Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Test Drives: Subcompact Showdown

Over the past few weeks, my fiancee and I have looked at a few subcompact hatchbacks. You can read the individual reviews for those by clicking on the following links:

2013 Honda Fit Sport
2013 Mazda2 Sport
2012 Ford Fiesta SES
2013 Chevrolet Sonic LT
2014 Nissan Versa Note SV

The subcompact car has made quite a boom in the last few years. With ever rising gas prices making it impractical to plod around town in a giant SUV, many car buyers looking for their first car want something that offers the space of an SUV, but the efficiency of a small car. Subcompact hatchbacks are designed to offer the best of both worlds, with cargo space that rivals some small SUVs, and small, fuel efficient engines. Of the five we tested though, which one offers the best bang for the buck? Read on to find out!

*Starting with this comparison, standings will be determined with a point system. Each category will have a maximum of five points, with 1st place receiving five points, 2nd receiving four points, 3rd receiving three, 4th receiving two, and 5th receiving one.  

Exterior

1st Place = Honda Fit Sport
2nd Place = Mazda2 Sport
3rd Place = Chevrolet Sonic LT
4th Place = Ford Fiesta SES
5th Place = Nissan Versa Note SV

There was a pretty wide range of looks among the contenders here, everything from sporty to cute to downright boring. The Fit falls into the sporty and aggressive category, and is, what I think, the best looking subcompact currently on the market. While still offering a sporty look, the Mazda2 takes second place as its look leans a bit more towards cute than sporty. The Chevrolet Sonic looks pretty aggressive, but seems to try a bit too hard with its gigantic maw at the front, scoring it a third place finish in this round up. Ford's Fiesta also falls into the same category as the Sonic, but I still cannot seem to get over the front end of the car, putting it in fourth. Last, is the boring looking Versa Note. Maybe it is just me, but even the first generation Versa looked a bit more exciting than the current one.

Interior

1st Place = Honda Fit Sport
2nd Place = Mazda2 Sport
3rd Place = Ford Fiesta SES
4th Place = Chevrolet Sonic LT
5th Place = Nissan Versa Note SV

Even when it comes to interior build quality, Honda still takes top honors. With the exception of the 2012 Civic, Honda has always been pretty good about using quality materials across its entire lineup, and not just for the more expensive cars. The Mazda2 has a fine interior too, but there is a lot of blank space on the dash, which makes the car feel empty and sparse. While the exterior of the Fiesta SES does not look as good as the Sonic LT, it does have slightly better interior materials than the Sonic LT. Maybe the Fiesta's mess of buttons hides the cheap plastic. Of course, that leaves the Versa in last again, which is no surprise. Odds are, the Versa is going to end up a rental car staple again, which means the interior should be pretty durable. Unfortunately, it certainly does not look that way. The buttons and plastic surrounding it feel like they are going to fall apart with the slightest bit of pressure. Definitely not good.

Engine and Transmission

1st Place = Chevrolet Sonic LT
2nd Place = Honda Fit Sport
3rd Place = Ford Fiesta SES
4th Place = Nissan Versa Note SV
5th Place = Mazda2 Sport

The Chevrolet Sonic LT takes a first place win in this category. While every car had a transmission with clunky downshifts, with the lone exception of the Versa Note's CVT, it is the Sonic's turbocharged 1.4 liter engine that helps it win this category. This engine makes the most horsepower and torque out of the group, and is still able to achieve a fairly impressive 27 MPG in the city and 34 MPG on the highway. What also impressed  me about the Sonic's turbo engine was how smooth it was. The Honda Fit could have won this category, but despite having the smoothest slushbox transmission of the group, the engine could have used more power and the transmission probably could have used another gear. The Fiesta SES takes a third place finish again as its transmission could really use a bit of work, but its 1.6 liter engine puts out decent power and fuel economy figures. Surprisingly, the Versa Note is not in last place this time. While its 1.6 liter engine makes the least horsepower per liter and sounds like it is constantly wheezing, the continuously variable transmission is OK and the car does get impressive fuel economy. Mazda takes a last place finish here with the Mazda2 as its engine makes the least power, and only gets decent fuel economy numbers (28 city/34 highway). However, it is not the Mazda2's lack of power that puts it in last place, it is the ancient technology the engine is strapped to that puts it in last place. Every other car here has at least five or more gears, or uses a continuously variable transmission, but not the Mazda. For whatever reason, Mazda decided to strap the Mazda2's tiny 1.4 liter engine to an ancient four-speed automatic transmission. Not only is the technology ancient, Mazda could not even be bothered to update it to make it smoother. My old 1997 Honda Accord LX had a four-speed automatic and it was way smoother than the unit in the Mazda2.

Handling, Steering, and Ride Quality

1st Place = Mazda2 Sport
2nd Place = Chevrolet Sonic LT
3rd Place = Honda Fit Sport
4th Place = Ford Fiesta SES
5th Place = Nissan Versa Note SV

Recovering from its last place finish in the previous category is the Mazda2, taking first place in this category. While the engine and transmission in the Mazda2 are slow and clunky, Mazda certainly knows what to do with the suspension and handling characteristics of their cars. The Mazda2 exhibited the best compromise of sporty handling and ride comfort. This, coupled with a well weighted and communicative steering wheel makes the Mazda2 the best handling car of this group. The Chevrolet Sonic LT also exhibits great handling manners similar to that of the Mazda2. What kept the Sonic LT from tying with the Mazda2 was that its suspension was a little bit rougher than the Mazda2 and the steering could have been just a bit more communicative. Honda takes third in this category with the Fit. Despite being one of the better handling vehicles in this group, the Fit's suspension is actually pretty rough compared to the rest of the crowd. If you have ever looked at some of the handling figures put out by the Fit Sport though, you would understand why the Fit is set up that way. Of course, if Honda could have found a way to retain the sporty handling while making the car smoother over bumps and rough road, I think the Fit would have easily taken first in this category. The Fiesta and Versa Note take fourth and fifth place respectively. The Fiesta's suspension is definitely on the softer side and feels like it rolls a little bit more than the top three cars in this category. As for the Versa? I did mention in my review that driving the Versa made me extremely nervous. The car is extremely soft, and any sudden movement makes the car feel like it is going to tip over. There is just far too much understeer and body roll to make me ever want to drive a Versa Note ever again.

Noise, Vibration, Harshness

1st Place = Nissan Versa Note SV
2nd Place = Ford Fiesta SES
3rd Place = Chevrolet Sonic LT
4th Place = Honda Fit Sport
5th Place = Mazda2 Sport

Despite the pounding the Versa Note has taken so far, it does do one thing right: subduing noise, vibration, and harshness. Nissan's decision to use a CVT means that the Versa's 1.6 liter inline-4 will be revving at fairly low RPMs at cruising speeds. The lower RPMs also means less buzzing and droning from the engine at speed. Road noise was also surprisingly minimal in the Versa, probably thanks to its extremely soft suspension and eco-friendly tire choice. The Fiesta also does a surprisingly good job at minimizing NVH as well, but is not quite there against the Versa. Cabin noise, like in the Versa, was low enough to hold a conversation at normal volume, but the engine did buzz a little more than in the Versa. The Sonic LT places third here, though not because of engine noise. Chevy actually did a pretty good job of minimizing engine noise at speed, ensuring that you only really hear the engine when stomping on the gas pedal. Instead, the Sonic's NVH problem come from the cheap plastic panels it uses. While going over rough road, I could hear the panels rattle, and the rattling seemed to be extremely apparent from that funny looking motorcycle like dash. As fort he Mazda2 and Honda Fit? While both cars are extremely well built and exhibited no NVH problems related to the interior, it is the engines that cause the greatest problem. With the Fit Sport, you can hear the engine droning at speed, which can get pretty irritating after a while. Honda also seems to have an issue with dampening wind noise, and this problem was quite apparent in the Fit. I could still hold a conversation with the sales person and my fiancee in the Fit, but I noticed I did have to speak a little louder than in the top three cars. The Mazda2 suffers the exact same problems as the Fit, but takes it up a notch. Engine buzzing is a real issue with the Mazda2 due to its extreme lack of power and ancient transmission. That problem, coupled with a lot of road and wind noise made it a little hard to talk to the sales person and my fiancee.

Cargo Capacity

1st Place = Honda Fit Sport
2nd Place = Chevrolet Sonic LT
3rd Place = Nissan Versa Note SV
4th Place = Mazda2 Sport
5th Place = Ford Fiesta SES

Honda takes this category with ease, offering class leading cargo space at 57.3 cu.ft. with the seats down. That is as much cargo space as some SUVs! The Sonic LT comes in second with a seat down cargo capacity of 47.7 cu.ft. Unfortunately for the Sonic though, it does not seem like it has nearly 48 cu.ft. of space at first glance thanks to the cargo cover. Once it is removed though, the full 47.7 cu.ft. of space is readily accessible. Third place goes to the Versa Note SV at 38.3 cu.ft. Also of note, the Versa offers the greatest rear leg room, coincidentially at 38.3 inches. The Mazda2 Sport places fourth with its relatively small 27.4 cu.ft. of cargo space. This was the car that left my fiancee in shock with how little space there was during a trip back to Sacramento. In last place is the Ford Fiesta SES at 26 cu.ft. If there is one thing that is certain, you certainly do not want to go on a Costco shopping spree with the last two cars.

Value

1st Place = Honda Fit Sport
2nd Place = Chevrolet Sonic LT
3rd Place = Mazda2 Sport
4th Place = Nissan Versa Note SV
5th Place = Ford Fiesta SES

Out of all the cars here, Honda's Fit Sport is probably the best value. With an as tested price of $18,800, the Fit offers a bevy of standard equipment, the most cargo space of the group, a high quality interior, good gas mileage figures, a sporty ride, great looks, and the reliability that is associated with Honda products. The Sonic LT takes second place despite being the most expensive car tested in this group at $19,860. Despite the highest price tag though, you are still getting amazing optional features such as a turbocharged engine with good gas mileage, and a touch screen infotainment display. The Sonic LT also comes with a decent set of standard features as well, but had we been testing a Sonic without the optional turbo engine and touch screen, I doubt it would have placed this high. Mazda takes third in this category as the Mazda2 does come reasonably well equipped for such a low price. However, the Mazda2 is also the weakest vehicle power wise, and has the second least amount of cargo space. Let us not forget that your money is paying for ancient transmission technology as well. Surprisingly not in last place is the Nissan Versa Note. Coming in with the second lowest as tested price, the Versa does not have a whole lot of standard equipment like the other vehicles, but for its low price, you are getting a decent amount of cargo space and the best fuel economy of the group. Sure, driving the car might put you to sleep, but at least you can sleep soundly knowing you did not pay a lot of money for this car, and you are saving money on gas! Finally, the Fiesta SES comes in last place. Coming in with the second highest as tested price, the Fiesta's equipment load out really does not justify the price. For about $500 more, you can get a Sonic LT with a more powerful engine, a touch screen infotainment system, and more cargo space.

Final Results

1st Place = Honda Fit Sport (29 pts.)
2nd Place = Chevrolet Sonic LT (25 pts.)
3rd Place = Mazda2 Sport (20 pts.)
4th Place = Ford Fiest SES (16 pts.)
5th Place = Nissan Versa Note SV (15 pts.)

The current generation Honda Fit was introduced to the United States market back in 2009, making it the oldest model of this bunch. Yet, despite its age, the Honda Fit continues to be a favorite among the automotive press. During this comparison, both my fiancee and I could see why. The Fit has the best cargo space in this class, has a decent amount of power, gets good fuel mileage figures, handles incredibly well, and offers an amazing amount of standard equipment. Honda's usual fit and finish gives the Fit one of the best interiors in this class, and its mid-cycle face lift also makes it one of the best looking in its class. It is unfortunate that sales of the Fit have slowed quite a bit, most likely due to its age and lack of inventory. Fortunately, pictures of the next generation Fit are already floating around the internet, and it definitely looks like another winner. With Honda's nearly finished Mexico plant slated to produce the Fit for the North American market, supply should not be too big of an issue either. Look forward to seeing the next generation Fit as a 2015 model.

As for the loser of the comparison, I suppose it was no real surprise. As mentioned in my review of the Nissan Versa Note, the first generation Versa was already widely considered to be an incredibly boring and cheap vehicle. Despite the criticisms of the first generation car, Nissan seemingly buried their head in the sand with their ears plugged, screaming "LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!" the entire time. The result is another half-assed subcompact from the same company that produces the world beating GT-R super car. With how poorly this new generation of the Versa turned out, I would believe it if someone told me Nissan has spent most of their development budget on the GT-R. Of course, Nissan could have also blown their development budget on those few rich oil shieks clamoring to get their hands on the Juke-R. Either way, I expect the Versa Note to start showing up on rental car lots very soon, and would not be at all surprised if the bulk of the Versa's sales came from fleet sales.