Mazda3 SkyActiv sedan
Base price: $15,995
As tested: $20,895
Familiar as the Mazda3 has become, its evolution continues with fuel efficiency replacing much-touted zoom-zoom as a central selling feature.
Best-in-class interior roominess affording comfortable seating for up to five, and first-rate steering and handling remain as key attributes.
But its modest thirst – 7.1 litres/100 km of city driving, and more impressively 5.0 on the highway – results from Mazda maximizing the efficiency of its gasoline engines.
While the old zoom-zoom is still a strong component of Mazda's identity, you'll be hearing more and more about SkyActiv technology. Other companies develop hybrids or full-electric alternatives, but Mazda, strapped for development cash, instead has increased the compression of its existing engines, reduced friction, improved its six-speed automatic transmission, lowered weights and the sum total of all these efforts is SkyActiv.
How does it feel? This Mazda3 is fun to drive, for those of us who enjoy feeling real response to all of our pedal and steering inputs. If it's not quite as powerful as earlier Mazda 3s, strong torque at lower engine speeds helps compensate.
Not a dominant winner in this most-affordable of classes – it totalled 683.9 points to 680.5 for the runner-up Rio – the Mazda3 SkyActiv was my personal winner because of its all-round strength.
In my reckoning, it earned high scores, if not highest, in most of 17 categories on the ballot, from exterior styling through steering to subjective value.
KIA RIO LX+
Base price: $16,695
As-tested price: $18,450
On my scorecard, the Rio and the Sentra tied for best ride (8.5 out of 10) over bumpy pavement on our test route, and Rio also impressed on the QEW. The Rio also excelled in ergonomics with controls and convenience all at easy hand. Rear seat riders, however, find their feet pinched under the front seats.
Base price: $14,848
As-tested price: $20,083
Handsome Nissan-family curves, upmarket interior, large trunk all counted in Sentra's favour, along with the aforementioned tie with the Kia Rio for best ride. What hurt was noise during hard acceleration (producing painfully slow results) and another foot-pinching rear seat layout.
Base price: $13,495
As tested: $17,495
Lowest-priced in this class, GM's city car somehow comfortably seats four within diminutive dimensions that make for easy parking. It's cute as all get-out, especially in Techno Pink. But 88 horsepower and an automatic with only four gears mean this Spark produces no fire.
Base price: $17,995
As tested: $20,895
The Dart has a big-car feel among these competitors. With a huge trunk and great rear-seat headroom, a driver's seat affording a commanding view and positioned with controls and touch-screen easily operated, Dart was a contender for best-in-class. My fellow voters obviously didn't score it as I did.
TOYOTA PRIUS C
Base price: $20,950
As tested: $20,950
The cheeky styling stood out as the boldest – even more so than the Spark – and I liked the bright interior best as well with its bold blue accent lines. As a hybrid, Prius C sips the least fuel. So what's wrong with it? A terrible ride, poor throttle response, excessive noise/vibration/harmonics and the least room in the class.