By Lloyd Frazier
The fastest growing automotive segment is small premium crossovers. But, the small car market is poised to lead the global industry soon. A lot of this is due to fast growing emerging markets such as India, China and Eastern Europe. The small car market is even starting to warm up in North America, where we love our SUV’s and trucks. The biggest challenge in the US market was close price comparison between a compact and mid-size vehicle. Those attitudes are beginning to change now that gasoline keeps spiking upwards. And it helps that the new small cars are becoming more stylish in design, built safer and are feature rich. That is why AutoRamblings has picked the small car segment for its first annual Picks and Pokes awards.
While perusing the many offerings at the Denver Auto Show last week, I had the opportunity to closely review many compacts and sub-compacts. I sat, I touched, I pretended to drive them, and not once did I steal a shifter knob. That’s because they were all ready five fingered before I got there! Not to get off the subject, but are we so uncivilized that the exhibitors have to remove anything that could be stolen. It is just plain ugly to sit in a brand new, high end vehicle with all knobs and levers removed. Not a good sales presentation. Why don’t they just give away shifter knobs at the booths so that jackasses don’t steal them from the vehicles. Where was I….oh, yeah….Picks and Pokes. In case you were wondering, a Pick – GOOD! A Poke – BAD!
As I was gathering my thoughts and trying to decide how to present this, I came to the conclusion that comparison tables and charts are over used and boring. Besides, most of us already know what we do or don’t like and are not usually persuaded to make conclusions based off those kinds of presentations. I will make one observation before I get started…where the hell are the domestics? From reviewing our Google Analytics over the past few months, I am happy to report we are growing our readership at a steady pace. With that bit of news, folks who come back to AutoRamblings frequently know that I have a bent towards domestic automobiles. It hurts me to say this, but GM, Ford and Chrysler are definitely lacking in viable compact and sub-compact cars. The Ford Focus looks hopelessly outdated, even with its new skin, and the Chevy Cobalt just does nothing for me, especially after GM stopped offering the SS with a supercharger. Chrysler only has the PT Cruiser. It was cute at birth, but it has entered puberty and is really starting to annoy me. In case you were wondering, those were Pokes. In keeping with typical journalistic style, I thought I would go negative right out of the gate. Here is a list of cars I looked at, all with varied trims and accessories. The one requirement was that it had to be either a 4 door sedan or 5 door hatch. There was a mixed bag of base, sport, and style packages so I took that into account. And the list is in not in any order of precedence. You have to remember, I did not get to drive these cars, although I pretended – kid at heart. Ratings are based on my opinion of exterior and interior qualities, safety, technology, and design – all my opinion, of course. One thing I need to mention, most all of the cars back seat room was abysmal. Most all needed improvement there.
Mitsubishi Lancer ES, Subaru Impreza, Chevy Aveo, Toyota Corolla LE, Honda Civic, Honda Fit, Nissan Sentra, Suzuki SX4 Sport, Dodge Caliber SXT, Saturn Astra, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda 3 and VW Rabbit.
I decided to mention only the top 6. There was a two way tie for 6th. Sounds like I’m flip-flopping doesn’t it.
There are two honorable mentions that were not part of the ratings. Honorable mention goes to Dodge Caliber because of its utilitarian usefulness and brawny, sporty appearance. And, Suzuki SX4 Sport for its low price all-wheel drive and great head and legroom. I would never buy either, but they may appeal to you. I have to also mention that Suzuki is a dark horse of sorts. They had 3 viable concepts and quality is improving. Watch your backside Toyota and Honda.
There were a lot of cars that I did not look at simply because I was trying to stick to a certain price range. Besides, I am really not much into European makes. The Gemans, Brits and Italians have there own set of ups and downs. I stuck with mostly Asian and domestics, with one German thrown in the mix because I have a history with the VW Rabbit. When I first met my wife, she drove a 1980 Rabbit and it was a nice little car. Since Germany is on the short list, lets get them out of the way now. German autos are big on safety and decent transmission technology. They also have great little diesel engines.
VW Rabbit – tied for 6th Place:
Exterior styling is in the middle of the pack. Driving position was decent. Interior was soft to the touch and controls well placed. Lots of quality technological features. Nicely equipped for around $21K. Great horsepower rating. MPG 21/29.
Nissan Sentra – tied for 6th Place:
Very Pleasing exterior design. Interior was one of the better in design. Good specs on engine. You could go for the CVT, but I wouldn’t. MPG of 25/33. Nicely equipped around $18K.
Honda Fit – 5th Place (most practical/best mileage):
Unfortunately, with my cheapo camera, a couple of the Honda Fit pics did not come out well. There were large groups of people hovering around this car. They were surprised at the quality, comfort and practicality of this little car. I included the picture of the stereo with its well placed, easy to find controls. Nothing real fancy, but best of the bunch. The interior was very nice. And, since this is a 5 door hatch, very practical for two adults, a couple of kids and a lot of groceries. MPG ratings was best of the Picks with mpg rating of 25/36. Well equipped, around $17K. The 2009 model is in for some minor changes. The only drawback of this vehicle for me, unlike the other Picks, this car is 100% Japanese parts and assembly.
Toyota Corolla – 4th Place:
Toyota re-designed the Corolla and the did a pretty decent job. The exterior is a big improvement over last year. The interior was spartan, but the quality touch and feel was very good. If you wanted a spruced up version, you could get a Scion tC. Just about the same car except for engine, drivetrain and accessories. Corollas has grown a bit in size, too. MPG of 27/33. Well equipped around $20K. Seems a bit overpriced for what you get.
Subaru Impreza – 3rd Place (highest quality interior):
This is the only all-wheel drive of the top 6 Picks. That is why the MPG rating of 20/27 is the lowest of the pack, just behind the highest horsepower rated VW Rabbit. The Impreza model I checked out was the high end package which contained the best interior of all the others. It had a luxurious look and feel. It also had the highest price at just over $21K. This car is probably the best pick for us folks in Colorado that have to navigate the snow and ice in the winter. All-wheel drive is nice to have in that situation. Nice job Subaru!
Mazda 3 – 2nd Place (most sporty appearance):
Mazda has been really putting out some nice product in the last few years. The Mazda 3 attests to that. This was the sportiest exterior and interior of the bunch. Unfortunately, all the knobs have been removed which degrades my picture. The best driving position of all the cars for my 6′ 1″ frame. It had a huge glove compartment. Nice, comfortable seats. MPG of 23/31. Nicely equipped for around $18K.
Honda Civic – First Place (best buy overall):
Honda is one of the best engineered cars on the road. And this new, 4 door sedan is a great example of that. The whole car felt tight as a drum. Best, ergonomics of the bunch, just behind its sibling the Honda Fit. This was another car people were all over. It was placed right next to the hybrid Civic, which was really getting looked over by the crowd. The LX I was looking at had a 5 speed automatic, MPG of 25/36, which is the same as the Fit, and just felt like quality from head to toe. And, unlike the Fit, it is 70% American content. This model, well equipped – $18,935.
If you want a compact car, you could not go wrong with any of the top 6 Picks. Let’s hope this makes the domestics steaming mad and start to build some quality small cars that can actually compete with these awesome examples.
Well, that wraps up the first Annual Picks and Pokes awards for 2008. It promises to be even better next year. I want to personally thank all my avid readers for their support and clicks on my site. It is really starting to get exciting.
Lloyd, signing out…