Test Fest: Best new small car under $21,000

You can’t beat 2015 Honda Fit’s brilliant design, but the Nissan Micra’s nearly $5,000 price advantage could outweigh the Fit’s greater size, versatility and overall refinement.

  • Cars in a parking lot

Despite Nissan’s price advantage, you can’t beat Honda Fit’s brilliant design

As a member of the organizing committee for this year’s Canadian Car of the Year Awards Test Fest, I can assure you that we try to avoid having categories comprised of just two cars.

This year, Best New Small Car (under $21K) had just that.

Ultimately, it was determined that these two cars were significant enough to the Canadian marketplace to justify that, rather than forcing these cars to compete against models few buyers would ever cross-shop, by combining the two Small Car categories.

We are a country that values smaller, more affordable, generally more practical vehicles than our ostentatious neighbours to the south, after all.

Interestingly, both of these cars bring something unique to this segment — a bargain-basement entry price for the Nissan, and a clever, flexibility-enhancing design with the Honda.

Honda Fit EX ($14,495 base, $20,495 as tested)

My pick as the winner in this duel, the 2015 Fit is the third generation to be sold in Canada, and it retains the brilliant design concept that defined the first two iterations; in the Fit, the fuel tank is located centrally, between and beneath the front seats, rather than beneath the rear seats as is typical in most modern vehicles. This frees up serious real estate beneath the rear seats, which can now fold down into, rather than onto, that space. The seat cushion also folds upwards, opening up a nearly four-foot-tall void behind the front seats than can accommodate anything from potted plants to oversized garden gnomes.

Power comes from a new, 130 horsepower, 1.5 litre, four-cylinder engine with direct fuel-injection, mated to either a new continuously variable transmission, or a six-speed manual. While the engine is both peppy and refined (it’s almost inaudible at highway speed), the CVT sucks a lot of the joy out of driving the Fit, even if it does improve economy. Honda makes some of the nicest manual gearboxes in the industry, so I’d have to recommend that choice.

Ride quality has improved for 2015, though it’s still on the firm side. High-speed steering accuracy seems better though, and the Fit remains a fun, nimble little car.

Honda’s attempts to improve the quality and appearance of the Fit’s cabin have not gone unnoticed. While not every detail pleases me, the materials seem decent enough, and it’s undoubtedly an improvement. New, upscale options this year include leather seating and automatic climate control. The $20,495 EX model tested even included a gimmicky blind spot camera, in addition to one for backing up.

Nissan Micra SV ($9,998 base, $15,333 as tested)

Although the sub-$10,000 base price is what makes the headlines, the Micra’s about much more than that. This is a real car, with good dynamics, comfortable seats, and — in the mid-range SV trim tested, which still starts under 14K — a surprising amount of content, including cruise control, a rear-view camera and a Bluetooth phone interface. To get the price-leader, you’ll sacrifice those goodies, plus electric windows, locks and even air conditioning.

It’s no rocket, but it’s plenty quick for around-town duties, and while my tester’s four-speed automatic might seem an anachronistic throwback by today’s standards, it swaps cogs with as much polish as anything costing twice as much. The Micra is just as happy tackling the highway; there’s less wind noise and arguably better ride quality than the larger, more expensive Fit.

Because Test Fest’s scoring system uses the “as tested” price (as well as numerous other factors) as a weighting factor — the thinking being that a more expensive car should be that much better than a less expensive one, especially at the low end of the market — the Micra’s nearly $5,000 price advantage could outweigh the Fit’s greater size, versatility and overall refinement.

Nissan Micra SV Test Fest

  • Test Fest: Best new small car under $21,000
  • Test Fest: Best new small car under $21,000
  • Test Fest: Best new small car under $21,000
  • Test Fest: Best new small car under $21,000
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