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Small is BIG again

Entry-level car buyers have long had a lean time of it in Canada. Historically, the relative cheapness of gasoline created little demand for inexpensive subcompacts that can run on the smell of an oil rag.

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Entry-level car buyers have long had a lean time of it in Canada. Historically, the relative cheapness of gasoline created little demand for inexpensive subcompacts that can run on the smell of an oil rag. In turn, that left little incentive for automakers to supply small cars, especially given their correspondingly small profit margins. It’s probably no exaggeration to say that the profit on a single large pickup or SUV is greater than the entire selling price of a typical subcompact car.

The Americans have a lot to answer for, too. They are even less invested in conserving energy than we are. And when automakers conclude that a given car isn’t viable in the vast American market, that usually means we can’t have it either — it’s not worth the bother, just for our little market.

Worse, there’s the old chicken-or-egg conundrum. The few subcompacts that have been offered here haven’t been very good. Even shoppers who were receptive to the idea of driving small were turned off by the dull and dreary reality. Small demand meant small supply — and vice versa.

All of the above, however, is changing in a hurry. Even before the recent gas-price shocks, the subcompact segment was being re-energized. Toyota Canada’s decision to bring us the Echo hatchback in mid-2003 sparked new interest. The choices expanded further when GM and Suzuki added their respective Chevrolet Aveo and Suzuki Swift cousins for 2004, followed by the Pontiac Wave in 2005.

And that was just the beginning. Toyota’s second-generation Echo, renamed Yaris, is already on sale (see page 32). So are the all-new and astonishingly competent Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio. As well, Honda will finally bring us its highly regarded Jazz next spring, and Nissan has announced it will launch Versa, a new entry-level model, in mid-2006.

Other automakers have yet to reveal their hands, but in other markets Ford, Mazda and Volkswagen all sell excellent subcompacts that are possibilities — maybe even probabilities — for North American sale. It’s only a matter of time.

Further fuelling the trend is growing acceptance of hatchbacks in the minds of Canadian consumers. Thanks largely to the success of five-door compacts like the Mazda Protege5 and Hyundai Elantra, hatchbacks are coming to be seen as cool, not crude.

In other parts of the world, a hatchback is the standard format for subcompacts (or, as they call them in Europe, superminis). Yet when Toyota first brought the Echo to North America, it felt obliged to design that gawky sedan version as a sop to our hatchophobic tastes.

Now, however, hatchback versions of the Echo far outsell the sedan in Canada.

In broad terms, the cars we’re talking about here are small front-wheel drivers that are (in hatchback forms) less than four metres (157 inches) in body length. Sedan versions, where they exist, run at about 4.2 metres.

Elsewhere in the world, their engines may start as small as 1.0-litres, but we’d likely only get the largest gasoline engine options — typically 1.5- or 1.6-litres. In Europe, diesel superminis are also commonplace, achieving phenomenal fuel economy in these lightweight cars. But don’t hold your breath waiting for a VW Polo TDI.

So, if you’re interested in shopping this segment, should you jump in now, or wait to see what else is coming down the ‘pike? Perhaps the following will help you decide.

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ALREADY HERE

SUZUKI SWIFT+

The reborn Swift is a clone of GM’s Korean-built Aveo and Wave, except that unlike the GM versions, the Suzuki comes only as a five-door hatchback. Equipment levels and options may also differ — for example, ABS is not offered on the Swift+, but side-impact front airbags are now standard. Mechanically it’s the same car as the GM versions, with the same strengths and weaknesses. The engine is neither especially powerful nor economical by subcompact standards, but the car hums along nicely on the highway. The interior is roomy, and the fold-and-flip back seat can bring home some pretty big boxes from the Big Box store.

THE LINE-UP

SWIFT+ $13,745

SWIFT+ S $15,945

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CHEVROLET AVEO/PONTIAC WAVE

Designed and built by GM’s Korean subsidiary, Daewoo, the Aveo enters its third model year in Canada (second for its Pontiac clone), with retuned suspension, various trim and option revisions, dual-stage front airbags and optional front-seat side-impact airbags. The 1.6-litre, 103-hp engine is somewhat less than state-of-the-art, though these are decent highway cruisers. The rear seat-back is a 60/40 split, or you can fold-and-flip the whole seat for a huge cargo hold when maximum stuff-space is needed. Aveo and Wave each come in two trim levels of sedan or 5-dr hatchback. Noteworthy options include ABS and a power sunroof.

THE LINE-UP

AVEO LS/WAVE BASE SEDAN $11,795

AVEO LT/WAVE UPLEVEL SEDAN $13,125

AVEO LS/WAVE BASE HATCH $11,995

AVEO LT/WAVE UPLEVEL HATCH $13,320

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HYUNDAI ACCENT

The 2006 Accent, so far only offered as a sedan, shares its underpinnings and 1.6-litre, 110-hp engine with its corporate cousin, the Kia Rio. The new engine, with continuously-variable cam timing, is smooth and torquey, making it a good partner for the optional four-speed automatic transmission. The ’06 GL sedans go for the same prices as the ’05s, while a new GLS trim grade adds four-wheel-disc ABS brakes and front side-impact and side-curtain airbags. The previous-generation 3-dr and 5-dr hatchbacks continue for now, little changed from 2005; a sporty 3-dr-only replacement (with 215/45R16 tires!) is due next Spring.

THE LINE-UP

GS 3-DR $12,995

GL 5-DR $14,245

GL 3-DR COMFORT $14,520

GL 5-DR COMFORT $15,545

GSI 3-DR $14,720

GL SEDAN $13,995

GL SEDAN COMFORT $15,295

GLS SEDAN $16,695

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KIA RIO

The 2006 Rios — five-door hatch and four-door sedan — represent a quantum leap for Kia. Sharing their architecture with the new Hyundai Accent, they boast smooth, lively engines (1.6L, 110 hp), roomy interiors, and, at least on the Sport we drove, fun handling. All models have 60/40-split rear seats (though even on the hatch they don’t fold flush with the cargo deck) as well as power steering, driver-seat height adjuster and AM/FM/CD/MP3 player. A Convenience package adds power equipment and A/C; a 5-door-only Sport model includes the Convenience package and adds “sporty” cosmetics plus aluminum wheels and bigger tires. None of the Rios, however, can be had with ABS.

THE LINE-UP

EX SEDAN $13,295

EX SEDAN CONVENIENCE $14,995

EX 5-DR $13,695

EX 5-DR CONVENIENCE $15,395

EX 5-DR SPORT $15,995

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COMING SOON

HONDA JAZZ

Due here next spring, the Jazz (a.k.a. Fit in some markets) may just be the state of the art in subcompacts. Certainly it’s the top-selling car in Japan, and has been rated very highly in independent quality surveys. Arguably, its crowning glory is the astonishing amount of passenger room and ultra-flexible luggage space that Honda has packaged into this small car. Specs for the Canadian version aren’t out yet, so we may get a different engine than the revvy 1.5-litre VTEC engine available elsewhere. Likewise the optional CVT automatic with its seven-speed sequential “manual” shift mode (a five-speed manual is standard). But we do expect ABS to be standard, as will be electric power steering.

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NISSAN VERSA

A move upmarket for the next-generation Sentra will make the new Versa (a.k.a.Tiida in other markets) an entry-level car for Nissan Canada. But this is no reborn Micra (remember those?) Versa’s 1.8-litre engine and 4.2-metre length (for the hatchback) position it closer to compacts like the VW Golf than to the other subcompacts featured here. The interior is claimed to be exceptionally roomy, and the rear seat can be slid fore-aft over a range of 240 mm (9.4 in.). The 1.8-litre engine is projected to yield 120 horsepower and 46 mpg (6.2 L/100 km) with the available CVT automatic. The standard transmission will be a six-speed manual, and a four-speed automatic is also available. Versa will be built in Mexico for Canada and the U.S.

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WISH LIST

MAZDA2

Mazda Canada makes no secret of the fact that it would like to sell the Mazda2 here. “Our dealers are always asking,” says spokesman Greg Young. The decision, however, lies with Mazda HQ in Japan, and it hasn’t yet decided that there’s a business case to be made. The car in question actually borrows its basic architecture from the Ford Fiesta, but is significantly taller, for greater space-efficiency, and comes only as a five-door. The Ford-based engine range also tops out with a 100-hp 1.6-litre unit. The next generation of the Mazda2/Fiesta architecture, incidentally, will be engineered by Mazda, not Ford.

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FORD FIESTA/FUSION

Ford is on record that it intends to bring us a sub-Focus small car — it’s just a question of which one, and when. The “obvious” answer is Ford of Europe’s established B-segment car, the Fiesta. Over there, a 1.6-litre 16-valve Duratec engine rated at 100 horsepower is the largest mainstream engine. Another possibility is their Fusion, a quasi-SUVish “urban activity vehicle” based on the Fiesta. But the strength of the Euro could make either Spanish-built Ford an expensive proposition. The alternative might be a Brazilian-made Fiesta, which has the advantage of also being made as a sedan — a style not offered in Europe. The Brazilian Fiesta is based on the European architecture, but has a different 8-valve “RoCam” 1.6-litre engine rated at 105 horsepower.

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VOLKSWAGEN POLO/FOX

Volkswagen has said in the past that it will bring the Polo to Canada in its next generation. The current generation is four years old, though it had a significant freshening last spring. In any event, like most VWs, the Polo is a premium contender in its segment. The top mainstream engine in Europe is a 100-hp 1.4-litre, but we’d likely get at least a 1.6 — it already exists in South Africa, for example.

Then again, maybe VW will go the Brazilian route and bring back the Fox (remember those?) The latest Fox is now being exported to Europe as an entry-level model. The three-door four-seater is a tad smaller than the subcompact norm and sells for 8,950 Euros — way less than a base Polo, which asks 11,250 Euros. An adjustable rear seat is optional and the top engine is a 75-hp 1.4-litre unit.

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HYUNDAI GETZ

Hyundai already has a subcompact in the Accent, but that doesn’t stop Hyundai Canada from wanting to sell the Getz here. At 3.81 metres long (12.5 ft), the Getz isn’t much smaller than the coming 2007 Accent, but it does have five doors, while the new Accent will be a 3-door. The Getz’s top engine is a 1.6-litre that should be fine for North American duty. As yet, however, Hyundai head office has not agreed to send it over. Local Hyundai spokesman Tom MacPherson notes, “it’s selling so well elsewhere that there might not be enough production capacity to supply North America too.”

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