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One in 10 new cars sold is now a tiny-tot, although the description is a little unfair as they've grown up over the years.
These cars appeal to the broadest range of buyers, from first-time car owners to retirees — and anyone in between who wants affordable motoring.
We've tested the two newest cars in the class, the Honda Jazz and Mazda2, against the recently facelifted Toyota Yaris, and the perennial favourite Suzuki Swift, one of the most popular choices among private buyers.
The top-selling Hyundai i20 wasn't included as it's due to be replaced by an all-new model in the next 12 months and is beginning to show its age — but it is worth a look if you want to drive a bargain ($16,990 drive-away for a five-door automatic).
January tends to bring big discounts as dealers try to clear last year's stock, so we're basing our comparison test on available drive-away deals at the time of printing, rather than the usual recommended retail prices. But, as we discovered, it pays to read the fine print.
Most of the drive-away deals you see online are for manual models, even though autos typically account for more than three out of every four sales.
The new Jazz may not win a beauty contest but it is by far the biggest and roomiest car in its class, endowed with ample oddment storage, and rear seats that fold down to create a massive load area.
It is also the best equipped among the cheap seats with a rear-view camera, large touchscreen, LED headlights, cruise control and paddle shifters to select a ratio in the CVT auto.
It's incredible to think how much equipment Honda has crammed into even the base model — until you look at the price. With a drive-away cost of $19,640 with automatic it's the dearest of our four cars — and a whopping $2650 dearer than the attractive $16,990 drive-away deal on the manual.
Further, the Jazz may be the second cheapest among our four cars to fuel, but it is the second dearest to service.
The interior — with its bright and colourful illumination and large chrome-rimmed dials — has an upmarket appearance.
On the road, the Jazz moves along without fuss and the CVT auto is a smooth (if a little noisy) operator.
However the testers found the driver's seat wasn't as comfortable as the others, because the seat base didn't offer much under-thigh support; it needed to tilt up more, like the others, to quell the feeling that you're about to slide off the seat.
Cars like the Jazz aren't designed for race tracks but Honda could definitely improve how the Jazz feels to drive.
The suspension feels floaty, the steering a little vague and the brake pedal travel is too long before there is some bite.
The Jazz gets the job done but, as we would discover, it could be so much better.
With its good looks and great driving dynamics the Mazda2 Neo look set to be a clear winner — until you realise how much it costs and how much equipment it's missing.
The Mazda2 Neo is the only car among this four to lack such bare essentials as cruise control and an interior light in the middle of the roof (the others have map lights as well as a centre dome).
The Mazda2's steering wheel can only be adjusted for height, not reach, there is only one map pocket behind the front passenger seat (the others have one behind both front seats) and there are no rear door pockets at all.
A rear-view camera — standard on two rivals — is a $700 (plus roughly $130 labour) dealer-fit option on this model.
In its favour, though, the Mazda has metallic paint as standard except for one colour, while the others charge between $465 and $510.
The Mazda had the smallest cabin space among the cars tested and our back seat tester's knees pushed into the driver's seat. The Jazz and Yaris had much more room.
The dash layout is a simple yet elegant design and the faux carbon-fibre highlights and Audi-inspired air vents add a touch of class.
The seating position is ideal and the steering is so precise and smooth it makes you feel connected to the road.
It sounds like marketing hype but the Mazda2 really is nice to drive.
But although this Mazda2 is quieter than the previous model it's still relatively noisy.
Fuel economy is best among this lot but servicing costs are high and, cheekily, open to interpretation.
Mazda has always had six month intervals but now that capped price servicing exposes the true cost, it allows customers the choice of winding that back to nine months.
If you service your Mazda2 at the same intervals as a Yaris for three years, it will cost you twice as much.
Suzuki is the quiet achiever of the Australian automotive market, sitting just outside the Top 10 sellers list.
The Swift is among the most popular cars in its class for private buyers and among the Top Five sellers in the category overall. Now half-way through its model cycle the Swift is the oldest car in this group, which is why Suzuki has loaded it with equipment and sharpened the price.
Cruise control and seven airbags are standard and the GL automatic can be had for $16,490 drive-away — about $2500 off the full RRP — until the end of February.
Because Suzuki is sold via a different distributor in Queensland and northern NSW the price there is $16,990 drive-away for the same car, so be sure to haggle. The car in the photos is the Navigator model. The extra $1500 buys fog lights and the nav screen. You don't have to be good at maths to figure out the Swift GL is hard to beat at $16,490 drive-away.
Downsides? The Swift has a small boot and it is the second thirstiest on fuel (due in part to the four-speed auto) and servicing is not as cheap as the Toyota (or the equivalent Hyundai or Holden models not in this test).
But the Swift is fun to drive (it feels like a slightly bigger Mazda2) and makes the driver feel connected to the road. Aiding its reputation for bulletproof reliability: it is one of two "Japanese" cars in this group actually made in Japan. The other is the Toyota Yaris.
The updated Yaris has a startled look on its face — Toyota wants its cars to have a more daring design. That's one word for it.
It's the same car underneath as the model launched three years ago but with some worthwhile refinements to the suspension and tyres to make it drive a little better, and a heap of extra equipment. Standard fare now includes cruise control, rear-view camera and automatic headlights (the only one among this quartet with this feature).
Inside, the same unusual grain of plastics and odd shapes remain.
The seating position is comfortable but the steering wheel feels too low despite being height and reach adjustable.
It's one of the cheapest cars to service, at least for the first three years, but it's the most expensive of this bunch on fuel (albeit by a small margin).
We found a drive-away deal of $18,790 for the auto, which is $1100 off the full price but it's still a $2800 premium over the exact same car with manual transmission.
We all agree the Mazda2 is by far the best car among this quartet to drive, and also looks the classiest.
But its cramped interior, high servicing costs and bare bones standard equipment penalise it heavily.
The Jazz may be a compelling proposition for its extra space and long list of equipment but its high price, uncomfortable driver's seat and ho-hum driving experience weighed against it.
Meanwhile the loads of equipment added to the facelifted Yaris, the worthwhile refinements that came with it, and its cheap servicing costs elevate the Toyota in the minds of the testers.
But price carries the most clout in this end of the new-car market. At its full RRP, the Suzuki Swift won't hold a candle to these newer rivals.
However, at $16,490 drive-away — $3150 less than the Jazz, $2500 less than the Mazda2 and $2300 below the Yaris — the Swift is a knockout winner, at least until the others sharpen their pencils.
The versatile hatch is a staple of affordable motoring — just check the fine print, even on drive-away deals.