Vaughan: Here’s GM’s urban mini-car (slightly mini-er than the Mini) with a hatchback and four doors and less horsepower (85) than a decent motorcycle. However, you can hook up your smartphone to the Spark and stay “connected” in traffic jams. This built-in-South Korea, less than $20,000 runabout is not for cross-country trips but might be just the ticket downtown where parking is scarce. More room inside than seems possible and its driving is shall we say, agile. The 2013 Chevrolet Spark is a good for people who need affordable transportation. Period.
Cato: The Dodge Dart has me believing in miracles. It’s a miracle Chrysler exists at all. It’s a larger miracle that Chrysler has made the marriage with Fiat SpA of Italy work. Chrysler is profitable, and that’s a miracle, too. Chrysler has successfully put a “Top Hat” on the basics of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta, lengthening and widening the Giulietta, and offering three engine choices. The idea: retain the road-holding agility of the Italian car while making the Dart big enough to satisfy wide-body North Americans who equate size with value – and do all of it while making a tidy profit. Oh, and the design is delicious. Not exactly a miracle, but close.
Vaughan: The Kia transformation from cheap to champ is complete with the 2012 Rio, sedan and hatchback. The handsome subcompact, that shares engineering with the Hyundai Accent, is now competitive in the segment. What sets it apart is its interesting European styling (the chief designer was snagged from Audi) and near-German-style interior. There’s one engine choice: a 1.6-litre four with direct injection cranking out 138 horsepower. Not exciting, but the six-speed manual or automatic makes the most of it. The Rio rides comfortably and doesn’t bounce around the way subcompacts used to. Try a modern subcompact – you’ll like it.
Mazda3 Sport SkyActiv
Cato: Mazda can boast about quality and resale value, and with its new line of SkyActiv powertrains, fuel economy and performance are in play, too. What matters here is the powertrain technology – the SkyActiv part. The 2012 Mazda3 Sport SkyActiv hatchback gets brilliant fuel economy for a quick and nimble four-door hatchback (7.1 litres/100 km city, 5.1 highway). The 2.0-litre gasoline direct injection engine is mated to either a reinvented manual or automatic six-speed transmission and both are very good. This car exceeds expectations born of months of Mazda hype. It’s entertaining, especially so the version with a slick-shifting manual gearbox. By the way, the sedan version is a little less expensive, but not as functional.
Cato: This is a car that will leave you salivating over its design and sweating about the racy performance. Not at all. But we like the Forte because it’s cheap and serviceable. Really cheap. Kia is dealing on the Forte in a big way because an all-new version is headed to showrooms next year. And Kia is dealing on the Forte because it competes in a segment loaded with excellent compact cars – from the Hyundai Elantra to the Honda Civic, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Jetta, Chevrolet Cruze… We’re out of breath cataloging this list. Now, if all you want is serviceable and cheap transport for the city, this Forte is a sensible choice. The way Kia deals, you won’t likely even need to make a car payment for 90 days or so.
Vaughan:A Bridge Too Far is a great movie, but “A Beetle Too Many” might not be as well regarded. However, it is the latest Beetle, one of the greatest car lines ever, so it’s on the list. They’ve tried to make it more masculine by eschewing the flower vase and tightening up the Bug’s friendly lines. In the nose is a turbocharged, intercooled direct-injection 2.0-litre TSI four-cylinder engine that sends 200 hp to the front wheels. It is a VeeDub, so it drives great. Cato once said, “It’s time for the Bug to bug off.” I truly hate to quote him, but he could be right.
Cato: The Accent is a winner, even though it’s one of the vehicles caught up in the Hyundai/Kia flap over incorrect fuel economy numbers. That’s been a black eye for Hyundai and Kia, but there is nothing wrong with the Accent. The car is shockingly attractive. A real looker, in fact, especially the functional four-door hatchback. It performs, too. Hyundai has stuffed an all-aluminum 1.6-litre four-banger under the hood: 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. The engine boasts gasoline direct injection (GDI) and that’s pretty modern stuff. The gearboxes are modern, too. As grocery getters go, the Accent is – how shall we say it – a full loaf of bread. Remember the old Accent? I wore a bag on my head when I drove it. Not now. This design is worth bragging about.
Hyundai Elantra GT
Vaughan: Elantra sedans are shooting the lights out sales-wise with their over-the-top fluidic sculpture styling. For my money, the Elantra GT, a European 5-door hatchback, is the best looking car in the lineup. This is the conservative, practical Elantra, really a station wagon jazzed up. Powered by a 148-hp, four-cylinder that’s mated to either a six-speed automatic or manual shifter, the GT is adequate and enjoyable to drive. But GT? Gran Turismo? Whoever named it isn’t as competent as the people who engineered it.