Advice

The big small car comparison

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Mitsubishi Lancer ES .vs. Honda Civic VTi .vs. Toyota Corolla Ascent Sedan .vs. Suzuki SX4 Sedan

One of the most hotly contested segments in the car industry is the small car segment. There was a time when small car meant Japanese car but European, Korean, and even American names are now entering the arena. But Japan is fighting back. The CarAdvice team looked at three newcomers and one slightly older model fighting to bring the small car crown back to the land of the rising sun.

There were a few surprises in the mix and the end result was far from easy to reach.

  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion

Vehicles tested:

Honda Civic VTi $21,490* - Metallic Paint $300
Warranty 3 year / 100,000km

CarAdvice rating: (4.25)

Mitsubishi Lancer ES $20,990* - Metallic Paint $350
Warranty : 5 year / 130,000km

CarAdvice rating: (4.5)

Suzuki SX4 Sedan $19,990*- Metallic Paint $200
Warranty : 3 year / Unlimited

CarAdvice rating: (3.75)

Toyota Corolla Ascent : $20,990* - Metallic Paint $300
Warranty : 3 year / 100,000km

CarAdvice rating: (3.25)

* Recommended retail price for base model manual excludes on road costs.

With ten manufacturers all vying for a spot in the circa $20K small sedan category, it can be hard to determine which car best represents value for money. But we found that with pricing this tight, it’s not always a case of getting what you pay for.

  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion
  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion

First up is Honda’s futuristic styled Civic VTi. In a time when all cars tend to have a degree of sameness in their styling, it’s pleasing to see a manufacturer challenge convention and bring out a vehicle whose theme is a little more daring.

With its low, sweeping front end, with a bulbous , but elegant bonnet for increased pedestrian safety, the Civic has a bigger look than its dimensions would have you believe. Clean, flowing lines and superb panel fit sees the Civic set the benchmark for quality in terms of both finish and reliability in this category.

The interior doesn’t go begging either. A funky split level instrument cluster which offers excellent peripheral vision speed monitoring, smooth sweeping dashboard and classy velour seats, the Civic raises the bar in terms of luxury budget motoring.

Under the hood, Honda’s high revving 1.8-litre VTEC four-cylinder engine produces a modest 103kW which is put to the ground by means of a slick shifting five-speed box with small, high mounted shifter and exceptionally well weighted clutch.

Delivering this power however means keeping the revs up. Lose too many revs into a corner or mid gear change and the Civic is left labouring, which can take valuable time to recover from if you're, for example, overtaking. Keep the revs up however and the Civic is fluid, swift and nimble through corners with a sweet independent rear suspension keeping a near perfect line even in the tightest of winding roads.

Unfortunately there’s no electronic stability control available on the Civic which saw the otherwise competent sedan lose valuable points from our judges. In all though, the Honda is a well sorted ride with a quiet, comfortable cabin and fluid, relaxed drive. Also rating best for fuel consumption, the car sips 6.9 litres per 100km combined average.

SetupFront Wheel Drive
Transmission5sp Manual
Engine Size1.8-litre
No. Cylinders4
Fuel TypePetrol - Unleaded ULP
RON Rating91
Fuel Capacity50L
Fuel Usage (ADR 81/01)6.9L/100km
Power103kW @ 6300rpm
Torque174Nm @ 4200rpm
Kerb Weight1180kg
Towing Braked1200kg
Towing Not Braked500kg
Wheel Base2700mm
Length4550mm
Width1750mm
Height1435mm
Made inThailand
  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion
  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion

Next up is Mitsubishi’s all new Lancer. An aircraft inspired nose drawing on jet fighter themes caps off new, aggressive corporate exterior styling which will in time progress to filter on to other models in the range (see new Galant).

With this bold front and high shoulder line, angularly raked upward to meet a crisp, flattened rear end, the new Lancer leaves the model it replaces looking somewhat archaic, and is easily the best looker of the four cars tested.

Seemingly a little plain, the Lancer's interior space is nonetheless well thought out, practical, and very comfortable. The seating is supportive, there is loads of space and the red back lit twin pod instrument cluster lends a sporty feel that matches perfectly to Lancer’s spirited performance.

Power delivery from the 2.0-litre four-cylinder is a respectable 113kW and with the variable valve timing creating a meaty low torque curve, the Lancer boasts excellent in gear acceleration which is linear across the entire rev range. Although the Mitsu gave the liveliest performance, it came third to the Civic and Corolla in terms of fuel economy at 7.7L/100km.

The Lancer is no slouch in the handling stakes either. Cornering is sharp and settled, with the standard electronic stability control doing a marvellous job of keeping you in line. With stability control off there is a peculiar oversteer at very high corner entry speeds, but fortunately the well balanced independent rear end and the free-revving engine do a slick job in taking care of matters.

As a driver’s car, the Lancer is the clear leader of the four and whilst it may not have the most classy interior, is every bit as practical and comfortable as the Civic. With a raft of options and youthful feel, the Lancer is sure to attract a vibrant new audience this time round, without scaring away traditional buyers.

SetupFront Wheel Drive
Transmission5sp Manual
Engine Size2.0-litre
No. Cylinders4
Fuel TypePetrol - Unleaded ULP
RON Rating90
Fuel Capacity59L
Fuel Usage (ADR 81/01)7.7L/100km
Power113kW @ 6000rpm
Torque198Nm @ 4250rpm
Acceleration 0-100Km/h9.5 secs
Kerb Weight1295kg
Towing Braked1000kg
Towing Not Braked550kg
Wheel Base2635mm
Length4570mm
Width1760mm
Height1490mm
Made inJAPAN
  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion
  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion

Next up is Suzuki's SX4. Although the cheapest entrant in our comparo, the SX4 is by no means under-equipped or lacking in performance here. A more grown up version of the Liana to look at, the new SX4 has a neater, more flowing style about it and better overall finish than the model it replaces.

Boasting a bucket load of low down torque, the 2.0-litre twin cam packs a punch in the lower rev range of every gear, even fifth, making this a great car for carrying the family and all their gear. However, this does come at the cost of fuel consumption with a combined total of 8.4L/100km.

The ride is smooth but handling is easily unsettled by mid corner bumps and the SX4 does have a degree of body roll which combined with a solid beam rear end, light steering feel and no electronic stability control, can make cornering at speed somewhat of a challenge.

The SX4's monotone interior can feel a little drab by comparison to the others, but is surprisingly comfortable and provides an ergonomic driver's position with adequate support for even the tallest of occupants.

Considering the price, the Suzuki is a good buy, and knowing the company's history, is sure not to put a foot wrong. Judges were also surprised by the SX4's boot volume, with stated capacity exceeding that of the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon by some 15 litres.

Following hot on the heels of the SX4 is Toyota’s more refined new Corolla. Above average equipment levels, reserved good looks and legendary reliability make Corolla a great car for any demographic. But, this simply isn't enough when placed in the company of the SX4 Sedan, Lancer and Civic.

SetupFront Wheel Drive
Transmission5sp Manual
Engine Size2.0-litre
No. Cylinders4
Fuel TypePetrol - Unleaded ULP
Fuel Capacity45L
Fuel Usage (ADR 81/01)9.5L/100km
Power107kW @ 5800rpm
Torque184Nm @ 3500rpm
Kerb Weight1215kg
Towing Braked1200kg
Towing Not Braked400kg
Wheel Base2500mm
Length4510mm
Width1730mm
Height1545mm
Made inJAPAN
  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion
  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion

Style wise, the new Corolla is not too far removed from the model it replaces. The lines and shape flow more cleanly which subtly freshens the overall appearance of the vehicle, but given the similarities to its predecessor, it does make the Corolla seem like a less exciting purchase visually than the Lancer or Civic. Several of the judges weren't convinced by the Corolla's styling, commenting on its awkward angles and lack of appeal.

A solid beam rear end makes for uninspired cornering which coupled with the lack of electronic stability control, marks the Corolla down for handling. Ride is comfortable, but with soft damper rebound and a lofty feel with just a hint too much body roll, it makes the overall package a tad below par.

The six speed manual gearbox is unnecessary for a 1.8-litre engine that only manages 100kW, and lets down the otherwise linear and healthy rev range on offer by not delivering enough torque in the crucial lower to mid rev range of the engine. This did however aid fuel economy placing the Corolla second only to the Civic at a decent 7.2lL/100km. In comparison to its competitors, the Corolla felt desperately underpowered and offered the least inspiring drive.

Inside the Corolla is typically Toyota: well-finished with clean, reserved lines, it's a small car with an interior more adult than some of its rivals. Familiar, easy to live with, and stylish enough not to date too soon, the Corolla is comfy, relaxed and confident. Dash plastics were average, while the stereo was met with disdain, lacking any real punch or clarity.

SetupFront Wheel Drive
Transmission6sp Manual
Engine Size1.8-litre
No. Cylinders4
Fuel TypePetrol - Unleaded ULP
RON Rating91
Fuel Capacity55L
Fuel Usage (ADR 81/01)7.4L/100km
Power100kW @ 6000rpm
Torque175Nm @ 4400rpm
Acceleration 0-100Km/h9.7 secs
Kerb Weight1275kg
Towing Braked1300kg
Towing Not Braked450kg
Wheel Base2600mm
Length4220mm
Width1760mm
Height1515mm
Made inJAPAN

Four days with four drivers in four different cars meant a difference in opinion was of course inevitable, and as such, there were some tough decisions to be made in picking our winner. After much deliberation, CarAdvice has agreed unanimously on the winner of our small sedan comparo.

  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion
  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion

First place goes to the all-new Mitsubishi Lancer. With standard ESC, a practical interior layout, fantastic exterior looks, and strong performance, the new Lancer is a little winner and is a strong favourite to take out our small car of the year.

The Honda Civic slides in an emphatic second with its precision feel, hint of luxury and winning combination of ride and handling pitching it easily above the SX4 and Corolla. A little more low down performance and the availability of ESC could have seen it beat the Lancer, but it's a well deserved second.

Third place was taken comfortably by the Suzuki SX4. The Corolla - taking last place - simply failed to inspire both in terms of the drive and styling, the judges felt it was pitched to an older demographic and didn't really fit the bill when compared to its competitors.

While Toyota's excellent reputation for reliability and quality will see it sell many Corollas, there was a feeling that it could have done more with the new Corolla sedan - leaving ESC off the specification was a substantial mistake in a market starting to care more than ever about safety as buyers downsize from cars whose sheer size was thought to be enough to protect them.

The Civic should have ESC too but it is more than a year older than the Corolla, if that's any excuse. Likewise the SX4 - adding the vital safety system would have been an ideal way for Suzuki to break out of its perceived niche as a second-string manufacturer.

But none of these cars are duds. The Corolla, while deeply unexciting has the undeniable strength of its reputation - for thousands of buyers it's the default small car choice. The Suzuki surprised with its space and performance, although those seeking maximum fuel savings should look elsewhere. The Civic had a surprise and delight factor often missing from this class of car - take note, Toyota.

But in this company it's Lancer first, daylight second.

(Fuel consumption figures quoted are combined city/highway cycle averages as tested to ADR standards and supplied by the Federal Government Green Vehicle Guide.)

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Words: Matt Brogan
Pictures: Paul Maric
Drivers: Matt Brogan, Anthony Crawford, Alborz Fallah & Paul Maric.

  1. Introduction
  2. Honda Civic VTi
  3. Mitsubishi Lancer ES
  4. Suzuki SX4 Sedan
  5. Toyota Corolla Ascent
  6. Conclusion