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Light car fantastic

The baby-car world was dominated by a single star through the 1990s.

The Hyundai Excel was the benchmark for every rival – on price, style and sales – until the death of the Korean king led to a fundamental shift in the noughties.

Now the lightweight division is split down the middle and there are two separate contests: one powered by price, the other by class. In the price group are people buying their first new car, usually on a tight budget with less emphasis on features, and the class group wants a compact car for city work or as a second vehicle in the family garage.

The bargain-basement contenders are battling in the sub-$15,000 range, just as they did when the Excel was the pacemaker, while the starting price for seriously good babies is close to $17,000 and can run to well beyond $20,000.

Toyota changed the game last year when it decided to lob its baby Echo with a sub-$15,000 bottom line including power steering and airconditioning.

Although the price has crept up to $14,790, it is still the sales leader. In the first quarter of this year Echo grabbed more than 20 per cent of light-car sales, reflecting the strength of the Toyota brand...despite the design being five years old.

Hyundai is still playing the price game with the boxy little Getz. It's second to the Echo in the price fight and leading the Korean contenders against a line-up which includes a broad range of imports, including the Holden-badged but Opel-designed Barina.

At the top end of the business, the Japanese really are on top. The classy Mazda2 and Honda Jazz set the standard for shoppers with plenty of cash to splash, even if Ford has arrived – far too late after the loss of its top-selling Korean-made Festiva – with a European Fiesta which is the light star of 2004.

The $14,490 starting price for the Fiesta is going to create plenty of action in Ford showrooms, because the blue-oval baby is a good drive and well designed. But buyers will still have to add $2000 for airconditioning – a crippling extra in such a price-sensitive arena.

But that's typical of the light-car class.

There is always something new, always a price leader and a class champion, and they're all elbowing for space in a bargain basement that introduces many people to their first new car.

This is how the Cars Guide team rates them:

Lowdown: Five-door hatch with 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine producing 82kW and priced from $17,490.
Verdict: Another direct hit by Mazda
Plus: Quality and comfort
Minus: Pricey for the size
Rating: 18/20
The baby Mazda is one of the stars of the Japanese company's product-driven comeback.

Mazda battled through the 1990s with outdated and cost-down cars that were a poor reflection of the brand's traditional strengths, but when it got serious – with Ford funding – it cranked out the classy Mazda6, RX-8 and Mazda3.

The smallest of the crop is the Mazda2, but it has the condensed strengths from the same design team and gene pool.

That means it looks good, drives well and is built to class-leader quality.

Lowdown: Five-door hatch with 1.3-litre (61kW) or 1.5-litre (81kW) four-cylinder engine, priced from $15,990
Verdict: Stylish and practical but harsh ride
Plus: Good looks, versatile cabin
Minus: Bouncy ride
Rating: 17/20
The Jazz outsold the Mazda2 by 1280 in the first four months of 2004, and that comes down to price and funky looks.

It's really a 21st-century Civic, as compact as the original and just as trendy for young buyers.

Honda was smart to start with a 1.3-litre motor below $16,000, but doesn't scrimp on the cabin. It's comfortable for four and the seats fold to carry almost any load.

People who want the best go straight to the punchy VTi-S with all the fruit for $22,490.


Lowdown: Three-door and five-door hatch powered by a 74kW 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine, from $14,490
Verdict: Perky and enjoyable
Plus: Goes well, roomy inside
Minus: Cheap-ish plastics, finish
Rating: 16/20
Ford went backwards with the Ka, which didn't have the space or automatic to compete, but it now has the right sales ingredients.

The Fiesta is a star in Europe and way better than the long-dead Festiva, a Korean version of the previous Mazda 121.

It drives well, has plenty of space and is good value, thanks partly to the strength of the Australian dollar.

The Fiesta just edges the Toyota Echo and the Hyundai Getz out of the final medal spot in the light-car class.

Price: From $13,490
Engines: 1.3-litre (60kW) and 1.5-litre (74kW)
Body styles: Three-door hatch and five-door hatch
Not an Excel, but still packed with Hyundai strengths.

Price: From $14,740
Engines: 1.3-litre (63kW) and 1.5-litre (80kW)
Body styles: Three-door hatch and five-door sedan.
Shows age inside, but Toyota has done well to keep the price sharp.

Price: From $15,990
Engines: 1.4-litre (66kW) and 1.8-litre (92kW)
Body styles: Three-door and five-door
Looks good and drives well, with bonus deal adding appeal.


CITROEN C3 14/20
Price: From $19,990
Engines: 1.4-litre (57kW) and 1.6-litre (83kW)
Body styles: Five-door hatch
One of the funkiest babies on sale in Australia. The engine is dozy and there are some quality niggles.

Price: From $19,990
Engines: 1.4-litre (72kW), 1.6-litre (79kW) and 2.0-litre (124kW)
Body styles: sedan and hatch
Not as trendy as the bigger Megane with the J.Lo rump, but still a solid effort from the French brand.

Price: From $19,990
Engines: 1.4-litre (55kW)
Body styles: hatch
Too costly by far. The Polo is a nice car but smaller than many rivals, and Volkswagen doesn't do enough in Australia to compensate.

PEUGEOT 206 13/20
Price: From $19,990
Engines: 1.4-litre, 1.6-litre (80kW) and 1.8-litre (100kW and 130kW)
Body styles: hatch
LIKE the C3, the Peugeot is too much and too little. The price is too high and the cabin too cramped.

Price: From $21,900
Engines: 0.7-litre (45kW)
Body styles: Two-door coupe
The smallest and trendiest of the light cars is a phonebox-on-wheels that will only be bought by the trendiest shoppers.

Price: From $14,990
Engines: 1.5-litre (62kW)
Body styles: Three-door hatch, five-door sedan
A good Korean effort – compact and good-looking but trails in refinement and design.

Price: From $15,990
Engines: 1.5-litre (69kW)
Body styles: Three-door hatch
Mitsubishi has kept the price competitive, the body is still stylish, and there is potential to add some Evo-style body bits.

Price: From $13,250
Engines: 1.0-litre (40kW)
Body styles: Five-door hatchback
The Sirion is the best of the Daihatsu contenders, with a roomy cabin and passable power, but it is let down by the driving experience.

Price: From $15,990
Engines: 1.5-litre (40kW)
Body styles: Five-door hatch
The funk leader in the D-brand line-up shows what's missing from the mix, with clunky controls and sub-standard driving dynamics.

KIA RIO 9/20
Price: From $14,990
Engines: 1.5-litre (71kW)
Body styles: Four-door sedan or five-door wagon
The wagon option gives it a unique selling point, but the sedan was one of the worst cars we drove last year.

Price: From $14,990
Engines: 1.5-litre (64kW) and 1.8-litre (99kW)
Body styles: Three-door hatch, five-door hatch
Another oldie that struggles to do anything but fill showroom space.

Price: From $14,990
Engines: 1.3-litre (61kW) and 1.5-litre (83kW)
Body styles: Hatch
The baby box doesn't have enough of anything. Suzuki hasn't had enough cash to continue.

Price: From $11,950
Engines: 1.0-litre (40kW)
Body styles: Five-door hatch
The great name is all that remains from one of the earliest bargain-basement stars. Today's Charade is cheap and unimpressive.

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