Nissan never sold the Note Aura in Australia, but there are JDM importers who can get you one here anyway. If this full-fat Nismo model is anything to go by, it shows just what value you can get from an import like this.

Japan has long been a treasure trove of hidden automotive gems the rest of the world misses out on, and although the modern JDM market is populated largely by kei cars which the country’s road taxes create unique demand for, there are still a few offerings now and then which could work elsewhere.

One of those is the Nissan Note Aura – a hatchback which rivals the likes of the current Volkswagen Polo for size, but utilises Nissan’s unique e-Power hybrid drivetrain. Like the previous-generation Note before it, the newer Note and Note Aura (the latter being a slightly larger wide-body version) is offered in several different flavours, with the one you see here being the performance-focused Nismo version.

Given the sort of pedigree that comes with the Nismo badge, this hybrid hot hatch has a lot to live up to. To find out whether it’s worthy of that badge – and whether it works here in Australia – I was offered the chance to take this one for a spin by Tokyo Prestige, a dealership based in the Adelaide Hills which specialises in JDM imports.

Although this is a 2022 model, this and the other Nismo model the dealership had in stock bore less than 5000km on the odometer, and considering this as-new condition, the price point of $46,888 before on-road costs looks very reasonable at first glance. For reference, a non-Nismo version is also available at the same dealership for $39,980 before on-roads.

While the basics are the same, the extra seven-grand gets you a host of visual upgrades including a front lip and side skirts finished in red, although that’s less obvious on this Garnet Red example; a more aggressive rear diffuser; flared wheel arches, which make Aura models 40mm wider than the standard Note; unique 17-inch alloy wheels shod in Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres; and of course a smattering of Nismo badges. Although not fitted to this example, a set of Recaro bucket seats was also available as a factory option.

It’s a good looking little car, with Nissan’s consistent design language helping it look at home on our roads, rather than screaming ‘JDM import’. Nissan, of course, does have some serious cred in the hot hatch game, given the likes of the Pulsar GTI-R in its back catalogue, so it’s perhaps no surprise to see the brand turn out a hot hatch that looks this unforced.

Inside, those familiar with the current crop of Australian-delivered Nissan models will find the cabin of the Note Aura to be quite familiar. Aside from the Japanese writing on a few buttons and the Nismo graphics on the digital instrument cluster, the 9.0-inch infotainment screen and 12.3-inch gauge panel are otherwise identical to what you’d find in any other high-spec’d Nissan, such as the X-Trail.

Importantly, everything on the screens themselves is still in English to make for a seamless user experience, while there’s a premium Bose audio system as you’d expect to see in a top-spec model. There’s also the expected array of driver assistance technology, including the ProPilot Level 2 semi-autonomous driving system.

Compared with the previous-generation Note it replaces, the rest of the cabin Note Aura marks just as much of an improvement, with it feeling far roomier and more upscale. Although the Nismo model features cloth seat upholstery, it doesn’t feel run of the mill, and there’s still heating for both front seats along with the leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Dialling up the sportiness, you’ll notice that there is a band of red leather at the top of the steering wheel so you know when the wheels are pointed straight ahead, while there’s red anodised switchgear for items such as the engine start and drive mode buttons, red-tinted carbon fibre trim, and red seatbelts.

Compared to the electrified hatchback Nissan does sell here, the all-electric Leaf, the Note Aura is far roomier inside with much better ergonomics for the driver. Of course, the rear seat and boot aren’t the most spacious you’ll ever come across, but the overall packaging works very well.

Under the bonnet, you’ll find a 1.2-litre naturally aspirated three-cylinder petrol engine. This might sound a bit puny for a Nismo model, but it never actually drives the wheels directly. Instead, it acts as a generator for a small lithium-ion battery that powers an electric motor hooked up to the front axle that delivers 100kW and 300Nm. This power output is identical on all Note Aura models, although there is a unique Nismo drive mode exclusive to this model. However, while other models are available with optional all-wheel drive, the Nismo is only available with front-wheel drive.

There’s a certain cognitive dissonance that comes with the way Nissan’s e-Power system drives, although it somehow manages to feel very intuitively. Since the electric motor is the only thing that drives the wheels, the power delivery feels smooth, punchy, and instantaneous as you’d expect from an EV. Given the size and weight of the Note Aura, it feels pokey and spritely around town, with the immediacy of its torque allowing you to zip through traffic with ease.

However, accompanying this is the off-kilter thrum of the three-pot petrol engine that keeps the battery topped up. While intermittent, given it can drive without it active for short bursts due to the small battery, it does chime in a majority of the time. The best way to describe the overall experience, then, is that it’s similar to a conventional hybrid system like you’d find in many Toyotas, but without the stringiness and lethargy of a CVT transmission.

Flick it into Nismo mode and it feels far quicker than those modest outputs would have you believe. The throttle feels as responsive as a trigger, and after it dumps all its torque off the line it simply breezes up to triple-digit speeds. There’s no official 0-100km/h time, but the performance feels right on the money for a hot hatch.

Ensuring that this is more than just an up-badged special, Nissan has fettled with the chassis and suspension of the Nismo model. To increase chassis rigidity, additional stiffening has been added at the base of the chassis both front and rear, while more responsive monotube shock absorbers with a higher gas pressure have been fitted to improve road contact on the rebound stroke.

To put that in plain English, this thing feels terrific through the corners. The steering has the immediacy of a go-kart, the chassis remains as flat as you’d like through even longer sweeping bends, and the damping rate is right on the money to keep it planted without destroying your spine in the process. Given its mere 1270kg kerb weight, it also feels particularly light on its feet, only aiding its overall responsiveness. Worthy of the Nismo badge? You bet it is.

While I didn’t have long enough behind the wheel to thoroughly test its fuel economy, I saw a return of 6.8L/100km after my quick thrash, while the longer-term reading in the vehicle’s trip computer saw it sitting below 6L/100km. The official WLTP combined cycle claim is 4.3L/100km, which I can see being quite achievable in urban conditions. Either way, the numbers are impressive for a hot hatch.

In terms of drawbacks, there aren’t terribly many, although the fact this is really a city car is perhaps the most prominent one. At 110km/h on the freeway, the road noise is very intrusive, and while it otherwise drives well on the freeway thanks to the assistance of the ProPilot system, it’s clearly built for city streets. The firmer suspension and raucous styling of the Nismo model also won’t be for everyone, although that’s where the normal Note Aura models come in.

The other catch, considering this is a near-new car, is that there’s no factory-backed warranty coverage on imports like this, nor is there the ease of servicing at your average Nissan dealership. However, many importers or dealerships specialising in imports will offer their own warranties to cover vehicles like this, and likewise, many including Tokyo Prestige have their own vehicle servicing department as well.

Considering its size, performance, and familiar technology, the Note Aura Nismo feels like a good fit on Aussie roads, particularly city streets and the sort of Adelaide Hills backroads I tested it on rather than for sitting on the freeway all day.

When you factor in the value it offers – Polo GTI size and performance with half the fuel consumption and even sportier looks – it only gets more appealing in my eyes. Sure, the costs associated with importing it mean the price has risen quite a bit over what it costs in its home market, but it’s still a good deal for the class it sits in here.

Were it not for hatchback sales slowing in Australia in favour of SUVs, I’d say that Nissan should have brought it here from the factory in the first place. Thankfully, though, there are businesses that can get you one anyway, and it’s very much worth considering taking them up on it.

My thanks to Tokyo Prestige for providing the vehicle tested here.

Patrick Jackson
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