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by Nadine Armstrong

2009 Holden Cruze CDX v 2009 Kia Cerato SLi v 2009 Honda City VTi-L

Small cars, big market…

By – Nadine Armstrong Pics – Paul Maric

Big cars are getting smaller, small cars are getting bigger, SUVs are multiplying like an alien life form and sexy hatches bring considerable street cred.

In an industry made up of more than 50 manufacturers, each offering a line-up of models, engine and transmission variants, and where customisation is king, it’s no surprise that buyers can experience an overwhelming sense of confused excitement.

The car industry is blurring the lines and pushing boundaries like never before.

However, not everyone takes to the task of buying a new car with the spec for spec rigour of a motoring journalist, analysing industry segments, gear ratios and wheelbase measurements.

Sometimes it’s as simple as determining needs, likes and dislikes and the all-important budget.

Here we look at three relative newcomers to Australia, all of which are stalking buyers from a similar market and all sit within a tight price bracket.

We also draw on the opinion and expertise of four motoring writers who represent a diverse consumer base and largely different personal preferences. With that in mind, our aim is to give you the best advice and insight on these vehicles as they compete for your attention, rather than announcing a definitive winner.

Honda City VTi-L
1.5-litre, four-cylinder, petrol, five-speed auto
Holden Cruze CDX
1.8-litre, four-cylinder, petrol, six-speed auto
Kia Cerato SLi
2.0-litre, four-cylinder, petrol, five-speed manual

3 x tracking shots

$25,290* $25,990* $ 22,990*
*recommended price before statutory and delivery charges
88kW at 6600 rpm 104kW at 6200 rpm 115kW at 6200
145Nm at 4800 rpm 176Nm at 3800 rpm 194Nm at 4300
6.6 L/per 100km – manufacturer claim
5.6 L/per 100km – achieved on test route
7.5 L/per 100km – manufacturer claim
9.3 L/per 100km – achieved on test route
7.8 L/per 100km – manufacturer claim
6.2 L/per 100km – achieved on test route
16” alloys 17” alloys 17” alloys
3yr/100,000km warranty 3yr/100,000km warranty 5yr/unlimited km warranty
+: fuel efficient, nimble
-: poor sound insulation, sparse interior
+: premium spec, 5-star safety
-: auto transmission, hard seats
+: comfort, handling
-: gear ratios mismatched, lacks polish

The Honda City’s name speaks for its credentials. Around town, it excels as a petite and competent package of style plus form.

Its angular lines stay true to other Honda family models such as the Civic and Accord, but in more delicate proportions. Its 1.5-litre engine is well suited to short trip city driving and returns great fuel economy.

The City is incredibly nimble and simple to manouvre and I can see why this could be a great choice for city drivers who need more space than a smaller car or hatch has to offer.

Lure the City out of its natural habitat however, onto the open roads and more demanding country landscapes, and it suffers from performance anxiety.

While cruising at 100km/h is manageable, the high winds and steep hills pose a challenge for the City. The auto transmission is in indecisive and strains in the range between 90-110km/h. Freeway wind and road noise is also quite intrusive.

The City’s price point is a sticking point for all. David’s valid observation is that the City wouldn’t be in the comparison if it were priced correctly.

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The Kia Cerato, currently a long-term test car at CarAdvice, continues to impress even the harshest of critics. Paul describes it as a wolf in sheep’s clothing – and for good reason.

In our line-up, the Cerato is probably the most conservative of all three cars to look at, and yet it boasts the biggest engine and most power.

The Cerato performed above our expectations in this comparison, with only a few low points, primarily to do with the gear ratios; it’s near impossible to achieve a smooth transition through the gears.

The chorus-like cry for a six-speed set the tone for the day in the Cerato, coupled with the fact that there wasn’t much else to complain about. The Cerato emerged relatively unscathed by its critics on the day.

The Cerato’s 2.0-litre engine is currently mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, which does it few favours. While power is good and the engine is responsive, the gear ratios seem mismatched and this results in a slightly unsatisfying result. Freeway cruising was no chore for the Cerato and it tackled high winds and steep hills with ease.

3 x interiors

In the flesh, the Holden Cruze looks like it belongs in an entirely different class. Its styling, inside and out, makes the Cerato and City look like frigid wall-flowers. The Cruze exudes a confident sense of masculinity and pomp that neither of its rivals comes close to matching.

The overall aesthetic value of the Cruze adds great appeal. You feel like you’re getting so much more for your money, and you possibly are. Whether or not this makes up for a lack-lustre performance from the auto transmission is a matter of personal preference.

The engine also lacks refinement and regularly let out painful, thrashing howls, which rudely intrude upon the plush cabin, despite its good insulation.

Travelling identical drive routes that covered a variety of road conditions, fuel economy results delivered a mixed bag. The 1.8-litre Cruze came in at 9.3L/100km, the 2.0-litre Cerato returned an impressive 6.2L/100km, and the Honda City’s 1.5-litre engine drank only 5.6L/100km.

Rear end shot all three copy

When all four of us poured into one car at a time, styling preferences, comfort and power challenges became obvious.

Starting with the City, surprise can best describe the overall opinion when it came to space – head, leg and shoulder – is quite good. With the exception of one product-assisted hairstyle, clearance is good and all passengers can be comfortably seated. Even pushing three adult passengers into the second row is doable. Just like its voluminous boot, which at 506 litres makes it the biggest of all three, the City’s interior is deceptively spacious.

The City’s interior design is sparse and doesn’t hang together cohesively. Although, this less traditional style may well appeal to a fresh, young market who loathe sweeping interiors that reek of wood grain potential.

Early in the day Matt voiced a concern shared by all, the lack of Electronic Stability Control (ESC) on the City, even as an option.

3 x second rows

The Cerato came through as the most comfortable of all three cars, with good room all round and comfortable contoured seats. With three in the second row the Cerato remains comfortable. While the interior styling of the Cerato is not the most inspired, it covers all the basics and is far from offensive. It’s a very comfortable cabin and seating position and cabin ergonomics are good.

Jumping into the Cruze, the premium spec, which includes leather finish and heated front seats, makes the other two cars pale by comparison. However it fails to compete with the comfort and space of the Cerato.

Legroom is not as good and the seats are hard and unsupportive. The actual driving position however, rates as the best of all three. It feels more natural and offers greater adjustability than the Cerato, whereas the Honda City suffers criticism and induced child-like giggles because of its perky seating position.

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On our uphill stress test, the City continued to surprise. While the cabin filled with engine noise as it screamed for help and dropped like a stone through the gears, the City’s 1.5-litre engine did it proud.

The Cruze gave off some similar cries of pain as we pushed up hill and, despite its six-ratios, it struggled to find the right gear, but not to the same extent. The Cerato, with a 2.0-litre engine and manual transmission on its side, performed effortlessly.

The steering of each three vehicles was typical for their size and weight. The City has light and direct steering, which is better suited to suburban streets than challenging bends taken at higher speeds.

The Cerato provides greater feedback through the steering wheel and can easily manage high speed cornering. It has a nice, confident turn in and tracks well on long freeway stretches.

The Cruze feels the heaviest of all cars and the steering feedback reflects this. It’s not quite as dynamic to steer as the Cerato but remains tidy and confident in all conditions.

On paper, engines aside, these rivals appear to compete on fairly even ground. All three tick most of the must have boxes, to include: a full suite of airbags; anti-lock braking systems, electronic brake force distribution and brake assist; keyless entry; cruise control; multi-function steering wheels; split fold seats; alloy wheels; iPod/Auxiliary/USB compatibility; tilt and telescopic steering adjust; power windows and mirrors; and full-size spare wheels.

The lack of ESC on the City could be a deal breaker for some. It comes standard on our Cerato SLi, and is optional on the Cerato S, while it is standard across the entire range of Cruze models.

The Cruze is also the only car to score a five-star ANCAP rating – again, this result is consistent across the entire range. The Cerato scores a four-star rating, because the non-ESC Cerato S was tested by ANCAP. The City is yet to be rated by ANCAP, although it shares its platform and mechanicals with the Honda Jazz, which has a four-star rating.

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No car slides to home base without its flaws. So, sadly, it’s often a case of small compromises.

If you’re looking purely from a bang-for-your-buck perspective, it’s hard to look past the Cruze. If you want a more lively and competent engine, it’s the Cerato, hands down, but if you’re after a perky, everyday drive with great fuel economy, the City is for you.

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Keep in mind that the intent behind this comparison is not to discover the biggest, fastest and coolest, but to assess the overall package within a defined budget.

On an individual basis, this is how we see it:

Matt votes; Cerato, Cruze, City

Cerato is my pick of the bunch. It’s powerful, frugal and well sorted dynamically, while at the same time affording owners exceptional value for money.

Paul votes; Cruze, Cerato, City

I’d have to go with the Cruze. The Cerato just doesn’t feel right on the road, while the City is abysmally gutless! The Cruze is my choice, but is let down by a dreadful engine/gearbox combination. Put a diesel in the Cerato and it could be a different outcome altogether.

Nadine votes; Cruze, Cerato, City

I can’t go past the overall value for money package that the Cruze offers. And the interior style and premium finish kills its rivals in this case. On any normal day, I’d continue to look elsewhere. But with these three cars to choose from, I pick the Cruze.

David votes; Cerato, Cruze, City

Kia Cerato because it is good looking, represents good value for money, has excellent safety specs and most of the little things I like such as iPod connectivity.

Should you wish to dig deeper, CarAdvice has conducted road tests of each of these cars in varying models.

Read more on the Holden Cruze
Read more on the Kia Cerato
Read more on the Honda City




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