Clash of the Miniatures
In the past few years it has become plainly obvious that the subcompact car segment is booming with new and heretofore far more luxurious offerings than were ever available before. So in addition to testing the latest Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and Honda Fit, we also test drove a 2013 Kia Rio SX which we thought would be another perfect entry for this comparison test.
Both Kia and Hyundai vastly improved the interior and exterior design of the Rio/Accent models in their latest redesigns but unfortunately no one told our test Rio that $21,000 was a bit much for a vehicle whose big extra selling points mainly amounted to push button start and heated leather seats which did a very poor impersonation of even the cheapest feeling vinyl. We also felt Kia took a step back with its engineering abilities in the steering and handling department as the Rio pitched and wallowed over every single bump in the road giving us our very first case of the driver’s seat car sickness. If you want a great Kia for $21,000 then buy a fully loaded Soul.
So what now? Well, as Honda’s current generation Fit has been the sales and class leader since its second generation was introduced in late 2008 without much of any real change, surely the far newer Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa would bring some serious competition to this comparison. Given the amount of time Nissan and Toyota had to work on their new model we must say we wound up disappointed neither one beat the Honda at its own game. In many respects, it felt like the other two brands just gave up trying.
Also note that even though all three of these models are smaller than most cars on the road, they all managed to do so well in crash testing with the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) that they were named “Top Safety Picks.” So even our last place finisher in this competition we at AutoComparison.com like to call the “Subcompact Car Olympics” is at least perfectly suited to keeping you safe in a crash. It’s just too bad our next third place entrant is just about as well thought out as anything that has ever come out of Olympic Champion Ryan Lochte’s mouth in an interview.
2013 Nissan Versa Sedan SL: (Third Place)
We aren’t sure where the exterior styling of the 2013 Nissan Versa went so horribly wrong as it takes cues from the handsome 2013 Altima from a few angles. Unfortunately, the tall greenhouse makes this rattling econobox look like an awkward 7th Grader who is constantly teased by his classmates for having to wear a scoliosis brace all of the time. But we wonder, why when the last generation hatchback Versa was so clean looking and handsome would Nissan’s style committee decide to give this new version all the visual character of a roll of paper towels?
Our top of the line Versa SL sedan stickered a bit over $17,000 much like the 2013 Yaris SE and 2013 Fit Sport which makes you wonder why that Kia was so pricey, even if the Kia’s in-dash navigation system was far more sophisticated than the one Nissan uses in the Versa. Frankly, the Versa’s in-dash navigation graphics were about as advanced as those found in a 1980’s Donkey Kong video game and it took at least two minutes for the USB port to read the music from an iPod each time we started the car.
But in comparison to what the new Versa is like to drive, you won’t be noticing the music playing or the directions being given to you by the navigation. Quite simply, driving the 2013 Nissan Versa for an extended length of time is a torture akin to a classical music enthusiast being forced to attend a Justin Bieber concert. The Versa’s 1.6 liter 109 horsepower 4-cylinder engine is irritatingly noisy even at idle and is mated to one of the slowest to respond CVT (continuously variable transmissions) that we have ever experienced. The act of entering a freeway onramp in Southern California is an act of prayer and mercy, as the Versa’s powertrain doesn’t so much accelerate as make a bunch of noise and vibrate a lot.
For 2013, Nissan did magically improve the Versa’s fuel efficiency ratings to 31 city/40 highway and we averaged 28.7 over the course of a week which was understandable given how hard the engine needs to be pushed to keep up with traffic. The trunk is also decently sized for a sedan of this size offering 14.7 cubic feet of space.
Given how much improvement has been made over the years in regard to economy car interiors, we were saddened that the cabin of this Versa is assembled with such low quality plastics and thin, cheap feeling seat fabric. That aspect along with the utterly drab and soul less dashboard design convinced us of the fact that that that the Versa must have been inspired by auto designs based in cold war era Soviet Marxism. Admittedly the Versa is the vehicle with the lowest base price in this test (starting at $11,990) but it also happens to be the one that feels the cheapest.
2013 Toyota Yaris 5-door Hatch SE: (Second Place)
The latest Toyota Yaris hatchback is the visual antithesis of its predecessor which essentially looked like an overgrown automotive Pokemon cartoon character. Now, however, the still diminutive Yaris has an exterior design replete with far more macho muscular bulges, angrily styled headlamps all riding on aggressive looking 16-inch alloy wheels with our SE test unit. While in no way off putting, the looks of the new Yaris try a bit too hard in places and on more than one occasion made us think of a midget bodybuilder competing in a roller derby. Still, no matter how odd, having character counts as a plus.
You can buy a Versa in three door form as well as the five door variant we tested but we think that would seriously hinder the vehicle’s functionality although a basic version in that body style starts at $14,370. But we think our top of the line SE variant with its sportier looks, front and rear disc brakes (others get rear drums), sportier suspension tuning, power windows and door locks, cruise control, Bluetooth, leather wrapped steering wheel with audio controls and 6-speaker AM/FM/CD player with 6-speakers and USB/iPod integration to be the wisest trim level choice at $17,280 with the optional automatic transmission.
Sadly, even though this is a much newer model than the Honda Fit, it is let down a lack of any real clever interior space efficiency and by a very narrow 15.6 cubic foot cargo capacity that struggled to hold a week’s worth of groceries. The seats do fold down 60/40 for more space but then you had better make sure you don’t bring your kids with you to the grocery store. Rear seat leg and headroom also felt cramped compared to competitor’s most especially the Fit.
Lastly, while we were impressed with the tight steering feel and go-kart cornering abilities of the Yaris SE, we found it hard to really have a good time driving this car thanks to its anemic 1.5 liter 106 horsepower/103 lb. feet of torque 4-cylinder which in our tester was mated to a 4-speed automatic that struggled to get the most out of this engine. The SE is also available with a five-speed manual, however, and we are quite sure that this car would be much more enjoyable to drive and own when equipped with that transmission.
EPA estimates for fuel economy in our Yaris automatic were 30 city/35 highway and we averaged 31.2 in mostly around town driving. Now, the 2013 Toyota Yaris is a perfectly fine, economical first car but it is still unfortunately beset by the feeling that it is not really a “grown up” car. And since you can buy our first place model for about the same price, in this test we would spend our money at a Honda dealer.
2013 Honda Fit Sport: (First Place)
We have road tested the 2013 Honda Fit with both the optional 5-speed automatic as well as the 5-speed manual transmission and while we can say without question that the vehicle is much more fun to drive with the stick shift, the Fit is surprisingly peppy and responsive even when it comes without a clutch pedal. Thanks for that goes to Honda’s eager to rev 1.5 liter 117 horsepower/106 lb. feet of torque 4-cylinder which upholds the long standing notion that this automaker makes some of the finest, smoothest and sweetest sounding engines on the market.
As we mentioned earlier in this contest, we haven’t seen any real improvement on the overall Fit concept from the competition (or Honda itself who has chosen wisely to leave good enough pretty much alone) which includes mind blowing interior space efficiency and as per Honda usual, one of the best ride/handling/steering calibrations that we have ever experienced at anything near the Fit’s price.
Our test 2013 Honda Fit Sport stickered at $17,680 (includes destination fee) but if you want navigation or Bluetooth you have to shell out almost $2,000 more for the privilege. The 2013 Honda Fit Sport we tested had a five-speed manual gearbox, air conditioning, USB/iPod integration mated to a 6-speaker AM/FM/CD 160-watt audio system, 16-inch alloy wheels, power windows, door locks and a whole lot more. There is also a base model Fit starting at $15,325 which is perfectly well equipped with all the essentials.
We do wish, however, that Honda would make Bluetooth standard on the Fit Sport so buyers could get that feature without having to purchase the navigation package but you can still always just buy a Bluetooth headset for your commute. We are sure, however, that we couldn’t ask for more interior room as we aren’t quite sure how Honda crammed so much utility inside the Fit. Perhaps this is why they call their rear seat/cargo area floor the “magic.” Clearly it’s a magic Toyota and Nissan do not possess.
With the rear seats in place the 2013 Honda Fit can hold 20.6 cubic feet of cargo which grows to an SUV rivaling 57.3 cubic feet when the second row is folded flat. And when we say flat, we mean U-Haul cargo floor flat as this subcompact hatchback can carry a Triathlete’s racing bike in the back as long as the front wheel of the racing bike is removed. Those bikes would not fit in either the Nissan or the Toyota. Not by a longshot.
Interior materials are also much sturdier feeling than those used in either the Nissan or Toyota but be warned—if you have a dog be sure and put a cover over the rear seat upholstery which was unfazed by ordinary forms of canine damage but seemed magnetically attracted to our in-house dog tester Daisy Mae’s fur. Daisy may be two cheeseburgers short of 70 pounds but her short fur should not have been so hard to get off of the upholstery. So, use a seat cover when the dog is with you and then just take it out when you have human passengers. This is good advice in any new car.
Most importantly, however, we discovered that the Fit was fun to drive around city streets in suburbia as well as on some twisting roads that we favor most especially when we were piloting one equipped with the smooth, mechanically precise and seemingly stall proof five-speed manual gearbox. In this guise, then it becomes clearest why Honda calibrated the steering for responsive firmness without any BMW-like false heaviness that attempt to convince drivers their vehicle is sportier than it is in reality.
The Fit also had the smoothest ride of any vehicle in this class and had interior wind, road and engine noise decently masked even if we wouldn’t call it “Lexus quiet” or anything. But we don’t think Lexus has anything for sale around $17,000 at the moment. The only small car that comes close to being as fun to drive as the Fit is the 2013 Mazda2 with manual transmission but that subcompact can’t compete due to its cramped interior, small cargo hold and cheaper feeling interior materials.
Still, we always recommend buyers test drive three different models when they are out car shopping so if you are looking for a subcompact we would recommend a spin in the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit and Mazda2 if you can drive stick shift. Our last word of advice is to never try to cram in buying your next new car on the same day you test drive vehicles as a car is a big investment even at this inexpensive end of the market.