Road Test

Three all-new new Japanese small cars compared

2016 Honda Civic, Scion iM and Toyota Yaris tested back-to-back

2016 Scion iM, Honda Civic, Toyota Yaris

Looking for a new car in the $20,000 range? You're not alone.

Encumbered by higher taxes and other expenses endemic to life north of the 49th parallel, Canadians don’t enjoy quite the same level of disposable income as our continental neighbours. That fact helps to explain why our pizzas are less cheesy, happy hour is just 60 minutes, and gas prices are watched closely online. It's also why new small cars get a warmer welcome here.

Any automaker can cobble together a comfortable, safe and feature-laden model for $33,000 – the average cost of a new car in Canada – but the real challenge is to hit all the marks at half that price. Thanks to the hyper-competitive global marketplace, manufacturers have managed to deliver better cars in the sub-$20,000 price range in recent years.

Canadians will see three all-new Japanese small cars on the road this fall – an embarrassment of riches for the budget-conscious. Here’s our take on them, ranked in order from least to best value for your hard-earned dollars, in our opinion.

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2016 Scion iM

Canucks lamenting the loss of the popular Toyota Matrix and its close cousin, the Pontiac Vibe, might want to give the Scion iM a good once-over. Built on the front-drive Toyota MC platform shared with the European-market Auris, the iM is yet another attempt to give young buyers a roundabout introduction to the Toyota family – Scion being the fresh brand tailored for fickle Millennials.

There’s lots of old Matrix in the new iM, particularly in the tight rear legroom and small cargo space, but lots new, too. The cabin is outfitted with contemporary, upmarket furnishings, including soft-touch plastics, contrast stitching and piano-black trim, that make the iM an inviting place.

It’s worth noting that Scion's “mono-spec” pricing provides a fully kitted car with no options (beyond a pricey navigation system and some dealer-installed equipment), leaving the buyer to choose only between the six-speed manual and extra-cost CVT automatic transmissions.

It’s an important distinction as the transmission defines two different automobiles. The CVT-equipped iM we drove is smooth enough, but it saddles the car with more weight and power-sucking losses that render it achingly slow. The lone engine is Toyota’s familiar 1.8-L four cylinder, which powers millions of Corollas, Matrixes and Vibes. It makes 137 horsepower and 126 lb-ft of torque in this application. It’s not enough, especially given the expectations many buyers will have stepping into such a swoopy-looking hatchback.

Stylists didn’t do the iM any favours by outfitting it with a body kit and boffo 17-inch alloy wheels – the car looks hot-hatch fast, but is anything but. Accelerating from 0-to-100 km/h takes fully 10.8 seconds with the CVT, based on real-world testing by the Automobile Juonalists Association of Canada (AJAC).

It's conceivable that a deft hand working the six-speed stick might be able to shave a full second or so off that time. Still, it’s nothing to blog home about.

The ride and handling characteristics are quite decent, however, thanks to the control-arm rear suspension, well-sorted electric steering system and low-profile tires.

Here’s a prediction: the iM will find a receptive audience with the many graying Matrix and Vibe owners who will be looking to replace their reliable rides in the next few years.

It’s not the outcome Scion dealers are hoping for, but the iM is a little ambitiously priced: at $21,599 it missed our sub-$20K target, but that’s only because it comes so fully equipped. Still, some buyers will complain about the lack of a sunroof. Even my daughter’s Pontiac Vibe has one of those.

What’s best: Great colour palette, all-in pricing, the Matrix is back!

What’s not: Droning CVT, underwhelming engine, small cargo hold

Pricing: $21,165-$23,078

Engine: 1.8-L four-cylinder, 137 horsepower, 126 lb-ft torque

Transmissions: Six-speed manual; CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic

Fuel Consumption (city/highway/combined): 8.3 / 6.3 / 7.4 L/100 km

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2016 Toyota Yaris Sedan

It may seem hard to believe that the world’s biggest automaker phoned in its newest small car by contracting Mazda to supply it, but that's about what happened.

Spending billions to develop a new automobile makes little sense given the razor-thin profit margins in small cars, so Toyota found a ready product in the sparkling next-generation Mazda2 subcompact being produced in that automaker’s sprawling new assembly plant in Mexico.

Marketing it as the new Yaris sedan was a good move, especially since Mazda is not selling the 2 around here (it can make more money selling the mechanically similar CX-3 sport-cute).

Regardless of the badge, it’s impossible not to recognize the sedan’s Mazda-ness. The same sculpted lines, shrink-wrapped sheetmetal and pinched taillights of the Mazda 3 have migrated to the new Yaris. The only thing that’s different (unfortunately) is the car’s grille, which took on a fish-like mug to obscure the Mazda fascia.

Mazda goodness is evident inside with its simple gauge cluster, circular vents, stand-up infotainment screen and excellent fit and finish; it’s a ringer for the CX-3 interior.

Seating is generous up front, but the rear bench is restrictive given the severe dimensions designers had to work with (at least the cabin is phonebooth tall). But there’s an expansive trunk tucked in behind that puts the iM’s cargo capacity to shame.

Mazda’s, er, Toyota’s new Yaris delivers a lot of the same driving dynamics that makes the 3 such a treat. Turn-in is crisp and the suspension mitigates bumps and lumps with aplomb and without the harshness usually attributed to simple twist-beam rear axles.

Our highway test drive, conducted on a blustery day, did reveal the lightweight Yaris to be susceptible to wind gusts, however, no doubt amplified by the sedan’s tall stance.

Motivation is supplied by Mazda’s new 1.5-L four cylinder engine with SkyActiv technology, including direct injection. It generates 106 horsepower and 103 lb-ft of torque, a slight improvement over the old 2’s 100-horsepower output.

Then again the Yaris is a flyweight, so acceleration is adequate for its segment. Buyers can choose between a manual and conventional automatic transmission, both with six gears.

In AJAC's annual Canadian Car of the Year testing, the new Yaris with six-speed auto, took 10.7 seconds to get from 0-to-100 km/h. It feels quicker!

Fuel efficiency is a marked improvement over the old Mazda2 hatchback. Best of all, the wee engine is refined and loves to spin, rendering the drive an authentic Mazda zoom-zoom experience. Toyota deserves some praise for recognizing a good thing when it sees it.

What’s best: Fuel-sipping Skyactiv engine, well-sorted suspension, ideal city car

What’s not: Tight back seats, face won’t win any beauty contests

Pricing: $16,995-$20,200

Engine: 1.5-L four-cylinder, 106 horsepower, 103 lb-ft torque

Transmissions: Six-speed manual; six-speed automatic

Fuel Consumption (city/highway/combined): 7.2 / 5.6 / 6.4 L/100 km

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2016 Honda Civic Sedan

The new Honda Civic represents the tenth generation of a Canuck favourite, although it seems like just the other day that the ninth-gen models were introduced. That one was a rare misstep by Honda that let the Civic morph into a mere grocery-getter that could lull its occupants to sleep – although it continued to be Canada's best-selling car, extending that sring now beyond 17 years.

Engineers and stylists worked overtime to address some deficiencies for 2013, salvaging the car’s best-seller title then. Now the 2016 Civic is stoked to make up for lost time.

Today’s Civic looks vastly bigger than the added 3 centimetres in the wheelbase and 5 cm in width would suggest; in fact, it looks about the size of a mid-2000s Accord. The lower roofline accentuates the car’s long lines, punctuated by a cornucopia of creases, scallops and curves. The sedan takes on a fastback profile suggesting a hatch lives back there, but alas it is a stubby trunk lid (although a hatchback is in the pipeline).

Open up a door and a big space welcomes you inside, especially in the rear quarters, which gain 5 cm of stretch-out legroom. Up front, the Civic’s bi-level instrument panel has been banished, replaced by a three-pod layout with an enormous tachometer earning the centre position (despite the fact most Civics will be sold with an automatic transmission).

An oddly tall and obtrusive centre console forms a kind of Berlin Wall between driver and front passenger; if nothing else, it offers a useful amount of storage space.

If the big tach suggests the Civic is geared for drivers, there’s evidence to support it. The variable-ratio electric steering, larger diameter anti-roll bars and the brake-based understeer-mitigation program deliver a more spirited ride to be sure.

A quieter one, too, thanks to an acoustic windshield and triple-sealed doors. Base models make do with a 2.0-litre direct-injection four-cylinder engine, good for 158 horsepower.

The optional powerplant is a turbocharged, direct-injected 1.5-L four that produces 174 horses – the first turbo for a Honda-badged model. Either engine imbues the Civic with verve, but only the normally aspirated 2.0 gets the six-speed manual transmission for now.

Honda’s CVT automatic keeps the turbo on the boil, making for a really caffeinated drive. In AJAC's testing, the combination easily outran the oher two, acceleraing fom 0-to-100 km/h in just 7.7 seconds.

Regardless of the drivetrain, Canadians can look forward to bettering 5.7 L/100 km on the highway with a little care.

If a sporty, good-looking car with a willing engine and all the technology you can throw into it at an accessible price isn’t a formula for automotive success, we’d be hard-pressed to think what is. The Civic’s undisputed reign in Canada is bound to continue – and, yes, it’s built here, too.

What’s best: Muscular new engines, lots of stretch-out room, talented handler

What’s not: Obtrusive centre console, low-slung seating, why the giant tach?

Pricing: $15,990-$26,990

Engines: 2.0-litre four-cylinder, 158 horsepower, 138 lb-ft torque; 1.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, 174 horsepower, 162 lb-ft

Transmissions: Six-speed manual; CVT (continuously variable transmission) automatic

Fuel Consumption (city/highway/combined): 7.6 / 5.5 / 6.7 L/100 km

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Conclusion

The Civic is our pick of the trio here, but any one of these ambitious go-getters will work efficiently and reliably to earn your admiration. Take your pick.

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