Is it 4x4 time once again? It's not. This is a car without obvious category or genre, neither a regular hatchback nor a compact MPV. It plays a different tune altogether, in harmony only with itself. Meet the Nissan Note.

Note is an anagram of Tone, the name given to the Nissan concept that previewed it. A Nissan Tone might not have gone down so well, though, given our Prime Minister's waning popularity. Note strikes a more melodious chord.

Probably the most noteworthy aspect of the new Nissan (OK, I'll try to stop now) is its interior space. The rear legroom is huge, like that of the long-wheelbase version of the old-model Mercedes A-class. Yet this is not a Note drawn out like a semibreve (sorry) but an aesthetically well-proportioned car which is built on a stretched version of the Nissan/Renault Alliance B platform. This means that under the skin it's related to the Nissan Micra, Nissan Cube, Renault Modus, the new Renault Clio and various other foreign Nissans.

In fact, there's no other car on UK sale which quite matches the Note's combination of exterior compactness and interior space. It's designed around the notion that children are often denied the room they crave, especially sitting behind a tall daddy. Children had a big say in the Note's design, apparently, and specified a rear-seat armrest to keep warring factions apart, the flip-up tables on the backs of the front seats, the power socket and the unzip-to-expand seat-back pockets.

The versatility goes further. You can stash 12 drinks cans in the air-conditioned glovebox. You can flip the front passenger seat's cushion forward to reveal a secret storage box. And you can both slide the rear seat forward to make a big boot instead of big leg space, and fold its backrests down to make a load bay.

Thus folded, the rear seat is on a level with the false, but very strong, two-piece Flexi-Board boot floor (the pieces can be removed and stowed in the compartment beneath). Yet there's still plenty of room for bulky items because the Note is a fairly lofty car - although its centre of gravity is no higher than a Micra's.

You might think that Nissan has missed a couple of tricks here, though. Why won't the rear seat do a "double tumble" and let its cushion also fold out of the way? Too expensive to engineer. And why not make the front seat also fold forward, rather than having to wind the recline wheel all the way back? Expense again. Chris Lee, chief product planner at Nissan's technical centre at Cranfield, where the Note was developed, says that designing and tooling up for such a seat would have cost a scarcely credible €1m.

Such costs are important. Prices start at £9,995 for the 1.4-litre base model, and there are signs of cheapness in the hard plastic door trims, the lack of reach-adjustment for the steering wheel and the Velcro-like fixing for the "hammock" part of the rear shelf. Fabric covering for the windscreen pillars and rubber mats inside the multifarious storage places would boost the perceived quality considerably, and we may see these in future.

That said, this is a well made and neat-looking car, with a front end like that of the striking Murano SUV and a roofline Nissan describes as looking like a "ski-slope", with its arched profile and huge, high tail-lights turning a near-right-angle and flowing forward into the roof. There's a Japanese version of the Note, too, with a meeker nose, a less versatile interior and a body-shell lacking the reinforcements that give the Euro-Note precise handling and the rigid base on which supple suspension can be built. The Note's long-wheelbase, short-overhang look, incidentally, is the work of a designer with an unexpected name - Taiji Toyota.

Another crucial advantage of the Euro-Note is the availability of a Renault-sourced, 1.5-litre turbodiesel with 86bhp to supplement the 1.4 (88bhp) and 1.6-litre (110bhp) petrol engines. This last unit is the one I tried first, an engine already encountered just a few weeks ago in the Micra C+C and matched in this case to the top SVE trim level. This has automatic air-con, tinted rear side windows, part-leather trim, ESP, 16in alloy wheels and a "sportier" setting for the power steering.

You sit high enough to have a fine view of the road, but the aura is more hatchback than MPV. There is no top-heaviness and very accurate handling. The electric power steering feels natural, and the Note is keen to thread its way tidily through corners. If you like feeling your car interact with you, you'll like the Note.

The 1.6 petrol engine has a good spread of power and a lively response, so it's well up to the job of hauling a family unit. It can get vocal when worked hard, though, particularly if you're thinking of emulating the 10.5-second 0 to 60mph time. This is the quickest Note, but the dCi diesel version gives a more satisfying drive. It has an abundance of low-revs energy, and is much more economical.

The diesel I drove was in SE trim, which means 15in aluminium wheels, bungier tyres and manual air-con. The base S model, by the way, lacks the Flexi-Board, the zippy seat pockets and flip-up tables, and it has simple steel wheels, but it still has the CD player, the refrigerated air and the four electric windows. Each trim-level rise costs £1,000.

It seems this middle SE version is the best bet, because not only is it very well-equipped, but those humbler-looking wheels make an already comfortable ride impressively smooth and supple without spoiling the handling. The steering is lighter, but some drivers may prefer this and it still feels accurate. So there you are: best buy, the Note 1.5 dCi SE. It's a good-value, versatile, capable and rather likeable car. Families everywhere take note. Ouch.

The rivals

HONDA JAZZ 1.4I-DSI SE, £10,700

A supermini ever-so slightly smaller than the Note, the Honda Jazz has a high-economy petrol engine and a rear seat that is able to fold vertically out of the way to reveal a very low floor. This is a very clever car that is good to drive, too.

RENAULT MODUS 1.5dCi 86 OASIS, £11,500

This mid-spec Modus with its Note-matching engine is pleasing to drive, if less sharp than the Nissan. Unfortunately, the shorter body and complex seat-fold system makes the driver impossibly cramped when carrying a big load.

VAUXHALL MERIVA 1.7 CDTi LIFE, £13,350

Taller and more MPV-ish than Note, the Meriva has a clever but complex rear seat design seating two with lots of legroom, or three with less. Most models are expensive, but the base 1.4 matches the entry Note's £9,995.

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