Motoring expert Dr John Wright looks at today's compact cars.
Review small cars MiTo
It is getting harder to say where small stops and medium begins. The official industry categories of light, small and medium can be confusing. But one thing is sure, there are few small cars of the type that were common in the 1960s and 1970s. Just check out a current (BMW) MINI against the original 1959 model for a perspective on how much bigger 'small' has become.
Alfa Romeo MiTo
The Mini was always charming, while many of its rivals were boring. Today there is plenty of choice and many newcomers are quite radical in style. The Alfa Romeo MiTo is a car of great chic and it was designed to compete with the new generation MINI range. Prices start at $31,490 meaning it is hardly your bargain basement entry model, which is part of the point: small no longer means cheap. You don't think about buying a small car just because you can't afford a larger one but because it makes great sense to do so. Compact is probably a better term than small in today's context.
The MiTo (whose name comes from the Italian cities Milano and Torino) is a descendant of the legendary Alfasud Ti and will appeal not only to traditional enthusiasts of the marque but also to new customers. Five star safety and a raft of innovative features including hill holder and DNA (the choice between Dynamic, Normal and All Weather modes for steering and throttle response) are standard.
New turbocharged 1.4 litre petrol engines are used in the MiTo. The standard MiTo has 88 kW of power and 204 Nm while the Sport model boasts 114 kW of power, 230 Nm of torque and a zero to 100 km/h split of eight seconds flat. The Sport also gets a six speed manual instead of a five-speeder. The MiTo averages 6.1 litres per 100 km and the Sport 6.5, both of which figures are impressive for such lively cars. At this stage there is no automatic transmission on offer, which reminds one of Alfa tradition in the 1980s.
The Sport costs $37,490 but adds lots more features including a carbon fibre look fascia, 17 inch alloys, Brembo brakes, that extra gear ratio and Bluetooth telematics. It ain't cheap but it does look like great value to me.
The Fiat Punto is another of those smaller cars that defies categorisation. Officially classified as a light car, it is comparable in size to many models in the small car segment.
This is an especially striking car of crisp, integrated design, which stands out from the traffic and attracts plenty of positive comments. Significantly, the Punto (Grand Punto in most other markets) was designed by the same studio (Giugiaro) which created the original mid-1970s Volkswagen Golf, another car that defied categorisation but which went on to provide a new blueprint for 'small' car design.
Three engines are offered in various combinations with five and six speed manual transmissions and a five speed automatic. Prices range from the low $20K area, which does mean the Punto will appeal to the budget-minded buyer keen to drive a stylish machine. It is well worth the extra four grand or so for the turbodiesel variant, which has 66 kW and a six speed manual gearbox and is great fun to drive as well as ultra economical at just 4.4 litres per 100 kilometres, a figure not possible in a 1959 Mini! Five star safety adds further to its appeal.
A comfortable and spacious interior belies the Punto's compact exterior dimensions. You sit quite high with a commanding view down the short bonnet. Unlike Fiats of the distant past, the controls are logically arranged. Even more importantly, the driving position suits people of all shapes and sizes, no longer favouring those with long arms and short legs.
One of the larger 'small' cars is Mitsubishi's excellent Lancer. The name has been around for decades and few vehicles in any market category have the heritage this one enjoys. Think Lancer Evo and you get the picture. How many cars with a starting price of $21,990 before all those drive-away costs have the same basic shape as a $73,390 model?
The Holden Barina has been around for a long time and the latest version has lots of style to accompany its excellent reputation for low running costs.
You can drive a new Barina away from the showroom and have lots of change from $20K, even if you add some options. The 1.6 litre petrol engine supplies 76 kW of power and endows the Barina with lively performance as well as official average fuel economy of 6.9 litres per 100 kilometres in manual guise - but it would be easy enough to get the consumption down to 6.0 on a typical highway drive.
Outside and in, this is a stylish machine. Welcome features include MP3 compatible audio, six speaker sound system, height adjustable driver's seat, front and rear seat cup holders, power windows and steering wheel mounted remote audio controls.
The Honda City name dates back to the 1980s when it earned a reputation for style and economical running. The latest version is a beauty and very similar to a somewhat smaller Civic. Few manufacturers offer such elegant interiors as Honda and the City is a superb little all-rounder.
Hyundai's i30 hatch has been a top seller since its launch and the arrival of a cw wagon variant for a modest premium of $1500 suggests that the leading Korean marquee will soon have an even greater road presence. There is a wide range on offer but the petrol-engined Sportswagon at $29,990 offers outstanding value with beaut 17 inch alloys, air, stability control, leather trim and more.
The Subaru Impreza is unique among small cars in being all-wheel drive and having a 'boxer' engine. These are both merits but I suspect most buyers will find the five star safety equally important. Like the Lancer the Impreza benefits from kinship with the cult WRX and STi variants, but even the entry level models are responsive to drive and well equipped - and they have proven their safety credentials at the highest levels of Australian NCAP testing.
Actual prices for cars are set by dealers and may be more or less than the RRP indicated in this article and may also include dealer delivery fees and taxes. You should check the price of the car with your local dealer.