We guess that 2011 will be remembered as the year when fuel-efficient vehicles really began to make their presence felt, when economy started to take precedence over more enjoyable driving stuff like, gulp, performance and dynamics.
Car makers are not only talking green, they're driving it.
Guess that's what the people want (or will get, anyway). This year, the Nissan Leaf, arguably the world's first sensible electric car, won just about every important Car of the Year award going (World COTY, European COTY, Japanese COTY). In countries with EV subsidies, the Leaf is near to affordable; it also has a decent practical range of over 100 kilometres per charge, and it evidently drives like a 'normal' car.
It's laudable that almost all manufacturers are creating pure EVs, but here, where there are no subsidies, such cars will initially be out of reach for the mass market, and are therefore being sold primarily to government departments, electricity companies and fleets that need or want to have a green image.
During the move to automotive electrification, internal combustion engines will continue to rule. Significant gains in economy continue to be made, but the greening of new cars is affecting how they drive. This year, we've seen the introduction of a handful of new superminis - the Swift, Micra, Barina and Rio - most of which have arrived with either slightly smaller or more frugal engines, and are bigger and heavier. As a result, they are more demanding and not as rewarding to drive, even if their fuel-use figures have improved somewhat.
With superminis, which are primarily town buggies, performance isn't that much of an issue anyway, but it starts to become a bit more important in the next class up. Is the same thing happening with the compacts? Is fuel economy dominating proceedings here also? We line up three of the latest newcomers, the Ford Focus Trend, Mazda3 GSE and Holden Cruze Hatch Sri, to find out if they, too, are becoming green wieners.
THE TECHNICAL BITS
Ay, there's the rub in this comparison. We have some marked differences in powerplants and transmissions in this modern line-up, and that's where their personalities emerge.
Starting with the most recent release, the Cruze hatch utilises the 1.4 iTi (intelligent turbo induction) powerplant that debuted a year ago in the Series II Cruze sedan - and not before time, because the 1.8-litre atmo engine is no great shakes. If you're half way interested in reasonable performance, opt for the 1.4- or 2.0-litre turbocharged engines, the latter being a diesel. Displacement downsizing and the addition of a turbocharger mean the 1.4 iTi dohc engine with variable-valve timing produces as much peak power (103kW at 4900rpm) as an atmo 2.0-litre, and at least as much peak torque (200Nm), but it's developed at lower revs, in this case from 1850rpm. The power is processed by a six-speed automatic transmission with a manual sequential shift gate. Mean fuel use is quoted at 6.9L/100km. The cost for the SRi hatch, which is the penultimate model, is $37,400, but a lesser CD variant with this powertrain can be yours for $33,900.
Turning to the other newbie of the bunch, Mazda has facelifted its compact 3 series with the addition of a single new model, its specification based on the GSX hatch. Dubbed the GSE, it is the first to introduce Mazda's much vaunted (by Mazda) SkyActiv technology. A few years ago, the company said it would reduce fuel consumption across the board by 30 per cent, and in one fell swoop the GSE model, featuring direct injection, lowers mean fuel use by 26 per cent compared with its 2.0-litre forebear, and adds 5kW and 9Nm in the process. A torque max of 191Nm chimes in 400rpm lower than before, at 4100rpm. Part of the increased efficiency is the result of optimising the combustion process, and the 2.0-litre four now runs a high 12:1 compression ratio, though it still makes do with 91 unleaded petrol. So does the Focus, which also has direct-injection technology but needs premium gas.
Helping in the quest for reduced hydrocarbon consumption is Mazda's proprietary idle-stop technology, an improved drag figure (which is down to a claimed Cd of 0.28, compared with 0.329 for the Cruze hatch) and a new, low-friction, six-speed automatic transmission, which evidently spends almost 90 per cent of its time in lock-up mode. Mazda quotes an overall fuel figure of 6.2L/100km (down from 8.2L/100km). Changes in the cabin consist mainly of improvements to the instruments, which are driver-focused.
And that brings us tidily to Ford's third-generation Focus, here in Trend guise and selling for $38,490. Back in August, Ford proclaimed its new Focus 2.0 GDi engine 'the most powerful and the most fuel-efficient normally aspirated 2.0-litre petrol engine in the small-car class'. Nothing lasts for long, then. Not three months later, Mazda comes along with its first SkyActiv offering, an even more fuel-efficient 2.0-litre atmo engine. Ford's average fuel-use figure of 6.6L/100km is still nothing to sneeze at. The Mazda's extra efficiency may be explained by its slightly cleaner underbelly (Ford's Cd is 0.29) and the fact the GSE is a touch lighter than the Trend (22kg by our count). At 125kW and 202Nm, the Ford engine also outputs slightly more power and torque, up by 17 and nine per cent, respectively, on the former 2.0-litre Focus engine. Both the Ford and Mazda use variable-valve timing on the intake and exhaust cams, and they also implement low-friction strategies. Similarly, each uses electric power steering to eke out further fuel savings, as does the Cruze.
While Mazda has spent time and money developing a six-speed automatic transmission it says is as quick and efficient as it gets, Ford has instead gone down the twin-clutch road with its six-speeder, again citing efficiency as the main reason for its adoption. Mazda suggests its six-speed auto is about as quick-shifting as a twin-clutch unit. Would it be on road?
WHAT'LL SHE DO, MISTER?
The weight of the Cruze was always going to be a hindrance to it in one sense, and it ends up being the least quick here because it carries 116kg more than the Focus and 138kg more than the Mazda. It's clear, though, that some of that extra beef goes into soundproofing. Over the sections of coarse chipseal we use to test road roar, the Cruze is, on average, 2dB quieter than the Focus, and 3dB more hushed than the Mazda. Road noise has always been a factor in the Mazda3 drive, and despite use of different tyres and improvements to body rigidity and the like, it remains an issue over the worst of our rowdy seal.
Evidently, Holden made special efforts to cut down panel ringing in key locations, and this has paid dividends. However, it's clearly the heaviest and the slowest as a result, the only one of the trio unable to break into single figures for the 0-100kmh test. Its best time of 10.39 seconds trails the Mazda's 9.44-second time by almost a second, and the Focus, at 9.08, by more again. Interestingly, the Mazda and Focus produced neck-and-neck 80-120kmh times of 6.16 and 6.18 seconds, respectively. The difference between them for the 0-100kmh run can be explained by the Ford's faster-shifting twin-clutch transmission. The Cruze was once again the tail-end Charlie, trailing the other pair by over a second in the TED time test.
But in a turnaround, the Cruze gets the gong for easiest in-town progress, although no surprises here, given it's the lone turbo offering. Even using mild throttle openings it gaps the other two off the mark, the turbo-enhanced boost chiming in at low revs and making it zippy between lights. But when the roads open out, there's nothing much to pick between these three. The turbo assistance continues, with the Cruze punching nicely between 3500 and 4500rpm, but above that it starts to feel breathless, and the other two begin to come on song. Moreover, they feel stronger and quicker, and have better autos.
The Ford is at a bit of an advantage because of its transmission, which is the only one with a Sport mode. Flick it across, and it automatically downshifts, but no so the Mazda's gearbox. The Ford also has a lever-mounted manual shifter, but essentially this is just a cheap alternative to wheel-mounted paddles. They're fiddly and, fortunately, unnecessary, because the 'box auto-adapts. As Sport mode isn't overly sensitive, you can use it almost anywhere, any time. And it doesn't lock out sixth gear.
The Cruze transmission isn't in the same league as the other two, being slower, and its manual gate is on the wrong side and oriented back to front. We left it to do its own thing. Turbo lag can also prove frustrating at times, if you really want action pronto.
The Mazda is not quite as forthcoming of its performance once speeds start to rise, though its fuel use is marginally better (in the 7's most of the time, compared with 8's in the Focus, 9's and above in the Cruze). In town, it quickly upshifts to higher gears, while out of town the adaptive nature kicks in, but you still need to push the throttle a little, and we often ended up opting for the MS shifter. The engine noise is well damped, but not so the tyre roar, as mentioned. Brake function went the way of the Focus, which has more power and better pedal action than the Mazda, plus a panic stop that's shorter by two metres. The Cruze fell in between the other two for stopping power.
WHAT ARE THEY LIKE IN THE BENDS?
None disappoints as a cornering device; in fact, they're all quite inspired and more than a reasonable amount of fun. They are much more sophisticated than the superminis a class down, especially the Ford, which cuts the best swathe, its deft handling the result of a tricky, torque-apportioning traction system that means it can drag itself out of corners more convincingly than the others. It also has a more compliant ride than the quick-steering Mazda.
And on the topic of steering, the Ford also does the best job of creating electric steering that communicates at least a modicum of road sense. The others miss the mark in that regard, though none exhibits kickback.
Each has a stability control system that largely stays out of the picture until needed. This also means each car can be pushed harder than you might expect before understeer begins building, the heavier Cruze wandering off line before the others. We were impressed with the rear suspension in the Holden, which is a mix of torsion beam and Watts link. It's more sophisticated than its semi-independent nature would suggest, and interferes less with luggage space, too.
AND HOW ABOUT INSIDE?
Three hatches from three different countries. How does the Aussie stack up inside? The Cruze gets points for ergonomics - it's the easiest for ignition access - but it isn't as appealing visually as the others, and the cloth trim on the dash is plain bizarre. It misses out on lumbar adjust and a left footrest, both present in the others, and soft plastics are nowhere in evidence.
Both the Cruze and Focus have voice-activated Bluetooth hook-up (it's pretty easy in the Mazda, too), but the Holden didn't seem to want to recognise my commands whereas it was simple in the Ford. We appreciated the rear parking sensors on the Focus and Holden.
All have alloys, cruise control and trip computers, handy for keeping an eye on fuel use. Only the Mazda features an idle-stop system, and the Ford alone has a speed limiter.
Being of a similar cost, these three have very similar specification lists. All sport alloy wheels of 16- or 17-inch diameter, cruise control and audio remotes on the wheel boss, Bluetooth phone functionality, iPod and MP3 inputs, halogen headlamps and fog lights, a tilt-and-telescoping steering column, a trip computer, six airbags and a five-star safety rating. Minor differences include single-zone air conditioning for the Focus and Cruze versus dual-zone in the Mazda; the Cruze gets heated external mirrors whereas powered mirrors are found on the Focus and Mazda; the Mazda and Holden have a body kit; and the Focus comes with hill start assist.
AND SO, WHICH TO CHOOSE?
Again, this depends on your wants and needs. Given the similar pricing and spec level, we'd say choose the Mazda for its economy and environmental impact, the Cruze for its quiet open-road demeanour and ease of town driving, and the Focus if dynamics and performance matter most. Which for us, they do.
MODEL: Ford Focus Trend.
ON SALE IN NZ: Oct 2011.
ENGINE: 1999cc, IL4, 125kW@6600rpm, 202Nm@4450rpm.
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed twin-clutch, front-wheel drive.
VITALS: 9.08sec 0-100 km/h, 6.6L/100km, 154g/km, 1353kg.
MODEL: Mazda3 GSE SkyActiv.
ON SALE IN NZ: Dec 2011.
ENGINE: 1998cc, IL4, 113kW@6000rpm, 194Nm@4100rpm.
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed auto, front-wheel drive.
VITALS: 9.44sec 0-100 km/h, 6.2L/100km, 145g/km, 1331kg.
MODEL: Holden Cruze Hatch SRi.
ON SALE IN NZ: Dec 2011.
ENGINE: 1364cc, IL4, 103kW@4900rpm, 200Nm@1850-4900rpm.
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed auto, front-wheel drive.
VITALS: 10.39sec 0-100 km/h, 6.9L/100km, 158g/km, 1469kg.
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