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From the frugal to the thrill-seeking

Mazda3 Skyactiv sedan is the best of the bunch in the Small Car Under $21,000 category.

  • The image of cars in a showroom

Small cars continue to siphon off features that used to be the playground of the rich: acoustic windshields, LED lights, hill start assist, voice command capability — these treats await those shopping in the small car segment. Competition in this class is a windfall for the consumer who can compare standard features, options, mileage figures and price to find a small car that delivers a big bang.

Best Small Car under $21,000:

Mazda3 Skyactiv Sedan

Price (base/as tested): $15,995/$20,895 

Along with the gadgets and gizmos, you must consider how the car drives, and that’s why I rate the Mazda3 Skyactiv Sedan as my No.1 pick in this class. It was also voted best Small Car under $21,000 by fellow automotive journalists at TestFest.

It works like a well-rehearsed orchestra. The six-speed automatic avoids the harshness of some of the others in the category, and within the first few minutes of driving you think, “This is a solid car.” The engine is responsive, steering feel is balanced and handling is composed on varied terrain. The cabin of the Mazda3 is quiet both in sound and in looks: it’s almost Zen-like. There aren’t too many buttons, and big knobs do the work of audio and climate control. The new Skyactiv technology of engine, transmission and chassis tweaking helps fuel economy with a promise of 6.1 L/100 km in combined driving.

Kia Rio LX+

Price (base/as tested): $13,895/$16,695

The Kia Rio LX+ was nipping at the Mazda3 in my ratings, largely because it’s good looking outside and in, and bulked up with extras like keyless entry, voice command audio, and eco driving mode. It’s also $4,200 cheaper. But it feels less nailed down than the Mazda, the cabin is noisier, and the engine louder under acceleration. It’s still a compelling choice for the price, though.

Dodge Dart

Price (base/as tested): $17,995/$20,895

The performance of the Mazda3 and spunkiness of the Kia Rio took the starch out of the Dart. The Dodge has decent styling, a quiet cabin, roomy backseat, but it doesn’t like to be rushed. Though it has more horsepower (160 hp) than any other car in the group, it also has to hustle 1,471 kg, tops in this class.

Nissan Sentra

Price (base/as tested): $14,848/$20,083

The Nissan Sentra has gone to glamour school, and shed its middle-aged profile for something from this century. It’s improved, but the bulky back end evokes a Victorian bustle. It just doesn’t stand out in this group, and the CVT while quiet, is unsatisfying, like awarding a point for a missed field goal. It’s bigger and lighter and conservative as a vanilla wafer.

Chevrolet Spark

Price (base/as tested): $13,495/$17,945

The Chevy Spark is a sort of urban ox cart: basic transport. Four speeds, 84 horsepower, roomy and rustic. It has some crude controls such as seat adjustments, and some techy ones like the MyLink infotainment interface. It’s aimed at kids and it may excite the ones who have no interest in driving, with its youthful vibe and city driving chops. It’s got impressive cargo room for Kijiji finds, but it seems outclassed here at the price.

Toyota Prius c

Price (base/as tested): $20,950/$20,950

It’s a cute thing, the Prius c gas-electric hybrid, with a proper hatch profile, and some cosmic colours like Moonglow. I admire the projected fuel consumption of 3.7 L/100 km in combined driving, but I don’t find the driving that much fun. The steering feels disembodied, and there’s a lot of graphic on-screen drama about how to drive the car to harness its electric potential. The interior has glum-looking plastics and a dash that looks like a credenza. Still trying to hard to be different.

Overall the 2013 models are a soup-to-nuts bunch, with cars for the frugal or thrill seeking.

  • From the frugal to the thrill-seeking

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