Fit for pur­pose

Flex­i­ble hatches do the job — who needs an SUV?

Herald Sun - Motoring - - FRONT PAGE - JOSHUA DOWLING NA­TIONAL MOTORING ED­I­TOR joshua.dowling@news.com.au

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.

SUBARU IM­PREZA

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.

HONDA CIVIC

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.

HYUNDAI i30

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.

VER­DICT

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

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