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Small car review

Nathan Mawby with a Kia Rio, Kathryn Firkin with a Proton S16, Fiona Hudson with a Fiesta CL and Neil McDonald with Suzuki Alto.

Neil McDonald

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  • Parking a breeze
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  • Lack of adjustable exterior mirrors

"IT'S almost cheap enough to put on a credit card."  So chirps a forthright female friend when I mentioned that the Alto costs just $11,790 for the starter GL model.  She did cringe when I pulled up to head out on the town though, expecting something larger than our modest Alto.  But as she settled in, elbow to elbow, the little Suzie won her over with its bright red paint scheme and bug-eyed headlights.

As it whipped through inner city traffic she was even more startled by the quality of its ride, composure and zip.  Most people who have driven or been ferried around in Suzuki's little car warm to it. It is winning over friends everywhere.

There are two reasons why — fuel economy and ease of parking.  The five-speed manual Alto sips fuel at the rate of 4.8 litres of petrol every 100km, allowing a reasonable range from its 35-litre tank before you have to duck into a servo.

It's the ideal city car. The diminutive 1.0-litre three-cylinder is surprisingly capable around town and the five-speed is a breeze.  Being a three-cylinder it does tend to throb like a heartbeat at idle but this quirky characteristic only adds to its charm.

But where it does come into its own is crowded supermarket carparks.  You can manoeuvre the Alto into the tiniest spaces, duck in to grab the groceries and be on your way while some drivers are still reversing their juggernaut off-roaders into place.

The $12,490 GLX manual we drove has a few tasty must-haves like electronic stability control but also nice alloys, foglights, tachmeter, four-speaker stereo and height-adjustable driver's seat.  The only thing we really thought is missing from the spec sheet is electrically adjustable exterior mirrors.
However, adjusting the passenger's mirror is reasonably easy because the car's so compact.

The GLX has all the goodies but even the base GL does not skimp.  It comes with six airbags, anti-skid brakes, air conditioning, CD stereo with MP3 input and remote central locking.  What really surprises people about the Alto is its big-car like ride. The suspension is firm but rides the bumps well and the steering is direct and well-weighted. The front seats too, which are based on those in the bigger Swift, are comfy.

Small children will fit in the back but it is tight for adults. Likewise the boot is relatively small. One person we know who owns one keeps the rear seats flipped forward all the time to carry gear.  Since it went on sale 10 months ago Suzuki Australia has been struggling to keep up with demand.  We can understand why.

Suzuki Alto GLX
Price: From $11,790 (GL)
Engine: 1.0 litres
Economy: 4.5 litres/100km
Features: Dual front and side head airbags, four-speaker CD stereo, anti-skid brakes, electronic stability control, air conditioning, electric windows
Tick: Compact size makes parking a breeze
Cross: Lack of electrically adjustable exterior mirrors

Nathan Mawby

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  • Industrial strength heating
  • Lots of headroom
  • Vision on side mirrors
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  • Lack of power
  • Uninspired exterior
  • Poor use of space, esp the boot

ONCE upon a time 'cheap and cheerful' meant a Datsun 120Y with a smiley face painted on.  Thankfully a few decades on the Kia Rio is in the picture.

You could go for the ultra cheap base model for $12,990.  Spring for the four speed auto for about $17,400 drive away and you'll be a lot more cheerful than those who cheaped out on a base model when you inevitably get stuck in traffic.

But the Rio doesn't stop at being cheap, it goes out of its way to save you money.  Even with the 1.6L four cylinder engine (there's also a 1.4L) speeding tickets will be the last thing on your mind.

That's because you'll start to feel sorry for it at around 6000 RPM. At which point you'll be doing between 40 and 50km/h.  It can handle 100km/h, just give it a little time to get there and don't be shy about putting the foot down on hills. 

But you're not buying a cheap car to break the sound barrier.  If you're bound and determined to do so you could try driving it off something very, very tall — but that would void the Rio's five year unlimited kilometres warranty.  For your safety and that of others, do not do this.

The flip side of a small engine is saving money on petrol, with a fuel economy of 6.8L/100km who's going to argue?  The Rio is going to suit those who want a car to go from A to B, and it ranges from average to brilliant on this front.  Handling in tight spaces, like shopping plaza car parks, is an example of the latter.

Combine the responsive steering with its compact size and you can look forward to finally getting that Holy Grail car park near the doors. You know the one, it's between the two poles with paint scrapings at about the same height as the rear bumper of an over-ambitious four-wheel drive.

But when you're finished bargain hunting with all the money you've saved buying a cheap car the small size will come back to haunt you as the tiny boot mocks any attempt to squeeze your new 42" plasma into it.   Add some groceries, a few bags of clothes and you'll be inching the front seats forward before coughing up bus fare for your passengers.

On the plus side that means you'll be able to choose what you listen to on the way home.  Which is important when you've got a set of Tweeter speakers hooked up to an equalizer that tailors the cars sound system to your favourite tunes.

A blue tooth system and iPod and mp3 connectivity will also help steer young drivers away from using their phone or iPod. A potentially life saving feature.
But with a base model ANCAP rating of three stars you may feel like you're putting your bank balance ahead of your life.

First car buyers on a budget and retirees looking to down size will appreciate a lot of what the Rio has to offer — just avoid freeways.

Kia Rio
Price: From $14,990
Engine: 1.4-litre or 1.6-litre (please check with Nathan)
Economy: 6.7 litres/100km, 6.8 litres/100km
Features: Dual front airbags, four-speaker CD stereo, power steering, air conditioning, electric windows, remote central locking.
Likes: Industrial strength heating, headroom and vision, particularly side mirrors,
Dislikes: Lack of power, uninspired exterior, poor use of interior space, particularly the boot

Fiona Hudson

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  • Frugal
  • Well-equipped
  • Handles beautifully
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  • Airbags, ESC are extra
  • Nasty seat covers
  • Limp air-coniditoner

FIRST, an admission: there's quite a few unworn items hanging forlornly up one end of my wardrobe, sale tags still attached.  Pristine pieces include a shirt bought at such a discount that burnt-orange and brown stripes seemed an attractive combo, and jeans so cheap I kidded myself dropping two sizes would be easy.

Yep, I'm a total sucker for a bargain.  So a declaration I was absolutely smitten with the Ford Fiesta CL prompted knowing nods from my partner who assumed its low price colored my judgement.

There's no disputing this little ripper is value for money. The base model includes air-conditioning, CD sound system, power steering, electric windows, two airbags, anti-skid brakes and remote locking (check!).

More importantly though, the Fiesta is a great drive.  The peppy 1.6-litre engine made buzzing around inner-city op shops and vintage stores even more of a joy than usual.  It accelerates brilliantly, corners neatly, and has a particularly nifty gearbox.  It's slim shape slips into the squeeziest of parking spots, making me wish I could do the same in those useless skinny jeans! There's a bit of a blind spot when reversing though.

Thoughtful touches such as parking and interior lights that illuminate when you unlock it add to the impression of safety — great for women out late on their own.  As well as being practical, this beauty is more stylish than its boxy competitors, with modern curves inside and out.

The dashboard is perhaps a bit too space-age  — I struggled to figure out the radio toggle and an off-putting sprawl of other buttons, but GenY would probably get it.  The cheap fabric seat coverings and some plastic fittings on the trim are minor quibbles, though by no means deal-breakers.

There's absolutely no danger this little number will sit unloved in the driveway of any bargain hunter — even if you do opt for the rather hideous metallic lime green color they call "Squeeze".

Ford Fiesta CL
Price: From $16,090 (three-door)
Engine: 1.6-litre
Economy: 6.1 litres/100km
Features: Dual airbags, four-speaker CD stereo with MP3 capability, power steering, air conditioning, remote central locking, electric front windows

Kathryn Firkin

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  • Easy manouvrability
  • High visibility
  • Fuel economy
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  • Lack of passenger side airbag
  • No steering wheel controls
  • Lack of compartment space

I SUPPOSE it's easy to be impressed when you start with rock bottom expectations, but this car has definitely surprised me.  It's hard not to feel underwhelmed when you're told you'll be testing Australia's cheapest car, but from the get go the Proton S16 has been a winner.

The lack of luxuries aside — because let's face it, there are none — this car is great to drive.  It's a lovely change driving off in a new car without feeling like you first need to read a manual.  Everything is simple and easy to use, and there are no nasty surprises.

The car comes with power steering and is easy to handle.  Ducking in and out of busy city traffic is a breeze, and even the horn is surprisingly powerful.
Space inside the car is also impressive.  Unlike many of its cheap counterparts, the Proton S16 won't cause too many cramped legs, or cause squabbles over who gets to ride in the front passenger seat.

Having said that, you probably also won't have friends cue up to go for a ride with you.  It's also unlikely to raise your social status, impress prospective dates, or intimidate that jerk who cut you off.

The car has character, despite being basic.  I even found myself giggling when I discovered I had to use a key to open the boot — very old school.

It's biggest downside is the single driver's side airbag.  Unfortunately that's a pretty big downside in my books.  Another shortcoming is the sound quality of the stereo.  With just two speakers, music lovers will be wanting to upgrade their stereos straight away — or risk listening to tinny, faint tunes.

There is no automatic version of the Proton S16 yet, although that's coming this year.  But while shifting between first and second gears in bumper traffic is not always a joy, you'll be surprised how quickly you move through the five gears on an open road.

For a small — and cheap — car, the Proton S16 is surprisingly powerful and reaches 100km/h relatively effortlessly.  It is also fairly fuel efficient, with an economy of 6.3L/100km.  The bargain price tag means you probably also won't have too many concerns squeezing into tight parking spaces, or navigating hectic shopping centre carparks.

So should you buy one?  As a basic, daily commuter car the Proton S16 is great value.  As a family car, or people mover, the safety features on this car are not really good enough.

Proton S16
Price: From $11,990
Engine: 1.6-litre
Economy: 6.0 litres/100km
Features: Driver's airbag, two-speaker CD stereo, power steering, air conditioning, remote central locking with immobiliser and alarm, rear parking sensors
Proton S16
Price: From $11,990
Engine: 1.6-litre
Economy: 6.0 litres/100km
Features: Driver's airbag, two-speaker CD stereo, power steering, air conditioning, remote central locking with immobiliser and alarm, rear parking sensors

Pricing guides

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Range and Specs

G 1.3L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $2,400 – 4,070 2010 Proton S16 2010 G Pricing and Specs
GX 1.6L, ULP, 5 SP MAN $2,400 – 4,180 2010 Proton S16 2010 GX Pricing and Specs
GXR 1.6L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO $2,600 – 4,510 2010 Proton S16 2010 GXR Pricing and Specs
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Disclaimer: The pricing information shown in the editorial content (Review Prices) is to be used as a guide only and is based on information provided to Carsguide Autotrader Media Solutions Pty Ltd (Carsguide) both by third party sources and the car manufacturer at the time of publication. The Review Prices were correct at the time of publication.  Carsguide does not warrant or represent that the information is accurate, reliable, complete, current or suitable for any particular purpose. You should not use or rely upon this information without conducting an independent assessment and valuation of the vehicle.