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Whether you’re looking for a first car, or just something to take down to the station every day, or maybe even a last car, there are some fairly fantastic brand-new vehicles out there for as little as $15,000.

We’ve got two such compact cars here – the all-new 2017 Kia Rio and the just-refreshed 2017 Honda Jazz.

Because we’re aiming to keep things close to the $15K mark, both of these cars are entry-level, manual versions. If you’re willing to change gears yourself, there are some fantastic offers out there on base model, manual, light cars.

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And that’s the point of this comparison. We want to showcase just how much car you can get for such a small amount of money. Sure, you could consider a smaller vehicle in the micro car class – but why would you if you need something roomy, passenger friendly and practical?

These are just two of the many city cars that are both budget-friendly and pragmatic in the way they approach their duties. Other options out there include the Mazda 2 (from $14,990) and Toyota Yaris (from $15,290), both of which have been updated recently, not to mention the Volkswagen Polo (from$17,190) , Skoda Fabia (from $16,490) and Hyundai Accent (from $14,990). There really is plenty of choice out there.

But, let’s find out which one of these two is the better buy.


Pricing and specs

One of these cars is much more affordable than the other, and that’s saying a lot in this price-sensitive segment.

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The Honda Jazz VTi manual starts at just $14,990 plus on-road costs, but keep in mind those add-on costs are often absolved by dealerships to keep stock moving through.

That price gives the Jazz a $2000 advantage over the Kia Rio S manual, which is $16,990 plus on-roads. It may not seem like a huge amount of money, but consider that it’s more than 13 per cent dearer than the Jazz – or nearly one-seventh – you’d want the Korean (branded and built) car to have something to give it some extra appeal over its Japanese (Thai-made) rival.

And it does. To a degree.

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The Kia has a larger, better touchscreen media system with the latest in smartphone tech – Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity – as well as an extra USB port (two – one in the front and one in the back), and its stereo has an extra two speakers (six).

Further, the Rio has automatic headlights, a flip-fold car key to save space in your pocket, and a conventional lap-sash belt for the middle occupant in the rear. The Honda has a roof-mounted, double-latch belt to allow for its extra flexible seats.

The Kia also adds rear parking sensors to its anti-shopping-centre-bump armoury, but both cars have rear-view camera systems. The Kia’s is notably better in terms of clarity.

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The Jazz VTi recently saw the addition of 15-inch alloy wheels that make it look a little nicer from the outside, and its LED headlights look and shine better than the halogens of the Rio. The Kia’s 15-inch steel wheels – and the covers they’ve chosen – are poxy.

Both cars have a space-saver spare wheel under their respective boot floors.

As for safety kit, neither have the latest autonomous emergency braking tech found standard on a Mazda 2, which is disappointing. But the pair of them have six airbags (dual front, front side, full-length curtain).


Interior

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Each of these vehicles has its pros and cons in the cabin.

The first thing you notice when jumping into the Kia Rio is that it feels quite special inside, with that large media system and its bright, light instrumentation instantly making the cabin feel more premium.

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The first thing you notice when jumping in the Honda Jazz is how light, bright and airy it feels. The higher roofline (the Jazz is 75mm taller) gives the illusion that it’s a size bigger than the Kia. In actual fact, the Kia is longer (4065mm vs 3996mm) and wider (1725mm vs 1694mm).

Both offer decent driver’s seat adjustment and steering wheel tilt and reach, but the seat base of the Honda is a bit short, and lacking support. The Kia’s seat isn’t perfect, either, with a strange lump low in the lumbar area.

In terms of storage, the Tardis-like cabin of the Jazz doesn’t have as much of an advantage as you might think.

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Pictured above: Honda Jazz VTi

The Kia, for example, betters its rival with a covered centre storage bin (open storage in the Honda), better placed and better shaped storage bins in between the front seats, and larger door pockets up front. Both have bottle holders in their door cards front and rear, and each has a pair of cupholders up front, but nothing in the back aside from a single map pocket.

Boot space is better in the Jazz – 354 litres vs 325L – but it’s more than just a matter of capacity, it’s the usability that is the true trump here, with the Jazz featuring a lower load-in height and broader aperture than the Rio, making it simpler to load and unload large items.

The Jazz’s rear seats can be configured 18 ways, with the 60:40 seats folding down, folding up and locking in place, and a few other clever ways too, folding very close to flat when they do.

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Pictured above: Kia Rio S

The Rio’s seats fold 60:40, but there’s a pretty big ledge at the back of the seats, meaning smooth load-throughs will be difficult.

There’s not a lot in it in terms of back seat room, with the Rio offering surprisingly good space compared to the Jazz. Both have little-to-no tunnel intrusion, making it easy to fit three across the back, and the Honda offers better knee-, head- and toe-room – but not by much.

The rear-seat comfort of the Kia is considerably better, with more sculpted and cushioned seats easily besting the Jazz’s flat chairs.

But for parents, there’s an important consideration: the Kia has dual ISOFIX child-seat anchor points and three top-tether attachments, where the Honda misses out on ISOFIX and has two seat points only. The Kia also has a USB charge point in the back.

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Pictured above: Kia Rio (top); Honda Jazz (bottom)

As with the Honda, the Kia has hard plastics over its dashboard and doors, which you can forgive in both instances because there are some nice details and finishes: the dark grey panel running across the dash of the Kia and a little splash of shadow chrome here and there make it feel kind of plush, where the Honda has a bit of piano black to lift its ambience. It isn’t as nice, though.

The controls in both cars are basic but nicely finished, though the feel of the knobs and dials in the Kia are superior.

Another element that is massively better is the Kia’s media system, which is clear, crisp, easy to read and use, and has those extended smartphone functions so many people are keen on these days. (I couldn’t buy a car without CarPlay).

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Pictured above: Honda Jazz (top); Kia Rio (bottom)

The new media system in the Jazz is terrible. We were unable to connect a Bluetooth device due to a glitch, and the resolution is worse than we’ve seen for some time. There’s no navigation, no extended connectivity, and no volume dial either, and the USB port is up next to the screen itself meaning messy cables will ensue. It’s worse than the system it replaced in every way.

The driver’s information screen in the Kia has a digital speedometer and is also crisp in its appearance. There’s no digital speedo in the Jazz, and its centre screen looks old.


Drivetrain

Neither of these petrol-powered hatchbacks is packing big power, but one of them is notably gruntier.

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The Jazz is the, er, big hitter here, with its 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine producing 88kW of power and 145Nm of torque. It has a five-speed manual gearbox.

The Kia is powered by a 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine, which has considerably more modest outputs of 74kW of power and 133Nm of torque, with a six-speed manual ’box. That makes it 19 per cent less powerful and with nine per cent less torque.

And that bad news gets even worse when you consider the Kia, at 1137 kilograms tare mass, weighs more than the Honda (1043kg tare). Yes, it’s 94kg – or almost 10 per cent – heavier.

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The result is the Kia, unsurprisingly, feels sluggish and quite dull in its response, especially from first to second gear if you’re not gunning it at full throttle.

The Honda in contrast is notably more lively, but still no firecracker. There is considerably more willingness to rev due to the superior power to weight ratio and the natural character of the Honda engine, and it feels perkier as a result.

Being a gear short of the Kia, the Honda doesn’t really appreciate highway driving, revving at nearly 3700rpm at freeway speeds (the Kia sits at about 28oorpm).

Our testers all felt like they had to be extra careful at pace – you may instinctively look for a sixth gear and end up almost slamming into reverse. The fact the engine makes its peak torque at 4600rpm means you’re still reaching that level in fifth, and it will continue to pull in fifth gear at highway pace, meaning that – if you’re on your own – you won’t need to drop to fourth for overtaking moves, unless you’re heading up a steep hill.

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Even so, the gearbox is extremely smooth and lovely in the way it shifts between gears. It has a very light, very city-friendly action, and the clutch is also user-friendly, even if the take-up point is too high on the pedal.

The Kia has a much more meaty feel to its clutch, and the gearshift is decent but not quite as slinky as its competitor – a little bit slushy, as one tester said.

But if you’re doing highway or country kilometres regularly, the Kia’s sixth-gear ratio makes for slightly more relaxed motoring… to a degree. The fact Kia misses out on cruise control – almost unheard of in this day and age for a passenger car – is a stupid omission, and it really feels like it lacks pulling power at speed.

Fuel use for both vehicles is close – the claimed usage for the Honda is 6.2 litres per 100 kilometres, and on test we used 6.8L/100km; the Kia’s claim is 5.6L/100km and we saw 6.0L/100km.


Road manners

Where the Kia falls short for its powertrain, its dynamics make up for it.

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The Rio has been tuned extensively for Australian tastes in terms of its steering behaviour and suspension setup, with the local arm again achieving relatively strong results in making its car more suitable for our diverse and unique conditions.

The Rio is set up for tautness and control, with less wobbling to its suspension over bumpy sections of road.

The ride is tending towards firm, but it’s not sharp, and it’s not uncomfortable. Hit a sharp edge and it remains controlled, and if you take on a speed-hump with a bit too much pace, it remains composed and settles quickly. It feels a bit grippier, too, thanks to its slightly wider tyres.

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It also steers really well at pace, so if you happen to find yourself on a quiet country road you can link corners together quite nicely. But at low speeds the electric steering system can be over-weighted, meaning parking manoeuvres can take a little bit more effort than you expect.

The biggest disappointment with the Rio’s road manners? Road noise. There’s plenty of it, whether you’re running around town or hooning on the highway, and the suspension over bumps exhibits more thumping and thudding intrusion through the wheel-arches.

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The Jazz isn’t quite as controlled over bumps, with softer suspension meaning it feels a little bit wobblier, but definitely not to an embarrassing degree. But again, it’s not uncomfortable.

Its steering is accurate but not quite as nicely weighted as the Kia, and because it’s quite light and not as direct, it requires more effort turning from lock to lock.

The biggest plus for the Jazz on the road is that it offers such good vision from the driver’s seat that quick over-shoulder glances are a cinch. The Jazz is also quite loud over coarse-chip road surfaces but not as loud as the Kia.


Ownership

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If you plan to hang on to your car for a while – and many buyers of these types of vehicles do – then you’ve got a clear, better choice here.

The Kia comes with a seven-year unlimited kilometre warranty, with seven years of roadside assist and the same period of capped-price servicing.

The average cost per visit (every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever occurs first) is $349.

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The Honda requires maintenance more regularly, with visits due every six months or 10,000km – so no matter if you’re doing lots of kms or not, you’ll be footing a bill more regularly, and, based on an annual average cost, it would be $556 per year.

The Honda also has a shorter three-year/100,000km warranty, and no roadside assist. Suddenly that lower price doesn’t seem so attractive anymore.


VERDICT

There are two different cars for two different buyers here.

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If you want the most pragmatic choice on the market at this price point, you simply can’t go past the Honda Jazz. It offers excellent space management, and a poky engine and slinky gearbox to boot.

If you’re more interested in feeling like you’re getting a more special city car, one that has the latest in connectivity and comfort, then the Kia Rio is the car for you. Yes, it is dearer, but it feels worth the extra money, particularly considering its lengthy ownership promise.

We wish the Kia had a better engine with more poke, because it would be so much more convincing a victor than it has been this time around. It was close – we can’t separate them for overall scores – but the Kia just takes the win here due to its engaging character and classier interior.

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Click the Gallery tab for more images by Sam Venn.



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