2013 TMR SUB-LIGHT HATCHBACK COMPARISON REVIEW
Photos: John Wilson and Rene Mitchell-Pitman.
$15,000 or less: what’ll it get you? Sure, there’s the second-hand market, but what if you’re looking at something brand-spanking new?
At this money, your options are relatively slim. There are just ten models that retail for less than $15k.
While both the Toyota Yaris and Honda Jazz occupy the same ‘light car’ category (and with base models that scrape in at $14,990), we’ve opted to put the cheapest and smallest of the light car category - the tiny sub-light ‘city cars’ - under the microscope.
With that in mind, we teamed up with Motoring.com.au to put the Holden Barina Spark CD, Mitsubishi Mirage ES, Nissan Micra ST, Suzuki Alto GL and the three-door Volkswagen Up! through a head-to-head comparison.
We assessed each on their level of equipment, quality of fit and finish, and value for money.
We also looked at the level of safety offered - after all, one of the key motivators for buying a new car is to have the latest electronic safety aids plus a full suite of airbags.
Each car’s performance attributes were also examined.
Performance in acceleration, braking and cornering might not seem totally relevant for econoboxes like these, but they give us a good idea of how well they grip the road, which could mean the difference between understeering into a ditch or arriving home safely.
So how do they stack up, and which one should you buy? Can you pinch pennies and still wind up with a decent car?
In no particular order, here’s the wrap-up on each contender.
2013 Holden Barina Spark auto
Price: $14,490 plus on-roads
Engine: 1.2-litre four-cylinder | Output: 63kW/113Nm
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel/CO2: 5.8 l/100km / 139g/km
ANCAP rating: 4-Stars
Boot capacity: 170 litres
Quality and Features
In manual form, the Barina Spark is second to the Alto for outright affordability (the auto has a $2000 premium). However the instant you step inside, you can see why.
The interior is pretty meagre; plastics are hard and scratchy and the urethane steering wheel was already developing a glossy sheen. There is some visual pizzazz with a smattering of glossy silver-painted trim, but it too looks a bit scratch-prone.
While some will appreciate the visibility afforded by the high front seating position, cushioning front and back is too firm. Also, the part-’pleather’, part-cloth upholstery feels too soft to be durable (although time will tell).
On the plus side, the instrument cluster moves with the steering column to ensure a good view of the speedometer, and the door pockets are a good size. Front windows are electric, but back seat passengers have to make to with manual winders.
Rear legroom isn’t too bad and rearward visibility is good. The boot however is the most poorly-finished in this group with a lot of sheetmetal on show, and the plastic tube for the rear windscreen washer was exposed and vulnerable to damage.
Standard equipment, for this level of purchase, is pretty good. It includes a USB audio input and Bluetooth phone integration (for auto model only), as well as steering wheel audio controls. Air conditioning, front foglamps and a trip computer round out the rest of the feature set.
On road, the Barina Spark is never going to set the world on fire. In fact, nor will any of these ‘sub-light’ city cars.
The Barina’s 1.2 litre engine is the only four-cylinder in this group, and thanks to its displacement, it has the highest power and torque outputs of 63kW and 113Nm.
However this engine - and the 4-speed automatic it’s hooked up to - is not especially happy out on the road. The throttle calibration is too sensitive and the transmission mapping is amiss. It will often drop down too many ratios when you put the foot down, selecting first gear when second would do.
It makes for jerky progress at times, and in stop-start traffic would prove an annoyance.
Also, when working hard, it’s thrashy, and, while the Spark was equal-fastest to 60km/h, completing the sprint in six seconds flat, it struggled on the steep hill test with four adults on board.
The suspension is firm - the rear end in particular - and can be noisy over harsh bumps and jiggle over minor road imperfections.
The steering though has a nice feel to it and stopping performance is acceptable, with the Spark’s disc/drum brakes bringing it to a halt from 60km/h in 17.6m.
Safety equipment comprises traction control, stability control, ABS, EBD and brake assist.
There’s six airbags as standard, but the Spark’s 4-Star ANCAP safety rating (31.02 points out of 37) is a disadvantage.
2013 Mitsubishi Mirage ES auto
Price: $15,240 plus on-roads
Engine: 1.2-litre three-cylinder | Output: 57kW/100Nm
Transmission: CVT automatic
Fuel/CO2: 4.6 l/100km /109g/km
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars
Boot capacity: 235 litres
Quality and Features
Even in base ES form, the Mirage has a good level of amenities. There’s Bluetooth phone and audio integration, power windows in all four doors, hill start assist (CVT only), a USB input and steering wheel-mounted audio controls.
In-cabin storage is good, with a sizable glovebox and a small dashboard shelf for phones, music players or knick-knacks.
There’s two generously-sized cupholders ahead of the gear lever too, plus a deep storage pocket at the base of the centre stack.
These are modern features that buyers will definitely appreciate, but the integration of the air conditioning system leaves something to be desired. After all, mechanical temperature sliders went out of vogue decades ago.
The leather-upholstered steering wheel is a nice touch, but it doesn’t provide sufficient distraction from the plastic quality of the door trims and glovebox lid.
Other quality issues include poor weathersealing around the doors, where we could see that dust was able to make its way past the rubber seals.
The front seats have a lower, more natural position than those in the Barina Spark, but the cushioning is much too firm.
The back seat is also a hard slab of foam, with no support for the upper body and very poor under-thigh support. Rear headroom is quite limited, too.
The Mirage’s 1.2 litre three-cylinder engine suffers from a slightly wooden throttle response, but once it gets going it delivers a respectable 57kW and 100Nm.
It’s also the only car here to offer a CVT automatic and while we prefer it to the standard five-speed manual, the CVT is not without its own issues - not least of which is the extra cost, which takes the Mirage above the $15k mark.
On the road, the Mirage’s suspension proved far more comfortable than the over-sprung Barina. There’s much better compliance over bumps, however this comes at the expense of body control.
Body roll is abundant, and the Mirage can be slow to respond when cornering quickly (it understeers). The steering is also extremely over-assisted, and almost completely lacks feel.
However the Mirage did well in the performance tests. It notched up the equal-best 0-60km/h time (6.0 seconds, level with the Barina Spark).
And while the CVT gearbox has trouble settling on the right ratio when faced with a steep grade, it coped better than the Barina on the steep hill test.
Its braking performance was best of the group, stopping in just 14.9 metres from 60 km/h.
It must be mentioned however that immediately after our braking tests, the engine experienced some hesitation when the throttle was re-applied. The issue rectified itself quickly, but it was nonetheless disconcerting.
All Mirages come with a 5-Star ANCAP rating, scoring 34.07 points out of a possible 37.
As standard, the Mirage ES comes with with six airbags (front, front side, full-length curtain), as well as ABS, EBD, traction control and stability control.
2013 Nissan Micra ST auto
Price: $14,990 plus on-roads
Engine: 1.2-litre three-cylinder | Output: 56kW/100Nm
Transmission: Four-speed automatic
Fuel/CO2: 6.5 L/100km /154g/km
ANCAP rating: 4-Stars
Boot capacity: 250 litres
Quality and Features
In terms of metal for your money, the Micra delivers the most. It’s bigger than the rest of these contenders, and by a noticeable margin.
Thanks to the Micra’s bubble-shaped roof, there’s an abundance of front-seat headroom. the front seats are also comfortable, though the seating position is rather upright.
The rear bench has only minor contouring, and thus gives little support. Headroom is much less generous in the back than it is in the front, thanks to the slope of the roofline.
Quality is a step above the rest. The organic interior design might not be to everybody’s taste, but the Indonesian-assembled Micra is built very solidly from materials that - though hard - have a pleasing texture.
Even the carpets and headliner are of a high grade. The steering wheel is a urethane item, but its fine texture felt even nicer than the leather wheel of the Mirage. Things like cloth upholstery on the front door trims also go a long way towards lifting the interior ambience
In fact, the only real quality complaints we had were with the shiny dash top plastics and the sharp edges on the upper glovebox lid.
That double-decker glovebox is a cool feature, by the way, and one that gives the Micra an edge in day-to-day practicality.
With 250 litres of boot space, the Micra also has one of the largest luggage capacities in this group. In fact only the VW Up! pips it, and only by one litre.
The Micra’s 56kW/100Nm 1.2 litre three-cylinder is a capable powerplant with an entertainingly rorty exhaust note, however it’s dulled somewhat by the optional four-speed auto.
The automatic works well enough on level ground, but on the steep hill test it made the mistake of upshifting before the road had started to level out, putting the engine out of its powerband.
With four adults aboard, the Micra also needed full throttle to tackle the hill. On level ground, the Micra was also the slowest to 60km/h with its sprint time of 7.6 seconds.
Dynamics are surprisingly good however. The Micra out-handled everything else, however it was second-last in the brake test, taking 17.8m to come to a stop from 60km/h.
The steering is light and the turning circle astonishingly tight although with little steering ‘feel’.
The Micra offers perhaps the best balance between comfort and handling. On test, it had little trouble soaking up most big bumps, it wasn’t perturbed by choppy surfaces and cornered neatly.
Refinement could use some improvement though, there’s lots of engine noise and the occasional suspension thump finds its way into the cabin.
Equipment levels are average. You get Bluetooth telephony but not audio streaming, and there’s no USB audio input either - just a 3.5mm auxilliary jack.
Nissan also needs to rethink its placement of the Bluetooth call/hang-up switch. Located behind the steering wheel and just above your right knee, it’s far from a convenient location.
Only the front windows are electric too, although a trip computer and steering wheel mounted audio controls are standard.
Standard safety equipment includes all the usual acronyms - ABS, EBD, VSC (vehicle stability control) and brake assist - and occupants are protected by six airbags (front, front-side and full-length curtain and pretensioning front seatbelts.
Unfortunately, the Micra only has a 4-Star ANCAP rating, scoring 31.11 out of a possible 37 points.
2013 Suzuki Alto manual
Price: $11,790 plus on-roads
Engine: 1.0-litre three-cylinder | Output: 50kW/90Nm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel/CO2: 4.5L/100km / 107g/km
ANCAP rating: 4-Stars
Boot capacity: 110 litres
Quality and Features
Its 1.0 litre engine might be the least powerful and least torquey here, but the diminutive Alto actually has good pace on the road thanks to a torque curve that puts quite a bit of muscle (relatively speaking) in the midrange.
At 880kg it’s also the lightest car here, and the small three-cylinder up front makes a nice thrummy noise when driving.
But that’s about all of the nice things we have to say about the Alto. It’s the oldest design here and it feels it, and it suffers from the poorest build quality by far.
Assembled in India, the Suzuki Alto we tested had loose-fitting cloth around the driver’s seat adjuster, as well as loads of orange peel in its paint job.
Plastic quality is also sub-par (one tester described the gear knob as being “like gripping a ball of sandpaper”), and there were more than a few rattles and inconsistent panel gaps noticed during testing.
The spec list is pretty bare, too. The wing mirrors are the manually-adjusted kind (the Alto is one one of very few cars on the market to not have electrically-adjustable mirrors), there’s no power windows in the back and no Bluetooth.
You do get a USB port, but the lack of a lidded glovebox means you won’t be able to store your music player out of view.
The front seating position isn’t too bad and the driver’s seat is adjustable for height, but the cushioning is much too soft for long-term comfort. The back seat is cramped too, with passenger’s feet needing to tuck under the front seat squab.
The Alto gave mixed results on the road. There’s ample grunt from the little three-pot, but the gap between first and second gear can feel pretty wide at times.
And the clutch pedal is heavy, something we weren’t expecting.
It performed well up the steep hill though, pulling four people up in second gear with just 2300rpm (perhaps advantaged by the manual gearbox).
But it is far from happy in a corner, the key problem being its skinny cheap tyres - they simply don’t provide enough grip. As a result, the Alto understeers with little provocation, and that’s a genuine safety concern.
The braking test wasn’t much better, with the Alto’s 60-0km/h stopping distance of 19.0m being the worst by far.
The Alto also has the poorest safety score here. Although it’s a 4-Star car according to ANCAP, its 25.55 point crash test score means it barely makes the grade, although ABS, EBD, brake assist and stability control are all standard.
2013 Volkswagen Up! manual
Price: $13,990 plus on-roads
Engine: 1.0-litre three-cylinder | Output: 55kW/95Nm
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel/CO2: 4.9L/100km / 114g/km
ANCAP rating: 5-Stars
Boot capacity: 251 litres
Quality and ?Features
First, let’s list the key disadvantages of the Up!
For starters, only the three-door is available for less than $15k. It’s also strictly a four-seater, and no, you can’t have one with an automatic transmission. Then there’s that silly name.
On the upshot, the Up! drives the best, has the most safety gear, and boasts higher levels of quality than its competitors.
But it’s not perfect. Look closely and you can see how Volkswagen has managed to chip away at the Up!’s cost.
Things like the urethane steering wheel not having any provision for remote audio controls, the lack of a passenger-side power window switch on the driver’s door and the rear windows are fixed (they neither pop-out nor wind - beware of hot days).
Also the door trims have been shrunk to leave exposed metal on the inside of the doors.
But these cost-saving measures haven’t been at the sacrifice of quality. Cabin plastics may be hard, but they have nice texturing, fit and finish is very good and the cloth upholstery feels especially durable.
Cabin comfort is good for a three-door too.
There’s more than enough room up front and while getting into the back seat can be a bit awkward, it’s very comfortable once you’re there thanks to a deeply sculpted backrest that gives excellent upper-body support.
We weren’t all too happy with the instrument cluster’s presentation, however. The sheer diameter of the speedo means its difficult to adjust the steering wheel without chopping off the top half of the speedometer. There’s also no footrest.
The standard spec is a bit bare, but opt for the $500 Maps + More package and you get sat nav, Bluetooth telephony, a media player interface and a trip computer. Money well spent.
But by far the most impressive aspect of the Up! is how it drives. It might only be available with a manual, but it’s a slick, easy-to-use transmission with a light clutch and a clearly-defined shift gate.
The 1.0 litre three-cylinder is a sweet little motor, with plenty of torque down low in the rev range.
The gaps between each ratio are more sensible than the Alto, but the Up! wasn’t so happy on the steep hill test, needing to drop to first gear to ascend it (whereas the Suzuki, the only other manual, managed it in second).
Acceleration from 0-60km/h was 7.0 seconds, a second slower than the automatic Spark, and the Up!’s stopping distance from 60km/h was 15.5m, second to the Mirage.
Handling is good, the Up! corners well its stability control calibration was the least intrusive of this group. This is a safe, stable car that grips well in both wet and dry conditions.
Ride comfort is also good, with good dampening keeping bumps at bay without incurring too much suspension slop.
The electric power steering is too light though (but not as light as the Mirage), and the long rack ratio and slightly oversize steering wheel don’t help the situation.
As far as ANCAP is concerned, the Up! is one of the safest sub-light cars around. Scoring 5-Stars with a total of 33.37 points, the Up! has the substantial advantage of having an automatic crash avoidance system as standard.
It’s able to detect objects ahead of the car and, up to speeds of 30km/h, will automatically apply the brakes to avoid a crash. A nifty feature, but disappointingly the Up! only has four airbags in total with no head airbag protection for rear passengers.
Sub-Light Hatchback Comparo Verdict
These are city cars, very inexpensive, tiny externally and with small frugal engines, so expectations need to be lowered for on-road performance and the grading of interior trims and materials.
Only two of the group, Volkswagen’s Up! and the Mitsubishi Mirage, score a 5-Star ANCAP rating, but all others score 4-Stars with a reasonably comprehensive suite of safety features.
Also, in recognition of the market demographic they’re targeted to, they’re reasonably well featured with Bluetooth (except the Alto), USB input, and other ‘must haves’.
And so, in the final analysis, the running order looks like this:
FIRST PLACE: Volkswagen Up! Although manual only (and that will be the deal-breaker for some young buyers), it’s the nicest drive and the City Emergency Brake system is an unexpected bonus at this price.
Equipped with the optional Maps + More package it’s got a much more compelling feature set than the other cars here, although the lack of full-length curtain airbags is disappointing.
2. Nissan Micra ST: It’s far from being the newest car here, but we reckon the Micra it deserves the attention of light car buyers.
The little Nissan has plenty of space inside, handles well, has a really tight turning circle and a willing-enough motor.
3. Holden Barina Spark: The Spark is not a great car by any stretch, but is quickest of this group to 60km/h and sits comfortably under $15k, even with automatic. It also offers a larger cabin, better finish - although not great - and better safety score than the Alto.
4: Suzuki Alto: That then leaves the little Alto in last place. Although it still has some endearing qualities, it feels like a product of yesteryear.
On balance, until a new model arrives, the Alto, least expensive of this group, is perhaps only for those who are looking for the most basic of vehicles, and nothing more.
DISQUALIFIED: Second place would have gone to the Mirage, owing to its high safety score and level of standard equipment, but, at $15,240 for the auto tested here, it busts the $15k barrier (no manual ES was available for test) so disqualifies itself.