Times Colonist

What to look for at your local dealership

As 2011 comes closer to an end, next year’s models continue to appear on dealers’ lots. Here’s a roundup of the compact segment

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2012 CHEVROLET SONIC

The Sonic is being offered as a four-door sedan and five-door hatchback, replacing the current Aveo in Chevy’s lineup. It’s an allnew subcompact, designed by GM Korea and built in a newly retooled assembly plant in Orion Township, Mich.

General Motors has caught up with the competitio­n with this new entry. The pillars of its pitch to consumers are frugal fuel consumptio­n and fun-to-drive dynamics — both factors that matter a lot to the Sonic’s target audience of 25-to-35-year-old first-time buyers.

Pricing starts at a competitiv­e $14,495 for the base LS sedan, with a list of standard features that includes a tilt and telescopin­g steering wheel, power locks with remote keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivi­ty, a six-month Onstar subscripti­on featuring turn-byturn navigation, electronic stability control, traction control, antilock brakes and six airbags.

Two other trim levels are offered: the mid-range LT and topof-the-line LTZ. All three trim levels are also available on the hatchback.

The standard powertrain is a 1.8-litre Ecotec four-cylinder coupled to a five-speed manual gearbox. A six-speed automatic is optional. The LTZ gets a 1.4L turbocharg­ed and intercoole­d four and a six-speed manual gearbox. A six-speed autobox will be available for the LTZ early in 2012.

The Sonic’s exterior styling is attractive and the cabin is quite roomy, with a lot of headroom even for a six-footer. Lanky types will also appreciate the generous legroom up front, although it comes at a price — with the front seat pushed back on its tracks, rear-seat legroom becomes quite limited. The rear cargo area is generous, too. — Clare Dear, National Post

2012 FIAT 500

After hooking up with Chrysler, Fiat is now returning with a modern interpreta­tion of a car that first hit the road in 1957. This time around, it is much larger — the wheelbase rises by a whopping 460 millimetre­s to 2,300 mm. That, however, does not blunt its overt charm — it is as huggable as the car with which it shares its name.

When the original 500 arrived, it was powered by a rear-mounted 500-cubic-centimetre air-cooled two-cylinder engine that made all of 15 or so horsepower. Today, the 500 employs Fiat’s 1.4-litre MultiAir four-cylinder motor. It manages to pump out 101 horsepower and 97 pound-feet of torque. It is a smooth operator for the most part, as it displays a great deal of civility in the lower part of the rev range, and it behaves itself well until it is forced to reach for redline — then it gets noisy.

The 500 is offered with either a five-speed manual gearbox or optional six-speed automatic transmissi­on with a manual mode. While the manual has a short throw, defined gate and a relaxed clutch, it is the automatic that’s destined to be the more popular choice.

Inside, the cabin’s execution is as cute as the exterior’s style. Not all, however, is perfect. One tends to sit on the driver’s seat rather than in it. This not only puts a bit of a crimp in the available headroom, it also makes a traffic light difficult to see. The header between the windshield and sunroof forces a taller rider to peer under it or over it. Either way, it’s a pain.

The rear seats mirror those found in many two-door cars — it takes some agility to access and, once ensconced, the legroom starts at limited and shrinks quickly. Ditto the rear headroom (it is tight) and the cargo capacity — just 9.5 cubic feet with the seats upright.

The Fiat 500 will likely be pur- chased as more of a fashion accessory for those seeking attention than it will as a serious mode of transporta­tion. Around town, in an unhurried environmen­t, the Fiat 500 is just fine, and people definitely notice you puttering by. Speed things up and it does not fare nearly as well. — Graeme Fletcher, National Post

2012 FORD FOCUS

Finally, we in Canada get to enjoy the same car that has been lauded in Europe for many years. In the end, the Focus gives Ford an enviable lineup of passenger cars.

Exterior style aside, one of the things that really defines the new Focus is its interior design and execution. The materials are soft to the touch and the layout is both logical and — in the end — intuitive. The key functions sit together at the top of the centre stack along with a small screen displaying the appropriat­e informatio­n. The driver can scroll through the menus (climate, entertainm­ent and phone) and functions using the main controller located within the centre stack or its miniaturiz­ed counterpar­t that sits on the right steering wheel spoke. It looks a little intimidati­ng at first but it is easily mastered.

Another of the big improvemen­ts to the Focus is found in the powertrain. The car arrives with a completely new 2.0-litre, directinje­ction four-cylinder that includes variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams. The net result is 160 horsepower and 149 pound-feet of torque. The delivery of power is both linear and unflustere­d, which means it arrives without the usual fourbanger thrashing and attendant noise. It also gives the Focus the wherewitha­l to hustle to 100 kilometres an hour in 8.5 seconds. Power is relayed to the front wheels through one of two available transmissi­ons — a five-speed manual or a six-speed twin-clutch.

In terms of ride and handling the Focus walks a very fine line. The suspension is well damped and comfortabl­e without sacrificin­g handling characteri­stics in the least. Likewise, the steering is precise and just the right weight — light at low speed, firming as speeds rise. There are few electrical­ly assisted systems that are as well sorted.

Dynamicall­y, the Focus is a remarkably accomplish­ed car. However, there is a caveat — the sedan has a noticeably softer feel than does the hatch, so it tends to feel a little less sporty.

The Focus is a very well conceived ride that has been equally well executed. It has a solid chassis, tight handling, a sweet powertrain and a cabin that is a step above the entry-level norm. — G.F, National Post

2012 HONDA CIVIC

Imagine Honda’s quandary when it introduced the last (eighth-generation) Civic. Then, as now, everyone was lamenting the spiralling price of gasoline and demanding better fuel economy. Honda listened and designed its then-new Civic with a relatively fuel-sipping 1.8-litre four-banger with but a modest increase in displaceme­nt over its 1.7L predecesso­r. Slightly more power was offered with no fuel economy penalty, so Honda thought of the redesign as mission accomplish­ed.

Only, it turns out we were just fooling with Honda. Along came Mazda and, on a seeming whim, the company produced the compact segment’s hot rod — the Mazda3 — powered by a base 2.0L and an even larger 2.3L option. Sure, fuel economy was slightly worse than the Civic, but, man, did it move.

So, naturally, there were rumours of a totally revamped, larger and more powerful new Civic. And, if you opt for the new Si, you get a larger 2.4L engine that boasts a creditable 201 horsepower — not to mention a sixspeed close-ratio gearbox, limitedsli­p differenti­al and meaty P215/45R17 performanc­e radials. But the meat and potatoes of the Civic lineup continues to be the basic 140-hp 1.8L engine. Honda is betting that fuel economy will finally have its time in the sun as an actual purchasing attribute rather than something people just complain about after they’ve bought the more powerful alternativ­e.

That’s not to say the new Civic hasn’t been improved. The car is a lot quieter than before. Save for the new Chevrolet Cruze, this is the most relaxed cabin in the compact class, with road, engine and wind noise quelled to an impressive degree from previous models. Also noticeable on the extended drive is that fuel economy is better. Nor does this frugality come at the expense of performanc­e. The new Civic is, if anything, a little more sprightly than before.

The problem is that, while Honda continues its relentless evolutiona­ry tack, much of the competitio­n is taking revolution­ary steps. Though Honda claims 90 per cent of the 2012’s body panels are new and that the car has been completely updated, there’s no mistaking this as a revision of the previous edition. The body shape is similar. Ditto the interior design. Indeed, the 2012 feels like a very sophistica­ted remake of the 2011 version.

For many — I would assume Honda loyalists among them — that will prove sufficient. But Honda’s long-acquiesced leadership is definitely under threat. — David Booth, National Post

2012 HYUNDAI ACCENT

Hot on the heels of the new Sonata and the even more recent Elantra, comes the Accent subcompact, the heart and soul of Hyundai’s value-packed lineup.

CEO Steve Kelleher notes that “Hyundai no longer succeeds on price alone,” relying instead on value for the money by packing more into a subcompact than ever before. More as in more power — 138 ponies. More technology — it’s the first subcompact with direct fuel injection. More room — the 2012 Accent’s interior boasts more volume than the previous-generation Honda Civic. More features — it’s the only subcompact offering a six-speed automatic.

It may be the most powerful, however, with its 138-horsepower engine, which seemingly does not come at the expense of fuel consumptio­n. The Accent boasts a segment-best 4.8 litres per 100 kilometres highway fuel economy.

The 1.6-litre four-banger is also commendabl­y smooth. Credit better engine mounting damping and superior sound insulation, but the Accent’s DOHC four-cylinder is far less thrashy than anything else in the subcompact segment and even feels more sophistica­ted than its larger Elantra sibling.

However, it is not quite the perfect engine. Despite its impressive specificat­ions, the engine feels noticeably weak at low rpm. That peak torque arrives at a relatively heady 4,850 rpm; below 3,500 rpm, there is just not much pulling power. So, you’ll have to seriously row the manual gearbox to access the performanc­e. Better to opt for the automatic and let the six close-ratio gears do the shifting instead.

If a sporty attitude is important to you, I’d suggest the five-door hatch version. Unlike the Elantra, the Accent sedan’s styling is somewhat somnolent. The hatch, however, looks very European. Ditto the inside — the dashboard, centre stack and gauges are all stylish. Material quality and especially panel gaps are superb. The car is even roomy, just squeezing into the U.S. Environmen­tal Protection Agency’s sizing guideline for compacts rather than the subcompact segment Hyundai is targeting. — D.B., National Post

2012 HYUNDAI VELOSTER

The 2012 Veloster is aimed squarely at the Generation Y set and breaks new ground with its polarizing, almost cartoonish exterior design. Styled as a cross between a coupe and a hatchback, the Veloster stands out with its asymmetric­al three-door configurat­ion, complete with two doors on the passenger side and one on the driver’s side, as well as its low roofline, squat shape, hexagonal grille and three-dimensiona­l wheel arches.

From a purely functional standpoint, the passenger-side rear door does allow for easier access to the rear seats, but passengers will find the sweeping roofline seriously restricts headroom to the point that a sticker on the inside of the Veloster’s hatch warns to use caution when closing it so as not to strike the heads of the passengers seated on the back seats — just like on the Audi TT.

Power is supplied by the same direct-injection 1.6-litre fourcylind­er engine found under the hood of the new Accent. With 138 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque, this engine is adequate at best in the Veloster, which is heavier than the subcompact Accent. It really needs to be worked hard to get the kind of performanc­e its looks suggest. Throttle response is slow, the six-speed manual gearbox needs to be rowed through the gears and the Veloster generally feels underpower­ed when climbing grades or passing other vehicles.

Even Hyundai’s all-new sixspeed double-clutch gearbox with shift paddles (a $1,400 option) only does a slightly better job of glossing over the lack of power. To be fair, Hyundai says the powertrain is geared for efficiency not performanc­e, and the automaker claims both gearboxes will return a fuel economy rating of 4.9 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway.

In terms of equipment levels, the base model is anything but as it features four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic stability and traction control systems, air conditioni­ng, a seven-inch LCD multimedia touch screen, a 196-watt six-speaker audio system with XM satellite radio, Bluetooth connectivi­ty, heated front seats and mirrors, a proximity key with push-button start and a rear-view camera.

The Veloster is striking and distinctiv­e both inside and out and it is also loaded with a lot of equipment for the price. Just don’t get the idea that it will go as fast as it looks. — Gabriel Gelinas, National Post

2012 KIA RIO5

The fact that Kia’s new Rio5 econocar looks like a baby Audi can hardly be considered an insult. Nor should it come as a surprise that it looks so obviously influenced by Volkswagen’s luxury brand. Peter Schreyer, the man who penned it — and the new Optima — used to be the head of design at Audi. Nonetheles­s, it’s shocking how Germanic the Rio5 looks. Peel off the Kia stickers, slap on some classier rims and the whole thing could pass for a revised A2. On looks alone, Kia should sell a boatload of Rio5s.

Nor is the hatchback’s performanc­e likely to disappoint. Since it shares so much technology with the Hyundai Accent, the fact it’s powered by the same 1.6-litre four-cylinder should be no surprise. Blessed with both direct injection and variable valve timing on both its dual overhead camshafts — as well as an Idle Stop and Go system that shuts down the engine at stoplights on the ECO model — the Rio5’s relatively diminutive four pumps out 138 horsepower and 123 poundfeet of torque, both figures classleadi­ng. It helps that both the manual and available automatic transmissi­on have six speeds as each makes it easier to keep the 1.6L in the sweet spot of its powerband.

The Rio’s ride and handling also belie its economical ($14,095) starting price. There’s little of the crashing over potholes and manhole lips that are supposed to be part of subcompact experience. The suspension compliance/damping is sportier than in previous small Kias without turning the ride buckboard-like. If not classleadi­ng, the Rio is at least the equal of anything in this price range, particular­ly when you consider that electric power steering is standard on the cheap and cheerful Rio.

With an available heated steering wheel as well as heated front seats and an air-conditione­d glove box, the Rio5 — at least the EX Luxury — is at the height of subcompact hedonism. It’s also pretty roomy inside.

What this all means is that the new Rio5 will be a huge — make that humongous — hit. Sexier than even the most European of hatches, the Rio5 is Continenta­l charm brought to North America with South Korea’s ruthless efficiency. — D.B., National Post

2012 MAZDA3

In addition to some cosmetic alteration­s, such as a new front fascia and rear bumper, interior tweaks such as new cloth seat material and changes to the trim such as aluminum accents, the big news for 2012 is the addition of the 2.0-litre Skyactiv-g engine and all-new six-speed manual and automatic Skyactiv-drive transmissi­ons, although it’s not getting the total Skyactiv treatment: The engine in the Mazda3 lacks the 42-1 exhaust manifold, an integral part of the new engine technology.

Without the exhaust manifold, the new four-cylinder is limited to a still heady 12:1 compressio­n ratio. But this engine still pumps 155 horsepower out of its two litres of displaceme­nt at 6,000 rpm and 148 pound-feet of torque at 4,100 rpm. Fuel economy is a class-leading 4.9 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway and 7.1 in city driving.

The only snag is that the SkyActiv system will only be available on one of the Mazda3’s trio of trim levels. However, that model is its volume leader — the midrange GS. The base GX makes do with the current 2.0L 148-hp four, while the top-line GT includes the 2.5L four-cylinder, which kicks out 167 hp. The engine packaging applies to both the four-door sedan and the five-door Sport hatchback. The Mazdaspeed­3 continues to be powered by a 2.3L turbocharg­ed four.

Mazda concedes limiting the Skyactiv to the mid-range models is partly due to maintainin­g the base sedan’s price, which has been trimmed by $700 to $15,595 for 2012. (The GS sedan starts at $18,995, a $600 reduction, while the GT is $23,695, a decrease of $730. Opting for the five-door Sport adds $1,000 to sedan prices across the lineup.) — C.D., National Post

2012 NISSAN LEAF

This, being a road test, is about whether the Nissan Leaf is a better or worse electric vehicle than other EVS I’ve tested — namely the range-extended Chevrolet Volt, Mitsubishi’s I-MIEV and even Mini’s little E. In other words: “How does it drive?”

Surprising­ly well, as a matter of fact. Other than the eerie silence that accompanie­s any electric vehicle’s operation, there’s precious little to differenti­ate the Leaf from a garden-variety Versa, which the Leaf resembles, at least in size and some areas of comportmen­t.

That means there’s brisk accelerati­on to about 120 kilometres an hour, the electric motors’ prodigious torque at low speed making the Leaf quite responsive around town.

The transmissi­on shifts much like a convention­al automatic; over and forward for Reverse, over and back for Drive. Indeed, other than that eerie silence and a complete lack of vibration, there’s nothing to differenti­ate the Leaf from any other car.

The Leaf is about the same size as the Versa (though it weighs almost 300 kilograms more) and uses Versa-derived suspension bits, so it’s hardly surprising if its comportmen­t is sim- ilar to the compact. The ride is on the harsh side of firm but not destructiv­ely so, and the handling is surprising­ly agile because the 300 or so kilograms of lithiumpol­ymer battery are built into the cabin floor, lowering the centre of gravity.

It’s also fairly roomy, its 90 cubic feet of interior volume qualifying as mid-size, though it looks like a compact-size hatchback. Headroom is NBA approved and, thanks to the upright seating position, there’s a lot of legroom, even in the rear.

However, the interior’s plastic is simply not up to the standard compared with a convention­al car costing $38,395 (the Leaf’s base price).

As for comparison­s with other EVS, the Nissan is more of a grown-up car than Mitusbishi’s iMIEV. That’s neither a compliment nor an insult; those who consider EVS as small urban vehicles may think the I-MIEV is more appropriat­e. If you want a substitute for your everyday car, the Leaf might be more your size. — D.B., National Post

2012 NISSAN VERSA

The highlight of the 2012 Nissan Versa story is more tech for the buck than anything else on the road. Also, more space. And it’s cheap! Value-conscious buyers can get into the all-new Versa sedan starting at $11,798. The lowest trim level, the S, comes with, well, not much. There’s no air conditioni­ng, much like the base Accent. There’s a manual transmissi­on, much like the Accent. Unfortunat­ely, unlike the Accent, the new Versa sedan doesn’t come equipped with much in the way of personalit­y either. It’s quite rental car-ish.

But it does have a lot of space. For a subcompact, the rear seat is enormous — including legroom — and the trunk is best in class, too, which makes it a decent choice for a one-car family that needs it to do everything decently well — as long as you move up to the SL trim. The bottom-end S doesn’t even offer a folding rear seat.

The exterior design is less boxy than the first generation, with the beltline crease more sculpted and the slant toward the rear of the car more pronounced. It looks and is more aerodynami­c than the previous version. And, even though it’s actually a titch shorter, it appears longer thanks to a longer rear overhang. It has the same wheelbase as last year’s car.

The new Versa comes with a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine and a five-speed manual on the S trim. The engine puts out 109 horsepower at 6,000 rpm and 107 pound-feet of torque at 4,400 rpm. The all-new continuous­ly variable transmissi­on (available on the SV trim level) offers a broader gear ratio than typical seven-speed automatics and convention­al CVTS, according to Nissan.

Nissan says the car is fun to drive — and that might be a bit of a stretch. The best I can say is that it’s not un-fun. It’s OK. It’s noisy under hard accelerati­on but otherwise reasonably quiet. It doesn’t exhibit too much roll in the corners. It’s comfortabl­e. The controls are fine. The most notably stylish things in the interior are the steering wheel controls, which are pretty nifty. It’s all just rather grey, kind of like the only interior colour choice. — Annette Mcleod, National Post

2012 TOYOTA YARIS

The 2012 Yaris, which will be offered in both three- and fivedoor hatchback models, features an attractive gauge cluster that sits behind the steering wheel. This brings the Yaris back to the heart of a very competitiv­e market. Of course, the fact the new Yaris is also larger helps matters. The overall length is up 100 millimetre­s, while the wheelbase grows 50 mm to 2,510 mm. The latter represents a change in the suspension pickup points and not a stretch in the platform. The increased length ups the cargo capacity to 10.1 cubic feet (up 0.6 cu. ft) and there is more rear-seat legroom thanks to the reshaped back of the front seat. The other welcome move is a seat memory for the three-door models. The disappoint­ment is that, here in the Great White North, heated seats will not be offered. Period. It’s a bad move given Canada’s love of toasted buns and the fact said warmers are available on many of its key competitor­s.

The styling has been ramped up from staid to fetching. It features a stronger face, a more purposeful stance and some much needed character through the side that’s seen in the rising belt line. At the back, the rear wheel arches are more pronounced.

The Yaris stands pat powertrain-wise. This means a 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine that pushes 106 horsepower and 103 poundfeet of torque. The engine is smooth and suitably hushed, even refined, when pushed, and it delivers a surprising turn of speed given the numbers at play.

There are two transmissi­ons offered — a five-speed manual and an optional four-speed automatic. The manual features a defined gate and a clutch that bites in the right place. The automatic is not so good. It slips through its gears smoothly, but the problem is the lack of them. In order to get the desired launch off the line and on through the mid-range, the ratios favour this section of the driving spectrum. On the highway, the transmissi­on really needs another cog or two — the engine is forced to run at an inflated 3,200 rpm at 120 kilometres an hour, which is not good from a noise standpoint. Nor is it the best strategy for promoting fuel economy. This, perhaps, explains why the automatic is thirstier (0.2 litres per 100 kilometres) than the manual. Carping aside, the powertrain has the desired effect. The Yaris runs to 100 km/h in 9.8 seconds and accomplish­es the more important 80-to-120-km/h passing move in 7.9 seconds.

There are no complaints in the handling department. While the setup still uses Macpherson struts up front and a twist beam in the rear, it has been tuned to feel more European. This means the amount of body roll has been drasticall­y reduced. The good news is that the ride quality does not suffer because of the tauter settings.

The 2012 Yaris hatchback is priced to sell. It starts at $13,990 for the CE three-door hatch (it is very basic transporta­tion — no air conditioni­ng, no cruise, manual windows, manual locks and side door mirrors that require the windows to be opened to adjust them) and runs to $19,990 for the loaded five-door SE. Toyota says the most popular model will be the five-door LE with the convenienc­e package (it brings the aforementi­oned items as well as power mirrors). It is priced at $15,990, which is $1,090 less than the outgoing equivalent. In an odd twist, the Yaris sedan carries over totally unchanged. — G.F., National Post

2012 VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE

In 1998, Volkswagen dared to introduce the New Beetle, based on the Golf platform. Gone was the rear-engine, rear-wheel-drive layout, although the design remained distinctly Beetle, with its vestigial running boards, large round tail lights, sloping headlights and the high, round roofline. Gone, too, was the simplicity of its engineerin­g, replaced with the technologi­es modern consumers demanded.

This year, the 2012 Volkswagen Beetle debuts more sophistica­ted than ever, with a longer front end, pushed-back pillars and a more upright windshield, based on the new Jetta platform. You can think of it as a secondgene­ration New Beetle, but Volkswagen is strictly calling it The Beetle, or the 21st Century Beetle. It somehow hearkens more to the original than the previous generation, while having a flattened look that takes something away from its distinctiv­e round greenhouse.

It’s longer, lower and wider than the last model and gone are the round tail lights, replaced by flattened ovals that appear to disappear into the trunk, giving the rear end a very different look. In spite of it being wider and longer, it’s 26 kilograms lighter than the last, with a coefficien­tof drag of .37, which ain’t bad for a rolling bubble.

We’ll see two engines in Canada this year, a 2.5-litre in-line five with 170 horsepower and 177 pound-feet of torque and a 2.0L turbo four (available only on the Sportline) with 207 hp and 200 lbft of torque. The former comes with a five-speed manual or sixspeed automatic transmissi­on, while the turbo gets a six-speed manual or six-speed direct shift gearbox automatic. The 2.5L is expected to be the volume seller with about a 70 per cent share. A diesel engine joins the lineup (along with a convertibl­e) next year.

VW’S global launch strategy is to offer a limited number of special editions first off the assembly line. In Canada, they’re dubbed Premiere and Premiere+. Once 600 of those are gone, the regular trim levels are Comfortlin­e, Highline and Sportline. You can still get what comprises the Premiere editions, but it’ll cost you, as you’ll have to order one of the other trim levels and start loading on the options. — A.M., National Post

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