I remember ten years ago when you could buy a car with zero luxury features for very little money, depending on the size of the vehicle. People were content with their choice, although much else in their life was as exciting as their mode of transportation. But as time, and people’s tastes, have changed, so have the cars.
Vehicles today come with normal extravagances such as power windows, air conditioning and a CD player. Of course, those of us who need it all can get home theater-quality sound systems, a navigation system that can direct us around traffic, and temperature-controllable seats to make sure our fannies stay at the optimal temperature.
But more importantly, these economy cars are now fun to drive. No longer do you have to deal with numb steering, lifeless brakes, and a floppy chassis. Now, you can do the daily commute in comfort, but have fun on the weekends. Here are some cars that will give you both worlds.
2010 Ford Fiesta 5-Door
Ford has been making strides to turn around their image, and I have to say, it’s working. Both cars offered enough of a thrill, but are still be docile for the rush hour slog.
The 2010 Fiesta available was the European version, but it’s pretty much ready for its American debut. Available next year as a sedan and hatch (pictured), the Fiesta carries the majority of the styling from the concept cars, with the stretched headlamps and rounded front end in the front to the chopped rear end. It’s not the prettiest, but we in the West have never been big fans of European simplicity.
Inside, you’ll find a very futuristic-looking dashboard, with a curvaceous center console that has the radio controls high and the HVAC controls separate, making it easy to use. The white-on-black gauges are huge, and everything is made with acceptable plastics and vinyls. It’s surprisingly funky for a car expected to price around $12,000.
Front seat occupants are treated to a high seating position and loads of room in thinly-bolstered seats. Rear seat passengers do not get the same amount, with little legroom to enjoy. Space beneath the hatch is surprising good considering the short rear overhang.
The drive is what you expect from an economy car though; good, not great. The engine under the hood was a 118 horse, 1.6-liter four-cylinder with variable cam timing. It’s not the quickest, but it is surprisingly smooth and moves the little five-door with good acceleration. The steering is light, but responsive and the five-speed is effortless to shift.
2010 Kia Soul
To continue on funky hatchbacks, Kia has given us the Soul, a funky urban cruiser designed to work well in tight spaces while being affordable.
Lets get the bad over with first shall we? Well, it’s not the Heidi Klum of the auto world, nor is it Uma Thurman attractive. The Soul has this tiny grill stuff in-between two headlights that were cut and then reattached crookedly. What’s up with that fake plastic guard on the front? It’s front-wheel-drive for pete sake. Rear isn’t much better, with its odd fender flares and toaster-oven shape.
Inside gets better. The Soul’s interior is following a similar playbook the Fiesta is using: funky, yet functional. The radio sits almost on top of the dash, with the ventilation controls right below it. Depending on which trim you choose, you can have half the interior in either bright-red or a mocha-like color with separate eye-catching designs sewn into the seats. There’s plenty of room for both passengers and their cargo.
Driving around town, the Kia feels solid and peppy. The 2.0-liter four cylinder produces 144 horsepower and 137 lb. ft of torque. (A smaller 1.6 can be had in the less-expensive models.) In the street car, the four-speed automatic was just acceptable, with a bit too much gear hunt for me. The five-speed is good if a little knotchy. On poorer surfaces, the stiffer suspension and bigger 18-inch wheels on the Sport gave it a butt-busting ride, but helped in the control department.
Handling is sound, with good steering feel and weight. It felt very eager to be pushed harder, but doing so invokes very bad understeer. It will work around town very well, with a zippy engine and small stature.
Prices start at just under $14,000. If you want the top of the line with the wheels, and upgraded stereo and a garrish interior, you’ll pay just under $18,000. (We will be covering this vehicle in greater detail later on this summer.)
Since the Mazda3 came onto the market in late 2003, it has been a very popular choice over the more mundane Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, and Hyundai Elantra, to name a few. It was the best of the bunch in terms of reliability, quality, and fun-to-drive. But has this new second-generation changed any of that? No, not in the slightest. It may have grown an inch in length and it has put on a few pounds, but this little five-door still offers copious amounts of luxury and thrill for very little money.
Still available in four-door or five and two engine choices with various trim levels, the Mazda3 can offer something for everyone. With a base sedan starting in around $15,000 and a hatch for a few thousand more, you get power everything, six-speaker stereo, 6 airbags, 16 or 17-inch wheels, disk brakes with ABS, and seating for five.
There is a lot new for 2010, but I will just skim the surface as we are scheduled to be receiving a few different variants next month. First is the new interior. It’s been designed with more attention to detail than ever before. The top of the dash houses two small screens for the radio and HVAC display as well as the optional navigation screen. From there, the center console gracefully flows downward to house the vents and radio controls, then curves back towards the firewall to house the recessed temperature controls. The gauges and dash are still lit by a mixture of blue and red lighting.
There is also some new parts under the hood. The 2.3-liter has been bumped up to 2.5-liters and now produces 167 horsepower and a surprising 168 lb. ft of torque. Your choice of transmission includes either the five-speed automatic or a new six-speed manual, which was what the test car had. It all works well to make the Mazda3 quick to scoot and fun to drive with a terrific clutch engagement and nice, short throws from the gearbox.
Under way, the drive is just as how you remembered the older Mazda3, with a touch more softness to everything. The ride is less harsh over bumps, but there is still that razor sharp steering and stable body control that made this car such a treat. It loves to be pushed hard in the corners, where turn-in is crisp and there is plenty of balance from the sturdy chassis.
My initial complaints are few. For one, I think the dashboard is not efficiently designed, with the presets split around a mess of other buttons and the volume knob. It’s easily learned, but it shouldn’t have to be. Second, with the higher end trims with the Bluetooth and navigation, the steering wheel also becomes too convoluted with switches and buttons.
But lastly, and certainly not least, is the new exterior. I love the older models, with their clean, aggressive lines that gave the car a much more upscale look. Now, it’s almost smiling, trying to appeal to those who care more about looks than performance. And I truly do not like the character line down the side.
If you can get past the looks, it’s still one hell of a car.