2008 Dodge Caliber; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Dodge Caliber; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
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By Chris Chase

2008 Dodge Caliber

To call the Dodge Caliber “controversial” is an understatement; this is a car you either love or really dislike based on its styling alone. The turbocharged SRT4 model is the rock star of the Caliber family, but as speedy performance wasn’t our aim, we got a mid-range SXT model fitted with the 2.0-litre engine and continuously-variable transmission (CVT).

Mike Daniels thought the CVT was “surprisingly smooth” and he liked the simple dash controls but found rear visibility to be lacking.

Bob Belding thought the cooled drink storage bin was a “very cool (no pun intended!) feature” and he enjoyed the nice interior and comfortable seats. He also criticized it for poor visibility and found it felt heavy on the road.

Whether you like the Caliber’s looks or not, this was the most distinctive car of our group, which many buyers will consider a strong point. So too are the nifty features in the SXT, such as a rechargeable flashlight in the cargo area, a 115-volt power outlet, reclining rear seats and the aforementioned “Chill Zone” beverage cooler.

Non-SRT4 Calibers are available with engines ranging from 1.8-litres to 2.4-litres, all four-cylinders. Our 2.0-litre model was one of the more powerful in the group, with 158 horsepower and 141 lb-ft of torque.

The Caliber comes across as a strong value, what with standard air conditioning, power windows and locks in the SXT model, and ABS as standard when you choose the CVT.

The Caliber SXT starts at a price of $17,995; with the optional CVT ($1,300), Sirius satellite radio ($250) and the $995 “Customer Preferred” package, our tester came to $20,640 plus freight.

2008 Ford Focus; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Ford Focus; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2009 Ford Focus Coupe

While the 2009 Ford Focus looks like a clean-sheet redesign, it’s actually a significantly-improved and restyled version of the previous car. Our tester was the new-for-2008 coupe model in SES Sport trim and with a manual transmission.

We picked this car up about two weeks before the 50-litre Challenge, which gave us a chance to drive it around town, where it proved to be a comfortable little car that returned decent fuel economy if driven gently.

At first blush, this car seems to prefer a relaxed driving style, but when pressed, the engine is strong and revs willingly. The quiet, comfortable ride masks surprisingly good handling, and this impressed many who drove it during our fuel economy test.

Frank Rizutti thought the Focus’ seats were the most comfortable of any he tried, and he enjoyed the “terrific” sound system. He found himself wishing for a sixth gear on the highway, though.

Jeff Burry liked the stereo too, and praised the “responsive” steering.

Autos Senior Editor Paul Williams thinks this car negates any arguments that Ford should import the Mazda3-based Focus it sells in Europe. Others might disagree, but the fact remains that this is a worthy small car whose biggest fault might be lack of a hatchback body style.

The Focus is available in four trims, ranging from the $15,999 S to our top-line $21,494 SES Sport model (both coupe and sedan are available with each trim package) and is built in Wayne, Michigan.

2008 Kia Spectra; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Kia Spectra; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2008 Kia Spectra

The Kia Spectra has been available in its current form since 2005, when it was redesigned around a platform and running gear borrowed from the Hyundai Elantra.

Hence, the engine and transmission here – a 2.0-litre four-cylinder and four-speed automatic – are the same as found in our Elantra tester. Despite the similarities between the cars, these two could hardly have more different characters.

The Spectra drives more like the last-generation Elantra, with a soft ride and unsporty handling. The drivetrain has the same highs and lows as the Elantra’s: gutsy power and a smooth transmission, but the motor doesn’t love to be revved. The drivers who didn’t like this car tended to be those who preferred the sportier cars in our group, such as the Mazda3 and Honda Civic.

The interior is functional but plain, and the materials appear to be a cut below the Elantra’s. More importantly, at least for our purposes, long-distance comfort seems to be good.

In 2007, the Spectra got a mild facelift. The effect is more dramatic on the inside, where the new dash and instrument panel are a nice update.

Our tester was an LX Convenience model, which comes with the basic power accessories (windows, locks and mirrors) and niceties like air conditioning and cruise control. With automatic transmission, our tester’s MSRP was $19,395 plus freight.

2008 Honda Civic; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Honda Civic; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2008 Honda Civic

The Civic received its last major redesign in 2006, and what a doozy it was, transforming this perennial compact favourite from drab to fab in one fell swoop.

There are those who dislike the styling (inside, outside or both) but it’s a plenty functional package all the same. It’s easy to mistake our tester for the fuel-sipping Civic Hybrid based on the wheels alone; ours was the gas-only DX-G model, which wears the same shoes as its uber-green sibling.

Not surprisingly, the Civic garnered many comments, though not all were positive.

A few drivers pointed out some areas where the Honda could use improvement. Mike Daniels found it “too harsh and noisy” compared to other cars in our group; Frank Rizutti also thought it a little noisy, and found the steeply raked windshield make getting in and out a bit challenging.

On the plus side, Rizutti liked the Civic’s handling and the interior, which was comfortable and well-equipped “for the price.”

Rob McLeod thought the Civic’s dash was very user-friendly, though he thinks Honda is losing sight of the simplicity it built into its older interiors.

Managing Editor Grant Yoxon found the Civic “roomy and comfortable,” and handled well.

CarTalkCanada Editor James Bergeron found this Civic to be “many times better than the previous generation.”

The Civic DX-G carries an MSRP of $19,480, plus freight, with manual transmission, as ours was equipped. The Civic is one of two cars in our group built in Canada; Honda bolts the Civic together in Alliston, Ontario.

2008 Hyundai Elantra; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Hyundai Elantra; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2008 Hyundai Elantra

The Hyundai Elantra was redesigned top-to-bottom in 2007, and what an improvement! The old version was a decent car, but looked dated and offered little more than basic transportation.

Our example proved that this is no longer the case. The new styling is far from athletic-looking, but it’s attractive, and check out our top-of-the-line Limited model’s interior: comfortable leather seats; automatic climate control; and terrific fit and finish. Keyless entry was included, as were illuminated vanity mirrors, and 16-inch alloy wheels and fog lights dressed up the outside. This was quite possibly the most comfortably-luxurious car out of our group of 50-litre challengers.

While the 2.0-litre engine and four-speed automatic (the only powertrain available in the Limited) are carried over from the previous generation, this is a solid combination, even if it’s less refined overall than what’s under the hoods of some of its competitors.

One of the biggest improvements this current Elantra brings over its predecessor is a better ride. The new suspension is firmer, but it’s actually more comfortable over the road, thanks to better body control and handling. Acceleration is good, and the transmission is smooth, but the engine tends to get coarse at high revs.

This car was at its best on our relaxed highway jaunt through eastern Ontario. Bob Belding praised it for its handling and comfort, but felt it lacked “personality.”

Unfortunately, Hyundai makes you choose its higher-spec Elantras if you want side and curtain airbags, and for some reason, the Limited is the only Elantra with a telescoping steering wheel.

Our Elantra Limited came with a price tag of $23,195 plus freight.

2008.5 Mazda3; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008.5 Mazda3; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2008.5 Mazda3

While the Autos staffers who participated in the 50-litre Challenge were all familiar with the Mazda3 going to the event, a few of our volunteer drivers had never sampled this current darling of the compact segment.

Our tester was a brand new 2008.5 GX model, with air conditioning as the only option.

Mike Daniels put this car at the top of his list of favourites of the day. He called it a “nice driver’s car, with good chassis dynamics, steering feel and controls.”

Managing Editor Grant Yoxon called this the “best driving car of the bunch, despite being relatively old.”

Rob McLeod put the Mazda3 and Honda Civic in a tie for second place for comfort.

The Mazda3 is one of just two cars in our comparison that hasn’t been significantly redesigned/replaced since the first 50-litre ChallengeTM in 2005 (the other is the Kia Spectra). Despite this car’s relative old age, it still looks terrific and, as evidenced by its popularity with our drivers, was the most entertaining car out of our baker’s dozen. In fact, it seems that the only people who don’t list the Mazda3 as a favourite are the drivers who prefer the more relaxed nature of the Corolla or Hyundai Elantra.

The Mazda3 shares its underpinnings with the Volvo S40/V50 and the European Ford Focus, but the Mazda’s powertrains are unique to this Japanese-badged model.

The only significant change that came with its mid-2008 refresh was the addition of a basic GX version of the Sport hatchback.

The 2008.5 Mazda3 GX starts at an MSRP or $16,895; the air conditioning in our example was an extra $1,000 and the Sunlight Silver paint costs $105. The total price of our tester was $18,000 on the dot, plus freight.

2008 Mitsubishi Lancer; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2008 Mitsubishi Lancer

The Mitsubishi Lancer was completely redesigned for 2008, the first such top-to-bottom update for this little car since Mitsubishi entered the Canadian market in 2003.

The Lancer has a healthy history of motorsports success, thanks to the company’s participation in rally racing; that can be seen in the latest generation of the Lancer Evolution, the turbocharged and all-wheel drive variant available in Canada for the first time this year.

Our Lancer tester can be found at the other end of the spectrum, however, coming to us in basic DE trim. The Lancer’s 2.0-litre engine was one of the more powerful in our group, with 152 horsepower, but it didn’t feel that way, despite rather short gearing.

That said, it’s not an unpleasant car to drive, though the basic suspension setup gave up something in terms of performance and comfort to others in our group; the sportier GTS model would be a better choice for handling prowess.

Frank Rizutti said it seemed to him that no one wanted to drive the Lancer, but he found it had a “nice gearbox and plenty of power.” He also thought it comfortable and fun to drive.

The Lancer’s interior is comfortable enough and generally well laid-out, but the all-black interior is a bit stark compared to others in our group, even strippers like the Mazda3 and Pontiac Vibe.

The Lancer DE starts at $16,598 with manual transmission, as ours was equipped. Mitsubishi added the $2,000 ABS and Air Conditioning package to our tester. This seems a little pricey, though it does include power windows, locks and keyless entry. Our Lancer’s price came to a total of $18,598 plus freight.

2008 Nissan Sentra; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Nissan Sentra; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2008 Nissan Sentra

The Nissan Sentra was completely redesigned in 2007 when it went from dowdy to, well, not quite rowdy; but the new look is a good fit in Nissan lineup.

Power here comes from a 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine making 140 horsepower and 147 lb-ft of torque; a six-speed manual is standard, but our tester came with the optional continuously variable transmission, making it one of two in the group to feature this relatively new transmission technology (the other CVT-equipped car was the Dodge Caliber).

The Sentra hasn’t been a particularly strong seller since its redesign. That’s less the Sentra’s fault than the fact that it competes with Nissan’s own Versa, a smaller, less-expensive car that offers almost as much interior space and can be had as a hatchback. In fact, Nissan sells three Versas for every Sentra in Canada.

Managing Editor Grant Yoxon said the Sentra was one of a few cars he drove that felt bigger than it was, in a good way.

CarTalkCanada Editor James Bergeron echoed this, chalking it up to the car’s soft suspension. He praised the Nissan as a “great highway vehicle.”

On the other hand, Rob McLeod disliked the Sentra’s ride quality, and found it difficult to get comfortable in the driver’s seat.

Our Sentra tester was a 2.0S model, which starts at $19,598. To that, add $1,200 for the CVT, $1,800 for the 2.0S Luxury Package, which includes a power sunroof, Bluetooth connectivity, lighted vanity mirrors and a leather-wrapped steering wheel and $125 for Magnetic Grey paint, for a total of $22,723 plus freight. The Sentra is built at Nissan’s Aquascalientes, Mexico plant.

2008 Pontiac G5; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Pontiac G5; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2008 Pontiac G5

The Pontiac G5 is one of two entries from GM in this year’s 50-litre ChallengeTM; the other is the Toyota Matrix-based Vibe hatchback.

The G5 is the model formerly known in Canada as the Pursuit; our tester was a four-door sedan model is SE trim. Power is from a 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine that was larger than average in our 50-litre Challenge group, with 148 horsepower and 152 lb-ft of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but ours came with the optional four-speed automatic.

The G5 and its Chevrolet Cobalt twin are much better cars than the Sunfire and Cavalier they replaced a few years ago, but aren’t the most refined small cars on the market. That said, the G5 garnered positive comments for its large-car feel on the highway, where it was comfortable and roomy.

Managing Editor Grant Yoxon thought it was a car that many families would appreciate for its interior space and comfortable ride.

The G5’s interior is simple but functional, though the climate controls could have been placed higher up on the centre stack. Nice touches include a hydraulic strut for the hood – a rarity in an economy car.

Interestingly, the G5 sedan is sold in Canada only; the U.S. market only gets this car in coupe form.

The G5 sedan starts at $15,595, with the mid-range SE coming in at $18,095. Our tester had the $2,200 Driver’s Package, which bundled 16-inch alloy wheels and tires with fog lamps, ABS, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter and a 260-watt stereo with subwoofer and steering-wheel mounted controls. Other extras included four-speed automatic transmission with traction control ($1,250); remote start ($255); power moonroof ($1,100); side curtain airbags ($395); OnStar ($395); engine block heater ($65); and front license plate mount ($15). The grand total came to $23,870 plus freight.

The G5 is built alongside the Chevrolet Cobalt in Lordstown, Ohio.

2009 Pontiac Vibe; photo by Grant Yoxon
2009 Pontiac Vibe; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2009 Pontiac Vibe

The 2009 Pontiac Vibe tester we used for the 50-litre ChallengeTM was a rarity among test cars in that it was a bare-bones base model whose only option was a four-speed automatic transmission. In fact, this was the only car among our group without air conditioning, and one of just a couple lacking niceties like power locks, mirrors and windows.

The Vibe is all-new for 2009, and shares just about everything but its exterior styling with the Toyota Matrix and, by extension, the Toyota Corolla. The Vibe and Corolla used in the 50-litre ChallengeTM used the same 1.8-litre engine and four-speed automatic transmission.

The 2009 Vibe does feature all-new styling inside and out, but the changes aren’t obvious to an untrained eye. Pontiac had a good thing with the old Vibe and knew it, hence the minimal changes.

The 1.8-litre base engine looks similar at a glance to the one that powered last year’s Vibe, but it’s actually new. The motor’s fuel consumption ratings of 8.0 L/100 km (city) and 6.2 L/100 km (highway) are a little higher than last year’s, but so are the power ratings: 132 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque, up from 126 hp and 122 lb-ft. in 2008.

The Vibe was a surprise on the road, where it generally impressed with its comfort and decent handling. CarTalkCanada editor James Bergeron praised this car as an “excellent highway cruiser,” that was “quick, smooth and solid-feeling.”

The tall roof makes for good interior space, but Mike Daniels found that visibility to the sides was poor. And if he found it to be a bit appliance-like on the road, it was “well-screwed together,” at least.

Autos Managing Editor Grant Yoxon said there was “nothing wrong with the Vibe that air conditioning and power windows couldn’t cure. If carrying stuff is important, then this is the vehicle to buy.”

While not the most powerful car in the group, acceleration was strong, even with the automatic transmission.

Other new stuff includes six standard airbags, ABS and stability control. A 2.4-litre engine is also available, and is standard in the Vibe GT. That engine can also be paired with a five-speed automatic transmission.

Another key, but not obvious difference between the Vibe and Matrix is that they are not built on the same assembly line. While the Matrix is built in Ontario, the Vibe is assembled in California.

The Vibe starts at $15,995. Our tester came to $17,220 plus freight.

2008 Suzuki SX4; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Suzuki SX4; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2008 Suzuki SX4

On the surface, the Suzuki SX4 looks like the pipsqueak of our group of 13 cars, as it casts the smallest shadow of any of them. Typical of Suzuki, however, this is a small car done just a little bit differently.

The SX4 features a spacious interior, but where many compact cars’ space comes in the form of length, the Suzuki has a tall roof that greatly enhances headroom. The SX4 debuted in 2007 as a hatchback, and the sedan Suzuki supplied us with is a new model for 2008.

The 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and its 143 horsepower and 136 lb-ft of torque are about average here, as is the optional four-speed automatic transmission (a five-speed manual is standard).

The SX4 is available in an attractive Sport trim with 17-inch wheels, but ours was the entry-level model; its 15-inch wheels are less flashy, but are no smaller than what you’ll get on other base model cars in this class.

Our tester’s $18,295 base price seems steep for a little car like this until you see the generous list of standard equipment you get for that price. Air conditioning, power windows, locks and mirrors, variable intermittent wipers and keyless entry are all included, as are ABS and side and side curtain airbags. The trunk is very spacious, but curiously, the rear seat doesn’t fold down. The SX4’s interior is simple but quite attractive and well laid out.

The SX4 was well-received by our drivers. Frank Rizutti found it “peppy and fast off the line”, but found the steering vague, as did Mike Daniels, who otherwise thought this was a nice car let down by its “twitchy” ride. Bob Belding praised the Suzuki as a comfortable car that anyone could get used to.

The Suzuki SX4 is built in Hamamatsu, Japan.

2009 Toyota Corolla; photo by Grant Yoxon
2009 Toyota Corolla; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2009 Toyota Corolla

The Toyota Corolla was redesigned recently and the new 10th-generation model launched as an early 2009 model. Look quickly and you might mistake this for the last-gen Corolla, but this one is a touch longer and wider, though it rides on the same wheelbase as the old car.

The Corolla is mechanically identical to the Matrix hatchback, which in turn is a twin to the Pontiac Vibe. Our Corolla tester was a basic CE model with automatic transmission. So equipped, the MSRP is $15,565; with the optional Enhanced Convenience Package that includes power windows, locks and mirrors, keyless entry, air conditioning and cruise control, our tester’s bottom line was $18,295 plus freight.

Like the Vibe, the Corolla’s standard engine is a 1.8-litre four-cylinder. It’s the same size as the motor in the old Corolla, but with a few extra horsepower. Other new stuff includes ABS, six airbags and active head restraints as standard kit in all Corolla trims.

Luc Saumure called the Corolla a “nice package for what is supposed to be a basic family transportation device.”

Frank Rizutti thought the Toyota handled well, was stable on the highway and offered plenty of room, though he’d prefer the five-speed manual transmission to the automatic in our test car. He added that of all the cars in our group, this is the one he would buy.

Managing Editor Grant Yoxon thought the Corolla did everything well, but agreed with others who found it boring.

Rob McLeod particularly liked the simplicity of the Corolla’s dash. In his opinion, this was the best-riding car he drove, excelling in comfort on the highway.

The Corolla is built in Cambridge, Ontario.

2008 Volkswagen City Golf; photo by Grant Yoxon
2008 Volkswagen City Golf; photo by Grant Yoxon. Click image to enlarge
2008 Volkswagen City Golf

The Volkswagen City Golf is a relatively new model for Volkswagen, but only in name. When the Rabbit replaced the Golf in 2007, VW saw an opportunity to keep the Golf around as a de-contented entry-level model, and the City Golf was born.

The original 2007 City Golf (there’s also a City Jetta) received few revisions over the Golf it was derived from, but the 2008 model received an extensive exterior makeover that brought the car more up to date looks-wise.

The 2.0-litre engine is one of the oldest designs found in our group of testers. Despite producing just 115 horsepower – the least of any of our 13 cars – the engine makes useful torque but isn’t a joy to run hard. The optional six-speed automatic transmission in our tester, however, is one of the best in the class and arguably one of the best-performing automatics available today.

Frank Rizutti liked the City Golf’s ride and thought it was well-equipped, but he accused that six-speed transmission of being “noisy.”

Rob McLeod didn’t like the heating/ventilation controls, which he thought were mounted too low on the centre stack.

The Golf’s ride and handling are good, and the car has a planted feel on the highway, but it’s not as light on its feet as others in the group.

Price-wise, the City Golf starts at a class-competitive $15,300; add in the pricey automatic tranny ($1,400), air conditioning ($1,350), side curtain airbags ($410), and convenience package and the out-the-door price for our tester came to $20,970 plus freight.

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