Fit for purpose
Flexible hatches do the job — who needs an SUV?
SALES of hatchbacks are slowing as the SUV surge continues — but small cars are still the biggest segment of the market.
The three latest arrivals — Hyundai i30, Honda Civic and Subaru Impreza — rank among the best in class.
We’ve chosen the most popular variants, so this is going to be a tight contest.
A sign of the competition, starting prices are just $200 apart, from $24,990 drive-away for the Hyundai and the Honda, to $25,190 drive-away for the Subaru.
Disappointingly, however, automatic emergency braking is not available — even as an option — on these base models.
It may look like a redesign of the previous model but this Impreza is new from the ground up, even though the ingredients are the familiar formula of a 2.0-litre four-cylinder “boxer” engine matched to a constantly variable transmission and allwheel drive.
Inside, Subaru has invested in a more modern cabin design with better quality materials.
The rubber-covered dashboard and elbow pads in the doors are a pleasant change from hard plastics.
The faux carbon-fibre trim, sensor key with push-button start, electric park brake, tinted rear windows and auto-up front windows help push the Impreza up-market.
The central touchscreen has Apple Car Play and Android Auto; car information is in a small screen on top of the dashboard.
But the tiny screen between the analog dials detracts from the rest of the upscale cabin and lacks a digital speed readout.
The rear camera has guiding lines that turn with the steering but front and rear sensors are a dealer-fit accessory.
Subaru hasn’t scrimped on power ports: two of the three USB points are the fastcharging variety, plus there are two 12V sockets and a 3.5mm audio input.
Despite all-wheel-drive hardware under the floor, the Impreza has more boot space than the i30. On the move the Impreza glides over bumps, despite riding on 17-inch alloy wheels with low-profile tyres. You can feel the strength of the new body over patchy roads.
The engine has a hi-tech whirr but works well with the seven-step constantly variable transmission (with paddleshifters on the steering wheel) and is the only one to shut down the engine at lights to save fuel.
Smooth most of the time, the CVT can be indecisive on tight uphill turns. Surprisingly, despite its all-wheel drive, the Impreza had only the secondbest cornering grip on our wet test drive, proving good tyres are key to contact with the road.
A year after the new Honda Civic sedan arrived with a dramatic design, the hatch has joined the fold. The styling polarises opinion but, for what it’s worth, we reckon it looks better as a hatch.
The starting point is the same as the sedan: a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine matched to a CVT auto driving the front wheels.
The Civic cabin is one of the
best in the small-car class. The digital wide-screen instrument display, modern seat fabrics, upscale cabin materials, electric park brake, and auto-up front windows instantly give the Civic a premium appeal.
Honda is well known for making the most of available space and the Civic hatch excels, with the biggest boot and roomiest front and back seats. The centre console is big enough to swallow a handbag and more.
The Civic has the best seating position of the three and feels “just right” as you slip behind the wheel. The central screen supports Apple Car Play/Android Auto; the rear camera has guiding lines that turn with the steering but front and rear sensors are dealer-fit options. There are two USB ports and one 12V socket.
Sadly, one of our favourite touches of the Civic sedan is gone: the thumb swipe function of the volume tab on the steering wheel. Sedan customers said it was too sensitive, so Honda disabled it on the hatch. Please, Honda, reinstate it as a menu option.
All three cars tested have two Isofix child seat anchor points in the outboard positions of the rear row. The Civic has only two top tether points and the Subaru and Hyundai have three, enabling a non-Isofix child seat to be mounted in the middle position.
On the road, the CVT works in a similar fashion to the Subaru (mostly smooth but can have a delayed response in tight uphill turns) though it lacks paddle-shifters to select a ratio.
On our test loop the Civic hatch was impressively surefooted. Honda engineers have clearly improved on where the Civic sedan left off.
The hatch is composed over bumps and is best of the trio handling corners.
The compromise for having superior grip? Noisier tyres on certain road surfaces.
From the driver’s seat, the hype around the new i30 is not immediately apparent. The eight-inch tablet-style touchscreen (largest of the trio) looks upmarket but the rest of the cabin is dominated by dark grey, hard plastics, from the dash to the doors.
From the inside, it looks like a cheap car that has been spruced up, though it gets most of the basics right and adds some fruit for good measure.
Apple Car Play and Android Auto are standard. Solely among this trio, the i30 has built-in navigation (with free map upgrades for 10 years).
It’s also alone in having auto headlights, illuminated vanity mirrors, rear sensors and a fullsize alloy spare.
But some details have been overlooked. The map pockets are mesh (no security for stashing valuables) and the driver’s window is not auto-up. There is only one USB port and two 12V sockets and a 3.5mm audio input. It also lacks the Subaru’s push-button start.
The i30 has a lever handbrake versus the electric park brake of its peers.
The rear camera has guiding lines that turn with the steering (neither the sharpest or worst image we’ve seen).
Cabin design is clean and functional. Instruments (including a digital speedo) are easy to read and the controls are well placed and intuitive.
The door pockets and glovebox are huge but rear seat space and boot capacity are the smallest of the trio.
Where the i30 starts to shine, though, is under the bonnet. The 2.0-litre four is the most powerful among this trio and it’s the lightest car here.
Combined with a six-speed auto, it gives the i30 a head start in the 0-100km/h dash. The i30 is the zippiest here, with a transmission that’s more intuitive than the others’ CVTs, but it uses the most fuel.
The steering is light and precise and provides good feedback. The suspension is taut yet comfortable over bumps.
However, the Hyundai’s tyres had the least amount of grip on our test loop. It didn’t feel as sure footed as the Honda.
Further, the brake pedal felt “soft” relative to the others, requiring a little more effort to pull up.
Hyundai’s ace is not on the car itself. Its routine service pricing costs a little more than half that of the Honda and Subaru over three years, plus you have the peace of mind of a fiveyear, unlimited kilometre warranty.
This was the closest contest in some years; each of these cars is worthy of consideration.
The Subaru and Honda have badge appeal, an up-market look and resale value on their side. But the sweet spot in the new Impreza line-up is the next model up, which comes loaded with advanced safety features.
The Civic feels the most secure in corners, has the roomiest cabin and cargo hold, and a stunning hi-tech instrument display. Its engine and CVT detract from the daily driving experience.
The new i30 may look and feel like a $20,000 car with added extras. But for the same $25,000 or so as the others tested here, it has more standard equipment, zippier engine, smoother transmission and the clear advantage of a five-year warranty and cheaper running costs.
Pictures: Thomas Wielecki