New compact cars for 2010

Fuel miser is a step up; 2010 Honda Insight

When the Insight first debuted in 1999, it keyed on fuel efficiency. To that end, it came with a modest 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine putting out 73 horsepower, an electric motor (13 hp) and a battery. The combined effects of the IMA hybrid powertrain (Integrated Motor Assist in Honda-speak) and slick aerodynamics delivered great fuel efficiency. The downside was compromise – the original Insight had two seats, token trunk space and not much in the way of performance.

The second-generation Insight earns a proper four-cylinder engine, the fifth generation of Honda’s IMA, seating for four adults and more cargo capacity.

The powertrain is a pretty willing worker that does not give up on the quest for fuel efficiency. The 1.3L i-VTEC engine churns out 88 hp and 88 lb-ft of torque. When teamed with the electric motor, the system delivers a combined output of 98 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 rpm. The secret to the Insight’s spry off-the-line performance boils down to the continuously variable transmission and the early entry of torque as the electric motor begins to twist out its contribution from Rev One.

While it’s true that the car’s performance is not going to wow many drivers, the engine’s miserly thirst certainly eliminates pain at the pump.

One of the key economy measures shuts the engine down whenever the car is coasting or comes to a standstill. The electric motor fires the engine back to life the instant the driver lifts off the brake. The i-VTEC system is also used to close the intake and exhaust valves whenever the hybrid system switches to the electric-only mode. As the Insight is a mild hybrid, it cannot pull away on electric power alone.

The Econ (economy) mode plays a large part in overall efficiency. Punching the Econ button engages the engine’s idle stop feature earlier, the air conditioning adopts a more efficient strategy, the blower fan speed is reduced and the throttle is remapped. The latter reduces torque output by four per cent and it requires more accelerator pedal input to get the Insight to move than it does in the normal driving mode.

As before, the Insight uses regenerative braking to keep the main 128-volt battery topped up. Kudos for the brake pedal feel. In the Insight’s case, the pedal was crisp and the anti-lock brakes provided short 42-metre stops from 100 km/h.

The Insight is a great little car that squeezes every ounce out of the fuel it sips. The fact there is real-world room for four people and a decently sized trunk make it a much more appealing proposition than the original.

The new kid; 2010 Kia Forte

The all-new 2010 Forte is destined to move the brand from the boring sector of the market to a place where it can legitimately challenge the likes of the Mazda3 and Honda Civic.

Size-wise, the Forte fits into the heart of the entry-level segment. Its long wheelbase and wide stance put plenty of space in the cabin. The level of standard equipment is also well beyond what one has come to expect from entry-level transportation.

The base LX features the usual power items – heated side mirrors, steering wheel-mounted audio controls and Bluetooth. The base car even comes with anti-lock brakes, six air bags and active head restraints.

Moving up to the EX adds larger 16-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, steering wheel-mounted cruise control, heated front seats, a height-adjustable driver’s seat, tilt and telescopic steering wheel adjustment and electronic stability control.

The LX and EX arrive with a peppy 2.0-litre four-cylinder, which pumps out 156 horsepower and brings the right blend of performance and fuel economy. When teamed with the five-speed manual box (a four-speed manumatic is optional), this engine spirits the Forte to 100 km/h in 10.5 seconds.

The range-topping SX is a different car altogether. The only option is a five-speed manumatic transmission. Everything from a power sunroof and automatic climate control to leather seats and an upgraded audio system is in place. It is powered by a larger 2.4L engine that puts 173 hp at the driver’s disposal. Firing stallions through a slick-shifting six-speed manual box drops the zero-to-100-km/h time to 8.7 seconds and allows the SX to accomplish an 80-to-120-km/h passing move in a speedy 6.3 seconds.

The SX’s suspension, brakes and tires have all been massaged to deal with the extra oomph. A sport-tuned suspension and large P215/45R17 tires bring better lateral grip and a more responsive feel to the drive.

When the Forte Coupe arrives later this year, it will give Kia a broad portfolio that’s not only fetching price-wise and style-wise, it comes with the wherewithal to back up these likable and affordable attributes.

Koup courant; 2010 Kia Forte Koup

As with the Kia Forte sedan, the new Forte Koup comes in two distinctly different flavours. The base EX is an about-town runabout that’s all about style and comfort; the up-level SX is a delightful ride that keys the sportier side of life.

The biggest difference between the two versions are the engines. The EX employs a lively 2.0-litre four-cylinder that uses variable valve timing on the intake cam. It churns out 156 horsepower and 144 pound-feet of torque – both numbers are stronger than the entry-level norm. This engine is teamed with either a five-speed manual gearbox or an optional four-speed automatic. Both boxes work quite well, although the EX could use the same transmission choices the SX puts to such good use.

The SX ups the ante with a larger 2.4L four-cylinder that employs variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust cams. This not only puts 173 hp and 168 lb-ft of torque at the driver’s disposal, it brings a much broader powerband. Not only is the urgency of the drive cranked up, the engine is noticeably smoother and so much faster in responding to throttle input. The 2.4L is offered with a six-speed manual box or an optional five-speed automatic with Kia’s Sportmatic manual mode.

The two Koup models’ ride and handling characteristics are equally different. The EX’s suspension is comfortably compliant, dialing out most of the body roll when pressed through a corner. Understeer stays at arm’s-length. Likewise, the steering represents a good balance between low effort and quick response. Moving up to the SX sees a much sportier suspension. The beefed-up spring and damper rates all but eliminate body roll, it has a sharper steering response and, thanks to the P215/45R17 tires, there’s much less understeer at the limit.

The Kia Forte Koup, which is arriving at dealerships now, is a welcome addition. It puts decent handling, ample power and more than a little style well within the reach of the entry-level buyer. The EX with a manual transmission starts at $18,495, while the full-zoot SX with manumatic tops out at $22,695.

Safety in its Soul; 2010 Kia Soul

The Kia Soul brings an interesting blend of credentials – it’s funky, it has a ton of utility and, more importantly, it brings the ultimate in safety to the entry-level buyer.

Finding electronic stability control (ESC) as a standard feature on an entry-level offering is a rarity. However, it is standard on the Kia Soul 2U. The fact it also comes with six standard air bags and active headrests means the occupants are protected should the worst happen.

Beyond the built-in safety, the Soul comes together very nicely. There is enough compliance in the suspension to take the sting out of a rough road, yet body roll is limited to a handful of degrees. Flogging it through my favourite set of sweepers proved to be eye opening. The Soul feels lithe and athletic. The fact the steering has the right sort of feedback reinforces its nimble demeanour.

When it comes to power, the base Soul relies on a 122-horsepower, 1.6-litre four. The better choice is the up-level 2.0L engine. It not only bumps the output to 142 ponies, it delivers 137 pound-feet of torque. The five-speed manual box keeps the engine in its sweet spot, the gate is well defined and the clutch is light and progressive. For the shiftless, there’s an optional four-speed automatic transmission. It works well, although a fifth gear would help.

As for the cabin, not only are the materials off the top shelf, the desirable equipment is in place. The 4U tested brought the usual power items and air conditioning along with USB/iPod inputs.

Where the Soul shines is in its ability to tote cargo. There’s plenty of space – 19.3 cubic feet of cargo space with the 60/40-split seats upright and 53.5 cu. ft. with them flat. If there is a shortcoming, it is that the front seat does not fold forward.

The Soul is a smart vehicle – smart in that it has undeniable style and smart in the fact it is as functional and fun to drive as it looks. It’s a refreshing ride that takes affordable transportation to a higher level.

Top of the class just got better; 2010 Mazda3

With the latest Mazda3 sedan, the new look is evolutionary enough to keep the current crop of customers happy, yet it pushes the stylistic envelope far enough that it is destined to attract a raft of new buyers. The new sedan is well proportioned and gains some needed character.

When the sedan arrives early next year as a 2010 model, it will be offered in GX, GS and GT guises. The GX brings things such as power windows, door locks and mirrors, ABS, side air bags and drop-down side curtains. Moving up the model range then adds a lot of equipment (air conditioning, cruise control, heated seats and so on) and some available options not expected at this end of the price spectrum – everything from rain-sensing wipers and active headlights to a navigation system.

The interior has been reworked very nicely. The soft-touch materials that wrap the driver-centric cabin are a cut above the segment norm, as are the ergonomics at play.

When it comes to power, there are two different flavours – hot and hotter. The base 2.0-litre powertrain is very much a carry-over, although the inclusion of a quasi-cold air intake and new five-speed automatic (a five-speed manual is standard) improves the driving experience. The four-cylinder’s 148 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque is enough to deliver an enthusiastic drive that will likely satisfy the majority of prospective purchasers.

The up-level 2.5L four-cylinder, which replaces the previous version’s 2.3L, is a delightful mill that was liberated from the Mazda6. It not only ups the output to 167 hp, it delivers a robust 168 lb-ft of torque. Marry this work ethic to a slick-shifting six-speed manual box and things are decidedly rosy. The throws are short and the gear spacing is such that the engine is always sitting in the meaty part of the powerband. Even when climbing some serious grades, the engine was perfectly happy in fourth or fifth gear. The five-speed automatic works almost as well. There is not quite the same pop off the line, but, once moving, the autobox services the engine well.

There was very little wrong with the outgoing Mazda3. To many, Yours Truly included, the outgoing sedan sat at the top of the compact class. The latest version is better in every respect. The one thing I did not expect, however, was the car’s improvement in overall refinement – it is good enough to challenge some more expensive rides.

Hole in one; 2010 Volkswagen Golf

For 2010, the new Golf grows in terms of its look – it is more sophisticated – and the models available. It’s all a part of the remodelling of Volkswagen.

Along with the familiar three- and five-door models comes the latest GTI and a new wagon – it replaces the Jetta wagon in VW’s lineup. The current Golf City continues unchanged until the end of the 2010 model year, when it will bow out for good.

The Golf three-door is offered in Trendline and Sportline, while the five-door and wagon start with the Trendline, move through the Comfortline and on to the range-topping Highline. All models earn much nicer interiors. The materials are off the top shelf, which imparts a richer feel to the cabin, and the layout is entirely logical.

All models share the same 2,578-millimetre wheelbase and so there’s decent room front and rear. The three-door does take some athleticism to climb into the back seat. As for cargo capacity, the three- and five-door models boast 14.8 cubic feet and 14.5 cu. ft., respectively, with the seats up and 55.3 cu. ft. and 54 cu. ft. with them flat.

The wagon is both stylish and functional. With the rear seats in the upright position, the cargo capacity measures a generous 32.8 cubic feet. Dropping the 60/40-split/folding seats flat opens up 66.7 cu. ft., a flat floor and decent width between the wheel arch intrusions.

All models boast a quiet ride, a marked improvement over the outgoing model. In all, there are 120 sound-deadening measures including a laminated front windshield and thicker side glass, all of which add just one kilogram to the curb weight.

The Golf family features electronic stability control as standard equipment on all models – except for the base Trendline wagon and three-door and the Trendline and Comfortline in the more popular five-door model. The base engine in the wagon and both hatchbacks is a 170-horsepower in-line five that’s married to a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic. The optional engine in the five-door and wagon derivatives is VW’s proven TDI (turbocharged, direct-injection) diesel. It is offered with a six-speed manual or the aforementioned DSG twin-clutch gearbox.