Story and photos by John LeBlanc
Bottom feeders, tin cans, s---boxes — if you haven’t been in the market for a new small car lately, these are just some of the adjectives you may associate with subcompact cars.
However, automakers are trying to lower their government-mandated corporate average fuel economy ratings, so to soften the blow for buyers downsizing from larger vehicles, small cars aren’t so small anymore. Previously unheard-of small-car options such as leather seating and navigation systems are all the rage in this class. One of these cars tested can even be had with a heated steering wheel.
The question is: Which of this subcompact hatchback trio is the best to drive?
THIRD PLACE: 2012 Ford Fiesta Hatchback SEL
Absent for 30 years, the subcompact Fiesta returned for 2011. There’s an awkward-looking sedan, but I tested the better-looking and more practical hatch.
The 2012 Fiesta hatch starts at $18,520. The $20,745 SEL model, which adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated seats and 16-inch alloy wheels, is a better match to the other two hatches here.
A 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine with 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque powers all Fiestas. With the standard five-speed manual, fuel is sipped at a rate of 6.9 L/100 km in the city, 5.1 on the highway.
The Ford competes well with the Kia as a mini-luxury car. It’s quiet at high speeds, delivers a cushy ride and everything the driver touches in the Fiesta’s cabin (steering wheel, shift knob, seats) feels more grown up, solid and more luxurious than in the Toyota.
That said, the Kia’s interior controls are much easier to fathom. And backseat room in the Ford subcompact is relatively tight.
As luxurious as the Fiesta feels, it’s not the best driver’s car in this trio. Despite mid-pack power, the chunky Fiesta is slow from a start. Zero to 100 kilometres an hour takes about two seconds more than the Rio5’s 8.5-second time. And compared against the more agile Yaris SE, the Fiesta feels sloth-like. The Ford’s long-throw shifter and numb steering won’t thrill drivers, either.
SECOND PLACE: 2013 Kia Rio5 SX
Larger, roomier, faster and with better fuel economy than its predecessor, the second-generation Rio5 is now one of the most complete packages in its class.
With more standard kit than the Ford or Toyota, the Rio5 has a higher $14,195 starting price. But the well-equipped, top-line SX trim at $19,695 is a good value. And, like the Ford, the Kia doesn’t lack “big car” features. Included in the price are such niceties as a proximity key fob, push-button ignition, heated seats, a telescopic steering wheel, 17-inch rubber and that class-exclusive heated steering wheel.
Between the Ford and Toyota, the Kia splits the difference from the driver’s seat. The Rio5’s suspension cushions as well as the Fiesta’s, but without the Ford’s luxury-car float. There’s more steering feel from the Kia’s tiller than the Ford, too, but its actions aren’t as clear as the Toyota.
The lone Rio5 powerplant is a 1.6-litre four-cylinder. As the only direct-injected mill here, it scores on power (138 hp and 123 lb-ft), and at the pumps (6.6 L/100 km city; 4.9 highway). Plus, the Rio5 offers one more gear in its manual transmission than the five-speeders from its rivals.
That’s great for highway fuel economy and reduced engine noise, but the clutch pedal is numb and first gear was sometimes hard to find.
FIRST PLACE: 2012 Toyota Yaris Hatchback SE
For its redesigned 2012 Toyota Yaris Hatchback SE, Toyota has gone decidedly “old school,” putting emphasis on driving appeal over luxury-car features.
The rest of the Yaris lineup (starting with the $13,990 two-door CE) is as dull to drive as the last model that came out in 2006. But Toyota has blessed the top-line, $18,990 four-door SE with a sport-tuned suspension, bigger 195/50 V-rated rubber on 16-inch alloys, quicker steering, rear disc brakes,a leather-wrapped steering wheel and sport seats.
“Big car” features available on the Ford and Kia are nowhere to be found on the top-line Yaris SE’s spec list, but it costs considerably less. And if you love to drive, the Toyota is a surprisingly able partner.
Essentially a carryover drivetrain from 2006, the Yaris’ 1.5-litre four-cylinder makes only 106 hp and 103 lb-ft of torque, but its lightweight chassis means its 9.5-second zero-to-100 km/h run splits the times of the Rio5 and Fiesta.
And the lack of kilograms also helps the Toyota when it comes times to turn. Aided by the most direct steering of this trio, a crisp-shifting gearbox and a suspension that feels both firm and composed, the Yaris SE will remind some readers of small hatches from the 1980s.
Yes. The Toyota is noisier and more cramped inside. And you can’t get a heated steering wheel. But if driving fun is at the top of your list, then the Toyota Yaris SE should be there as well.