Comparison Test: Compact Cars, Version 2.0

Manufacturer’s websites
Smart Canada
Scion Canada
Chevrolet Canada

Review and photos by Mike Schlee and Peter Bleakney

Photo Gallery:
City Cars

‘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.

city cars
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.

city cars
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.

Third Place: 2013 Smart Fortwo

Not long into our comparison test—or technically, before it even started—it became quite evident that this was a two-horse race. And the two-seat Smart wasn’t in it. But this is not going to be a Fortwo bash-fest.

2013 Smart Fortwo
2013 Smart Fortwo. Click image to enlarge

I have a soft spot in my heart for this rear-engine, rear-drive roller skate. And having recently spent a week in Paris with my family, I’ve seen the Smart in its natural (read: correct) environment. Smarts are everywhere in Paris, and if you’ve ever seen how the locals park—nose to tail on the side streets with mere centimetres between bumpers—the Smart looks incredibly smart indeed.

Not so much over here in North America, though, where this inner-city conveyance becomes an automotive novelty act ill-suited to just about every driving requirement. Except parallel parking. And looking cute.

The key to Smart ownership is the need to wipe clean any and all preconceived notions of what a car should be and drive it on its own terms. You must accept the halting five-speed automated single-clutch transmission, its snail-like pace, its general reluctance to turn, and its susceptibility to lateral atmospheric forces, be they crosswinds, passing trucks, or low flying geese. A Smart Fortwo is no picnic on the highway.

2013 Smart Fortwo
2013 Smart Fortwo. Click image to enlarge

This is the point in the review where Smart owners jump to their computers in defense their beloved microcars. And I get it. Fortwos get under your skin. But this is a comparison test, so compare we must.

In the Smart’s favour are its quality build, meaty steering feel, Euro-chic styling inside and out, good seats and a surprisingly spacious cabin with excellent forward vision. Dynamically, however, it’s in a different world from the Spark and iQ, which drive pretty much like ‘normal’ cars. Keeping up with these two on our urban and highway test loop proved challenging at times.

With its very short wheelbase you won’t be surprised to hear the Smart’s ride is choppy and can get quite pitchy on some surfaces. Additionally, the tall and tippy Smart is engineered to understeer—a lot. Once past the weird off-centre resistance in the steering, those skinny front tires don’t offer much grip so high-ish corner speeds and (heaven-forbid) oversteer are off the menu. Dive into a bend with any gusto and the Fortwo pushes like Uncle Ned at a Vegas all-you-can-eat buffet.

2013 Smart Fortwo
2013 Smart Fortwo. Click image to enlarge

The $20,900 Brabus edition with its sportier suspension and bigger tires handles much better.

And on to the transmission. The trick to mitigating some of the glacial hesitation between upshifts and the tranny’s tendency to short shift (which actually gives the impression of negative acceleration) is to use the paddle shifters, feather the throttle and keep the revs up. The naturally aspirated 70-hp 998 cc three-cylinder makes a cool little snarl when up on the cam, and using the paddles is actually kinda fun. You’ll feel like Schumacher — not Michael or Ralph, but Gunther, their secret, untalented half-brother.

The quirky charm of the Smart continues in the cabin with its Saab-like ignition between the seats and the two froggy-eye dash-top gauge-pods. This tester had the optional $900 Innovation Package that adds heated seats and a small multimedia touchscreen. Behind the seats is a bit of storage space, enough for a couple of overnight bags or a grocery run, accessible by the flip-up rear window and flip-down tailgate.

The biggest problem with the Smart Fortwo is that in the real world it doesn’t deliver the kind of fuel economy you’d expect from a tiny three-cylinder car that can barely get out of its own way. Although it was the best in this group at 6.2 L/100 km, the fact that it requires premium fuel does it no favours.

The smartest Smart is the upcoming 2013 Smart Fortwo Electric Drive which arrives in Canada in the spring. It is swift, silent, and smooth, and being an EV will stay where it belongs—in urban areas. –PB

Pricing: 2013 Smart Fortwo Passion
Base price: $17,500
Options: $900 (Innovation Package)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,295 (suggested)
Price as tested: $19,975

2012 Scion iQ
2012 Scion iQ. Click image to enlarge

Second Place: 2012 Scion iQ

It’s natural to think that the Scion iQ is merely another take on the Smart Fortwo, but in reality the cars are worlds apart. The Scion is lower, longer, and much wider, has its engine in the front, is front-wheel drive and can realistically seat three adults. It has meaningful acceleration (the best of this bunch), pretty decent steering and handles quite nicely, too.

The iQ was the least expensive car in the group, and the fact that it lost out by a mere point despite its disappointing fuel consumption suggests we probably enjoyed driving it the most. Wait a sec… there was no real driving enjoyment here. Let’s just say it scored best in Ease of Use, Handling, and Steering categories.

It certainly has the smoothest engine here, which is good because the CVT (continuously variable transmission) has this 94-hp 1.3L four singing away in the upper revs when you want some acceleration.

The iQ’s cool party trick is a turning circle the size of a large pizza. It is extremely maneuverable and is only trumped in the parking department by the Fortwo.

2012 Scion iQ
2012 Scion iQ
2012 Scion iQ. Click image to enlarge

This Scion is a cleverly packaged little thing. At only 3 metres in length, it will accommodate three adults in reasonable comfort, with the option of wedging a fourth very small and very understanding humanoid behind the driver. How? The scooped-out dash allows the passenger seat to slide farther forward than the driver’s, and the long doors give fairly ready access. With the rear seats folded, the hatch will even hold quite a bit of gear, though not Peter’s stand-up bass.

Being just about six-feet tall, I found the driver’s seat too high. I felt like I was peering down to see out of the windshield. Looking at the interior, you’d be forgiven for thinking the design team’s water cooler was spiked with LSD the day they came up with this one. It’s a hodge-podge of weirdness.

To the left of the analogue speedo and tach is a cheap-looking digital display for fuel, time, temp, etc. The centre stack incorporates three large rotary HVAC knobs and a faux-metallic inverted triangle swiped from a pile of Star Trek set design rejects. Topping the whole thing off is what appears to be the mutant love-child of a toaster and a ham radio. This is your audio unit with a bunch of tiny and inscrutable buttons. It only plays the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix. The spotted seat cushion fabric is another nice hallucinogenic touch.

We did like the nicely contoured multi-function steering wheel wrapped in leather, and it must be noted this 960-kg Scion imparts a feeling of solidity and quality.

The iQ’s price includes air conditioning, Bluetooth, keyless entry, 11 airbags, power heated mirrors with integrated turn signals, and… wait for it… claimed fuel economy of 5.5 L/100 km city, 4.7 highway and 5.1 combined.

We were waiting for it, too. The observed 7.6 L/100 was a long way from the Smart’s 6.2 L/100 km and Spark’s 6.8 L/100 km, and positively Hyundai-like in its disparity from official estimates. –PB

Pricing: 2012 Scion iQ
Base price: $16,760
Options: $595 (Scion Accessories)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,495
Price as tested: $18,950

2013 Chevrolet Spark
2013 Chevrolet Spark
2013 Chevrolet Spark. Click image to enlarge

First Place: 2013 Chevrolet Spark

During a lunch break from testing, one reviewer summed up this test best: “What we have here are two interesting design studies and one scale model of a real car.” There is a reason nearly every new hatchback car uses Sir Alec Issigonis’ two-box design layout; it just works. Now before you cry foul that we picked this winner even though its dimensions exceed a city car’s, know this: it is narrower than the iQ and the same height as the fortwo. The only place it greatly exceeds both vehicles is in length, which is only a deterrent if you have a parking space less than 3.5 m deep. The Spark did finish last in both turning radius and parallel parking, but the latter was more because of blind spots than size. However, in narrow parking spaces, the Spark trumped the other two when it came to passenger ingress and egress thanks to its second-narrowest width combined with the shortest front doors. In fact, thanks to equally narrow rear doors, passengers had an easier time getting in and out of the rear seats of the Spark than in the front seats of the iQ or Fortwo.

During our recent trip to AJAC’s annual CCOTY TestFest the Spark was lambasted as the poorest vehicle of the bunch. It is hard to justify such a car when larger, more contemporary subcompacts are priced nearly the same. But, as they say, “you are known by the company you keep.” When compared to the iQ and Fortwo, the Spark suddenly looks the best and drives the best. Take those claims with a grain of salt, though, as this is the equivalent of picking which poisonous snake bite would feel the best.

2013 Chevrolet Spark
2013 Chevrolet Spark
2013 Chevrolet Spark
2013 Chevrolet Spark. Click image to enlarge

On the road, the Spark was voted best in ride comfort, brake feel, and engine/transmission operation, and was second easiest to drive after the iQ, which it also trailed in handling ability. The Spark was by far the quietest on the road (again, relatively speaking) and the vehicle required the least amount of steering correction at highway speeds. The five-speed manual transmission engagement is looser than the rules in a game of shinny and the engine takes it sweet time to wake up the 84 horses burdened with the task of motivating the 1,029-kg Spark. For those not interested in rowing their own gears, Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony notes that driving the four-speed-automatic-equipped Spark felt just as ‘responsive’ if not more so, but that might just be because he hated this car’s clutch and shifter.

The Spark received middling scores for front seat comfort, but as mentioned before, is the easiest by far to enter. Add to that a useful back seat that can actually accommodate full-size adults in both head and legroom and the Spark has a practicality advantage over the other two. With 323 L of cargo space, the Spark finished second to the two-seat Fortwo’s 340 L cargo hold; both vehicles laugh at the iQ’s pathetic 31 L of rear cargo space. Fold the rear seats down and the Spark balloons to 883 L of junk-carrying ability, which nearly doubles the iQ’s rear-seats-folded 473 L capacity while the Fortwo remains at 340 L since there are no rear seats to fold down.

Finally, there is the interior. Where the Fortwo’s interior appears to be swathed with office carpeting and the iQ’s looks like the previously mentioned LSD trip, the Spark’s interior seemingly resembles that of a motor vehicle. Well, maybe not the motorcycle-style gauges or the touchscreen MyLink infotainment unit, but the rest is very familiar. The Spark proves that a city car doesn’t have to be funky or unique to be good. The Spark still looks the part of city car, acts the part of city car, yet functions almost like a regular car. Even as the most expensive in test, the extra money is worth it to avoid the trade-offs of the other two vehicles in this comparison, especially if you have more than 3.5 metres of space in which to park the Spark. -MS

Pricing: 2013 Chevrolet Spark 2LT Manual
Base price: $18,495
Options: None
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,500
Price as tested: $20,095

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