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Volkswagen Up! v Nissan Micra v Fiat 500 2013

The VW Up is the only one to make any concession to modern driving aids.

Small makes sense in the urban jungle. Size translates into less cost at purchase and at the petrol station, along with less grief when shoehorning into parking spots that regular cars rightly shy away from.

The Volkswagen Up, Nissan Micra and Fiat 500 represent the best of the sub-compact breed, built to cope with daily city commutes yet deal with the occasional run out of town. Generally bought by empty-nesters who have moved into an inner-city apartment or as first cars for university students, they're the definition of basic transport - unless you want to take your chances on two wheels.

VALUE

There isn't much separating this trio, especially in the manual gearbox, base-model spec Carsguide tested. The Nissan is the cheapest at first glance with a $13,490 sticker for the entry ST. That buys Bluetooth connectivity, four-speaker sound system and not much else. Dealer charges will push it above the drive-away price of these rivals, though.

The Fiat 500 Pop costs $14,000 to drive from a dealership. Bluetooth, daytime running lights and six-speaker audio are standard. The VW is - until October 31 - $14,990 drive-away for the five-door manual. Carsguide recommends dropping another $500 for the smartphone sized satnav/Bluetooth/trip computer screen. Trouble is, this puts the price on par with the likes of the more spacious Ford Fiesta.

TECHNOLOGY

The Up is the only one to make any concession to modern driving aids. The baby VW is fitted with a radar that scans the traffic ahead and will automatically brake to help avoid an accident. It works up to 35km/h. The Micra is about to earn a major midlife makeover, including the addition of USB/auxiliary ports and multimedia touchscreen.

For now, though, Bluetooth connection is as trendy as the tiny Nissan gets. Fiat's 500 has steering wheel-mounted media controls, USB and auxiliary inputs and adjustable weighting of the electric steering for city and highway use.

DESIGN

The 500 looks the goods, based on the reaction to being seen in the diminutive Fiat. The bubble shape gives it a unique style that is matched by a colourful interior, highlighted by the metal-look plastic strip that sweeps across the dash in the same hue as the exterior paint. Looks aren't everything - rear seat occupancy will be limited by the head and legroom and the 185-litre boot is well down on the opposition. And it's only available as a three-door.

VW's minimalist interior makes maximum use of the space. The boxy shape gives rear passengers relatively decent room and the 251-litre boot is equal with the Micra. The exposed interior door panels mirror the exterior colour but it would have been nice to continue that approach on the plastic strip across the fascia rather than leave it in austere piano black.

The Micra isn't as curvy as the Fiat nor as blocks as the VW. Solely among this trio it can carry five people but the rear occupants had better be related or prepared to be very cosy. The humped dash and round air vents give it a distinctive look but the audio and airconditioning controls look dated against the European duo.

SAFETY

Top marks go to the Fiat with an ANCAP rating of 34.91/37. It packs seven airbags into the tiny interior and earns five stars. The Up is a more controversial car. It is rated at 33.37/37 and is rated a five-star car but the absence of rear airbags may concern some potential buyers.

In contrast, the Micra is four-star rated despite having six airbags. It scored 31.11/37 with ANCAP noting of the frontal offset crash test: "the passenger compartment held its shape well except for pedal movement".

DRIVING

Prepare to become adept at changing gears in any of these cars. The small-capacity engines mean the manual transmission is constantly in use to keep up with the traffic and that's exacerbated with a full load or on hills. Pushed hard through the turns, the driving dynamics of the Europeans show they are a class above the Micra (not that many owners will drive out of their familiar territory to find a twisty piece of road).

In the trio's natural urban habitat the Up has the best suspension balance, exhibiting a firm ride and enough compliance to deal with corrugations and speed humps without jostling the occupants. The gearbox is the slickest-shifting of this group, too, and VW's 1.0-litre triple-cylinder engine is happy to rev to the redline. The drivetrain is also the most fuel-efficient of this bunch and the build quality is a highlight. Not being able to adjust the passenger's power window from the driver's side is one of few downsides.

In the sportier Fiat, the ride is fairly fidgety, especially for those unlucky enough to be in the back. Poor rear vision also hurts it when changing lanes and reverse parking. The gearshift lever is ideally mounted but the shifts aren't as smooth as in the VW. The softer-sprung Micra is the cushiest ride around town but consequently tends to wallow more through corners. The Nissan's gearchanges are crisp and it has the smallest turning circle here but road noise is relatively intrusive and it is by far the thirstiest. When running costs count, using an extra litre of fuel every 100km and needing six-monthly services does it no favours.

VERDICT

The Up just wins this contest, if you can deal with no rear airbags. Five doors and more room give it a practical edge over the Fiat despite the $990 price difference. Fashionable folk will still want the Fiat, though. The Micra is still in the hunt, particularly if comfort is a priority, but Nissan needs to sharpen the price of the coming update.

Pricing Guides

$7,490
Based on 9 cars listed for sale in the last 6 months
Lowest Price
$5,989
Highest Price
$10,980

Range and Specs

VehicleSpecsPrice*
(base) 1.0L, PULP, 5 SP MAN $5,989 – 10,980 2013 Volkswagen Up! 2013 (base) Pricing and Specs