'Small cars - they're all the same. Awful little sh*tboxes!' Or so ranted a burly type after seeing the light five assembled outside Autocar HQ.
But au contraire, my good fellow, the new breed of small car is far from the austere econo-box of old. And thanks not only to accessible price tags but also the quality of the offerings, the small-car segment is one on the up.
Once you start poking around the marketplace, you find that each brand has a slightly different take on what a small car should be, and that each is trying to fill a different little niche within the small-car world.
As you'll read below, they appeal to distinct wants and needs. Of course, the cars have their similarities, too, and for the five assembled here, these include five doors, four wheels, petrol engines and automatic gearboxes.
We've gathered four newbies for 2011: the all-new (but quite similar) Suzuki Swift, the improved Holden Barina, the more conventional Yaris, and the hard-to-pigeonhole Kia Rio. And to see how far these newcomers have advanced, we've brought along an old favourite from the 2008 COTY, the Mazda2, which has recently had a mild update. To find out which we prefer and why, read on...
So how much is it and what do I get?
At this end of the market, the price tag is crucial. Buyers place an emphasis on value, and want as much out of their dollar as possible. As we've chosen to compare top-of-the-range models, we're looking here at the Mazda2 Sport, Swift Ltd, Rio EX and Yaris YRS, all in automatic form. With the Barina, as the 'range' consists merely of a choice of transmission type, again it's the auto version we've gone with.
At $27,490, the Yaris is the costliest, followed by the Mazda2, at $26,555, and then Rio, at $25,790. Both the Swift Ltd and Barina retail for $24,990, though the Swift's price includes all on-road costs, effectively making it the cheapest car here.
They say safety sells, and given the lack of metal around the passengers in this class, it's of vital importance. Save for the Kia, which is yet to be assessed, all of these machines have earned five-star ratings from independent crash-test programmes. But though these are safe wee cars, if you happen to cross paths with some plutocrat in his Range Rover, it'll be you that comes off second best. Still, I'd rather be in one of these littlies than anything wearing a Chery badge. You can count at least six airbags in all here - the Swift and Yaris have seven - and each is fitted with ESP.
What else can you expect from your small car these days? Such things as remote locking, electrics and air conditioning are standard fare, while some like the Mazda2 and Rio feature climate control. Apart from the Barina, each has a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio remotes, and other than the Swift, all have cruise control (the Rio also has a speed limiting function). All get audio systems that include some kind of external device connectivity, though the Rio offers the most options, while neither the Mazda nor Suzuki include Bluetooth. Unlike the others, the Barina lacks a trip computer; only the Rio and Mazada2 feature auto wipers and lights. The Rio crams in the most specification, its list including big-car features like reversing sensors, LED daytime running lights and cornering lamps - and yet it still manages to undercut the Toyota and Mazda on price.
To the exterior of the cars, where these top models feature a few add-on pieces, like spoilers and other bits of plastic. Fog lights are to be found on all except the Barina. Where the Barina and Yaris roll on 15-inch alloys, the other three use 16's, but the Holden alone offers a full-size spare rather than a space saver.
Other points worth noting include Mazda's three-year servicing plan, Kia's five-year warranty, and Suzuki's drive-away pricing. If you want the most for your money, it's hard to go past the Rio. Not only is it the best specified but it also provides the most interior space, the biggest boot, and such niceties as a centre armrest, soft-touch dash plastics and a decent glove box.
What's under the hood?
Smalls are pretty conventional in an engineering sense, as simple equals cost-effective. Because space needs to be maximised, all here feature a transverse four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels. These are located by a simple Mac-type strut, while the rear ends use a torsion beam setup, which is both cheap and allows greater boot space. A cheap option, too, is the use of drum brakes on the rear, found on all cars bar the Rio, which has discs all round.
The engine department isn't overly sophisticated either. Each comprises a dual-overhead-cam four-cylinder with 16 valves, with variable-valve timing to help boost torque and lower emissions, and an electronic throttle for more precise control. The near-1.4-litre capacity of the Swift and Rio is dictated by European tax laws that favour cars of less than 1400cc. Compared to the engines they replace, they relinquish a few kilowatts and some torque in the quest for better efficiency and emissions. The Mazda and Toyota engines gain an extra 100cc, the Yaris engine essentially carries over but features minor improvements, while the Barina wields the largest donk, a 1.6 litre that produces the most power and torque of the five. At the other end of the scale sits the Swift.
On the road, however, the output numbers don't reflect how each performs, as you'll find out. The Suzuki counters with the best claimed fuel consumption, at 6.2L/110km, making it a handy 1.1L/100km thriftier than the Barina, while the rest sit in the mid-sixes.
The Swift achieves this frugal feat in part because of its low weight. Suzuki was keen to increase some dimensions of its latest model, but not its mass. The smallest car here, the Swift is also the lightest (just), which helps give it an edge in performance and dynamics - but we'll get to that.
Each here uses a conventional four-speed slush 'box except the Barina, which has a smart six-speed unit, complete with manual shifting (unique in this company), facilitated by a toggle switch on the lever.
As to the looks, most seemed quite taken by the Rio's wide and low stance, rising beltline and small glasshouse, although its front copped comment for being a little busy. Aspects of the Barina also were admired, the headlights, for example; however, it has quite an upright, slab-sided profile, as does the Yaris, which most closely resembles the 'boxiness' our friend in the intro objected to. The 2 is ageing gracefully, as its mix of curves still appeals. The Swift's shape, too, remains pleasing. While this model has been bagged for a lack of clear differentiation from the old version, if the look works, why mess with it?
How do they go?
You don't buy a small car to guarantee a win at the drag strip, but an adequate level of performance, in the context of the class, is something most would expect. And amongst these five there are a couple that perform well, two that do the job OK, and one that seriously needs to hit the gym.
It takes time for a combo of a small engine and an auto to hit its stride from a standing start, and while 0-100km/h statistics are useful, it's more relevant for city-dwelling cars to see how quickly they scamper to 50km/h. At 3.9 seconds, the Yaris proves the quickest by a smidge, followed by the Barina and Swift on 4.0, while the Mazda2 takes 4.3. It's at the initial push that the Mazda2 feels comparatively sluggish - until you get into the Rio, that is, which takes 4.9 seconds. This powertrain fails to ignite and drags the overall package down. Though you could say it has enough of an engine for the market, it's a casual revver, with a flat spot between 3000 and 4000rpm, which is where the gear ratios slot most of the time, and there's just not enough torque to span the gaps between each cog. It's even less willing in the Eco drive mode. If you don't mind a manual, the diesel option would be worth considering, but it's only available with the lower-specified LX version.
The Barina is rigged for city running, and here it performs admirably. The six-speeder, a willing ally to the engine, shifts smoothly. Apart the occasional need for a kick in the guts, the powertrain gives little cause for complaint around town. And while the wee Holden can cope with open-road running, a sportster it ain't.
The engine feels strained above 4000rpm, and the six-speed gives no advantage over the four-speeders in this context. It just never feels happy being pushed along.
There are fewer grizzles with the Mazda2. It might take its time to get going off the mark, but once up to speed, the engine works well, paired with an auto that is keen to help out. The low overall weight is key here, as it is with the Swift. Though the Suzi's powertrain produces the lowest output, it's the most willing, and has a feistiness lacking in the others. It gets underway promptly, its enthusiastic engine partnered by a smart auto. The Mazda and Suzuki are also up for long-distance hauls, and both like to party in the bends. Just lock out top gear, and they will play all day long, working hard between second and third - as will the Yaris, which is the strongest performer here. Its engine is the stroppiest, showing interest around the 3000rpm mark, or about 1000rpm sooner than the rest, and is supported by well chosen ratios and low weight. The gearbox shifts readily, meaning that progress, whether in town or out, is never too strained.
As for fuel economy, we couldn't get an accurate or fair gauge on this in the time we had, so we'll just have to go with the claimed averages.
What about in the bends?
None here is a lame duck in a dynamic sense, but it's the Swift that stands out: it's a wee sports star. It's playful in the bends, changes direction on a whim and holds its line firmly, yet strikes a balance between grip and compliance. It also displays the stoutest front-end bite, and its steering is quick and direct, requiring less adjustment than the others to keep pointing where you want to go. Next up is the Mazda, which is just as capable as the Suzi, though a little benign in comparison, and its steering isn't quite as sharp.
Nothing much separates the Yaris and Rio on the go: both are stable, predictable handlers. While the Rio generates a lot of grip, the truth is there's not enough power to trouble the chassis. Its steering is the most disconnected and the rear end can move around, as the car has quite a firm ride at open-road speeds. The Yaris, meanwhile, calls on its ESP to trim understeer; compared to the others, it shows a definite deficit of grip in tight corners, and its steering weighting is too artificial, so is too imprecise in its actions. Last but not least, the Barina has the most feelsome steering, and a chassis that doesn't mind being pushed along, though it's a bit fidgety over bumps.
How are they inside?
These small cars are easy drives; they go where larger models can't, park in snug spaces and motor around town with relative ease. Each has light steering at parking speeds, though the Barina's is a tad heavier than the rest; all have suitably tight turning circles.
All these cars have useful door pockets, cup-holders and the like, though in-cabin storage is not what you'd call great, the Rio being the exception in this regard, as its more like a compact car.
The Yaris is probably the best suited of the five to the traditional small-car buyer, who will appreciate its higher-set seats (allowing easier entry), its wide-opening doors, best all-round vision, and comfortable ride. Light colours make the cabin feel airy, and the dash design now has some flair to it; it's a big improvement over the goofy one of old. There are no soft plastics anywhere, but here the Yaris is not alone, and while some bits of the interior feel rock solid, others are strangely cheap, like the wobbly centre console and the weird bits of fabric used to hide the front-seat runners. The prize for best cabin ambience goes to the Rio, which looks and feels a class above. But its seats are set lower than the other four here - this is particularly noticeable in the rear - which may prove uncomfortable for some, and because of a small back window and large C-pillars, its rearward vision is the most compromised. Though a personal preference, I'd say the Mazda2 has the best seat, but all five have height adjustment for the driver. Neither the Mazda nor Swift have a steering wheel that adjusts for reach. The Suzuki's hard-plastic interior isn't up to the standard set by the rest of the car, and it's a similar story with the Barina; both look built to their price point.
The Mazda has a plush ride for a little car, a trait it shares with the Yaris. The Swift is also well damped, and the Barina isn't bad either, but the Rio transmits the sharp edges and jolts of the road, especially through the rear. The Barina proves noisiest on the open road while the Yaris is the most hushed, confirming the Toyota as the most refined car of the quintet.
After all's said and done...
What are your priorities in a small car? Answer this, and pick your winner. Holden's new Barina is a much better effort, particularly its improved safety credentials. It does the job as a city car, has an extensive spec list and is a good price, but for us, its performance failed to impress away from city streets, and its interior underwhelmed. While the Mazda2 remains a force in a dynamic sense and has a solid interior, its price conspires against it - as it does for the Yaris. In its new guise, the latter is an improved offering, with plenty of space, refinement and strong performance. If price weren't such an issue, it would be a better car than the Rio. But if it's value and space you want, the Kia is the one. It has an unbeatable mix of these key attributes, and those snazzy looks are a sweetener. And yet its sub-par powertrain means it isn't our winner. Overall, it's the Swift that does it for us. A willing performer, it's the best car of the lot to drive, and it's the cheapest, which helps us forgive its interior shortcomings and space limitations.
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