2017 AJAC CCOTY Round-Up: Small Car

The fact that the Small Car category was one of the larger ones at this year’s event shouldn’t surprise anyone; before gas prices began to plummet in the second half of 2016, people were buying small cars at an incredible rate, as manufacturers brought more and more options to market. That included stuff that had been seen in the world’s hatchback hotspots, but never here. With more manufacturers building world cars, however, that’s changing and we’re seeing the hatches in greater numbers. No surprise then that this year’s entries were mainly hatches.

Here’s how I saw the field shake out.

2017 Chevrolet Spark ($15,590)

The least-expensive as-tested car in the group by $8,409 over the Elantra, the Spark has moved away from its Transformers-era first-gen version, and now finds itself in much more conservative digs. For many, that’s not a bad thing as the last car’s looks were definitely divisive, although you could say that’s often the case with a car that may be a little ahead of its time in the styling department. The headlight lenses are now less aggressive, the wheels are a little more traditional, and other overall lines are softer than previous.

Inside, the real highlights are the infotainment features, which include Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, 4G Wi-Fi hotspot and satellite radio. The seating position isn’t bad, if a little high, and the controls are all easily within reach.

Problems start to arise when it comes to the under-the-skin bits, however. For starters, the 1.4L EcoTec four-banger takes its sweet time getting the 1,049 kg Spark moving, and the CVT doesn’t really help all that much. Add in a few cheap bits (the rear tonneau cover and sunshades, for example, feel as though they’re constructed from cardboard), and you can see why it’s finished as low as it has.

2017 Mini Cooper Clubman ($35,280)

I really hate to do this, but the Cooper’s high price is hard to get past in the segment. It’s too bad as it’s a great car; the one Mini brought to the event had gorgeous, supportive leather seats, the Mini version of BMW’s iDrive infotainment system, fast-shifting automatic gearbox and panoramic sunroof. The damped rear barn doors are also good, as is the fact that now the Clubman has four passenger doors. The seating perfect is great up front, but the rear seats are cramped. Of course, the Clubman is the hauler of the Mini line-up, so buyers will overlook that rear seat in favour of more easily transporting their wares.

Outside, sharp blacked-out wheels and matching stripes are great touches. Not sure about those taillight lenses, though; they’re huge, and a little awkward-looking.

Of course, being a Mini, it drives well – it’s the best-handling car of the bunch – and its turbocharged three-banger is a peppy engine, good for 136 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque, making it the second-torquiest car here. Can’t get past that price tag, though.

2017 Hyundai Elantra ($23,999)

I have to say, this really surprised me. Before the event began, the Elantra was my favorite of the bunch: good value, plus a great track record being from a brand that’s steadily been improving its product these last years all pointed to it doing well here. The problem, however, is that the top two finishers are very, very good and there are a few issues with the Elantra that have it finishing third on the podium.

The interior, for example, is fairly well-appointed but is betrayed a little by some of the materials used. It’s also snugger than I thought it would be for the driver, leaving my knees feeling jammed up on both sides. The infotainment system is also lagging behind the competition here, with small buttons and slightly old-school graphics. The exterior-styling is the other sore spot for me: it’s handsome, but there just isn’t that much going on, especially considering the last model.

Having said all that, though, the saving grace comes with its ride, which is incredibly confidence-inspiring and comfortable. Handling is good too and while the 147 hp provided by the 2.0L four isn’t the most here, it’s good for what’s required of a car like this.

2017 Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback ($25,640)

This is one of those “I’m a world car now” cars we were talking about. We’ve seen the Cruze hatch in other markets before, but this is the first time it’s made it to our shores. Which is a good thing, because  – well, just look at it. A front fascia adorned with just-aggressive-enough headlight lenses, nicely styled wheels and a well-proportioned hatchback profile earn it big points in the styling department. It’s the best-looking car here, just edging out the Mini on my ballot.

It’s nice inside, too, with available fantastic baseball-glove leather seating and trim, and comes well equipped in the infotainment sense. The touchscreen is responsive and loaded with features, including OnStar, satellite radio, support for Apple CarPlay/Android Auto and rear vision camera.

It does well on the powertrain front, too; 153 turbocharged hp means it’s the most powerful by the slimmest of margins, beating the Impreza by a whole one hp. We also rated it second-best when it came to handling, as nothing was going to be able to keep up with that Mini. The main reasons the Cruze missed my podium – by the slimmest of margins, mind – revolve around it having front-wheel drive, and the fact that while its posted passenger volume figures are larger than our top finisher, it just didn’t feel as such.

2017 Subaru Impreza Hatchback ($28,095)

Oh, by the hair of its chinny-chin-chin, the Impreza comes out on top. The big selling point, as is the case with so many Subarus, is that you get AWD at base, which is a big, big deal for Canadians as this little hatch is one that really can deliver the goods even in the dead of the winteriest winter. The model Subaru brought to the event came equipped with the brand’s EyeSight safety tech, which adds forward collision control, active lane-keep assist, high-beam assist, and adaptive cruise control. It’s not done there, either: all-new for 2017 is the introduction of back-up alert that will automatically apply the brakes after first audibly warning the driver if something is in the car’s path.

Then, once you’re past all that, you get Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD tech, which both improves handling and safety. We also gave its steering the best rating of the group, and at 152 hp, it’s got the second-most in the class. While CVT transmissions tend to be divisive, Subaru’s really isn’t all that bad, with virtual shift points smartly programmed in to give you the sensation that cogs are being swapped.

While the Elantra just barely beats it comfort-wise thanks to slightly roomier rear seats, the Impreza makes up for that by having an easily loadable rear hatch and a good seating position for the driver, and good visibility. Job well done, Subaru.  

The Alternatives

Of course, we can’t go about this without addressing the elephant in the room, and that’s the fact that the hatchback version of last year’s Canadian Car of the Year – the 2017 Honda Civic – was absent from the proceedings. It’s got room inside, cool tech, a functional hatch with neat-o stuff like a side-scrolling privacy cover, is nicely styled and proportioned and is available with both the 1.5L turbo engine and a manual transmission, which wasn’t an option on the sedan. I have a feeling the rest of this group would’ve had their hands full with that one.

Also missing was the upcoming Toyota Corolla iM, but since it’s only really changed in name since last year’s Scion iM – which was a TestFest entry – it may have not been changed enough to make it past the AJAC scrutineers. Next year should be an interesting one for the category, with the impending arrival of the updated Elantra GT and Ford Fiesta, as well as a diesel version of the Cruze.

By the numbers

Model

As-tested price

Horsepower (hp @ rpm)

Torque (lb-ft @ rpm)

Transmission

Fuel economy (L/100 km, cty/hwy/cmb)

Chevrolet Cruze Hatchback

$25,640

153 @ 5,600

177 @ 2,000–4,000

6AT

8.1/6.2/7.3

Chevrolet Spark

$15,590

98 @ 6,200

94 @ 4,400

CVT

7.8/6.2/7.1

Hyundai Elantra

$23,999

147 @ 6,200

132 @ 4,500

6AT

8.3/6.4/7.4

Mini Cooper Clubman

$35,280

134 @ 4,400–6,000

162 @ 1,250–4,300

6AT

9.5/7.2/8.4

Subaru Impreza Hatchback

$28,095

152 @ 6,000

145 @ 4,000

CVT

8.4/6.5/7.5
Clubman vs Cruze vs Elantra vs Impreza vs Spark – but who’s missing? 11/7/2016 6:28:00 AM