VW Polo v Mazda 2 v Renault Clio v Peugeot 208 v Honda Jazz v Suzuki Swift v Ford Fiesta v Toyota Yaris v Holden Barina comparison review

Volkswagen Polo v Mazda 2 v Renault Clio v Peugeot  208 v  Honda Jazz v Suzuki Swift v Ford  Fiesta v Toyota Yaris v Holden Barina comparison review

Nine feisty, funky and affordable hatchbacks duke it out for urban supremacy. Can our reigning champ and 2010 COTY winner Volkswagen Polo blitz this fresh field of contenders?

First published in the March 2015 issue of Wheels magazine, Australia’s most experienced and most trusted car magazine since 1953.

SMALL DOESN'T have to mean stingy. For a tenner under $17K, you can get a new car with a reversing camera, cruise control, a centre touchscreen, two USB ports and reclining rear seats, not to mention stuff that has become standard fare in this class – multiple airbags, ABS brakes, air-con, power windows and mirrors, central locking, even full colour-coding. Oh, and a new car warranty.

Back in the day, you’d be lucky to get carpet and a clock.

Life won’t be easy for Honda’s value-packed Jazz, though (the car with all the aforementioned fruit). As prices sharpen and abilities improve, it’ll take more than class-leading equipment and tape-measure prowess to ace 2015’s light-car class. Mazda’s new-generation 2 is primed for some serious argy-bargy, while Volkwagen’s refreshed Polo and Toyota’s facelifted Yaris aren’t giving up without a fight.

Peugeot, Ford and Suzuki have tweaked their 208, Fiesta and Swift model lines, while Renault’s impressive Clio IV and Holden’s evergreen Barina fill out our Megatest crew – spanning as-tested prices from $17,390 to $20,840.

Non-starters here are Hyundai’s big-selling i20 Active 5dr ($18,590, but often $16,990 driveaway) as it will be dead by Christmas, with a replacement yet to be confirmed, while Kia’s updated Rio S ($18,990) was still on the boat. Sharing a 1.4-litre four tied to a four-speed auto, the snoozy i20 would have struggled against this impressive field, while the pretty but pricey Rio has the poorest projected resale in this category (43 percent).

Welcome to 2015’s Light Car class, where value shines brightly and sophistication has never been more affordable.

Volkswagen Polo

IT’S taken four years, but rivals are finally catching up with the Volkswagen Polo. Our 2010 Car of the Year, freshly updated at the end of last year, is no longer the hands-down champ of the light-car crew, but, like its Golf big brother, all-round ability counts for a lot.

Vw -polo -frontThe fact that the Polo scraped through in this Megatest to claim victory with the same star rating as the two cars behind it speaks volumes about just how far the competition has caught up. The Mazda 2 Neo – the least convincing version of Hiroshima’s new-gen supermini – and the pricey Clio Expression TCe120 ran the Polo right to the wire, but the VW’s exceptional fuel economy, its broad driveability, top-class braking performance and still-impressive ride and refinement managed to nudge it over the line.

On our rough and coarsely surfaced four-up test road, the Polo delivered not only the best ride of the group but also the least road noise. Seated on firm but comfortable seats, occupants sit quite high, with impressive vision in all directions, though the pay-off for having a view is merely average rear-seat headroom, despite the depth of its rear cushion.

The updated Polo maintains Volkswagen’s reputation for quake-proof interiors, but there’s definitely a feeling of austerity in the entry-level Trendline’s cabin. Its plastic steering wheel might be pleasant to hold and smoothly tactile, but its lack of spoke-mounted controls says poverty with a capital ‘P’, and the all-charcoal colouring is sombre and charmless. The door-trim moulds are also hard and clearly built to a price, unlike the squidgy dashboard covering.

Vw -polo -rearWe can’t dispute Polo’s slick efficiency, from its crisp instruments and classy controls to its handy compartments and 5.0-inch colour touchscreen with Bluetooth audio streaming. It also boasts a beautifully trimmed 280-litre boot, with a full-size spare underneath, and a folding rear backrest that drops to deliver a fully flat floor. Only Honda’s Jazz does the same, though it cheats with a space-saver.

In lieu of the old base Polo’s 63kW 1.4-litre MPi engine, the update scores a detuned version of VW’s 1.2 turbo-petrol four. It’ll rev to 6500rpm, but this engine is a slogger, not a sprinter, as its peak power spread from 4400-5400rpm suggests.

Neither as sweet nor punchy as the previous 77TSI or as refined as Renault’s 1.2 turbo, the new 66TSI still has lots to like. It achieves a brisk 0-60km/h time (4.9sec) thanks to spritely off-the-line gearing, and class-best fuel economy (6.8L/100km), as well as this group’s only idle-stop system. If only the seven-speed dual-clutch ’box was as seamless as Mazda’s excellent six-speed auto.

The Polo lacks the verve of its perkier rivals, but there’s a solid proficiency at work here. Confidence-inspiring manners and a decent ride/handling balance make up for its few dynamic flaws, which include a tendency towards understeer and some fidgeting from its torsion-beam rear end when loaded up over mid-corner bumps. But, in typical VW fashion, the Polo is all about being inoffensively capable. You could hammer it over country roads for hours on end and still arrive feeling fresh and unflustered.

Vw -polo -interiorWhat ultimately lets the Polo down is its age. Alongside the benchmark Mk7 Golf, it looks and feels like a cheapskate relation, which wasn’t the case when it supplemented the Golf Mk6 in 2010. That said, the Polo Trendline DSG’s $18,990 sticker is just $1000 more than what Suzuki asks for a Swift GL auto.

If it’s proper small-car luxury you want, then the $21,090 Polo 81TSI Comfortline demands a similar premium over the plush French pair. With more power and a more expensive interior, it’s arguably the Polo to go for. Either way, you’re still getting the most well-rounded supermini money can buy, just not the most fun.

Active service

COMPARED with some of the big sellers here, Polo sits at the upper end for servicing cost, though not by a huge margin. Given a three-year/60,000km timeframe, the Volkswagen will set you back almost $2200 to stay fit as a fiddle, which is about $200 more than what the Mazda 2 Neo will cost. The Honda Jazz is cheaper again at just under $1800, but nothing can match the 1.3-litre Yaris. Thanks to subsidised capped-price servicing, the Yaris auto requires just $780 to keep its log book up to date, tempered slightly by short six-month service intervals (just like Jazz). The Polo and Mazda 2 can be stretched to 12 months if you don’t travel many kays.

Price as tested: $19,490 *Includes metallic paint ($500)
3yr resale value: 63%
Fuel economy: 6.8L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 11.3sec (tested)
Plus: Economy, all-round ability
Minus: Decontented interior
Verdict: 7.5/10

Mazda 2

WHAT other Yaris rival boasts a relatively cab-backward profile, like some mini muscle-car wannabe? The last time Mazda thought this far outside of the B-segment box was with the iconic 1990s 121 ‘Bubble’.

And, as with that sedan which fearlessly/foolishly swam against the tide of bland hatches, it’s the 2’s depth of engineering that shines brightest.

Mazda -2-frontLeading the way is the outstanding flexibility of the Neo’s V-P5 79kW/139Nm 1.5-litre four-pot petrol unit. Even without the slightly stronger 81kW/141Nm F-P5 version with four-into-two-into-one exhaust, the base powerplant snarls into life, sprints away smartly from standstill and pulls hard all the way to 6800rpm.

Making the most of the equally sweet six-speed automatic, there’s a new-to-the-marque ‘Sport’ toggle, which will hold on to the appropriate gear when necessary without the endless ratio to-ing and fro-ing that afflicts many baby autos. The upshot is a podium finish for both performance and fuel economy, reflecting the Thai-built Japanese hatchback’s impressive efficiency.

Sharing a modified version of the larger 3’s platform (but with a segment-norm torsion beam instead of a multi-link rear end), the smallest Mazda also pleases as far as handling and roadholding capabilities go, being planted and secure at speed like a car from the next class up.

Mazda -2-sideThat’s the good news dynamically. Not so hot is steering that, though light and breezy, lacks bite at either side of the straight-ahead position. As with its bigger brother, the helm only comes alive once past the point of initial turn-in, finally connecting the driver to the action up front. Such a sporty runabout craves crisper directional control.

Additionally, some rack rattle is evident over rougher roads, where the ride can also get a bit bumpy, while – and no surprises here – road noise is an ever-present companion. Yes, the 2 is considerably better than before, graduating from ‘loud’ to ‘drone’, but there’s still a way to go before it can match its quieter rivals.

Maybe the harder-compound Dunlop Enasave eco rubber can take some of the blame, for the Mazda was also one of the trailing trio in braking performance.

Mazda -2-rearThat long-bonnet silhouette means the 2 is a tad tighter for space than in its previous iteration, despite a sizeable body and wheelbase stretch, resulting in an interior of two distinct halves.

Seated in the comfy and well-bolstered front buckets, everything is pretty much hunky dory, from the elegant simplicity of the dashboard with its telescopic steering column to the excellent driving position, stylish vents and abundance of storage.

It isn’t all zoom with a view, though, for the tacho is miserably small, and neither cruise control nor a reversing camera are available in Neo. And the audio/multimedia interface can be fiddly to operate.

Rear-seat passengers benefit from more shoulder and legroom than before and the cushion itself isn’t bad, but the rising window line and large front headrests limit vision, and there are no cupholders. At least the 2’s boot is reasonably big – thanks in part to a space-saver spare – though the floor isn’t flat when the split/fold rear backrest is dropped.

Mazda -2-interiorStriking design, sparkling performance, capable and engaging dynamics, muted steering, adequate interior space, road noise intrusion… the latest Neo looks and feels like a thoroughly modern Mazda.

On paper, its $16,990 asking price is almost as alluring as its bolshie attitude, but the Neo’s equipment shortfall, combined with the unresolved road noise and ride issues – and, it must be said, hyper-feminised TV ads – means Mazda’s stylish cab-backward newcomer falls agonisingly short of taking gold in this Megatest.

A load of wind

MAZDA has thought hard about the little things. For instance, the A-pillars are narrower and pushed back some 100mm to improve forward vision. Similarly, while the exterior mirrors are mounted on plinths rather than within the window assembly to further reduce blind spots, their new position also makes for a quieter rear-seat area, since the air that passes over them does not subsequently swirl by the back doors as they did previously. And a new organ-type accelerator pedal means there is no wheelarch intrusion, so your right foot won’t ache after a few hours wedged down there. Clever.

Price as tested: $17,390 *Includes Smart City Brake Support ($400)
3yr resale value: 74%
Fuel economy: 7.1L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 10.7sec (tested)
Plus: Handling, cabin, resale
Minus: Noisy ride, spec shortfall
Verdict: 7.5/10

Renault Clio

TO THIS former Clio owner, Renault’s fourth-generation model is the first interest-worthy iteration since the Renaultsport 182, which bowed out in 2006. But it’s in base rather than RS form that the Clio IV impresses me most. (In case you were wondering, I had a 2001 Clio 172 Sport.)

Renault -clio -frontIt’s a pity, then – for buyers and the Clio’s Megatest chances – that the three-cylinder turbo TCe90 entry-level variants only come as five-speed manuals. It meant we had to opt for the dual-clutch-only Expression TCe120 four-cylinder that, at $20,290 plus on-roads, costs more than each of the eight rivals tested, and $3500 more than the base Clio Authentique.

But Renault’s new-generation supermini, to use the light-car parlance of its native France, brings hitherto unknown value and peace of mind, thanks to sharp pricing and the brand’s relatively recent adoption of a range-wide five-year warranty. With perhaps the two biggest question marks surrounding French-car ownership addressed, my interest was again piqued.

The adoption of small, turbocharged engines is a welcome move that brings verve and flexibility found in few rivals. The base three-pot is a charmer, but the 1.2-litre turbo sets its extra 22kW and 55Nm to work by slashing the claimed 0-100km/h figure by nearly three seconds. We saw 10.6sec, which puts the Clio on the podium for performance in this company.

Renault -clio -rearBut it’s the 7.5sec 80-120km/h figure that tells the true story of a flexible mid-range that tops all bar the unexpectedly brisk Honda. Indeed, the Clio is 2.3sec quicker than the Barina and 3.5sec quicker than the wooden-spooner Yaris in this crucial acceleration zone.

Only the occasionally slow-witted six-speed dual-clutch transmission detracts from an effective, effervescent drivetrain. The Renault’s Getrag-developed ’box is particularly frustrating away from the mark, where it can dither indecisively before engaging its first pair of clutches. It will also upshift at redline in manual mode, which is more forgivable here than it is in the Renaultsport version, though you push the lever forward for downshifts, back for upshifts – a rare win!

The French are not new to great engines, but they built their reputation on fine ride and handling, and the Clio fits the legend.

Ride absorbency is appreciated quickly and savoured over time. The Clio doesn’t have quite the long-stroke suppleness of the Peugeot, but it’s a close thing between the French duo (on 195/55R16 tyres) and the unfailingly polished Polo (on class-staple 185/60R15s). When the road surface rages beneath, the Clio’s suspension maintains composure where handling-biased rivals like the Mazda 2 and Fiesta can be bullied off line.

Renault -clio -interiorOn a truly patchy backroad, the Renault’s cabin remains a relative temple of tranquillity that, in combination with the posterior comfort, adds to an overall air of refinement. In this hushed context, the odd dashboard rattle and buzz disappoint (but don’t surprise). There’s no such problem in the likes of the Yaris, for example, though in that you wouldn’t hear a creak for the road noise...

Clio’s sense of front-end connectedness and rear-end involvement felt in the urban jungle comes to the fore in the country. Passive rear steer worked subtly into the tune of the torsion beam helps the Clio deliver positive turn-in and a profoundly adjustable mid-corner attitude. Light, precise electro-steering delivers genuine feel, but, oddly, loses some of its sense of connection when you really lean on the nose. And the steering wheel is huge.

Comparatively potent and enviably poised, the Clio is a persuasive package. Perhaps not class-leadingly so in pricier four-pot Expression spec, but if you’re in the manual-buying minority, we can think of few better ways to spend $16,790 than on a base three-pot Clio.

Price as tested: $20,840 * Includes electric pack ($300) and black exterior trim ($250)
3yr resale value: 55%
Fuel economy: 7.6L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 10.6sec (tested)
Plus: Styling, suppleness
Minus: Gearbox lethargy
Verdict: 7.5/10

Peugeot  208

AFTER the nadir that was the overfed and overwrought 207, Peugeot badly needed a lifeline, and found one with the nifty 208. Light, nimble and huggable, the 208 not only signalled a return to form for Peugeot, but a high point for small French interiors.

Peugeot -208-top -sideCheap the automatic 208 Active isn’t, but you get a lot for your $19,990 entry ticket (currently driveaway), including five years/75,000km worth of capped-price servicing. On the outside, stylish grey-coloured 16-inch alloys and the 208’s signature ‘cat-scratch’ LED tail-lights give it an upmarket air, while inside the impression continues with plush, classily trimmed seats, expensively rendered instruments, a 7.0-inch colour touchscreen and an air of refinement that is in stark contrast to the el-cheapo ambience of the Fiesta or the austerity of the Polo.

The luxurious Pug is quite well packaged, too, with decent rear headroom and competitive legroom, though the 208 cedes rear-seat space to the Jazz and Barina. Like the front pews, the 208’s rear bench is softly supportive, with cushion and backrest angles conducive to long-distance comfort, and a slightly elevated view forward. The lack of back-seat roof handles deserves a slap on the wrist, but the 208 counters with terrific door grabs and a pair of cupholders. Impressive 311-litre boot, too, with a full-size spare.

On the move, the 208’s luxury impression dims a little thanks to some noise and a bit of suspension movement on rough roads, but it dampens coarse-chip surfaces well, and generally remains calm and refined. Its electric steering is slightly inconsistent and numb at straight ahead, but once you start to apply lock (via a small, wieldy steering wheel), the 208 sniffs out its cornering line and sticks to it. Supple yet adhesive, the further you drive the 208, the greater your affection for it, though its cushy front seat bolsters tend to collapse in hard cornering.

Peugeot -208-sideAt the lower end of its abilities, yet not as putrid as we expected, is the 208’s atmo  1.6-litre four. Ripped straight from the 207 and tied to an even older four-speed auto, it sounds like a hangover from last century, yet Peugeot’s weight-saving measures have eased the drivetrain’s burden.

In the sprint to 60km/h, the 208 (5.1sec) is right on the Jazz’s tail (5.0sec) and not far adrift of the brisk Mazda 2 (4.6sec), yet it’s the 80-120km/h rolling-acceleration range where the Pug proves it’s no slug. More than half a second quicker than Polo (8.6sec) and way ahead of Swift (9.1sec) and Barina (9.8sec), the 208 matches the Mazda 2’s overtaking performance. Its fuel consumption is less impressive, though 8.0L/100km is hardly thirsty.

What ultimately tarnishes the 208’s drag-strip glow is its urban driveability. While the four-speed auto does a surprisingly good job channelling the engine’s torque, it’s a lumpy old thing that never feels like its delivering direct drive. In second gear, there’s an unusual slurring and slipping sensation as the torque converter does its thing, an endemic trait with this ’box because we’ve experienced the same quirks in other Pugs. When it’s cold, it’s also indecisive, and the 208’s brakes are overly sensitive.

Peugeot -208-interiorAs an urban appliance, then, the 208 falters in comparison to the superficially brilliant packaging and value deal that is Honda’s Jazz. But unlike the flawed Honda, the Peugeot is a grower. If you can live with its low-wheel driving position, which all three writers on this test had no issue with, then you’ll soon appreciate its plush seating comfort and supple chassis fluidity.

The 208 looks good, too, which is something no-one ever said about the bloated 207, and even though it’s at the upper end of the pricing spectrum, there’s a palpable sense of luxury in this little Frenchy. All it needs now is PSA’s superb new-gen drivetrain and the 208 might finally have the goods to challenge the class leaders. Like Peugeots used to.

Pure and simple

IT’S only a matter of time before the 208 scores a version of Peugeot-Citroen’s brilliant new ‘Pure Tech’ 1.2-litre turbo-petrol three-cylinder. Already in the terrific new 308, the 1.2 e-THP triple is available in various states of tune in Europe, topped by the 96kW/230Nm charmer we see in the 308. But the version likely to replace the atmo 1.6 in the 208 (and 2008) is the slightly detuned 82kW/205Nm 1.2 turbo, including Peugeot’s slick new EAT6 six-speed auto. Given the great work that drivetrain does in the 308, we can’t wait to try it in the lighter 208. Expect an updated 208 to emerge later this year.

Price as tested: $19,990
3yr resale value: 59%
Fuel economy: 8.0L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 11.1sec (tested)
Plus: Styling, ride, seats
Minus: Old-school drivetrain
Verdict: 6.5/10

Honda Jazz

HONDA’s third-generation Jazz carries the mantle for a nameplate with an enviable reputation for capacious flexibility.

Honda -jazz -frontGiven that the box shape and high roof aren’t exactly a blank canvas for creative expression, we’ve been happy with the practicality-versus-aesthetics trade-off over two preceding generations. But let’s just say the design and detailing of the 2015 model leave a bit to be desired...

The flipside is the carried-over versatility centred on Honda’s ‘Magic Seats’, which afford lots of room in the back and allow the little hatch to swallow a load of 1492 litres.

When the front passenger seat hasn’t been converted into an ottoman (truly!), the legroom behind is decent – similar to that in the Barina – and the tilting rear backrest is a neat feature. Because the Jazz’s fuel tank is packaged centrally under the floor, the rear passengers’ feet are up on an angle – a bit like the passenger foot-brace in a rally car – which is comfortable.

But cut to the chassis and the Jazz’s steering; it’s a weak link that is sadly evident in all kinds of driving. Alongside the Honda’s lifeless lack of weight, feel and precision, the Polo feels like a Fiesta and even the Yaris feels half decent.

Honda -jazz -rearThe comfort and balance of the Jazz’s chassis works in urban confines, where it rides agreeably, soaks speed humps and handles acceptably. But on a bumpy backroad, or at higher velocities, its ability vaporises. The suspension is noisy and poorly controlled, the ride is lumpy and the Jazz’s dynamic repertoire proves as dismal as its packaging is brilliant.

Granted, the target buyer likely won’t venture into the backroads often. But the Jazz’s underlying lack of polish limits its breadth of ability and signposts a saddening cynicism from a brand that once bristled with innovation and built cars that sparkled.

Unexpectedly, the Jazz is the quickest hatch here, and without a turbocharger in sight. The Honda’s carryover 88kW 1.5-litre four has ‘i-VTEC’, which presumably means it can breathe like a good ’90s Honda mill even without a second camshaft.

Revving its little heart out, the Jazz’s 10.2sec 0-100km/h and 7.0sec 80-120km/h times aren’t that quick in the grand scheme of things, and its CVT does nothing to heighten the sense of speed, yet this is a highly effective drivetrain for all duties. A real-world 7.0L/100km (second-best of the group) over the mixed driving conditions of this Megatest is a level of thrift that’s found in few other classes.

Honda -jazz -interiorUnfortunately, the other number recorded by our testing equipment exemplified the low priority Honda places on dynamics these days. The Jazz needed 43 metres to pull up from 100km/h, where everything else took around 40m, ranging from the Polo and Clio (38.7 and 38.8m respectively) to the Peugeot (41.8m). Rear drum brakes aren’t uncommon in this class, but it’s a shame the Jazz has made the retrograde step from rear discs. A car length is a lot of unnecessary extra stopping distance – far more than the margin between a bingle and a near-miss.

Equal cheapest with the Mazda 2 Neo, the only rivals close to the Jazz VTi in price fall well below it in our rankings, which makes the Honda great buying. Consider the standard equipment and the $16,990 Honda looks like a bargain. On the hit list are a rear-view camera and an attractive touchscreen (with HDMI port for videos) among all the class-staple inclusions.

Yet the Honda finishes in fifth place with the same rating as the Peugeot, though each car accrues its stars via an entirely different set of strengths. If you prioritise practicality and do all your driving in the ’burbs, then the Jazz is a decent pick. However, as a Honda, its indifference is disheartening.

Wheeler dealer

Honda specifies a six-month service interval for the Jazz. When you consider six of its eight rivals can happily go 12 months between trips to the service centre, it seems an unnecessary inconvenience. However, the Honda isn’t necessarily more costly to service as a result of its more frequent service requirement. For example, it’s slightly cheaper to service over the first three years than the Mazda 2, which has a 12-month interval.

Price as tested: $17,485 *Includes metallic paint ($495)
3yr resale value: 65%
Fuel economy: 7.0L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 10.2sec (tested)
Plus: Equipment, efficiency
Minus: Dynamics, seats, styling
Verdict: 6.5/10

Suzuki Swift

NUMBERS can be deceiving. Coming in sixth overall does not fully reflect how competent the fun and feisty little Swift is.

For starters, it’s properly compact – and usefully so. Simple to park and a cinch to squirt through traffic (the current four-year-old car isn’t much bigger than the previous version from 2004), the Japanese runabout is sized right for a traditional city-based supermini.

Suzuki -swift -frontFast, reactive steering is another Swift strength, egging the enthusiastic driver on from the minute the wheel is first turned. Beautifully weighted, pleasingly involving and well controlled, there’s a level of handling precision that seems to be disappearing nowadays.

Even after 10 years of basically the same (Mini-ripping) design motifs, the Swift’s styling still looks good, espousing a distinctive elegance that has obviously had lasting appeal for consumers. Even in its twilight years, the Swift regularly sneaks into the top three for supermini sales.

Stepping inside, while a little plasticky to the touch, the neatly presented dashboard is also a classy blend of form and function, backed up by a stylish set of instruments, excellent ventilation, plenty of storage options and a natty leather-bound wheel that’s a treat to hold. Indeed, the driving position ranks as one of the best on test, though the lack of steering reach adjustment is disappointing.

Furthermore, despite one of the shortest wheelbases in its class, the little Suzuki offers one of the better rear-seat experiences, unless you happen to be very tall, in which case your scalp will scrape the ceiling and your knees bury into the front backrest. The GL offers a comfy cushion, overhead grab handles, a map pocket, drink holder and even a curry hook, so it isn’t as barren back there as most of the others.

Suzuki -swift -rearAnd then there’s the drivetrain, a modern 70kW 1.4-litre twin-cam four-cylinder petrol engine mated to a very old-fashioned four-speed torque-converter automatic with push-button top gear.

Considering the limited number of ratios, the Swift actually makes a good fist of things, since it’s a midfielder in terms of performance and economy, being just 0.2sec slower than the seven-speed Polo to 100km/h (though the Swift is down with the slowcoaches in the 80-120km/h rolling-acceleration times).

Cruising along at 120km/h on the freeway, the old four-speeder is quite the sweetie, avoiding the hunting between ratios that afflicts some similar gearboxes. There’s a fair amount of mid-range torque flexibility as well, resulting in a relatively relaxed and quiet open-road demeanour.

But then the numbers begin to stack up against the likeable Swift, particularly this one: at $17,990 plus on-road costs, it’s one of the exxier buys of our Megatest nine.

And then there’s the stunted 210-litre luggage capacity (up to the window line), which is pretty meagre in this company.

Finally, while the frisky chassis is great for keener drivers, with terrific balance and involving fluidity, others might find it a tad nervous, particularly in terms of steering sharpness. Tyres that prioritise hardness (for economy) rather than softness (for grip) exacerbate the Suzuki’s skittish feel on wet roads. That said, the stability-control calibration is fine, so novices are unlikely to lose the rear end.

Suzuki -swift -interiorIn many ways the fun-to-drive Swift deserves a podium ranking. Its well-built interior and commanding driving position are underlined by a sporty leather-bound steering wheel, and it offers low running costs and a rock-solid reliability reputation.

But the snug-fitting Swift is the polar opposite of Honda’s sensible-shoes Jazz. If you can see past its tight rear-seat space, truncated boot and high-ish entry price, we wouldn’t talk you out of buying one.

But there is fresher, as well as broader, baby talent out there, so sixth is as high as this sassy little number gets.

More DZirable

Aussie-bound Swifts have long been sourced either from Japan or Thailand, so we’re limited to the five-door hatchback bodystyle you see here. But Euro buyers enjoy the option of a pretty three-door that is in keeping with the sprightly Suzuki’s sporty nature – especially in revvy Sport guise. Built in Hungary, most are powered by a 69kW/118Nm 1.2-litre four-pot petrol sweetie in either front- or all-wheel-drive guises. Meanwhile, a pert sedan offshoot is made by Maruti of India, marketed (rather ironically) as the DZire. There’s precisely zero chance of that making it Down Under.

Price as tested: $18,465 *Includes metallic paint ($475)
3yr resale value: 61%
Fuel economy: 7.2L/100km (test average)
Acceleration:11.5sec (tested)
Plus: Sharp, compact, perky
Minus: Small inside, tiny boot
Verdict: 6.0/10

Ford Fiesta

FROM numero uno to seventh-best (or, ahem, third-last) is a long way for Ford’s multiple comparo-winning light car to topple. However, in more than one sense, Fiesta the comparo-king and Fiesta the tail-ender are not the same car.

For starters, today’s Thai-built, Aston-snouted Fiesta has been the recipient of some subtle – and not so subtle – de-specification compared with its earlier German-built predecessor.

Ford -fiesta -ambienteThe obvious stuff includes the less potent 1.5-litre four-cylinder that replaced the decent enough base 1.6, and the stingy deletion of steering-wheel reach adjustment. Then there’s the cheapened plastics in a cabin that was already the Fiesta’s least convincing aspect.

While Ford busied itself making its excellent light car less desirable, the game changed. You only have to witness where the Polo sits in relation to the latest-gen Mazda 2 and Renault Clio to understand the second reason behind Fiesta’s fall – all six cars ahead of it are newer, and four of them are considerably newer.

The Fiesta range includes a ho-hum base model, the impressive turbocharged three-cylinder Sport and the sensational (still-German-built) Fiesta ST, so the appeal varies greatly. And in the middle there’s the Fiesta Trend chosen for Megatest duties. Turns out, unfortunately, that it’s the least persuasive of the lot.

So, while we’d own a hot-to-trot ST in a heartbeat, and would happily recommend a turbo-triple Sport, we’d steer anyone considering a Trend into a base Ambiente. Then at least its price tag is as cheap as its interior. And we’d point anyone considering a base Fiesta at the six cars above it.

Ford -fiesta -ambiente -rearBut, having tasted the options, we could understand why someone would buy an entry-level Fiesta. It’s far from a bad car and much more appealing than the pair below it in our ranking, as the star rating relativity suggests.

A point worth making here is that our rankings – especially for those cars tied on star ratings (the Swift and Fiesta) – is uncoloured by personal preference, but your buying decision certainly won’t be.

Anyone who values sharp steering and an incisive chassis should know that the Fiesta’s still got it. Feel that faint kickback at the limit? It signposts Ford’s dynamic value set that puts feedback ahead of over-refined numbness. More rounded newcomers like the Clio and Mazda 2 are in the game dynamically, but they can’t match the Ford’s front-end feel and fluidity.

The Fiesta’s twisty-road entertainment value is enough to take the driver’s attention away from the busy, cheap-looking centre console, nasty controls and mismatch of hard, scratchy plastics. Pity about the passengers, though, especially those in the back. “Good toe room” reads the only positive in my notes, which include references to the tight headroom, lack of grab handles or door pockets, sole cupholder and “okay” seat comfort.

Ford -fiesta -ambiente -interiorRide quality, somewhat unexpectedly in the context of Fiesta’s chassis talent, is compliant and comfortable.

But the engine, as the spec sheet suggests, is a bit less good than the one it replaced, being short 6kW and 11Nm, as well as a satisfying top-end power delivery and soundtrack. At least the dual-clutch gearbox is polished. It works well in Sport and is best left to its own shift map given the clumsy up/down shift buttons masquerading as a manual mode. Not just unintuitive, they’re slow to respond.

But blame the engine, not the transmission, for Fiesta’s 7.9L/100km economy, which was bettered by most.

In 2015’s light-car class, standout steering and chassis dynamics simply aren’t enough. What was once great is now sensitive to the spec level you choose; the Fiesta only makes sense in base or upper specs if you place a high value on handling. At least, that’s what I’ll be telling everyone I’ve ever talked into buying one.

Drinks club

ONLY THE NAIL under the bonnet of the Barina slurps significantly more fuel than Fiesta, which is at the thirstier end of the scale. But that’s countered in small part by the fact the Ford is happy to be fuelled on 91 octane. Across this nine-strong field, the long-held belief that Europeans have more expensive tastes holds true. The Polo, Clio and 208 require pricier 95RON premium as a minimum, which is okay for the VW because it’s the most economical, but means the Peugeot will cost almost as much to fuel as the 91-sucking Barina.

Price as tested: $20,210 *Includes prestige paint ($385)
3yr resale value: 64%
Fuel economy: 7.9L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 11.3sec (tested)
Plus: Steering, handling
Minus: Cheap and dated cabin
Verdict: 6.0/10

Toyota Yaris

TOYOTA is rich and brilliant, with enough power to alter the course of motoring forever. When it wants to. Witness the impact the Prius hybrid had, and the game-changing potential of the new Mirai hydrogen fuel-cell car. So why is its global supermini so mediocre?

Toyota -yaris -frontjpgToyota could point to the Yaris’s strong resale value, low servicing costs, rock-solid reliability and driving ease, especially around town. All are compelling reasons to buy one. Plus, the recent facelift brings a stronger five-door body (the three-door has been dropped) for better dynamics and improved refinement, increased specification, updated multimedia functionality, and newly standardised telescopic steering, cruise control, reversing camera and 15-inch wheels on the base Ascent. That’s about $2000 of extra gear for the same price. Clearly, then, it’s better value than before.

But even in a strictly head-over-heart assessment, the least expensive Yaris is patchy at best, and behind the eight-ball (and so in eighth position) at worst.

Consider this. The Ascent auto is lumbered with the oldest, slowest, least powerful, near thirstiest and smallest atmo engine on test, with just four forward gears, equal-worst warranty and six- rather than 12-month service intervals. Priced at $17,290 before on-road costs, it’s not even cheapest of the group.

Toyota -yaris -rearWhatever you might make of last September’s Series II makeover, which includes the corporate face, redesigned tail-lights and restyled wheels, at least it goes some way in differentiating a dull and dated design (from 2011) that, incredibly, is newer than some of the others in this group. A single windscreen wiper is as groovy as that gaping grille treatment is, erm, ghastly.

A more cohesive dash design comes with claimed higher quality materials – the switch to a big central touchscreen across the range, twin gloveboxes and refreshed fabric trim lift the experience – but there’s no escaping Yaris’s carryover rental car ambience. It’s just a bit more cheerful.

Flat seats turn out to be surprisingly supportive, and there’s more room in the rear seat area than its diminutive dimensions suggest, but the sheer volume of engine, road and tyre noises – especially above 80km/h – further undermines all the good stuff carried out elsewhere in the facelifted Yaris.

Geared quite low, the 1999 Echo-era 1.3-litre four-cylinder drivetrain is lively off the mark and agreeably smooth shifting between its limited ratios, but a determined right foot is necessary to keep things moving along at higher speeds, where the engine booms ceaselessly. Unless you compare it to the Barina, in which case the Yaris sounds heaven-sent.

Toyota -yaris -interiorBut it’s underpowered in hilly country. Right foot mashed and fuel gauge on a downward spiral, you have no choice but to simply watch its rivals disappear as the Yaris struggles to maintain speed.

Light and moderately responsive but totally feel-free steering should shock nobody, while on the skinny Ascent-spec rubber, it corners with a predictable, if understeery attitude, backed up by stability and traction nannies that aren’t too meddling. That’s the good news. The bad news is the suspension is restless and noisy.

Which roundly sums up the tiniest Toyota sold in this country. That the Yaris has been a supermini sales leader over the past decade says great things about the marketing muscle behind it and not so great things about the choices Aussies make.

C’mon, Toyota, we know you can do better. If ease and reliability matter most, buy a Yaris. For everybody else, please turn the page.

A dash of (little) pizzazz

If you’re familiar with the original Echo or its 2005-2011 replacement, you might lament Toyota’s homogenously timid approach to the current version’s dashboard, which is a snoozy amalgam of every existing fascia that the company offers, and a not very attractive one at that. While the uplift in specification (standard reversing camera) is welcome, the change-for-the-sake-of-change differences that the recent facelift brings is a missed opportunity to return some much-needed pizzazz. At least the interior itself is well built.

Price as tested: $17,755 *Includes metallic paint ($465)
3yr resale value: 63%
Fuel economy: 8.1L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 13.7sec (tested)
Plus: Reliability, cheap servicing
Minus: Slow, noisy, buzzy
Verdict: 4.5/10

Holden Barina

DESPITE having had more lives than Kerri-Anne Kennerley, you can’t help but want to like Holden’s Barina. It’s been a Suzuki, an Opel, an exhumed Daewoo, and latterly a product of GM’s Korean arm with a sizeable dose of Down Under, yet somehow the 30-year-old nameplate is part of the fabric. Say ‘Barina’ and everyone knows what car you’re talking about.

Holden -barina -frontStyled by Holden designer Ondrej Koromhaz while on secondment in Korea and tuned at Lang Lang for suspension, engine and transmission calibration, the TM Barina is almost eligible for Australian citizenship. Indeed, on a cross-country thrash, the Barina is in its element, tackling challenging roads with enthusiasm and maturity, while exposing Toyota’s big-selling Yaris as a city car desperately out of its depth in the same environment. Riding with firmly damped composure and cornering with neatly balanced keenness, Barina ably displays the driver appeal that is at the core of Holden’s dynamic DNA.

Unfortunately, most Barinas are destined to see out their days plying city streets, and it’s here that GM’s light car trips on its shoelaces. For that, you can blame its drivetrain.

Dating back decades, the Barina’s 1.6-litre ‘Generation 3’ Ecotec four whirrs like an industrial fan under moderate throttle, sending vibrations through every interface the driver touches. Push the Barina hard and, surprisingly, its engine sounds less offensive… until you reach 6000rpm, at which point even Helen Keller would be wincing at its exceedingly buzzy and strained nature.

Holden -barina -rearNot helping matters is a six-speed auto that, while blessed with a surfeit of ratios and some of the lowest gearing ever employed on a small car, can be dim-witted and slovenly. With cruise control activated, Barina’s transmission is reluctant to grab a lower gear on inclines until way too much speed has been washed off. It’s also fairly ignorant of a sudden stab of the right pedal. By the time Barina’s auto finally realises it needs to muster every emaciated pony it has, there simply aren’t enough horses in the stable to overcome its portly 1256kg kerb weight. It’s no wonder Barina’s fuel economy is poor.

Squandered opportunities continue inside the cabin. Like its quirky exterior, the design of Barina’s two-tone dashboard and motorcycle-inspired instrument pack polarises people, but at least it dares to be different. Unfortunately, it smells cheap – like someone burning plastic with a lighter in woodwork class – and while it appears solidly put together, there’s no doubting Barina’s ‘budget’ positioning.

If you don’t mind its non-premium feel, Barina has room on its side. Plenty of space up front and a theatre-ish rear bench with good leg and foot room and lots of headroom make Barina a shoe-in for leggy teens. But its seats are very firm – too firm for some over long distances – and its flat rear cushion offers minimal under-thigh support, which is disappointing. Likewise the tinny audio quality of its stereo and Bluetooth phone connection.

Holden -barina -interiorBarina’s price is $600 off this test’s value king (the $16,990 Jazz VTi), though you do get quality Continental rubber, a full-size spare (with a cheaper Hankook tyre), cruise, Bluetooth audio streaming and 12 month/15,000km service intervals. Barina also feels strong as an ox, with a five-star crash-test rating, but the downside here is weight – far too much of it – and that nail of an engine.

For a company with such vast engineering resources at its disposal, it’s damning that the Barina (and its Chevrolet Aveo twin) is so mediocre. If it were blessed with a competitive drivetrain, things would be different, but as it stands, the Barina only argues a decent case for itself as a country car destined to cover big distances over challenging terrain. Otherwise, even Toyota’s Yaris is a better bet in a big city.

Triple-treat coming

THE engine is the heart of a car’s personality, and the core of the Barina CD’s problems, so there’s little salvation for the three-year-old TM-series at this late stage. But GM is rolling out an all-new family of small-capacity engines in other models. Opel’s heavily revamped Corsa, which debuted at the Paris show in October, scores a tiny 998cc turbo-triple with 85kW (the same as Barina’s 1.6) and a chubby 170Nm from 1800-4500rpm. Just don’t expect to see any of them in Australia before 2016, probably in a new Corsa-based Barina, and potentially in GM’s new low-cost Opel Karl (the Spark/Agila replacement) also to be built in Korea.

Price as tested: $18,140 *Includes prestige paint ($550)
3yr resale value: 58%
Fuel economy:  9.1L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 12.4sec (tested)
Plus: Dynamics, solidity, space
Minus: Engine, economy, seats
Verdict: 4.5/10

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