Best cheap cars

…and competent budget cars rolling out of Australian showrooms.

Cheap in 2011 no longer means tin-can terrible; from $11,790 for the Suzuki Alto to $12,990 for Nissan's Micra there's the choice of five, five-door hatchbacks safer, better-equipped and better-built than ever.

Ten years ago the cheapest cars on the local market were the likes of the three-door Hyundai Excel at $13,990 and the Daewoo Lanos at $13,000.

Since then average Australian income has jumped 21 per cent in real terms according to the ACTU even though petrol's gone from 80 cents a litre to $1.40 and more.

But car prices have fallen in real terms, thanks to increased competition, a strong dollar and new brands headed this way from China.

Technology, trickling down from higher-priced machines or, like stability control, mandated by authorities has made these budget cars more attractive than ever.

Malaysian maker Proton were among the first to slice retail prices in the face of a feared onslaught from China, dropping the $11,990 S16 sedan into the light car battle market last November.

Now Suzuki has taken the lead on pricing. (And Proton, with stock tight while waiting for a replacement, perhaps cheaper, model later this year couldn't make it to this comparison with an S16.)

Their rivals are all finding new homes. While the overall car market is sluggish, down 5.3 per cent on last year, light cars have slipped only 1.4 per cent. Some 55,000 light cars were sold to the end of May, the second biggest segment after small cars and ahead of compact SUV sales figures.

Suzuki Australia's general manager Tony Devers says the light car segment has grown dramatically over the past five years as Australians become more urbanised, more inner-city focussed.

For Suzuki, light car buyers are split into two camps - over-45s looking for a second car and under-25s looking for university and city transport.

"What's the alternative - a four or five year old car with less fuel effciency and safety?" Devers says.

VALUE

You get a surprising amount of kit in a cheap car these days: electric mirrors (in all but the Alto), airconditioning, plenty of safety equipment, electric windows (front only, but all four in the Chery) and quality sound systems.

There is only $1200 between the cheapest and the dearest and the resale values are pretty close, too.

Vehicle sizes are also much the same as is power. You would have to be Mark Webber to pick the difference between the least powerful (Alto 50kW) and the most powerful (Chery 62kW).

The Micra wins on features with Bluetooth, USB input and steering wheel audio controls, but it is also the most expensive.

The Alto is cheapest, but doesn't miss out on too many creature comforts except electric mirrors. And for an extra $700 the GLX has fog lights and alloys.

TECHNOLOGY

The four cheapies we tested come with the new age of downsized engine. In the Micra and Alto, they are three-cylinder powerplants. The three-cylinder models were a little rough at idle, but so economical they mark the way of the future for city cars. In real world conditions, it was difficult to pick any power differences.

"It's surprising they are three-cylinder cars," says guest tester William Churchill. "They're pretty zippy for a three." On a low-tech note, it is difficult to distinguish the lock and unlock buttons on the Alto and Chery key fobs, while the Micra adds a car locator button that blows the horn.

DESIGN

The Micra looks the most grown up and least quirky, having lost its bug eyes in the latest restyle. It also sits the nicest on its wheels, with marginal gaps in the wheel arches.

One of our guest test-drivers, Amy Spencer, says she liked the slightly SUV look of the Chery. It also has smart alloy wheels and an instantly appealing interior.

The Chinese have tried hard to funk up the cabin space, even if the seats lack support and some of the fit and finish isn't the best. Alto and Barina look similar on the exterior. Inside, both have comfortable and supportive seats, but the Holden trip computer is a bit too fussy and busy for easy reading.

Cabin dimensions are similar across the four, although the Micra has best back seat legroom and the most luggage capacity, while the Alto's boot is tiny.

The Chery also scored points with Spencer for its handy dashboard storage compartment.

She and fellow volunteer test driver Penny Langfield also noted the importance of vanity mirrors on the visors. The Micra and Barina have two vanity mirrors, while the Chery has one on the passenger's side and Alto has one on the driver's side.

SAFETY

Langfield commented that safety is one of the most important aspects to consider.

"That is the thing you worry about the most with a small car," she says.

But cheap doesn't mean they have scrimped on safety features. All have electronic stability control, ABS and electronic brakeforce distribution.

The Chery has only dual front airbags, but the rest come with six airbags.

According to the Australian New Car Assessment Program, the Chery has a three-star crash rating, Barina and Alto four stars and the Micra has not yet been tested, but the previous model with only dual front airbags had a three-star rating.

DRIVING

We took our three young volunteer drivers on a short city-based drive with plenty of hills and some freeway cruising. The Chery suffered a little from being straight out of the box with only about 150km on the odo and most of that on test.

It may still be bedding in the brakes, but they felt mushy until they warmed up. Then they got a bit firmer, but still lacked initial bite and feel.

The Chery's airconditioning also has a ringing sound in the fan which may go away after a while.

We also noticed it revved a bit when you pushed in the clutch, indicating perhaps a slightly sticky throttle while still new.

Yet the Chery drew favourable comments from all quarters for its responsive and "zippy" engine. However, Langfield noted it was "a bit sluggish coming up the hill".

"I've heard all the hype about this being the cheapest car, but it goes better than I thought it would," she says. Spencer was rapt with the sound system: "It's great when you ramp it up."

However, she instantly fell in love with the Micra.

"I liked this car from when I reversed it out of the carpark. It's quite zippy. I love the big mirrors. I like how the dashboard gives it a bit of space. It's not cramped up."

She also liked the fact the seat height adjustment in the Micra and Suzuki: "It's great for short people."

Churchill says the Micra's instruments are easy to read and found the audio controls on the steering wheel convenient.

"Smooth" was the word for Langfield to described the power, gearshift and ride.

"It's got a good audio system. The radio is nice and high," she says as she pumps up the volume on Triple J. She also likes the ample cup holders.

The Barina is a no-fuss, solid and strong city car. "It's simple to drive but the LCD screen on the instrument panel is a bit distracting and very busy," says Churchill. Langfield agrees, but says, "I'm sure you would get used to it after a while."

She liked the "smooth gear action" but found it "a bit gutless in places, but it picks up when you need it".

The Suzuki surprised us all with its plucky three-cylinder engine. "It takes off when you want it to. It feels more intuitive and responsive," says Langfield.

But Spencer laments the lack of boot space. "There'll be no camping weekends with this boot."

Churchill says the gearshift was easy and the clutch feels light. "It's the most simple to get in and just drive."

VERDICT

The Chery is the real surprise. It's better than we thought and attracted some good comments for styling, audio and power.

The Barina feels safe, strong and reliable, while the Micra feels the most refined, although the most expensive. But we have to agree with the punters.

While we found good and different points across the four we appreciate the Suzuki's willingness and price point as the leader of this pack.

Last word goes to Langfield: "All these cars are better than my car so I really can't complain."

VOTING

Penny Langfield: 1 Alto, 2 Micra, 3 Barina, 4 Chery. "It just feels good to drive. You feel like you are driving a real car, not a toy".
Amy Spencer: 1 Micra, 2 Alto, 3 Barina, 4 Chery. "An all-round good car. It has a bit of storage space and just looks and feels good to drive."
William Churchill: 1 Alto, 2 Barina, 3 Chery, 4 Micra. "I can get in and didn't need to get used to driving it. The dashboard is also easy to use."

SUZUKI ALTO GL

Price: $11,790
Body: 5-door hatchback
Engine: 1 litre, 3-cylinder 50kW/90Nm
Transmission: 5-speed manual (4-speed auto option)
Fuel: 4.7l/100km; CO2 110g/km
Dimensions: 3500mm (L), 1600mm (W), 1470mm (H), 2360mm (WB)
Safety: 6 airbags, ESP, ABS, EBD
Warranty: 3-year/100,000km
Resale: 50.9%
Green rating: 5 stars
Features: 14-inch steel wheels, A/C, aux input, full-size steel spare, front power windows

BARINA SPARK CD

Price: $12,490
Body: 5-door hatchback
Engine: 1.2 litre, 4-cylinder 59kW/107Nm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Fuel: 5.6l/100km; CO2 128g/km
Dimensions: 3593mm (L), 1597mm (W), 1522mm (H), 2375mm (WB)
Safety: 6 airbags, ESC, ABS, TCS
Warranty: 3 year/100,000km
Resale: 52.8%
Green rating: 5 stars
Features: 14-inch alloy wheels, front power windows, A/C, USB & Aux audio input, auto headlights off, optional full-size spare

CHERY J1

Price: $11,990
Body: 5-door hatchback
Engine: 1.3 litre, 4-cylinder 62kW/122Nm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Fuel: 6.7l/100km; CO2 159g/km
Dimensions: 3700mm (L), 1578 (W), 1564 (H), 2390 (WB)
Safety: ABS, EBD, ESP, dual front airbags
Warranty: 3 yr/100,000km
Resale: 49.2%
Green rating: 4 stars
Features: 14-inch alloys, full-size steel spare, A/C, 4 power windows and mirrors

NISSAN MICRA ST

Price: $12,990
Body: 5-door hatchback
Engine: 1.2 litre, 3-cylinder 56Kw/100nm
Transmission: 5-speed manual (four-speed auto option)
Fuel: 5.9l/100km; CO2 138g/km
Dimensions: 3780mm (L,) 1665mm (W), 1525mm (H), 2435mm (WB)
Safety: 6 airbags, ESP, ABS, EBD
Warranty: 3 year/100,000km, 3-year 24-hr roadside assist
Resale: 50.8%
Green rating: 5 stars
Features: Bluetooth, A/C, 14-inch steel wheels, full-size steel spare, aux in, front power windows

PROTON S16 G

Price: $11,990
Body: 4-door sedan
Engine: 1.6 litre, 4-cylinder 82kW/148Nm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Fuel: 6.3l/100km; CO2 148g/km
Dimensions: 4257mm (L) 1680mm (W) 1502mm (H), 2465mm (WB)
Safety: Driver's airbag, ESC,
Warranty: three year, unlimited km, 24-hour roadside assist
Resale: 50.9%
Green rating: 4 stars
Features: 13-inch steel wheels, full-size steel spare, A/C, remote central locking, front power windows

USED CAR OPTIONS

THERE are a number of options to an all-new light car if shopping for something secondhand and sensible.

Among these, Glass' Guide lists manual versions of Honda's 2003 Civic Vi five-door hatchback at $12,200, the 2005 Toyota Corolla Ascent sedan at $12,990 and Mazda's 2004 Mazda 3 Neo (sedan or hatch) at $12,400.

The Civic impressed at the time with good interior space and comfort, reliable reputation and a long list of gear including dual airbags, ABS plus power windows and mirrors.

The Mazda3 range was an instant hit with critics and consumers, bringing style back to the marque. The Neo's standard gear included air-conditioning, dual airbags, CD player plus remote central locking. Toyota's Corolla has long been a safe and solid performer in the small to compact class; 2005 versions arrived with dual airbags, air conditioning, ABS and proven reliability.

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