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2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i hatch. (Subaru)
2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i hatch. (Subaru)

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What should we choose for our first car? Add to ...

Hi Jeremy and Michael: My boyfriend and I are looking to buy our first car. We’ve done a lot of research online and have a general idea of what we’re looking for, but there are so many options, we could use some expert help! I read your advice to readers every week, so I’m hoping you can help some newbies out. We’re looking for a car that costs a little less than $20,000, with great gas mileage for driving in the city and enough room for hockey equipment, cat carrier and the ability to handle a small road trip. Cars that we like so far are the Volkswagen Golf and Subaru Impreza, but there seems to be many comparable cars, including the Mazda3 and Mitsubishi Lancer. Please point us in the right direction! – Lindsey and Michael in Ottawa

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Vaughan: Cato, this letter makes me think that I have squandered my career in journalism and business to end up writing car columns and doing a TV show in the million-channel universe. I would like to help Linny and Mike, but there isn’t a correct answer.

As an advice columnist, have I turned into just another on-the one-hand-and-on-the-other Agony Aunt?

Cato: Time to buck up and do your job. Since you joined this car journo gig, we have tested, what, 1,000 vehicles? We’ve grilled execs, quizzed engineers, puzzled-out designers, toured plants and design centres, been to scads of auto shows, and more.

So we don’t have to do the CNN shuffle here – the on-the-other-hand stuff. We have the background, knowledge and experience to offer informed opinions and even some truths. That’s what Lindsey and Michael want.

And when we’re done here, take three episodes of HBO’s The Newsroom and call me in the morning. Aaron Sorkin’s take on journalism will set you right.

Vaughan: Cato, you’re inspired by HBO? Lessons in good journalism from Aaron Sorkin?

Now I know you’re delusional.

Cato: Who’s pontificating now? Look, get to work.

The obvious choice here is the Impreza hatchback. At $20,895 to start, the Subie is not a budget-buster, though a tad more than they want to spend.

It has room for the cats and the hockey bag, and the all-wheel-drive system means they can take road trips year-round, regardless of the weather. It’s totally safe, Subaru is No. 1 in Canada for resale value and the quality is excellent.

L and M should buy an Impreza. There. Done. No existential angst. Let’s go for lunch.

Vaughan: Well, not so fast.

My crisis of indecisiveness prevents me from proffering an undisputed endorsement of the Impreza.

That noisy flat-four make sense for its low centre of gravity, but I think there are other more refined gasoline engines.

2012 Mazda3 Sport GS-Sky
 

Cato: You’re wasting time, but if we must, let’s look at the Mazda3 GS-Sky ($20,345).

That’s the one with Mazda’s newest, smoothest, most fuel-efficient four-banger. The manual gearbox is sweet, too.

This hatchback’s styling is a little aged – a new design comes next year – but the drive is brilliant. Reliability is good, it’s safe and there’s space for litter boxes and hockey sticks. Done.

I’m hungry, so let’s go.

Vaughan: Oh yes, the smiley-face Mazda3. I think these are terrific little cars and a great value. But if I woke up every morning to see that smiley-face grille staring me in the eye I’d run away screaming. I would be tempted to buy one as soon as they get that design problem behind them.

2012 Ford Focus.
 

Cato: If it’s a sharp design you want, the Ford Focus is the sharpest of the compact hatches. It starts at $19,899, but being a responsible journo, I can tell L and M that not only is Ford’s Employee Pricing event available to slash more than $2,000 off the sticker, there are other sales sweeteners in play, too. Zero per cent financing, for instance. Best driver in the segment and best-looking, too.

Vaughan: No Lancer? Mitsu is the Rodney Dangerfield of the car industry – No respect at all.

But Mitsus are among the toughest cars on the planet.

Cato: The Lancer Sportback – $19,998 to start – is okay, but the Focus is a better deal, the Subie is brilliant all-around and the Mazda3 has the best powertrain.

Vaughan: Oh, alright. Subie, Mazda, Focus, Lancer in that order. All perfectly acceptable as L and M already knew. Cato, let’s start reviewing rotten cars; that would be a lot more fun.

Cato: Finally a decision. We’re late for lunch because of you.

HOW THEY COMPARE

 

2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i hatchback

2012 Mazda3 Sport GS-SKY

2012 Ford Focus SE hatchback

Wheelbase (mm)

2,645

2,640

2,649

Length (mm)

4,415

4,505

4,359

Width (mm)

1,740

1,755

1,824

Track, front (mm)

1,465

1,470

1,466

Engine

2.0-litre four-cylinder

2.0-litre four-cylinder

2.0-litre four-cylinder

Output (horsepower/torque)

148/145 lb-ft

155/148 lb-ft

160/146 lb-ft

Drive system

all-wheel drive

front-wheel drivefront-wheel drive

Transmission

five-speed manual

six-speed manual

five-speed manual

Curb weight (kg)

1,320

1,318

1,310

Fuel economy (litres/100 km)

8.3 city/5.9 highway

7.6 city/5.1 highway

7.8 city/5.5 highway

Base price (MSRP)

$20,895

$20,345

$19,899

Source: car manufacturers

Jeremy Cato and Michael Vaughan are co-hosts of Car/Business, which airs Thursdays at 8:30 p.m. on Business News Network and Saturdays at 11:30 a.m. on CTV.

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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