by Jeremy Cato

Small cars are popular in Canada, but which ones top the list? It’s a surprising mixture of foreign and domestic nameplates. Jeremy Cato checks the prices, the features, and the strengths and weaknesses of the top sellers of 2004.

Honda Civic sedan
Honda Civic sedan. Photo: Honda. Click image to enlarge

Number 1 (2004 sales: 61,041)

Honda Civic sedan/coupe ($16,200-$22,500)

The Pitch: Great value in proven city car.

Winning features: Low average repair and maintenance costs, high resale value.

Less than perfect: For 2001, Honda went from a sophisticated double wishbone front layout to a less costly (and more tightly packaged) front strut design. Aftermarket tuners argue that struts are not as sporty and “tuneable” as wishbones and their views have hurt the Civic’s image, especially among younger people.

The story: The Civic has been the best-selling car in Canada since 1998. It’s in its fifth model year since a 2001 model renovation, and is due for a major makeover this Fall.

Perhaps its greatest strength is reflected in being named the IntelliChoice Best Overall Value among cars selling for less than US$24,000. IntelliChoice is a U.S. research firm that tracks the five-year bill you’ll pay to own and operate vehicles. This is not an expensive car to own and operate and if you want to sell it, you’ll likely get a good price.

Safety is also a major plus. All Civics – sedans, coupes and hatchbacks – have earned a five-star frontal crash rating from the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which conducts even more stringent crash tests, gives the Civic its highest “Good” rating.

While Honda tweaked the Civic’s styling for 2004 with minor changes to the sheet metal front and rear, new headlights and a new grille, the car in showrooms today is pretty much the same car that arrived as a 2001 model. If you are looking for a small daily driver, you can hardly go wrong with a Civic. The rival Ford Focus is a more entertaining car and a Corolla is a good option, but the Civic is a solid choice for drivers needing a transportation appliance.

The 1.7-litre four-cylinder engine (two versions are available, rated at 115 hp and 127 hp) meets ultra-low emissions vehicle (ULEV) standards and fuel economy is very good. Both sedan and coupe come with a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

Ride comfort, braking and handling are all above average. The cabin is roomy and comfortable and cargo space is generous for a small car.

Although there are more exciting choices in this price range, the Civic is a smooth ride and a good value.

2005 Toyota Corolla CE
2005 Toyota Corolla CE. Photo: Bill Petro, Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

Number 2 (2004 sales: 44,563)

Toyota Corolla ($15,390-$24,185)

The Pitch: It’s a Camry in 8/10th scale.

Winning features: Refined, quiet and relatively roomy, the Corolla’s ride is comfortable, there’s a pleasant if conservative exterior, and the cabin has a comfortable, accommodating design.

Less than perfect: There’s lots of steak here (see Winning Features), but less sizzle in terms of excitement, aside from the somewhat racy Corolla XRS.

The story: Toyota did a major renovation to the Corolla for the 2003 model year, creating a ninth-generation Corolla with a high level of refinement. Clearly, Toyota understands that small cars are the key to long-term brand loyalty. In overall size, the Corolla trails the Civic and Focus slightly in some interior dimensions, but not by much. Like me, most people will find the standard front cloth seats to be wide and comfortable; the back seat is roomy enough for two adults. The trunk is a decent size also.

The most popular engine choice is a 1.8-litre four-cylinder. The spec sheet says 130 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque, and those numbers look decidedly ordinary. But the high-tech, twin-cam motor has variable valve timing, which squeezes out lots of power efficiencies. Despite the small size and modest numbers, there is adequate power here for line commuters. Fuel economy is a very respectable 7.8 city/5.6 highway L/100 km.

Still, when you push it, the engine gets a bit loud and less pleasing, sounding almost coarse. The base five-speed manual transmission is an okay shifter, though nothing to brag about. The four-speed automatic, on the other hand, is very good. In the road manners ride department, the Corolla delivers decent steering, handling and braking — even though the braking package is a front disc/rear drum arrangement and anti-lock braking isn’t even available on the base model (it’s standard on the LE).

For an econocar, the Corolla is no penalty box. The ride is tuned on the soft side for comfort, and while the handling isn’t razor-sharp, it’s balanced and effortless. Toyota insists the new Corolla meets the fit, finish and colour-matching standards of early-generation Lexus models. It’s hard to dispute that claim, based on the craftsmanship of my three testers. Quality levels are very high.

If you insist on a dose of adrenalin in your commute, consider the 170 hp Corolla XRS. It has more power, a firmer ride and its small cosmetic upgrades distinguish it from mainstream Corollas.

Mazda3, 4- and 5-door models. Photo: Mazda. Click image to enlarge

Number 3 (2004 sales: 42,680)

Mazda3 ($16,295-$21,485)

The Pitch: Basic transportation with some serious flare.

Winning features: Styling derived from the RX-8 sports car, a very good chassis and a strong powertrain.

Less than perfect: It’s so popular, Mazda is selling all it’s got without slapping on big cash-back incentives or cut-rate financing.

The story: Mazda developed this model in partnership with Volvo and Ford of Europe. The Mazda3, the 2004 Volvo S40 and the new European Ford Focus all share the same basic mechanical architecture.

Of all the small cars sold in Canada today, the Mazda3 is the least likely to be called a bland econobox, whether in sedan or four-door hatchback. There are interesting curves, shapes and lines all over, yet this is not a “busy” design at all. The five-door hatchback is arguably more attractive than the sedan and it’s certainly more versatile.

On safety, the Mazda3 has a good four-star front crash test rating. Anti-lock braking is standard on the hatchback and available on the sedan.

The Mazda3 is a sporty ride, with quick steering and strong brakes. The 160 hp, 2.3-litre four-cylinder that comes standard with the hatchback delivers good power and works very nicely with the manual transmission. The four-speed automatic works just fine with the 2.3-litre, but when combined with the base 148 hp 2.0-litre four, things get a bit sluggish.

Inside, the cabin looks a bit racy; Mazda designed in such nifty touches as a glovebox damper to keep the door from banging open and closed. But the standout feature is the gauge cluster. Taking cues from Volkswagen, Mazda has gone with indirect blue lighting on the black-faced gauges in cars with the sport package. Way cool.

Good car, but you won’t find Mazda dealers offering any super-special deals.

2005 Chevrolet Cavalier
2005 Chevrolet Cavalier. Photo: GM. Click image to enlarge

Number 4 and Number 6 (33,724 Sunfire) and (29,229 Cavalier) 2004 sales.

Pontiac Sunfire and Chevrolet Cavalier ($16,230-$22,230)

The Pitch: What a buy!!!

Winning features: Ignore sticker price.

Less than perfect: An aging (and now discontinued) design delivers somewhat crude road manners and creature comforts.

The story: Recently I visited a Pontiac dealership for some personal experience with GM of Canada’s “Hot Button” promotion that promises the chance to win a new car. I pushed the Hot Button and was awarded a $3,000 cash-back rebate on any new model in the showroom. I declined.

As I was leaving, the salesman chased me down in the parking lot and told me what I could do with the $3,000. (No, it’s not what you’re thinking.) He suggested I consider a Sunfire — GM, he told me, is offering them for $11,990. If I applied my $3,000 to that sale price, I’d be looking at a brand new car for less than $9,000. Wow.

That’s the story here. If you want absolute, bare-bones city transportation, the Sunfire and Cavalier are as cheap as it gets. Yes, this is a crude, old design, and it’s been phased out in favour of the new Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac Pursuit, but these GM cars come with a full 36-month/60,000 km warranty with five years/100,000 km on the powertrain.

Of course the handling is lumpy and the styling ancient, but the performance from the 140 hp, 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine is adequate, and the four-star frontal crash test rating is as good as the much newer Mazda3.

Be warned, though. The seats are not terribly comfortable on long drives and road noise is quite evident. Overall, this is not a very sophisticated car. But it is cheap, although you’ll have to choose from available models left in dealer inventory – GM isn’t making any more of them. When they’re gone, they’re gone.

2005 Toyota Echo Hatchback
2005 Toyota Echo Hatchback. Photo: Bill Petro, Toyota Canada. Click image to enlarge

Number 5 (2004 sales: 31,252)

Toyota Echo ($12,995-$14,705)

The Pitch: Sensible purchase for commuters on a budget.

Winning features: Fuel economy is superb, as is reliability, and the available hatchback design in both two- and four-door models is extremely useful (a sedan version is also sold).

Less than perfect: Road noise is pronounced at higher speeds, the narrow design tightens up shoulder room and the soft seats start to nag your back on long drives.

The story: The Echo hatchback is arguably a more sensible purchase. The wide hatchback opening at the rear, combined with fold-down back seats, turns the Echo into a mini station wagon.

The tall and narrow Echo sedan — a quirky-looking two- and four-door boxy sedan first launched to replace the old Tercel in 2000 — has the looks to grab attention, although not everyone is applauding. The short-length, tall-body design with wheels placed at the extreme corners looks odd to some, but when in hatchback form, some have dared to call this design radically attractive. You decide.

Quality is less debatable. Echo quality has been ranked tops among subcompacts in J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study. Meanwhile, performance from the 108 hp 1.5-litre four-banger is spirited and extraordinarily fuel-efficient.

As for safety, the Echo has a four-star frontal crash test rating. While it’s not very big, what is there does a decent job of protecting passengers in a collision.

2005 Ford Focus ST
2005 Ford Focus ST. Photo: Ford. Click image to enlarge

Number 7 (2004 sales: 28,391)

Ford Focus ($16,795-$22,995)

The Pitch: Slick handling and finally, a recommendation from Consumer Reports.

Winning features: Only the Mazda3 is its equal in quick, nimble road manners.

Less than perfect: By sticking with the old platform, Ford is allowing rivals to catch up.

The story: For 2005, Ford has given the Focus what you might call a “mid-cycle refresh”. That means the Focus sold here in North America is not the same as the all-new one sold in Europe. Instead of a complete renovation, Ford chose to tweak the existing Focus. Ford product development Phil Martens says the company made this choice to save money and also preserve the car’s hard-won “recommended” status with Consumer Reports.

For 2005, Ford tidied up the cabin, giving it a less radical, more clean and sedate look. There is new door trim and five cupholders, and the steering wheel now tilts and telescopes.

There are also two new powertrains this year – three, if you include the Super Ultra Low Emissions Vehicles (SULEV) engine sold in Focus models in California and several New England states in the U.S.

The new 2.0-litre Duratec 20E PZEV E engine (Partial Zero Emission Vehicle) is rated at 131 hp and is standard as the base engine. The 2.3-litre Duratec engine in the performance ST version, coupled to a standard manual transmission, generates 156 horsepower.

The ZX4 ST model in essence replaces the SVT model, which went away with the 2004 model year, much to the chagrin of Consumer Reports testers who said its handling was on par with a Porsche Boxster.

Power improvements are noteworthy, moving up from the previous year’s base 110 hp and upgrade 130 hp.

The brakes are larger and quieter, thanks to new linings that Ford promises squeak less. Ford officials also say they improved the front disc and rear drum brakes on the new Focus for shorter stopping distances. Braking is important because the Focus is a car that encourages spirited driving. The steering is quick and sharp; even in the base model, cornering is relatively flat for an errand-hopping city car.

What about quality? It used to be awful — in fact, between 2000 and 2002, the Focus was one of the industry’s most recalled cars. However, J.D. Power and Associates reports that since 2001, the number of things gone wrong has dropped 58 per cent, as measured in the Initial Quality Survey. The Civic and Corolla are still rated more reliable, but keep in mind the people at Consumer Reports gave the 2004 Focus their “Best Pick” in the segment, based on reliability, price, and performance.

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