Cover photo by Grant Yoxon

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By Jeremy Cato

There’s good news for buyers looking for a new car that starts under $15,000. Three completely redesigned subcompacts were introduced for the 2006 model year: Toyota Yaris hatchback (formerly Echo hatchback), Kia Rio sedan and Rio5 hatchback, and Hyundai Accent sedan. There’s also the GM-Daewoo twins introduced in 2004, the Chevy Aveo/Aveo5 and Pontiac Wave/Wave5. Not available yet, but coming soon, are the Nissan Versa and Honda Fit. Here’s the lowdown on what’s available in the market now:


2006 Toyota Yaris


Price range: $13,580-$17,615.

The big picture

2006 Toyota Yaris CE 2-door
2006 Toyota Yaris CE 2-door. Photo: Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

The 2006 Yaris hatchback has put on about 50 kilograms compared to the 2005 Toyota Echo hatchback it replaces, but packing on an extra five per cent in weight to achieve safety standards hasn’t hurt the car’s brilliant fuel economy, says chief engineer Kosuke Shibahara.

Well, not much, anyway. The ’05 Echo hatch is the most fuel efficient gasoline-only car in Canada: 6.7 city/5.2 hwy in litres/100 km. The ’06 Yaris hatch is rated at 6.9 city/5.5 hwy. Shibahara also expects the Yaris to improve on the Echo’s U.S. Government crash test rating – four stars out of five for frontal impacts and three star/four stars for side impacts front/rear.

Power

The buzz comes from a very fuel-efficient, low-emissions 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine using Toyota’s latest variable valve technology to maximize engine breathing. In other markets, Toyota sells a 1.0-litre three-cylinder engine, a 1.3-litre four-banger and a 1.4-litre diesel engine – the latter especially for Europe. But Canadians get only the 1.5-litre four.

It’s a good engine rated at 106 horsepower. Even with four passengers on board it delivers pretty decent pulling power to the front wheels. The base transmission is a five-speed manual and the upgrade is a four-speed automatic. The manual’s shifts could be tighter and more precise, but they okay for an economy car. The automatic delivers very smooth shifts both up and down.

Styling

This is the first Toyota vehicle to be based on the company’s “Vibrant Clarity” design philosophy. Certainly it looks fresh and slick, quite stylish as small cars go. Shibahara says the car looks clean, balanced and modern and he may have a very good point.

Size/packaging

There is a lot to like about the interior, including the 12 storage spaces arrayed around the cabin. While drop-down cupholders are fairly useless, the water bottle fixtures in the door pockets up front are perfect. A vertical control cluster in the centre makes for better knee room up front, but the centre-mounted instrument cluster is not to everyone’s taste. The amber lighting in it on more expensive models is superior to the white lighting of less expensive cars. Cargo flexibility is superb and rear seat passenger room is better than most would expect.

Bottom line

The big improvement here is in quietness. The Echo had apparently paper-thin sound insulation, which meant loads of road racket in the cabin: the faster the drive, the greater the noise. With a stiffer body structure and better sound deadening, this ’06 Yaris is pretty quiet for a runabout. Except when the engine is pushed hard; then the buzz sounds like an alarm clock going off.

So this is a very good little car. Fuel economy and performance are at the top of the class, the cabin is smartly designed and the exterior looks good. Pricing has gone up a bit, but so has the refinement and the array of features. Good value here in a car that will not lose much of it over the years.

2006 Kia Rio/Rio5

Price range: $13,295-$15,995.

The big picture

2006 Kia Rio 5-door
2006 Kia Rio 5-door. Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

For 2006, both Rios – sedan and the Rio5 five-door hatchback — gain more space from a longer wheelbase and a wider track. The ride is better and there is more horsepower from a gas-sipping four, also. Power steering is standard on the least expensive model, as are tilt steering, a tachometer, engine immobilizer, AM/FM compact disc stereo with four speakers, 60/40 split folding rear seats and a driver’s seat height adjuster.

Kia also has something to brag about in its warranty: five years or 100,000 km that includes roadside assistance for the whole period. There is also what Kia calls “first-year adjustments for the first year or 20,000 km. That means Kia pays for little fixes such as bulbs, wiper blades, fuses and brake pads.

Power

All Rios are powered by the same 1.6-litre four with variable valve timing. Horsepower is rated at 110 horsepower. This is a pretty smooth powerplant, though like all small fours it will get up a buzz when pushed hard. Power is ample for passing in the middle gears. Fuel economy is rated at 7.4 city/6.2 hwy (L/100 km) for the manual transmission car. A four-speed automatic with decently staged gears and good response actually gets better highway fuel economy than the manual gearbox – 5.7 litres/100 km versus 6.2.

Styling

Kia officials say their car has a bold nose, a dynamic profile and a crisp, neat interior. The car does look good, if a bit on the conservative side. But there is nothing here to dislike. What’s lacking is pure originality. The Rio looks like it has borrowed styling elements from a number of different models.

Size/packaging

Kia officials are rightly touting the Rio’s greater headroom, legroom and shoulder room, especially in the rear seats. The trunk is 30 per cent larger than before, too. Company officials say the Rio has greatest interior volume in the subcompact segment, though the Hyundai Accent which is built on a shared platform can rightly make the same claims.

Kia and Hyundai officials say their small cars have greater volume than some compact cars such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Still, despite the numbers, the Rio’s back seat is a little tight for full-size adults. For the record, the interior looks very good — softly styled with very nice looking materials.

Bottom line

This is a well-executed city grocery-getter offered at a very attractive price. Kia’s quality history remains a work in progress, though. The big-time warranty suggests the company feels quality issues are no longer a factor. However, Kia resale values trail industry leaders such as Toyota.

2006 Hyundai Accent

Price range (estimated): $14,000-$16,500.

The big picture

2006 Hyundai Accent
2006 Hyundai Accent. Photo: Paul Williams. Click image to enlarge

At the moment, the Hyundai Accent is available only as a four-door sedan. A three-door hatchback is planned for dealerships early next year as a 2007 model. One major safety point: the GLS has six standard air bags – two frontal, two front seat-mounted and two roof-mounted side-curtain air bags.

Hyundai has revamped its entry-level car, making it bigger, more powerful and, company officials say, more comfortable and responsive to drive. Hyundai’s dramatic quality improvements also suggest a significant jump in durability and reliability can be expected in this, the third-generation Accent.

Power

The only engine is a 110-hp four-cylinder and it’s the exact same engine sold with the Rio. (Hyundai, by the way, holds a controlling interest in Kia.) A five-speed manual is standard, while a four-speed automatic is optional. Fuel economy is rated at 7.4 city/6.2 hwy in litres/100 km for cars with the manual transmission.

Styling

This is a very clean-looking car. Company officials say the car is loaded with “upscale” details: chrome accented grille, aerodynamic headlamp clusters, larger wheels and tires and body-coloured door handles.

Size/packaging

Compared to the old Accent, the ’06 car has a longer wheelbase (by 58 mm) and the track has been widened to 1,471 mm up front, 2,499 at the rear. The car is longer by 46 mm, wider by 25 and taller by 76 mm. The bigger exterior means the cabin is more spacious in every dimension. The trunk is significantly larger, too.

Bottom line

Recent quality surveys show Hyundai scoring well enough to put the company among the industry leaders. A more attractive, bigger, more powerful Accent with improved quality represents an interesting value proposition.


2006 Chevrolet Aveo and Aveo 5/Pontiac Wave and Wave 5


Price range: $11,795-$13,495.

The big picture

2004 Chevrolet Aveo Sedan
2004 Chevrolet Aveo. Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

These entry-level cars are provided to General Motors of Canada by the company’s Daewoo subsidiary in South Korea. There are two body styles: a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback.

Power

All versions have a dual overhead cam, in-line four-cylinder engine displacing 1.6 litres. Output is rated at 103 hp. The base transmission is a five-speed manual, while a four-speed automatic is optional. There is adequate engine power here, but nothing extra. The manual gearbox is not a slick affair; the automatic is a decent effort, but not exceptional.
The suspension includes smallish 15-inch wheels and tires, independent front struts and a torsion-beam axle at rear. Cornering brings out some notable body roll and the front disc/rear drum brake setup is not unusual for this class of car. This is by no means a sports car. Fuel economy is rated at 8.8 city/6.1 hwy.

Styling

This is a nondescript looking offering, but the boxy shape is impressively functional.

Size/packaging

With a wheelbase scarcely longer than two children are tall, the Aveo can seat five adults in a pinch – but they’ll be pinched in the back seat. The sedan’s trunk is quite generous, but the hatchback is roomier and more versatile thanks to the 60/40 split-folding rear seat that flattens to accommodate bigger stuff.

Bottom line

Chevy and Pontiac dealers are selling boatloads of these cars and for good reason. They are inexpensive, thrifty and backed by a solid five-year/100,000 km powertrain warranty; though the basic warranty runs for just three year or 60,000 km. Affordability is the selling point here.

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