Test Fest October 2003
Journalists listen to presentation on the Suzuki Swift. Autos staff and contributors include Paul Williams (light brown jacket at left), Jeremy Cato (left, behind Paul), Laurance Yap (right, behind Paul), Greg Wilson (black jacket, sun glasses) and Ted Laturnus (black jacket, brown sleeves). Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams
Photos by Dennis Miles

Shannonville, Ontario – Each year, members of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada gather here to pore over cars and trucks and choose the best new models in a range of categories. And each year, the auto writers must grapple with the difficulty of comparing vehicles that may share little more in common than the general price zone.

Take the Economy Car category which I helped judge this year. It was definitely a mixed bag. Tiny hatchbacks from Chevrolet, Toyota and Suzuki, a sports coupe from Saturn, a wagon from Mitsubishi, and sedans from Chevrolet and Mazda didn’t share much, except for their low cost.

But that’s the challenge. What can the consumer get for under $20,000?

Starting at a base price of $13,495 (the Suzuki Swift), these are some of the least expensive cars you can buy. All seven vehicles in the category are new introductions (that’s why you don’t see a Honda Civic, for example), have inline-four cylinder engines, and are designated as 2004 models.

The cars were tested on a 19.4 km road course that included a variety of surfaces, and assessed on a scale of 1-10 for each of 19 areas. In the final calculations, a “price factor” will be computed that takes into account the different cost for each car.

You’ll notice, by the way, that none of the economy cars tested at the weeklong event near Belleville, Ontario, was a base-specification vehicle. You can’t blame the manufacturers, I suppose; they’re in the business of selling cars, and you don’t usually do that by dressing down.

Here’s my take on the tests.

Chevrolet Aveo, Suzuki Swift

2004 Suzuki Swift
2004 Suzuki Swift (Laurance Yap driving)

2004 Chevrolet Aveo
2004 Chevrolet Aveo. Click images to enlarge

The Chevrolet Aveo and the Suzuki Swift are effectively the same car. They’re both built at the former Daewoo factory in Korea and are a sub-compact class of vehicle. We tested five-door hatchback versions, although the Aveo can also be purchased as a four-door sedan.

Notable features are the 103-horsepower, 1.6-litre engine with dual overhead camshafts, 14″ wheels, inexpensive option packages and attractive “jewelled” lighting treatment. These vehicles are a big improvement on previous Swifts and the equivalent Geo Metro from General Motors. Styling is pleasant and contemporary and the interior will hold four adults, although seating can be cramped in such a small car. The five-speed manual transmission gets the best out of the engine, but you have to feel around for the gears.

Nonetheless, Aveos and Swifts are nimble and cheap to run. They come with good heaters and big windshield wipers, and can be equipped with a full range of options including anti-lock brakes, air conditioning and power equipment. Powertrain warranty for Aveo and Swift is 100,000 kilometres. As-tested prices were $17,510 and $15,495 respectively. The Swift edges out the Aveo on base pricing.

Toyota Echo Hatchback

2004 Toyota Echo Hatchback
2004 Toyota Echo Hatchback (driven by Ted Laturnus). Click image to enlarge

Unlike the Aveo and Swift, the Toyota Echo Hatchback comes in five-door and three-door versions. Competing at the Car of the Year event was the five-door Echo LE ($14,600) with the RS and APX package (air conditioning, alloy wheels, side skirts, interior upgrades) that brought the as-tested price to $17,481.

This is a surprisingly peppy and good-handling car. Its 1.5-litre, 108 horsepower motor is smooth throughout the gears, and quiet at highway speeds. The car feels more substantial than you’d expect given its small size. The RS package consists mainly of appearance items, and gives the Echo a tuned look that makes you feel like a bit of a racer (add the optional Borla exhaust and you’ll sound like one, as well). All Echo hatchbacks come with anti-lock brakes.

However, this is a sub-compact and even though the wheels are at the extreme corners, the car is susceptible to crosswinds and trucks blasting by. The interior features a centre-mounted instrument pod that’s legible enough, but I still think gauges belong in front of the driver.

Chevrolet Optra

2004 Chevrolet Optra
Click image to enlarge

Of the sedans, we had a choice between Korean, a Japanese and American-built cars. Like the Aveo, the Chevrolet Optra is built in the former Daewoo factory in Korea, and has benefited from General Motors improvements to quality control. The Optra is a compact car, only available in Canada. Base price is $17,465, but our tester was $19,055 with a full array of options, including anti-lock brakes, CD player, air conditioning and power windows.

The Optra has a well-designed interior that’s quiet and comfortable. The 2.0-litre, 119 horsepower motor moves the car along smartly, but is noisy under hard acceleration. Exterior styling is conventional and pleasant. With over 400 Chevrolet dealers in Canada, buyers will have no difficulty servicing or maintaining their Optras.


2004 Mazda3
Click image to enlarge

This model replaces the Protegé, and in doing so, throws down the gauntlet to other manufacturers. This car has an exceptionally large trunk (the result of a compact rear suspension that doesn’t intrude into it), excellent interior room, comprehensive and attractive gauges and controls, and striking exterior design.

The 2.0-litre, 148 horsepower engine is quick and smooth and the car handles extremely well, even on the racetrack. Buyers will be pleased that the Mazda3 looks like it costs much more than its base price of $16,195, although you can quickly bump up the price with options. The interior, too, uses interesting and expensive-looking materials to create a tailored, modern look. Our test car with alloy wheels, air conditioning and other options would retail for $19,885.

Saturn Ion 2 Quad Coupe

2004 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe
2004 Saturn Ion Quad Coupe (Paul Williams at the wheel). Click image to enlarge

The 2004 Saturn Ion 2 Quad Coupe uses hidden rear doors to improve access to the rear seats while maintaining the sporty coupe profile. Powered by a 2.2-litre, 140 horsepower engine, the Ion 2 has sufficient power for all normal driving applications, and is further distinguished by its novel interior design, and, at $670, inexpensive traction control and ABS. Like the Echo, it uses a centre-mounted instrument cluster that opens out the front of the cabin. Its small steering wheel with pill-shaped airbag complements the unusual shapes found inside the car.

The Saturn seems very much about style. From personalized exterior appliqués, to the Celtic-cross wheel covers, to the designer interior fabrics, the Ion continues Saturn’s tradition of building different cars. With an as-tested price of $17,915, our tester was very close to its base price of $17,245.

Mitsubish Lancer Sportback

2004 Mitsubishi Lancer Sport Back
2004 Mitsubishi Lancer Sport Back. Click image to enlarge

The Mitsubish Lancer Sportback LS was the only wagon in the group. The Sportback really transforms the Lancer, making it look much sleeker than the sedan. This was the most expensive car in the group, with an as-tested price of $21,997 (it’s base price is $$20,997).

Power for the Sportback comes from a 2.4-litre, single overhead camshaft engine making 160 horsepower. Equipment is comprehensive, including air conditioning, power windows, locks, mirrors, and CD player. Interior space is generous, with lots of room for passengers and cargo.

My choice

Overall, the Mazda3 was my pick in this category. Its design, refinement, quality and features were very impressive. In my view, even in base specification at $16,160, this compact is a lot more car than a comparably priced sub-compact with extras. Mazda expects to sell about 45,000 Mazda3 sedans and hatchbacks each year in Canada. Regardless of the outcome, when the Car of the Year category winners are announced on Dec. 2, buyers in this segment should give it a look.

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