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Nissan Cube (Nissan)
Nissan Cube (Nissan)

The battle of the boxes

The little wagons that say you're a Canadian Add to ...

They are the little wagons, the useful and often completely square runabouts with four doors and a hatch at the rear designed to make loading so easy. Yes, they all carry piles of stuff and for the most part they sell for around $20,000 out the door.

All in all, we're talking the "All-Canadian" ride. Functional, affordable and fuel-efficient, the little wagons as we'll call them do many things and that's why they typically appeal to 40-something buyers.

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The newest of the bunch is the 2011 Scion xB. This box on wheels is based on the compact Toyota Corolla/Matrix platform, but unlike the Toyota models, the xB is about nothing else but utility and space. In some ways, like the Nissan Cube, it is the anti-car.

Scion, of course, is Toyota's so-called youth brand and a recent Power Information Network (PIN) report shows the xB is "attracting a considerably younger typical buyer (40 years old) in comparison to all the other models in this competitive set except the Mazda3 Sport.

Competitive set? That's jargon for rival models and there are a bunch of them: Dodge Caliber, Hyundai Elantra Touring, Kia Soul, Mazda3 Sport, the Cube, the Matrix and the four-door Volkswagen Golf hatchback.

For the record, VW makes a pure Golf wagon, but to keep all these models on an equal footing, we'll focus here on the four-door Golf hatchback - which is also the only one in the bunch offered with both a diesel and gasoline engine. A huge chunk of VW buyers go for the diesel, which explains why the Golf here has the highest transaction price, according to PIN data: $26,567.

At the other end of the pricing spectrum, PIN data says the Elantra Touring has an average transaction price of $19,411.

You would think little wagons might appeal to moms - and at the risk of being labelled sexist, to women in general - and that appears to be the case. More than half of buyers for all these save two - the Golf and the xB - are women.

Given that Scion's marketing efforts seem to be aimed at young men who like to socialize at night and frequently live in their parents' basements, it's not a big surprise that nearly 60 per cent of xB buyers are men and the average age of the xB buyer is a youngish 40 - which is the youngest average age of the bunch. By contrast, the average Caliber buyer is 51.

The Caliber is the oldest design on our list of eight little wagons. That helps explain why the Caliber's "turn rate," the number of days a Caliber typically sits on a dealer lot, is a whopping 154 days, according to PIN data. Fifty days is about average, which means the Caliber is moving off lots at a snail's pace - especially compared to the xB with its 17-day turn rate and the Golf hatchback at 27 days.

We mention turn rate because in many cases, slow-selling models - those with a very high turn rate number such as the Caliber - are offered with big discounts. We found at least $2,000 in sales sweeteners on the Caliber, not including any discounts a buyer might squeeze out of the dealer's margin.

Discounting aside - and there is plenty of it in the marketplace right now - those looking at buying a small wagon will find a choice of eight competitive models.

HOW WE RATED THEM

  • Safety: We've noted which model-year cars received "good" ratings in all four categories by the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) - front and side impact, roof crush strength and rear crash/head restraint. Those with "good" ratings all around receive a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS.
  • Resale value: We've indicated 48-month resale value on a percentage basis, based on figures from the Canadian Black Book.
  • Quality: We've included the brand rating from the most recent J.D. Power and Associates' three-year Vehicle Dependability Study.

2011 SCION xB

Base price: $18,270

The big picture: The xB is a thoroughly practical, completely comfortable wagon. The cabin is comfortable and roomy, with particularly excellent headroom. Boxes can be that. Obviously the xB is not aimed at a driving enthusiast crowd. Instead, it is design as a social ride with plenty of back seat and cargo space.

Power: The base engine is a 2.4-litre, four-cylinder mated to either a five -speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. At 158 horsepower, the xB is rated at 9.5 litres/100 km city/7.2 highway.

Safety: A Top Safety Pick - boxy as it is, the xB has impressive roof strength. In IIHS testing, the xB's roof withstood a force equal to 6.8 times its vehicle weight, well above the U.S. federal standard of 1.5 times. It also has advanced airbags, traction control, antilock brakes and brake assist, pretensioning seatbealts and an ignition disable/panic alarm anti-theft system.

Quality: Scion the brand is ranked below average in the VDS, though the parent Toyota brand is well above average.

Resale value: Scion only went on sale in Canada last fall, so the brand has no resale value history in this country.

Bottom line: The xB trades on what some consider its funky look. Whatever you think of the design, this is a very useful shape - fuel-efficient, safe and well-equipped, too.

2011 Dodge Caliber

Base price: $14,595

The big picture: Well, the Caliber is cheap. With a starting price less than $15,000 and with at least another $2,000 in Chrysler Canada cash discounts on the table, the Caliber is one of the most affordable buys in the marketplace, period.

Power: The base engine is a 158-hp four-cylinder, one of the more powerful engines in this group. Fuel economy is 11.5 city/6.1 highway.

Safety: Dual front airbags and overhead curtain bags are standard on the base model, as is a driver knee airbag and an ignition disable anti-theft system. The Caliber is not a Top Safety Pick.

Quality: The Dodge brand is ranked near the very bottom in the VDS.

Resale value: CBB says the 48-month residual value for the Dodge brand is 33.7 per cent, 7.4 per cent below the 41.1 per cent industry average.

Bottom line: The four-cylinder engine is a bit coarse and the packaging is not as efficient as the best of these wagons. But the Caliber is cheap.

2011 Hyundai Elantra Touring

Base price: $14,999

The big picture: The Elantra Touring is one of the most useful and affordable cars for sale in Canada. The base price starts at less than $15,000, but Hyundai Canada has another $3,000 cash incentive in play, too.

Power: The 136-hp, 2.0-litre four-cylinder is just fine for most grocery-getting chores. Not outstanding, but good enough. Fuel economy is 8.9 city/6.4 highway.

Safety: While not a Top Safety Pick, the base version of the Elantra Touring does come with front airbags and an ignition disable anti-theft system.

Quality: The Hyundai brand has been ranked solidly above average in the VDS for some time now.

Resale value: CBB says the 48-month residual value for the Hyundai brand is 35 per cent, 6.1 per cent below the 41.1 per cent industry average.

Bottom line: The design is a little homely rather than funky. On the plus side, Hyundai has finished the interior very nicely, paying attention to details such as material quality. There is less hard plastic inside the Elantra Touring than in certain rival models, such as the Matrix.

2011 Kia Soul

Base price: $15,995

The big picture: We like cash incentives, such as the $2,000 Kia Canada has on the Soul. Meanwhile, as boxy styling goes, the Soul is pretty hip - if that's possible. Pricier models have great sound systems, too.

Power: The 1.6-litre four-banger (122 hp) means the base Soul is on the underpowered side. If you want more power, you'll need to spend more money. Fuel economy is 7.7 city/6.3 highway.

Safety: A Top Safety Pick, this South Korean compact has front airbags plus side curtain airbags, side impact door beams, front and rear crumple zones, antilock brakes, traction control and an impact-absorbing steering column.

Quality: The Kia brand is ranked below average in the VDS.

Resale value: CBB says the 48-month residual value for the Kia brand is 38.5 per cent, 2.6 per cent below the 41.1 per cent industry average.

Bottom line: The Soul has a compelling design and the pricing is certainly attractive. The base engine is weak, however, though fuel economy is decent.

2011 Mazda3 Sport

Base price: $17,495

The big picture: The Mazda3 is arguably the best-looking and most entertaining car in this bunch. The cabin is handsome and functional, too. There are many reasons why the Mazda3 has been one of the best-selling cars in Canada for the better part of a decade.

Power: The 148-hp four-cylinder engine is strong for this class and fuel economy is 8.1 city/5.9 highway.

Safety: The 3 is a Top Safety Pick and the base model comes standard with antilock braking, traction control, front, side and overhead air bags and an ignition disable anti-theft system.

Quality: The Mazda brand is ranked below average in the VDS.

Resale value: CBB says the 48-month residual value for the Mazda brand is 46.9 per cent, 5.8 per cent above 41.1 per cent industry average.

Bottom line: Not as boxy as, say, the Cube and the xB, the Mazda3 Sport trades on pure drivability, a nice cabin and a stylish look.

2010 Nissan Cube

Base price: $17,398

The big picture: Among the boxiest cars sold in the world, the Cube has a kind of nerdy appeal, right down to the refrigerator-style door at the rear. The interior will hold the goods from a 20-something's apartment.

Power: The 122-hp, four-cylinder engine is barely enough to motivate the Cube adequately. Fuel economy is 8.1 city/6.6 highway.

Safety: A Top Safety Pick, the Cube's list of standard safety features includes six airbags, active head restraints, traction control, antilock brakes and an ignition disable anti-theft system.

Quality: The Nissan brand is ranked below average in the VDS.

Resale value: CBB says the 48-month residual value for the Nissan brand is 45.2 per cent, 4.1 per cent above the 41.1 per cent industry average.

Bottom line: The Cube should have cult status among the anti-car set, yet it's struggled to catch on with buyers in a big way. The design is immensely practical, though - and there is an odd appeal to this square car.

2011 Toyota Matrix

Base price: $16,715

The big picture: Sold in both front- and all-wheel-drive configuration, the Matrix is a familiar little hatchback to Canadians - routinely appearing among the top 10 best-selling cars in Canada. It is solid and reliable overall.

Power: The 1.8-litre, four cylinder engine provides 132 hp. Fuel economy is 7.8 city/6.2 highway.

Safety: Standard gear on the base model includes antilock braking, traction control, front, side and overhead air bags and an ignition disable anti-theft system. The Matrix is not a Top Safety Pick, though Corolla on which it is based has earned that rating.

Quality: The Toyota brand is ranked near the top of the VDS.

Resale value: CBB says the 48-month residual value for the Toyota brand is 46.8 per cent, 5.7 per cent above the 41.1 per cent industry average.

Bottom line: Tried and true, the Matrix does the things you'd expect of a strong-selling Toyota hatchback. The AWD version adds an all-weather dimension.

2011 Volkswagen Golf four-door hatchback

Base price: $21,475

The big picture: The Golf four-door hatchback is a very handsome car competing against many pure boxes. The Golf is refined, even the cheapest one, and it has the best seats of any car in this group.

Power: There is a diesel option available with the Golf, but the base gas engine is a 2.5-litre five-cylinder rated at 170 hp. Fuel economy is 9.9 city/6.2 highway.

Safety: Top Safety Pick, the four-door Golf hatchback has a base model with anti-lock braking, traction control, front, side and overhead airbags and an ignition disable anti-theft system.

Quality: The VW brand is ranked below average in the VDS.

Resale value: CBB says the 48-month residual value for the VW brand is 49.6 per cent, 8.5 per cent above the 41.1 per cent industry average.

Bottom line: The Golf has been a strong seller in Canada since its recent redesign. This is a refined car, one with stylish rather than purely square looks, great seats and handy road manners.

Correction: The Volkswagen Golf hatchback has a base 2.5-litre five-cylinder engine. An earlier online version of this story contained incorrect information.

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