Thursday, October 20, 2005

Case study: cheap cars

Somehow it's happened all at once - several manufacturers have simultaneously released on to the European market their very cheap cars. Since I've been looking into replacing the old Honda (not quite yet, but within the foreseeable future), I'm interested in these things. I've been to the dealer presentations and the recent car show, and had a look at each. Now, I haven't driven all of them - if that was the case, this post would be called a test drive, not a case study - but I did get a distinct impression as a prospective owner.

The most important cheap new car is, of course, the Dacia Logan. Effectively it is a Renault, with an old Clio drivetrain, suspension designed for crap roads, and all-new sheetmetal. It does look boring, but at least it's inoffensive and the interior is positively huge. If I get fired from my tech writer gig, I might just get one of these and become a cabbie.

Interior materials are unassuming, and it does look well screwed together. What's under the bonnet is a sight for sore eyes, a textbook illustration of how cars work. The boot is big enough for not one, but two dead hookers. And the price? Around US$7500.

Except it's not quite that simple. The base trim comes with a 1.4 75bhp engine, which is quite adequate if not very inspiring, but little else. You do get a driver's airbag, an immobilizer and rev counter, but not power steering. The Logan is supposed to be a European car, even if it was designed for the Third World; a new vehicle sold in the EU without a passenger airbag or ABS as standard is, frankly, depressing. In fact you can't even specify ABS for a Logan Access, and this is a major fault: in my opinion, ABS should be as much of a mandatory safety feature on new cars as a seatbelt.

You can of course go for a higher trim level, which adds the air recirculation mode to the fan settings, plus basic central locking and a cigarette lighter. But once you spec this up with a second airbag, power front windows and steering, keyless entry and ABS, you're up to $9600 - and they'll charge you an extra three hundred bucks to have the car registered. I didn't spec an alarm or a stereo, because both are guaranteed to be overpriced crap if ordered from the factory. So with the Logan, you get an adequately equipped car for $10k.

Next up is the Toyota Aygo and its twins, the Peugeot 107 and Citroen C1. I had a look at the Aygo at a car show, and talked to a salesman. They're not really available quite yet here in Small Country, but he said it should cost around $11,500 for the one-liter petrol.

To be honest, I wasn't impressed. I went in with high hopes for the car, but the interior quality was a huge letdown. Top Gear praised the thing for being designed as a cheap car (as opposed to designed, and then made cheap), but I fear they've gone a bit far with it. Really, it's about atmosphere; the gearshift is sloppy, the sound of the door closing is unsatisfactory, and the plastics feel very - how should I put this? - Chinese. (Still, as Richard Hammond pointed out, it does have an auxiliary input on the stereo.) When you compare it to the Logan, you can't really justify the price increase. Gets excellent mileage though.

Then there is the daddy of cheap cars, the Hyundai Getz. It has been around for years, but there's just been a redesign, and it now comes with a 1.4-liter petrol engine making 98bhp - which makes it the most powerful car in this study. I've driven the old 1.3, and around town the engine was perfectly acceptable, nippy even. (Of course, that impression needs to be considered against the backdrop of what I was driving at the time - a 27-year-old Volvo estate.) The asking price for the 1.4 GLS three-door is $12,200, or an extra four hundred for the five-door version, which makes it almost rival the Logan on practicality. Not that I need much of that, being 21 and single.

The price is steep in comparison with the others, but you do get a lot for your money - four airbags, ABS, power steering, windows and mirrors - the latter are heated, as are the seats - a trip computer and even air conditioning! I imagine you can spec it down at the dealer, throw out the AC to bring the price down about a grand. I did find the seating position a bit awkward, mostly because the gearlever was short and low down, but then again I didn't play around with the height-adjustable seats. The Getz is a popular car, and deservedly so. It is the most powerful one, and quite roomy; it even feels nice inside. All in all, one of Korea's best efforts ever.

But there is a fourth contender. Brand new and looking good, it is the Suzuki Swift. Now, the five-door model comes with a great spec and a high price, so what I'm looking at is the three-door 1.3 GA at just under US$11,500. It comes with all the vital components, like ABS (and EBD!), two airbags, power steering, etc. Unfortunately what you don't get is a tachometer, and the windows are the wind-down kind; I'd also probably really miss the trip computer, as it is the thing that makes me feel like I'm in a modern vehicle. Then again, the interior is by far the best of the three, feeling like a proper grown-up car; and the door shuts with a very satisfying thud. It's not quite as practical as the Logan or Getz, but there's sufficient rear legroom and the rear seatback does fold down for more luggage space. The petrol four-pot makes 94bhp, which for a car weighing under a ton dry should be nice enough; I expect it to match the Honda's tired old 2.0. I also think it's the best-looking out of the group by far.

So, if someone gave me eleven and a half grand and said I could keep what I don't spend on a car, what would I choose?

Well, it certainly wouldn't be the Aygo. Toyota reliability is tempting, but then this is a choice between two Japanese cars, one Korean with a monster warranty, and one European that you can fix with a roll of tape and a can of WD40 (whatever moves and shouldn't - tape, whatever doesn't move and should - lubricant). Ultimately the Aygo doesn't justify the price as weighed against the interior quality.

It probably wouldn't be the Logan either, despite the fact that you can spec it up with a 1.6 engine (still weaker than both the Hyundai and the Suzuki) and all the necessary gadgetry while still keeping the price comfortably below any of the competition. I might as well stick to the Accord and not spend the money on a new car. The Logan does feel cheap, and the other cars prove that a vehicle at this price doesn't have to.

The Getz, minus aircon, is very tempting. It's a great car and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to everyone - especially considering the five-year bumper to bumper warranty and free roadside assistance. Ultimately though, the Suzuki Swift, even with windy windows and a hole in the center console where the factory stereo should be, feels like the most proper car here. I love the cubic looks, too. I am hoping that by the time I am ready to buy, they do offer some options for the bargain spec (or sell the packed GL in three-door form, which I'd be thrilled about), but even as it is - it's the one I'd have.

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