First shown as the Tone prototype at the 2004 Paris motor show, the Note (as the production version is called) is part of Nissan's move away from mainstream models and into new niches. Already on sale in Japan, it comes to the UK next spring, competing with mini-MPVs like the Renault Modus and Vauxhall Meriva, as well as taking some sales from the Almera.
Although the Note is not a direct replacement for the Almera, which will continue for the forseeable future, the Almera won't be replaced by another conventional hatch when it goes out of production, leaving the Note to mop up potential buyers of cheaper Almeras.
The Note remains largely faithful to the Tone concept both in size and appearance. At the front is has more than a hint of Micra, and because it was designed by the confusingly named Taiji Toyota, who also designed the X-Trail, it's perhaps no surprise that there are cues from the off-roader around the tail lights.
At 3.99m long, 1.53m high and 1.69m wide it's similar in overall dimensions to its most obvious rivals - the Meriva is marginally longer, and sister company Renault's own Modus is slightly shorter. And although we haven't tested them back-to-back yet, we reckon the three will be fairly comparable for interior space. The trio will almost certainly be battling for superiority on price too, with 1.4-litre versions starting at around £10,000.
European Notes will be built alongside Micras at Nissan's Sunderland facility, while Japanese versions like out test car are built in Japan, where production will begin in January this year.
In Europe, the Note will come with four engine options: 1.4-litre 87bhp and 1.6-litre 108bhp petrol units, and two 1.5-litre dCi turbo-diesels, with 65 and 85bhp. So far, however, we've only been able to test the car in Japanese form with an all new 108bhp 1.5-litre petrol that's been jointly developed with Renault. The European 1.6-litre unit, which has already made its debut in the Micra 160SR, is actually a derivative of the Japanese 1.5. We'll get a manual 'box in the UK, but in Japan Nissan only offers the continuously variable transmission (CVT) from the Murano.
Within its compact dimensions, the Note is designed to provide maximum space for five people, and while its van-like styling might not set your pulse racing, there are some clever details to make up for the apparent lack of excitement.
Inside, even the entry-level model seems several notches up from a budget car, lifted by the use of novel colours and materials, such as a dashboard that looks like it's made from a new type of fabric. Equipment levels are high, although European specification is yet to be finalised: there is air-con, electric windows and an effective (optional) integrated CD audio and sat-nav system with wheel mounted controls. Safety equipment is not lacking, either, with active front head restraints and dual airbags.
Finding a good driving position is easy thanks to a height-adjustable wheel and seat. Taller occupants shouldn't feel cramped inside the spacious cabin, with good legroom and plenty of headroom. There's just as much room for all your belongings too, with cupholders, bag-holding hooks and even umbrella hooks.
The Note's party-trick, however, is the double-decker boot, which has a 250mm-deep second layer. With the floor in place, you have two load areas; a large, hidden storage space beneath and a decent load space on top. Pivot the floor forward, and the boot is split into two separate areas; remove it and you get one big space. And if that's not enough, you can always just fold the split rear seat forward to create a long, flat van-like space.
Unsurprisingly, the Note is at its best around town. With a turning circle even smaller than a Micra's it's extremely agile, and the CVT and 1.5-litre engine provide decent enough acceleration. Even on motorways the Note is at ease, remaining stable at high speed and with excellent noise suppression. On more demanding roads it's surprisingly good fun, with the MacPherson strut front and rear torsion-bar suspension retaining the car's composure when pressing on. And, in Japan at least, Nissan hopes to attract sporting drivers with an RX version equipped with 15-inch wheels, uprated suspension and a roof spoiler.
That said, the versions we'll get will ride on European-specific suspension, with different spring and damper rates to Japanese versions, and they'll be better suited to the higher average speeds of UK driving. So although we'll have to reserve final judgement until we drive the car on British roads early next year, it looks like the Note will be a genuine and interesting competitor in this segment.