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2001 Honda Civic CX Sedan, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Rio, Nissan Sentra XE/GXE

Never before has so much technological excellence been affordable to so many people.

Never before has so much technological excellence been affordable to so many people.

Need proof? Just look at this year's economy class contenders.

For buyers on a budget, young families getting started, budding career professionals and those seeking a second family vehicle, economy cars are often the sensible way to go.

Cheaper to buy than other vehicles, they tend also to be more economical to run and maintain.

And these entry level wheels are engineered for the long service and performance that a decade ago was the domain of more sport-ytype cars.

Here are the candidates, listed alphabetically:

HONDA CIVIC DX SEDAN

Meeting ultra-low emission standards for 2001 is only one enhancement to the new, seventh generation Honda Civic.

It features with fresh styling, a roomier interior, more power and comparable handling, despite having lost its previous fully independent rear suspension to a less sophisticated beam axle design.

Bigger rotors front and rear provide stopping power and improved pedal feel, although braking distance to 0 from 100 km/h is the longest among this year's economy contenders.

Despite exterior dimensions very close to last year, interior space now meets compact class volume, and the trunk is larger.

Seats are larger also, while the new optional "slim" sunroof encroaches less on headroom than before.

Safety enhancements include ISOFIX child seat anchors, dual front seatbelt pretensioners (on lap and shoulder belts), dual-stage airbags and improved frontal and side-impact protection measures.

Civic is available in sedan and coupe body styles; each gets a hydro-formed sub-frame that is lighter and stronger and larger reinforced structural sections for more stiffness.

Three models: base DX, LX and top-level Si versions are offered.

The standard five-speed manual shifter feels slightly more precise. A four-speed automatic is optional.

Engine displacement rises to 1.7 L from 1.6 for all models.

Horsepower output in the DX and LX models climbs to 115 from 106, and torque jumps to 110 lb.-ft. from 106. The Si's torque rises to 114 lb.-ft. at a more useable 4,800 r.p.m.

*Tested price: $15,800

*Street start 0100 km/h: 10.0 sec.

*80120 km/h pass: 7.9 sec.

*Braking, 1000 km/h: 49.9 m

HYUNDAI ELANTRA

Anyone curious about how far Hyundai has progressed, since the days when Ponies littered Canadian highways, need only drive the new, third generation Elantra.

Since its introduction in 1992, the Elantra has undergone steady improvement. For 2001, it is larger, more refined and comfortable, with a host of standard safety and convenience features.

The four-door sedan's coefficient of drag has been cut an impressive 12 per cent to a slippery 0.333. The wheelbase, lengthened by 60 mm to 2610, results in more head, hip and legroom for four adults.

Front sub-frame and engine enhancements not only make Elantra quiet, but enhance both its ride and handling.

Extensive standard features on the base GL include remote trunk release, split folding rear seat, tilt steering column, tachometer, gas shocks, digital odometer and AM/FM/CD player. The top-level VE adds as standard equipment, air con, automatic transmission, cruise control, power windows and locks and power heated mirrors.

The revised 2.0 L, DOHC, 16-valve engine develops 140 hp and 133 lb.-ft. of torque, delivered smoothly to the front wheels.

Smoother operation was achieved by replacing the previous model's four counterweight crankshaft with an eight-weight design and adding a ribbed block for greater strength.

Larger 15-in wheels and tires, power-assisted rack and pinion steering and four-wheel independent suspension impart lively driving characteristics. Front ventilated discs and

Self-adjusting rear drums provide stopping power in both models.

*Tested price: $15,000

KIA RIO

Newcomer Kia's spunky Rio subcompact sedan is the most inexpensive to buy new car of model year 2001.

For many buyers, that makes it a winner right out of the box.

At 944 kg, it's also the lightest of this year's economy class contenders.

Rio brings to the party a moderate number of creature comforts and room for four adults in three trim levels: S, RS and top-line LS.

A front-mounted 1.5 L double overhead cam engine making 98 hp and 98 lb.-ft. of torque powers the front wheels and runs on regular unleaded gas.

Buyers can choose between a five-speed manual transaxle or an optional four-speed automatic with overdrive. The manual shifter is less than precise, with long, rubbery throws, while the automatic bumps between shifts, especially under full throttle

acceleration.

Interior noise is acceptable as long as engine revs are kept to a minimum.

The driving experience also ranks as moderate, with reasonable suspension damping and handling, by way of front independent MacPherson struts and a torsion beam rear axle. Brakes are power-assisted front ventilated discs with rear drums.

*Tested price: $14,895

NISSAN SENTRA XE/GXE

The budget priced 2001 Sentra returns in a new, sleeker guise with ample interior roominess and class-leading power by way of an all-new 1.8 L standard engine in the base XE and mid-level GXE models.

The top-level SE version sports Nissan's race and rally proven 2.0 L, all-aluminum four-cylinder engine, making 145 hp at the front wheels.

Independent front MacPherson struts and Nissan's simple but effective rear multilink beam suspension impart lively, responsive handling characteristics.

But testers were hampered by the car's noisy standard tires, which turned in lazily and gave up lateral grip early in spirited cornering.

Sentra did, however, record the shortest stopping distance of the group, screeching to zero from 100 km/h in 44.7 m, a full 3.1 m less than the next best stopper, Rio.

Sentra also posted the quickest passing times, zipping to 120 km/h from 80 in 7.5 seconds, almost a full half second ahead of the next fastest contender, Civic, and that with the base engine!

The driver's post offers excellent outward visibility in all directions, and all controls and gauges are well-placed and simple to operate.

A bonus: the XE comes in $100 cheaper than last year, the GXE

$200 less and the SE a full $2,000 lower still.

*Tested price: $17,698

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