Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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Size Doesn't Matter

Beat the gas-pump blues with the newest legion of small cars

Skyrocketing gas prices have levelled off -- for now. However, there's a strong possibility prices will hover at the 80-cent-per-litre mark well into the summer vacation season. That said, the popularity of the small car is bound to reach new heights.

Despite being thought of as nothing more than "toys," sales of economy cars reached unprecedented heights during the 1973 energy crisis. However, a lot has changed since the days of the Vega and Pinto. From air conditioning to leather seating, today's economy cars feature accoutrements once bestowed only upon luxury vehicles. Now there's one to fit every budget and even the most discerning taste.

Economy cars can be classified into two sub-categories: "Sub-compacts" include the likes of the Geo Metro and Subaru Justy, while the larger "compacts," like the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and VW Golf, offer similar, or better gas mileage compared to their smaller counterparts. And compacts certainly give added crash protection and offer more space and comfort.

Despite the trend to buy large cars, sport-utility vehicles and minivans, the small-car market continues to grow. Not only are new manufacturers such as Kia and Daewoo set to take on long-established marques, the larger manufacturers are expanding their lines and offering everything from hybrid power (Honda Insight) to neo-classic designs like the PT Cruiser and New Beetle.

The art of automotive design is making a comeback and moving toward new frontiers. There are no more generic "jellybean" styles that have dominated the market in the past decade.

The Toyota Echo replaces the popular Tercel and follows the design trends set in Europe and Japan -- tall and skinny. The quirky design, which can be best described as resembling a "clown car," does have some inherent advantages. Drivers sit higher, hence the commanding view of the road, which isn't unlike a minivan's. There's 15 more centimetres of head-room compared to its predecessor, and the ease with which you can get in and out of the car is much better too.

The Echo's dash also has an unorthodox look: A single centre pod serves as the information centre, housing the speedometer and idiot lights (oil, low-fuel and engine lights). Toyota claims the centre pod makes for easy, safe reading. I disagree. What it does is offer back-seat drivers a chance to monitor your speed.

Powered by a 1.5-litre (108-horsepower, 105 pounds per foot of torque), the new engine drinks only seven litres of gas per 100 kilometres, city and highway driving combined. The trade-off is that it works harder and louder than its predecessor when bringing the car up to highway speeds or climbing steep grades. Prices start at $13,835 and jump quickly to $16,585. Add another $1230 for air. While Toyota may have hit the mark with its roominess in the sub-compact class, there are a lot of quieter, more refined cars for around the same price.

Watch out Toyota, Mazda and Honda, there's a new kid on the block and it's set for battle. Kia may be the latest car company from Korea to take on the Canadian market, but its history as Korea's first automobile manufacturer, long-time supplier to Ford for its Festiva and Aspire models, makes it a veteran in the small-car wars. Kia first hit the North American market via the US's Pacific coast back in 1994. The rest is history.

The Kia Sephia amazes. It offers the finish and refinement of much costlier cars at a fraction of the price. The compact's interior space abounds: Head, shoulder and leg room match or beat the Mercedes C-Class and Lexus ES 300. Rear-seat heater ducts are a nice touch and a welcome addition in our climate. The durability of the 1.8-litre, (125-horsepower, 108 pounds per foot of torque) engine has been proven in professional rallies. The engine-speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion steering, with Lotus's collaboration, has resulted in a car with more than adequate road mannerisms.

The Sephia costs about as much as a year's lease on some SUVs and there are two models to choose from: One starts at $12, 995, while the LS tops off at $14,945 and comes complete with air and front- and rear-disc brakes. Our tester's power package added $800 to the price and included power windows, CD player and tilt steering.


Like the Kia, the Ford Focus had been around in other parts of the world before debuting on our shores. The Focus replaces the Escort as well as the Mercury Mystique or Ford Contour, and is Ford's entry into the world car market. It's a big job, but the Focus is up to the task. It's available in three body styles, including hatchback (the wildest looking of the three), four-door sedan and station wagon. It follows the chiselled design set by the Mercury Cougar last year and is setting the trend for future designs.

Maximizing space has been the strong point of many small-car manufacturers and some have been more successful than others. The Focus falls into the former category with an interior that feels spacious and offers tons of headroom no matter which body style you opt for. Leg room, along with ingress and egress, has greatly increased compared to the Mystique and Contour. The wild, artsy dash is functional with clearly marked and accessible controls. And kudos to Ford for placing the radio over the heater controls.

Two engines are available, a two-litre, DOHC, Zetec (130-horsepower, 135 pounds per foot of torque) in the ZX3 hatchback and a two-litre SOHC (110-horsepower, 125 pounds per foot of torque) for the sedan and wagon. While the Escort proved to be fairly bulletproof running family errands over the years, the Focus ZX3 is showing its mettle on racetracks around the world. Prices start at $14,895 for the base sedan and $16,595 for the hatchback. Our ZX3 came in at $19,226, while our manual-transmission sedan, complete with side-impact air bags and leather seating, topped off at $21,771.

I fell in love with the Mazda Protegé a few years back and the package just keeps getting better and better. First off, the Protegé is spacious, offering more room than some larger sedans and the quality of materials used is second to none. The controls feel downright solid, while the noise levels are subdued. It handles well, too, and provides a big-car ride feel thanks in part to a long wheelbase. Only the Neon and Focus have a longer wheelbase, but the Protegé still manages to beat out the Neon in rear-seat head room. The design isn't too ostentatious and it blends in well, whether you're stepping out for a night at the theatre or running down to the dollar store.

Three trim levels are offered with two engine choices. The base engine is a 1.6-litre (105-horsepower, 107 pounds per foot of torque) on the DX or SE models or a 1.8-litre (122-horsepower, 120 pounds per foot of torque) on the LX. Either will please, but if you're doing a lot of highway commuting and have to fight the drafts left in the wake of big rigs, the latter has much more punch to offer. The base DX model starts at $15,095 with the top-of-the-line LX coming in at $17,490.

Volkswagen popularized the small-car industry with the Beetle way back in the '50s and so it's only natural that it maintains a fair share of the market. VW discovered the winning formula and hit pay dirt with the Golf after some tough times going up against Japanese manufacturers.

Now in its fourth generation, the Golf is still available in three- and five-door hatchback versions, as well as the popular Cabrio. The veritable box on wheels has a slew of options, along with engine and handling packages. Prices range from $18,050 for the base car, to $30,225 for the performance hot shot GTI with the VR6 engine.

But the best-kept secret is the Golf TDI (two-door GL for $20,800; four-door GLS for $23,300) The 1.9-litre, (90-horsepower, 155 pounds per foot of torque) turbo diesel gulps only 4.4 litres per 100 kilometres on the highway: enough to take you from Montreal to Halifax on a single tank. Unlike diesel engines of days gone by, this one is surprisingly quiet, and thanks to the turbocharger, quite peppy.

As with all Golfs, the TDI offers an enormous amount of cargo area, particularly with the rear seat folded. A full-size spare is standard and should spell relief when the inevitable happens, like blowing a tire and you still have 200 kilometres to go.

The car is rock-solid, handling is crisp, brakes are second to none and supportive seating is in the traditional, upright position of German styling. Controls are close at hand, but the only sore point regarding the VW company is its insistence on installing a dial knob for the seat rake, as opposed to the typical lever. For anyone looking for German engineering, but not wanting to spend big money, the Golf makes a superb family hauler.


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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