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Best light cars under $15,000 2013 Review

Baby bundles rarely come as cute - or as affordable - as this trio of light cars. They are archetypal city cars - born and bred with the sole purpose of fitting your life into the city. Cheap to buy, cheap to run and so easy to drive, they cope well with freeways but really come to the fore in congestion.

Filed into the light-car category, each is similar in size and packaging. Though there are some differences in engine layout, they are separated by badges and the stylist's pencil.

It is glaringly reflective of the competitiveness of the light car market - the segment into which 20 different makes and 44 models engage in bitter fighting for sales - that each has strong warranties and capped-price service programs to ensure maximum ownership economy for budget buyers.

On the sales chart, the long-standing Mazda2 holds more than 14 per cent of the segment, followed by the Mitsubishi Mirage and Toyota Yaris. That's an amazing grip for the Mazda that launched in 2007 and is one of the oldest in the class.

The new Volkswagen Up may be one of the sales minnows in the segment but its uptake is strengthening and last month it outsold its Polo sister and was only seven units behind Nissan's Micra. The Mitsubishi Mirage comes out of left-field, replacing the long-standing and recently fizzled-out Colt with a clean-sheet approach.

No surprises about the Toyota Yaris. It's been a pillar of the small-car brigade since it was called the Echo and despite the years and fresh rivals, remains a favourite. The trio here are small in fuel consumption, size and weight. But far from feeling unnervingly flimsy, they are solid performers.

Yes, there is a sense that their diminutive size may increase occupant injury in an accident but each is rated at the maximum safety crash standard and equipped with top-end electronic aids. The specifications here are base-model - befitting the economy of ownership - but for more pampered buyers, there's some additional trim levels and options to lift any low-rent perceptions.

For example, an automatic transmission - not available on the Up - may be preferred by Mirage or Yaris buyers and alloy wheels (standard on Mirage Sport) may lift visual appeal. It's your city - it's up to you.

VALUE

None of these breach $15,000 (though depending on where you live, on-road costs will push that out by about $3500). Bluetooth, a minimum of four speaker audio, iPod and USB connectivity, airconditioning and electric front windows and mirrors are the basics here.

Mirage adds alloy wheels. The Yaris' cabin is the best looking, the Mirage is neat but conservative and the Up reflects the cool Teutonic approach with a big list of standard features, most impressively the automatic braking at low speeds to avoid a traffic jam bingle.

Each has a capped service program (see spec boxes) to save you money. Again, VW rises to the fore as offering the most comprehensive service program but the Mirage has the best warranty and has full five-year roadside assistance.

WINNER: Volkswagen

DESIGN

Mitsubishi takes the conservative line but the Mirage looks - and feels - good. Mirage's cabin is traditional though gloss plastic trim works well.

The Yaris is more edgy - just look at its RAV4 and Corolla sisters - that extends to the premium look of the dash and even the weird single windscreen wiper.

The Up is a clinical design exercise that maximises cabin space, even though it ends up looking like a cardboard box with chamfered corners. Inside, The Up is functional, minimalistic and only comes alive when you add the $500 optional dashtop sat-nav/trip computer unit.

Yaris has the longest wheelbase - by 60mm on the Mirage and 103mm on the Up - and its overall length exceeds Mirage by 175mm. That gives the Yaris its bigger cabin space. The Yaris driver also gets more adjustment than the others.

WINNER: Toyota

SPACE AND COMFORT

The Yaris wins the luggage space game with a 286-litre boot area (rear seat up) but the space-saver spare wheel is partially responsible for the extra room.

The Up offers 251-litres, and has a full-size spare, while the Mirage is 235-litres with a space-saver spare. Up and Yaris have a split-level boot floor. Each seats four adults but the seating positions and facilities are markedly different. Again, the Yaris is the more accommodating for rear passengers, followed by the Mirage and then Up.

The Up has an upright rear seat with sufficient headroom and adequate legroom. Both the Yaris and Up three-doors need some limbered limbs to get in the rear and are no place for a baby seat.

The Mirage, as a five-door model, is obviously the best for rear passengers. The Up's front seats are firm and comfortable but there's no switch for the driver to open the passenger side electric window. There are also only two vents - one each for the front occupants - which is simply insufficient in an Australian summer. A central vent directs air to the ceiling but its barely effective.

The Mirage and Yaris get four dash vents though the former's central outlets are modest performers. Mirage has three child seat tether anchors and two Iso-Fix rear seat child restraints fitted, the Yaris and Up have two anchor points.

WINNER: Toyota.

TECHNOLOGY

All have five-speed manual gearboxes and are front-wheel drive. The Mirage is a better drive with the optional auto (add $2250), the Yaris is fine as it is and the Up only comes with a manual gearbox, severely limiting its audience.

Yaris has a 63kW/121Nm 1.3-litre four-cylinder engine and is up against a new breed of three-cylinder mills - the 57kW/100Nm 1.2-litre Mirage and 55kW/95Nm 1-litre Up. Yaris' bigger engine claims the biggest petrol thirst - though at 5.7 L/100km it's still a sip - while the Up is 4.9 L/100km and the Mirage the best at 4.6 L/100km. Up's clever low-speed auto braking is a gem.

All cut body weight by high-tensile steel and compact dimensions, lightweight components and general corner cutting. As such, the rear suspensions are bare-basic torsion beams to save on price, weight and space - precisely the type of ingredients for the budget commuter.

WINNER: Volkswagen

SAFETY

Despite their size, these are five-star crash-rated cars. Electronic stability control, brake assist and ABS brakes are standard. Yaris will automatically stop if the brake and accelerator pedals are pressed simultaneously. Up has class-leading automatic braking to avoid low-speed dingles and auto flashing brake lights in emergency braking plus is the only one with a full-size spare wheel. No model has park sensors or a reverse camera.

WINNER: Volkswagen

DRIVING

All are fun and each lures with its intrinsic ability to delight the driver, generally at the expense of the passenger. But they are different animals.

The Yaris' four-cylinder engine needs a solid right foot and complains noisily, but the fact it has one more cylinder than the others makes it smoother. The gearbox is a bit vague but the box feels solid.

The Mirage and Up introduce the odd-ball three-pot beat into the cabin almost as a boast. Both are as quick as the Yaris and as responsive - especially the Up that loves a rev - but the Mirage has a reluctant gear shift action and the Up's change tends towards the rubbery.

Electric-assist steering suits the car's target market and each works well, as does the stopping power despite all having rear drum brakes. Under acceleration, they all are relatively noisy. But for general city-suburban routes, it's not an issue.

Even ride comfort is similar though the Yaris suited me better while the Up felt a bit “tinny”. Handling and lane-changing is more secure in the Yaris and Up, while the Mirage was let down by some steering vagueness.

WINNER: Toyota

Pricing Guides

$7,125
Based on 10 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$5,985
Highest Price
$8,977

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
(base) 1.0L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $5,985 – 8,977 2013 Volkswagen Up! 2013 (base) Pricing and Specs
Neil Dowling
Contributing Journalist

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