Superminis... Not so super... Not so mini

50w ago

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WARNING: Lots of small, not very exciting cars are discussed in this review piece, so it’s quite long. Apologies if you fall asleep half-way through (we don’t accept responsibility for this though ;-) )

Australia has an unfortunate love of SUV’s, and it’s because of this love affair that one would think that when it came to small car shopping, I’d immediately be considering cars like the Nissan Puke, Honda HR-Very Boring and whatever that hideous Hyundai is called, Moccona or something like that. But no! I’ve decided to look at Superminis… or light cars… or the B-segment. Whatever you call the category, “rather disappointed” is how I would summarise MOST of my findings. I mean, when did superminis stop being so super… fun, cool, affordable, etc. and when did their prices get so… maxi?

Despite Holden dropping the Barina and Nissan not offering the sexy new Micra, the supermini class is still thriving with options in Australia. When it came to choosing cars, the criteria was simple. Good value, good safety, great tech, needs to be very zippy and easy to drive in traffic, and it must be auto (don’t berate me please). Skewing towards top-spec cars, I decided to shortlist (aka, proceed with a thorough test-drive) the Mazda2, Skoda Fabia, Peugeot 208, Suzuki Swift, Renault Clio and, even though it’s actually a micro car, the KIA Picanto.

Before getting into them, lets cover the cars I didn’t consider, in alphabetical order;

The Citroen C3 is easily the coolest car in the segment and is very super indeed. But with a not so mini price of $27k on road (before options and excluding promotions), and with Citroen’s very sketchy current management, it was also super risky. The Ford Fiesta… may it rest in peace. The Holden Barina is so old I’d rather not (but more on Holden later), and the Honda Jazz, wow. Here is a car that was at its absolute prime 10 years ago, but thanks to our apparent third-world status, hasn’t really changed much since. Its engine is behind, its safety is very behind, and its infotainment is woeful. The fact the interior door handles have exposed screws really summarises how much this once brilliant small car has not kept up in our market. The Hyundai Accent - see Holden Barina - and the KIA Rio… see Honda Jazz. Why you’d buy the Rio in its current 1.4 state over the Picanto is beyond me. The MG3 hasn't proven itself yet, and I'd be weary of a cheap Chinese car, but it is great value... The Toyota Yaris is so old and has had so many facelifts that it might as well be rebadged Joan Rivers. And then we get to what is apparently the supermini golden child, the South African built Volkswagen Polo. I’m sorry, but superminis are meant to be fun and the Polo is quite possibly the dreariest car I’ve ever sat in. And going from all the glowing reviews it’s gotten, I didn’t find its interior to be any better than its rivals. The nail on the head though was the fact the 85TSI launch model with Driver Assist Pack I sat in was $29K… That’s more than a German made Golf!

The Citroen C3 - The coolest supermini out... but a bit too risky to own / The VW Polo - The dreariest superm... zzz

Hoping to see the light on supermini’s, I decided to proceed with the test-drives of my shortlisted cars and what I found was definitely not what I expected.

Starting with the outlier, the micro-segment KIA Picanto. At just under 18 grand for the “GT-Line” model, this is a seriously good value car. Its interior is quite nice, with red accents and silver and piano black highlights, and the doors shut with a very solid thunk. Let downs include a truck like driving position and no digital speedo. It’s very practical for such a tiny (3.6m long!) vehicle, with a 255l boot. KIA’s Australian ride and handling tuning really shows with this little critter – it’s really good fun. Unfortunately, though, like the Rio, the Picanto is hamstrung with an engine and gearbox from yesteryear. It’s 1.25 litre engine has only 62kW, 122Nm and is mated to a 4-speed auto. Despite only weighing in at a hair under a tonne, the Picanto only really feels alive in stop-start traffic and when going down hills at up to 60km/h. It is very zippy, don’t get me wrong, and it’s a willing companion which is great, but there simply isn’t enough torque or gears, and it makes the KIA feel completely out of its depths on any road with a speed limit above 80 - and heaven forbid you encounter a hill. If you are a city slicker, it’s a great car, and far better than the new Rio, but if you aren’t… make sure you test drive it before you buy it.

The KIA Picanto - not actually a supermini, but good enough to be a part of this list. S-l-o-w engine aside, it's not too bad

Back to superminis, and we start off with the villains. The Renault Clio. Brilliant looking, and with a decent list of features – but no active safety hurts it. Its interior also feels posh which is rather nice. But from here, it’s all downhill. For a car made in Turkey, the Clio is simply too much. The “Zen” model is asking just under $25k which prices it above most range topping supermini’s, and the Zen isn’t even the range topper! The Clio’s back seat is also extremely cramped compared to rivals, and although it feels posh, Renault have deleted all the customisation options that the pre-facelift came with, meaning that it’s attractive, but oh-so boring. The biggest issue though is the way it drives. I really do wonder if anyone at Renault drove the DCT in the Clio before signing it off, because it really takes jerky to a new level. The car is turbo charged and once you get above 3000rpm, it feels sprightly, but below and in city driving, it’s just as bad as a 16-year-old learning manual. Taking that, the value equation and the fact that the Getrag box in the Clio is similar to the system used by Ford in the old Focus and Fiesta, it was too obvious that the Clio was not the supermini I thought it’d be.

The Renault Clio - More than a pretty face is needed to be a proper competitor, Renault.

It could have been worse though – cue the Skoda Fabia 81TSI. Now here is a car, that in manual, is brilliant. An easy car to recommend. But with the DSG gearbox, it makes the Renault look plausible. Being turbocharged, and with 200Nm, I expected it to really pull from low revs, but alas it does not pull - not only is the gearbox jerkier than the Renaults, it has absolutely no interest in being a gearbox. Want to accelerate hard? No, it’ll ignore you and upshift at 3500rpm and go into a high gear to save fuel. Want to creep around the ‘burbs? Nope, it’ll languish at 1300rpm and refuse to downshift until it chokes. Going up a hill? Dear God… The only way to drive the little Skoda with any form of zip is to put it into manual mode, which therefore defeats the purpose of buying the auto at all. It’s a real shame, because every other aspect of the Fabia is rather good. At $23.5K for the “Premium Sports Pack” model, it’s a little pricey for VW’s cheap brand but still decent value in relation to rivals. Unfortunately for the quirky little Czech, it’s horrendous drivetrain means it’s more superbad than supermini.

The Skoda Fabia - Best in class on paper, one of the worst in class on the road... unless you get a manual

The Japanese have always been very good at the whole supermini concept, and the Suzuki Swift has forever been a favourite. My expectations for the Swift were high – the Swift has always been a cheap, fun, ultra-reliable and stylish car and I expected no less from the new one. And this is where the Swift disappointed me. Focusing on the “GLX Turbo”, it’s a great drive for sure. Responsive and good fun, but now with a bit more sophistication. It’s got brilliant safety tech and its equipment list isn’t too bad either. It’s even more practical than before! But the Swift is still a Swift, and that means it still feels a bit tinny, still feels cheap and tacky and is still quite small, which would all be fine if it still was a cheap car, but here lies why I’ve come away with mixed feelings, because at just under $24K on road with metallic paint, the Swift costs just as much as more sophisticated rivals, and is no longer the great value buy it once was. Taking that into consideration, and the fact that the Suzuki is the most expensive car here to insure and service over 5 years (yes, even I’m shocked), it left my heart impressed, but my brain bitterly disappointed.

The Suzuki Swift - Everything you'd expect - fun, cute, well built, safe, affordab... wait IT COSTS HOW MUCH!?

Thankfully, there were two supermini’s which really were super. Keeping with the Japanese theme, the Mazda 2, here in Genki trim (which also comes in at just under $24k), has often been voted as one of the best supermini’s money can buy. With high expectations then, I came away very impressed. The Mazda isn’t the most practical, and without a turbo, needs a bit more of a push, but unlike the DSG cars, loves to be pushed. In terms of driving, the Mazda is easily a match for the energetic Swift but is also far more sophisticated in terms of sound insulation and solidity - especially considering both cost the same. The Mazda’s interior really pushes the divide between mainstream and premium and it really makes you feel like your money has been well spent. With Mazda now offering a 5-year warranty, and with decent servicing costs, the 2 is a true supermini and easily deserves its place as one of Australia’s best-selling light cars.

The Mazda2 - One of the best selling superminis, and with very good reason

Despite the praise for the Mazda2 though, it wasn’t the supermini that left me the most impressed. One of the lowest selling cars in the segment, the Peugeot 208 has often been overlooked due to dodgy management, questionable reliability and poor value. But with a new importer, Peugeot sales rising, reliability at an all-time best and, thanks to current drive-away deals, better value, Peugeot’s deserve to be on more Aussie shopping radars, and none more so than the 208. At normally over $30k driveway for the Allure and GT-Line models, the 208 is ridiculously overpriced, but with current (and presumed to be permanent) drive-away offers placing both Frenchies below 25k, their value suddenly becomes quite acceptable. The 208 driving experience is everything I expected from a car with a turbo and 205Nm – quick to respond, darty and with brilliant response. The 6 speed Aisin built gearbox is a willing companion and unlike the Skoda, will actually obey what your foot is doing. The 3-cylinder engine sounds fantastic and if you put the car into manual and shift at about 5000rpm, it even gives off a “pwaarp” sound as if it’s a V8 Audi RS5! The Peugeot’s small steering wheel also makes the car feel extremely agile, and the well-tuned chassis helps further. It’s not as sharp as the Mazda2 but far more refined. The whole car just has so much character. It’s interior also feels even more upmarket than the Mazda’s and it’s very practical with a mammoth 311L boot. Negatives? Well the driving position is quintessentially French, and depending on your height, the steering wheel will bloke the speedo. The doors feel solid but make an awfully hollow sound when shut and like all Euro cars, it’s not the cheapest to service or insure – although it’s still less than the Swift. Considering that the Peugeot 208 has been on the market for 6 years now, it really surprised me how good it was compared to newer rivals - A really super supermini indeed.

The Peugeot 208 - One of the worst selling cars in this class also happens to be one of the very best - Peugeot need to do more to get people into this brilliant little car

So, it’s a big congratulations to Peugeot, Mazda, and to an extent Suzuki, on creating the only 3 superminis that I’d call super. But even here we encounter a problem. You see, with manufacturers like Holden (for e.g.) offering the absolutely brilliant, class-above Astra R+ for $21K driveaway, and the hot-hatch like RS for $25K, it really makes it easy to see why people are shying away from superminis and why manufacturers aren’t bothering to be competitive. Despite this though, if you are looking for a supermini, whether it be a top of the line model or not, the Peugeot 208, Mazda2 and Suzuki Swift (get a good deal) are excellent choices.

The Mazda2, the Peugeot 208 and, albeit overpriced, the Suzuki Swift. Three very good superminis... but you could get an Astra (or other small family car) for even less money. Is that why supermini sales are down?

Thanks to CarAdvice for supplying most of the photos I've used

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