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Small Cars 2011 review

Mitsubishi Lancer VRX Sportback v VW Golf 118TSI Comfortline v Mazda3 SP20 Skyactiv v Ford Focus Titanium hatch v Holden Cruze SRi-V.

CAPITALISM is all about choice and no vehicle type offers more choice for buyers than small cars. Australian motorists are blessed with 31 small car models, the largest category on the showroom floor. Little wonder, since the small car appeals to so many buyers on so many levels: It's a great first car, an urban run-around, the modern young family car, a sensible second car and a downsizing option for empty nesters and retirees.

In fact, the recently upgraded Mazda3 is actually challenging long-time market leader Commodore for the outright honours in the showroom battle for sales. The classy field of challengers comes from Australia and around the world, including Japan, the US, France, Italy, Germany, South Korea, China, Malaysia, UK, Thailand and the Czech Republic.

TEST DRIVERS

We chose five of the seven top-selling small cars for our comparison test and asked a young family and a couple of empty nesters to join us for a suburban drive to find out what they offer.

Chris and Trinity Bond, and their children Coen, 6, and Oscar 2.5 live in suburbia where they conduct an insulation business. They are used to bigger cars but acknowledge the economic advantages of a small car and were surprised at the roominess of these vehicles.

Bill Griffin, 50, and John Kremastos, 62, are semi-retired builders whose children are now independent. They also see the advantages of a small city run-around and were equally surprised at how many features small cars have these days.


From left: Trinity and Chris Bond, John Kremastos and Bill Griffin.

VALUE

Our field includes high-spec automatics that vary in price by just $2600 from $29,990 for the Holden Cruze SRi-V to $32,590 for the Ford Focus Titanium.

Despite being slightly cheaper, the Cruze sedan certainly doesn't suffer from a lack of features with fog lights, rear parking sensors, colour satnav, USB/iPod/MP3 plug and play, 30GB music hard drive, DVD, leather seats, heated front seats, lit vanity mirrors, aux 12V front and back. However, our test car didn't have Bluetooth (it is now standard on the latest models) or rain-sensing wipers which all of the others have.

Ford Focus is the only one here with an automatic self-parking system. It also features electric driver's seat, rear parking sensors, Sony sound, dual-zone aircon, partial leather trim, Bluetooth with audio streaming and fog lights.

The oldest model in the field is the Mitsubishi Lancer VRX Sportback ($32,490) which is shortly due for a mid-life model  update. Even so, it doesn't suffer from a comparative lack of features with USB connectivity, pollen filter, Bluetooth with audio streaming, front fog lights, rain-sensing wipers, alloy pedals, gear paddle shifters and a rocking Rockford-Fosgate sound system. However, it has a tilt-only adjustable steering wheel while the others also adjust for reach.

The newest model is the Mazda3 which is actually the cheapest at $27,990, but ours came with a $3000 optional Luxury Pack featuring Bi-Xenon headlamps, sliding centre armrest console, leather seats, Bose 242-watt amplifier and 10 speakers including subwoofer cleverly tucked inside the space-saver spare wheel in the boot. In standard trim it's still got a lot of kit including fog lights, dual-zone climate aircon with pollen filter and Bluetooth with audio streaming.

The Golf is the only model with front and rear fog lights and daytime running lights. It also has dual-zone aircon with a dust and pollen filter, Bluetooth with audio streaming, USB and a chillable glovebox. However, it has no parking sensors, but you can get an optional rear camera and rear sensors. Other options include a parallel parking assistance system, iPod connection and sat nav.

The Golf and Mazda have standard keys, while the Lancer has keyless start and the Cruze and Focus have proximity keys that also automatically unlock the car door.

All models now come with cruise control, steering wheel controls and auto headlights. In the value stakes, the Focus wins with its high level of spec and the party trick of automatic parallel parking.

TECHNOLOGY

All models are petrol-powered, with the Cruze and Golf having turbo engines. Despite these turbocharged models, it's the naturally aspirated Lancer and Focus that win the power stakes on paper, sharing 125kW thanks to their bigger displacement engines.

The Golf has 118kW, hence its model name 118, and the Cruze has the lowest power at 103kW. But power figures don't really mean much in real-world situations and the turbo models are certainly the liveliest of the crop, albeit with a little turbo lag off idle.

The idea of turbocharging in small cars is not just about power, anyway. It's also about economy with these models having lower capacity engines that sip fuel in a miserly fashion. In the Golf that's 6.2 litres per 100km and 6.9L/100km in the Cruze.

The just-released Mazda3 comes with the new fuel-efficient Skyactiv engine and transmission that equal the economy of the Golf. It is also the only model with stop-start technology that switches off the engine while stationary and starts again when you take your foot off the brake.

The Lancer is the loser here with 8.9L/100km and no hint of any changes that promise improvements in the November model update.

If music, connectivity and Bluetooth are important techno features, most models have a choice of systems. The easiest to use is Bluetooth with audio streaming. However, the Cruze offered the most entertainment options with DVD and a hard drive that the others don't have.

Transmissions are six-speed autos with the Golf adding a seventh ratio and the Lancer using a continuously variable transmission.

On the low-tech side of things, wheels on our test cars are a mix of 16-inch alloys (Mazda and VW), 17-inch (Cruze) and 18-inch (Lancer and Focus). All feature space-saver spare wheels restricted to 80km/h.

DESIGN

New usually means better, but the Lancer's modern design has stood the test of time against the more modern models.

Meanwhile, our testers thought the Golf looked "bland" and "plain" in this field.

Winner here is the masculine-looking Focus with its menacing grille grimace with Bond declaring "I'm a Holden man but I like the look of the Focus", while his wife prefers the female curves and cute smiley "face" of the Mazda3.

The Australian-made Cruze is the only sedan in the crew and comes with a lot of "Holdenised" bits of chrome and detailing. Griffin praises it for looking like a small-scale Commodore. It also has the neatest rear end with a discreet tailpipe.

Inside, the Golf loses out again for appearing austere by comparison with the three newcomers, while the Focus is the other extreme, attracting comments that it looked too fussy and like "being trapped inside a 1980s ghetto blaster".

The Mazda3 cabin draws some praise, but the wrap-around cockpit styling is criticised as "claustrophobic" and the forward display with colour satnav shines in the windscreen at night and is a distraction.

Mitsubishi will have to address the expanse of hard plastic on the dashboard when it updates the Lancer, although the styling is simple, modern and functional.

The Cruze is the winner inside with a combination of modern styling enhanced by tasteful touches of chrome, but traditional controls that are easy to understand and use.

All have 60/40 rear split seats and fair legroom for small cars.

In the back, all cargo areas are well carpeted with flat floors. The Focus boot seems the smallest, while the Cruze cargo area is very deep and despite not being a hatchback, it fits a ladder with ease.

SAFETY

Every car in our comparison test - like many of the vehicles in this category - comes with a full five-star ANCAP safety rating making them a truly family car.

They have six airbags while the Golf and Lancer add a knee airbag for the driver.

They also feature stability control which works best in the Golf and was found to be a little over-reactive in the Lancer during a brief, but heavy downpour.

DRIVING

Small cars are built for the city streets and occasional highway run, so that's how we tested these vehicles.

The benchmark in driving dynamics has long been the Golf which is a former Carsguide's Car of the Year.

It has road-handling poise, a fast-acting transmission, a lively engine, sharp brakes ("severe" says Kremastos) and a natural steering feel.

Our testers unanimously criticise the turbo lag from idle. Kremastos and Chris Bond claim it would "drive them nuts", however Griffin says you can drive around the problem.

Once under way, the Golf is a spirited and rewarding drive.

The Focus launched recently to rave reviews that hinted it might knock off the Golf for dynamics.

However, our testers are not as impressed. They criticise the rough and indecisive transmission while Mrs Bond doesn't like the zigzag patterned gate of the selector.

Her husband says handling is good, but "power is average and it's not super responsive," comments reflected by the others.

"Size is good for me," Bond says. "It's quite comfortable, but I wouldn't like to be sitting behind me."

Griffin says that by comparison the Mazda3 is "more refined, quieter and smoother than the Focus".

"The gearbox and motor feel better matched with no over-revving like you are flogging it." He also likes the ergonomics.

Bond thinks there are "too many confusing buttons on the steering wheel" and says the car is "not as responsive as I'd like." His wife agrees and says the brakes are also "unresponsive".

Kremastos says that except for the slight turbo lag, he is more than a little surprised at how nippy the car is around town, even though it has a 1.4-litre engine which is 400cc less than his Honda Goldwing motorcycle.

The Cruze also attracts praise as "sprightly", although the bonnet rises and falls on acceleration and braking.

It's steering also cops criticism as light and vague, while several drivers commented on the rough gear changes.

Mrs Bond says the seats are quite comfortable and her husband likes the cabin.

"Looks can be deceiving. I'm a big fella and it was quite comfortable," he says. Griffin doesn't like the lack of a left-foot rest.

The Lancer attracted neither good nor bad comments on its driving dynamics. It seems a handy utilitarian machine that delivers the goods in a no-fuss, unspectacular manner. The only criticism came from Griffin who said it got "a bit unsteady in the wet".

Bond is unimpressed with the rally styling of the pedals and flappy paddle shifters on the steering wheel which he says is "a novelty I don't think I'd use".

VERDICT

It's horses for courses here and we found a mix of preferences from our testers. If it's a driver's car you want, the Golf wins, but it loses points for tired design, lack of features and an austere interior.

Lancer is praised as a no-nonsense car, but again feeling the signs of age in its features and interior design. The new model may be make amends.

Focus draws extreme comments. It is praised for its exterior design, but criticised for its interior, while the driving dynamics fall slightly behind the Mazda and Golf.

Griffin sums up the Mazda as the "best all-rounder". It performs all functions well without being a standout in any particular area.

But the winner by three votes to one in our test team is the handsome Aussie-built Cruze.

Mitsubishi Lancer VRX Sportback

Price: $32,490
Options: pearlescent paint $450
Engine: 2.4L, 4-cylinder, 125kW/226Nm
Transmission: CVT
Economy: 8.9L/100km
CO2: 213g/km, 6/10 greenhouse rating
Safety: 7 airbags, 5-star ANCAP
Warranty: 10 years/160,000km (powertrain), 5 years/100,000km (car and roadside assist)
Service: 15,000km/12 mths

VW Golf Comfortline 118TSI

Price: $31,990
Options: metallic paint $500
Engine: 1.4L, 4-cylinder twin turbo, 118kW/240Nm
Transmission: 7 speed DSG
Economy: 6.2L/100km
CO2: 144g/km, 7.5/10 greenhouse rating
Safety: 7 airbags, 5-star ANCAP
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km, VW Assist.
Service: 15,000km/12 mths

Mazda3 SP20 Skyactiv

Price: $27,990
Options fitted: Luxury Pack (Bi-Xenon headlamps, sliding centre armrest console, leather seat trim, premium Bose 242 watt amplifier and 10 speakers including subwoofer - $3000)
Engine: 2L, 4-cylinder, 113kW/194Nm
Transmission: 6-speed auto
Economy: 6.1/6.2L/100km
CO2: 145g/km
Safety: 6 airbags, 5-star ANCAP
Warranty: 3 years/unlimited km
Service: 10,000km/6 mths

Ford Focus Titanium hatch

Price: $32,590
Engine: 2L, 4-cylinder, 125kW/202Nm
Transmission: 6-speed Powershift DSG,
Economy: 6.6L/100km
CO2: 154g/km, 7.5/10 greenhouse rating
Safety: 6 airbags, 5-star ANCAP
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Service: 15,000km/12 mths

Holden Cruze SRi-V

Price: $29,990
Options: prestige paint $500
Engine: 1.4L, 4-cylinder, turbo, 103kW/200Nm
Transmission: 6-speed auto, Active Select
Economy: 6.9L/100km
CO2: 164g/km, 7/10 greenhouse rating
Safety: 6 airbags, 5-star ANCAP
Warranty: 3 years/100,000km
Service: 15,000km/12 mths

Pricing Guides

$8,998
Based on 170 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$4,995
Highest Price
$21,499

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
Activ Sportback 2.0L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $5,170 – 7,590 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer 2011 Activ Sportback Pricing and Specs
ES Sportback 2.0L, ULP, CVT AUTO $6,984 – 11,999 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer 2011 ES Sportback Pricing and Specs
Ralliart Sportback 2.0L, PULP, 6 SP AUTO $10,340 – 14,190 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer 2011 Ralliart Sportback Pricing and Specs
SX Sportback 2.0L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $4,999 – 9,990 2011 Mitsubishi Lancer 2011 SX Sportback Pricing and Specs