November 12, 2012
|Comparison Test: Compact Cars, Version 2.0|
Review and photos by Mike Schlee and Peter Bleakney
‘City Cars’ is quickly becoming a catch-all phrase for anything that is small and different in the automotive landscape. Does your car run on electric power only? It’s a city car. Is your car shorter in length than a ‘Big Wheels’? Must be a City Car. Is your car funkier looking than Bootsy Collins? City Car.
Truth is, this catch-all term makes sense as most vehicles lumped into the genre do indeed excel in urban environments. Their compact size and nimble maneuverability help negotiate the low-speed-limit, narrow alleyways, and pedestrian-and-car-crowded confines found in the urban centres of Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. That is not to say they cannot be driven on the highway, but like taking Queen Elizabeth to a NASCAR race, the two are not a match made in heaven.
Click image to enlarge
For decades now city cars have been all the rage in densely populated European cities. Ever see the size of the original Mini or original Fiat 500? These minuscule originals make their contemporary reinterpretations look like parade balloons at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But city cars have never really caught on in North America as our cities are several hundred (sometimes over a thousand) years younger than those found in Europe and were designed from the start for large, horse-drawn carriages, if not automobiles themselves. The need to fit down a three-foot wide twisty alley is as foreign to most Canadian drivers as is using a toilet-less washroom. But, as our cities continue to grow and condominiums and bike lanes reclaim the real estate once preserved for parking spaces, city cars are beginning to catch on.
Smart was the first to see the potential in the city car market for Canada and brought over the diesel-powered Fortwo in 2004. Since then the Fortwo has undergone a full model refresh and the diesel three-cylinder engine was replaced by a larger gasoline three-cylinder unit. Naturally, our first invitation went out to Smart for this comparison.
Next, we brought along a vehicle released last year as a Smart competitor: the Scion iQ. Blatantly derivative naming aside, the iQ uses clever packaging to allow 3+1 seating that can actually accommodate three adults in a vehicle not much longer than a Smart Fortwo. As well, the iQ is much wider and uses a larger, more powerful engine than the Smart.
Photo by Peter Bleakney. Click image to enlarge
Rounding out this trio is an all-new entry from an unlikely source—Chevrolet. That’s right, the same people who brought you the Caprice Classic whale in 1996, and still produce the tanker-ship Suburban, now offer the Spark, a 5 door hatchback slotted beneath the subcompact Sonic. The Sonic trumps both the iQ and Fortwo in number of doors, usable seats, and cargo space. However, it also trumps them both in length, which is not an asset for a city car.
There is an obvious vehicle missing from this comparison test, the Fiat 500. We asked Chrysler Canada for one, but all they had available was a fully load $27,000 500c Convertible, or a fully loaded $29,000 500 Abarth; neither of which make any sense in this comparison.
So off we set to determine which of the three vehicles we had in our possession really is the best at being a ‘city car’. We evaluated them in city driving as well as urban challenges like parallel parking, narrow garage navigation and parking, real world turning radius, and, of course, since it is nearly unavoidable in Canadian cities, a bit of highway driving. In the end, some results surprised us while others did not.