The Sport Compact Comparo 2016

HOT SHOTS

Mazda3 vs Honda Civic RS vs Peugeot 308 vs Ford Focus vs Kia Forte 5

We make no secrets about it: we live for comparos.

Whether you call them group-tests – duels, head-to-heads, showdowns, shootouts or any other creative, magazine-friendly term, we relish the idea of pitting cars together. It’s only natural; competition makes excellence rise to the surface.

This time, we’ve got the comparo we’ve been waiting a long time for, but we’re doing it differently. We’re not looking for the most efficient, the cheapest to maintain, the one with the best value for money, the one with the best features, so on and so forth. No, we’re looking for a car made for the more discerning kind of driver, one that demands exciting performance that gets the blood flowing through his veins.

We are looking for the most enjoyable sport compact, and to do so, we brought a group of five cars to the most demanding racing circuit in the country just so we can put them through a battery of tests – both quantitative and qualitative – to find it.

And something tells me that we’re in for quite a surprise…

Timing, it seems, was not on our side. With veteran race driver and Senior Editor Georges Ramirez behind the wheel and myself riding shotgun, we had just completed our warm-up lap at the short course of the Batangas Racing Circuit when, as fate would have it, the rain started coming down. And in buckets.

“This should be interesting, pare,” said Georges, referring to the uncooperative weather.

“Let’s pull in to the pits for a bit,” was my reply, trying my darndest to mask the fear that was tingling in my bones.

You see, riding shotgun with a full-fledged racecar driver is one thing, but on a wet racetrack that I myself find daunting in dry conditions? It will be a white-knuckle ride like no other.

Well, for the passenger, that is. If I was behind the wheel, I’d go out for another lap. And why not? We had the circuit all to ourselves, no doubt a result of the bad weather and the distance (measured in hours) from the metro. But it’s best to be prudent and pull in, take a breather, and take a closer look at the group of cars we had at our disposal.

We’re not looking for the best overall car in the compact class, instead we’re seeking the one car we would drive and enjoy every day of the week and twice on Sunday. We’re looking for the qualities of a true driver’s car amidst these compacts, and to do that, we whittled down the field even before firing up the engines to head to the track.

And now that the players are here after a quick blast down the toll roads heading south, the game is set. Our stage is, of course, the Batangas Racing Circuit. The choice was deliberate: the corners of BRC are extremely challenging and take plenty of commitment to master. Bravery is what it takes to be quick here, and that only stems from confident control of any car.

And now we will find it.

 

MAZDA3 2.0R

By far, the Mazda was the easiest to learn and drive to its full potential; balanced, very neutral and handles well. But this is a case of a chassis that can handle more power, yet had an engine that needed more. Still, it’s a better combination than the opposite.

 

From Hiroshima, we have the Mazda3; the sole remnant and winner of the last compact car comparo in 2014. Its presence here explains why we didn’t have the Toyota Corolla Altis, the Mitsubishi Lancer EX, and the Nissan Sylphy; models that it edged out two years ago.

The Mazda3 may be long in the tooth as far as this group is concerned, but it can definitely stack up against all of them in every subjective aspect.

Design? Oh definitely. The Mazda3 benefits from the styling revolution that began with the CX-5 back in 2012. They call it Kodo; a design language inspired by a running cheetah, and the result is as good-looking in 2016 as it was in 2014. The flowing lines, the wide stance, the bulging fenders, the sharp lamps, and the the shape of the radiator intake grill are what make up the Mazda3’s look. Nothing fancy, just a functional form that relies not on gimmicks but on a holistic approach to automotive design, giving the Mazda3 a dynamic presence even when sitting still.

Interiors? I would say the 3 still has one of the best -if not the best- cabin in the class. The minimalist approach that Mazda used is a thing of beauty and a marvel of simplicity. It just feels uncluttered in here, as Mazda did away with much of the fluff and unified many of the functions onto a single screen and a human-machine interface that you would expect in an Audi or a BMW, not in a Mazda.

But it is in the ergonomics that the Mazda3 is truly a cut above the rest. You’d be hard pressed to not find a comfortable and natural position for performance driving; even if you don’t fall into the body type they consider to be within the “97 percentile.” This is a cockpit that really hits the mark if you’re up for a spirited drive; especially with that large tachometer dominating the gauge cluster with a digital readout for speed not just on the face, but on a heads-up display as well.

At the core of the latest generation of Mazdas is their full-spectrum approach to fuel economy. Mazda reduced the weight through the use of thinner but stronger steel and made a number of small gains to optimize powertrain, comprised of the naturally aspirated four-banger and the six-speed slushbox auto. Thanks to that, the Mazda, despite a motor that displaces 1998cc, was able to achieve the second best fuel economy overall in the group at 22.7 km/l on the highway.

But we’re here for performance, and we expect the 153 bhp, 2.0L Mazda3 to perform. But a 12.3 second acceleration time from zero to a hundred made it clear that the rest of the sport compacts have stepped up the game. The car itself was never what we called fast on a straight line, but it can corner with the best of them.

On the track, the Mazda3 showed us what truly made it special. This hatch has an exceptional handling balance that we could not find in many of the others in the group; so easy to drive quickly either on track or on road, and it felt light on its feet. The brakes have clearly seen better days, as the 12.2 meter 60-0 km/h braking distance puts it in last, something that can be explained by the significant mileage this car has on the clock.

The Mazda3 2.0R hatchback passed the start to finish line in 1:55.68. The time itself wasn’t as quick as we thought it would be, and our Senior Editor attributed it to a lack of low or mid-range torque. Simply put, the naturally aspirated motor had a difficult time powering out of corners, a characteristic that the remaining three in this test would have none of.

The secret ingredient? Turbos.

 

 KIA FORTE5 2.0 SX

Quite the looker the Forte is, with that very sporty European design to it. It had a 2.0L NA engine, so unlike its turbo counterparts there wasn’t a huge amount of torque to pull out of corners. The suspension was very soft which gave it quite a bit of body roll. It would be interesting to test this car’s performance with a better set of tires, spring, and dampers.

 

Perhaps the Kia Forte can deliver. Officially known as the Forte5, the Kia was definitely an interesting drive when taken out of the city. As the sole sport hatch from south of the DMZ, we really are keen to see how the South Korean compares against the others.

We always knew the Forte5 would be a worthy contender. Stylish on the outside and modern on the inside, the Kia can turn heads with its European-inspired design; a clear result of former Volkswagen designer Peter Schreyer’s influence as the man who has helmed the design revolution within Kia.

The dash itself is very much driver-oriented as evidenced by the neatly shaped steering wheel, the paddleshifters behind the spokes, the center console canted towards the driver, and the sporty steel pedals. Kia even put a button that can alter the weight and feel of the electronic power steering assist; Comfort (light), Normal, and Sport (heavy). Interesting as all that may seem, does the style translate to performance and excitement behind the wheel?

What motivates the Forte5 is a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four cylinder. What surprised us was that this engine made a very healthy 159 bhp at 6500 rpm, more than the reigning king of the compact car class: the Mazda3. And this version comes with a 6-speed automatic complete with paddleshifters, something we can put to good use.

The Kia handily dispatched 100 on the speedometer in just 11.3 seconds; a good figure, one that didn’t turn out to be the slowest to that mark in the group. The Forte5 also had a decent set of anchors on it, easily able to bring the car to a standstill from 60 km/h in 10.3 meters is quite good. But it will be lap of the track in the Forte5 that will bare all.

While great on a mountain road or a provincial highway, laps on a circuit didn’t suit the Kia. The chassis, while stiff, was held back by suspension that was a tad soft as evidenced by the nose dive when you hit the brakes before Turn One. The turn in didn’t elicit the precision we were looking for; something that we suspect was a result of the tires that seemed to screech far too much for our liking, and nowhere near the limits.

Nevertheless, in the hands of our salt-and-pepper-haired racing driver, the Forte5 was able to lap the short layout of the Batangas Racing Circuit in 1:55.96. Surprisingly, that time was much better than we expected after hearing how much the tires complained, but we can only juxtapose what the performance would have been like if there was better rolling stock on all four wheels.

 

FORD FOCUS SPORT 1.5L ECOBOOST

The Focus was a very good improvement from the previous model; the new engine produced a very exciting amount of torque. There was minimal turbo lag, so you don’t get a sudden surge of power. Power delivery was linear and not unsettling.

 

Since Ford Philippines launched the third generation Focus in 2012, we’ve clamored for them to come in with the EcoBoost. And with good reason: the 1.0-liter, direct-injected turbocharged motor known as EcoBoost offers the promise of economy and enjoyable performance.

They kept telling us to wait, and sure enough, they began to introduce their EcoBoost range of engines in their other models starting with the Explorer (2.0L, later 2.3L), the Fiesta (1.0L) and even the Mustang (2.3L). Ford even brought in the Explorer with the twin-turbocharged EcoBoost V6, a motor that delivers a whopping 365 horses at your right foot’s command. But still, the Focus had to wait.

Now we’ve finally got it, and they timed the introduction of EcoBoost into the Focus with the latest design update and overall upgrade.

The revisions are profound, especially at the front. The Focus now looks much sharper and much more refined than before, utilizing many of the design cues that they used when they redesigned the  Fiesta back in late 2013. The new model looks far more cohesive than before, doing away with the edgy fascia that has been around since 2012.

The same story continues into the cabin, particularly the dashboard. This being a Sport variant and not the Sport+, we get a predominantly matte black interior, devoid of things like piano-black and faux wood panels; instead Ford used subtle silver trim pieces as accents. The new approach to the center console resulted in a cleaner look and more straightforward feel with the SYNC screen on top with the control panels for the audio and the climate control just below.

What I truly liked was the new design for the steering wheel; Ford tossed out the four-spoke unit that you would expect to see in your Dad’s sedan and replaced it with a much sportier one. The seat, while comfortable, isn’t one that’s made for sporty driving though; you don’t so much as sit in it as you do on it.

The interesting fact about this Focus Sport is that Ford replaced the 168 bhp 2.0-liter Ti-VCT motor with an EcoBoost engine, but they didn’t just put in the 1.0-liter that we wanted but the larger and more powerful 1.5-liter EcoBoost. As a result, the Focus gets 178 bhp and 177 lb ft of torque, making it not only more powerful than the outgoing 2.0L, but the most powerful car here. That, coupled with the 6-speed dual clutch automatic, should make for some exciting driving.

On a straight line, the Focus impresses, and rightfully so. Even with two heavy guys inside, the Focus Sport clocked in a 0-100 km/h time of 9.9 seconds. It’s quick when it’s floored, but the braking could be better because in the 60-0 brake test, its best result was 11.6 meters. When you do get to a corner, the Ford’s body and suspension tried its very best to control its own weight, as it is one of the heaviest in the comparo.

Still, on a lap of the Batangas Racing Circuit, the Focus posted quick lap times at the hands of Georges. With 1:54.02 on the clock, the Focus definitely delivers on the promise of EcoBoost, easily able to rocket out of corners if commanded. We do wish we had the Sport+ with the paddle shifters, as the +/- switch on the shifter was difficult to use on the limit.

That won’t be a problem for the next car though.

 

HONDA CIVIC RS 1.5 TURBO

The moment you slip into the seat, everything is where it should be. The CVT delivered power in an undefined way that can leave you unsure at first, but you’ll get the hang of it. I’d prefer a firmer suspension but to sum it up, it’s quiet yet fast, soft yet seamless, and certainly fun to drive.

 

To be completely honest, the arrival of the new generation Civic, more specifically this Civic RS, was what prompted this whole exercise. The last generation fell a bit short of the excitement of old, and now we’re keen to see if this new RS can revive the spirit of the SiR, but this time with turbocharged power.

Needless to say, the Civic RS has a lot of hype to live up to. And righfully so. Thankfully, the car looks properly futuristic, especially with those LED headlamps. Technically, the Civic is the sole sedan amongst a group of sporty hatches, but the actual silhouette is very fastback-ish, and we like it. And that back end with those LED taillights is a good view for those trying very hard to catch up on the straight.

The interior was nicely done as well, showing off Honda’s capabilities in designing a very modern cabin with upscale quality and feel. Every surface, button or switch feels solidly built, with very consistent panel gaps all throughout. We liked how Honda arranged the cabin to appeal to a very tech-savvy generation of drivers, especially with Apple CarPlay, HDMI mirroring, and USB input as standard. Honda even tucked all those ports away from view and with the cables able to be easily routed through a hole on the console.

The driver’s seat is comfortable and envelops you, thus preventing you from moving around too much. It’s actually cozy in there given the size of the center console; perfect for fast driving. The wheel is shaped perfectly and feels great on my fingertips. What was truly impressive were the gauge screens, as it has the coolest gauge ceremony (when you start it up) in the group.

Really, however, what we’re looking forward to is how this VTEC turbo will perform. Like the Focus, the Honda gets a 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine with a turbo and an intercooler, marking the first time that a locally-offered production Civic was not naturally aspirated. With peak power rated at 171 bhp from a rather early 5500 rpm, the Civic RS plays a close second to the Focus for sheer power, but with a continuously variable transmission, we thought the Honda might have a tough time on the track. On that, we were proven wrong.

At 9.5 seconds (again, with two heavy guys in front) on the acceleration test, the Civic RS was the quickest in the group, bar none. Hondas have always been favorites on a dragstrip, and the Civic RS showed us why. The braking prowess of the car left me puzzled after a few tries, as the turbo was still boosting (read: compressor surge) when I came off the throttle and slammed on the middle pedal; the brakes were fighting my input. Only when I readjusted my right foot to allow the turbo to settle down was I able to compensate and get consistent braking distances which, surprisingly, were the best in the group.

Even in the lapping, Honda showed us how much they put in to developing the Civic. The suspension, while offering a good balance of comfort and handling, managed the car very well throughout the corners while the turbo pulled it out of them. It just felt controllable all throughout, and that was with CVT in automatic mode; start yanking the paddles and you’ll get more positive control of the car throughout. Even the stability control is quite forgiving, and doesn’t get in the way even in hard cornering.

The result is a lap that was much quicker than the more powerful Focus: 1:52.00. The hype is real with the Civic.

As we were about to find out, however, there was a wolf in this group’s midst.

 

PEUGEOT 308 THP150

Definitely got that good-looking French styling that can leave you focusing on different bits and corners of the car. But boy, was it fast. On the first few corners, I caught myself coming in a bit too hot. The 308 took me the longest to learn, thus the difference between the first and last laps was substantial.

 

Some of you may ask: What’s a Peugeot doing here?

In Europe, the 308s are actually direct competitors against these other cars. It is only when European-made cars travel to the Philippines that they become significantly more expensive (tariffs), but such wasn’t the case when Peugeot Philippines brought in the 308, slotting in just under our price limit.

Nevertheless, the Peugeot holds a lot of promise. The brand itself has a long history of success in rallying in Group B and Pikes Peak in the hands of legends like Ari Vatanen and Juha Kankkunen. We hope this 308 benefits from that heritage.

Being French, there’s a strikingly different presence about the Peugeot’s design, and we like it. The hatch stands out amongst the others here in the way the designers treated the shape of the headlights, taillights, and the contours on the body. Like the Mazda, the Peugeot looks like it wants to move yet is perfectly happy to sit still and be admired.

We were prepared to step inside and expect a rather flamboyant cabin (again, French), but instead what greeted the driver was a very minimalist dashboard. If Mazda set the bar for being clean and uncluttered, the Peugeot has just one-upped it; there are so few buttons on the console because even the controls for the climate is built into the touchscreen audio unit.

What we really found tricky were the ergonomics of the 308. The wheel, while stylish and small, sat a bit too low. And if we positioned it the way you naturally would, the wheel would block the gauges. Peugeot wanted the gauges to be visible above the rim of the wheel, not through it; the result being a rather unusual driving position for the wheel. Even the tachometer was odd; it’s the first car we’ve driven that had a counter-clockwise tach to preserve symmetry. Trust the French to be different.

This 308 gets the Prince engine that was developed with the BMW Group; a 1.6-liter twin cam 16-valve turbocharged four-banger. Given the extra 100cc of displacement, we thought the Peugeot would have more power than the 1.5L engines in the Civic and Focus, yet it only has 148 bhp to be managed by a 6-speed automatic. What it does have in abundance of is torque; 177 lb ft is plenty for a car that’s under 1200 kg (curb weight). And it comes in early too at 1400 rpm. That fact piqued our imagination a bit.

It took the Peugeot 10.4 seconds to dispatch 100 km/h, putting it squarely behind the Civic and the Focus. It also had excellent braking abilities, almost matching the Civic RS. For fuel economy, the 308 delivered the goods too, achieving 18.8 km/l at a 73 km/h average. Those numbers are great, but what surprised us was how it performed on the track.

With the wheel at the highest tilt setting and partially blocking the gauges, I took the Peugeot out on the circuit. Without a doubt, the car felt great. At 225mm, the tires of the Peugeot are the widest in the group, and it showed; confident and quiet at a cornering speed when all the others were already on the limit. The engine’s torque is addicting when you squeeze the throttle mid-corner; there’s so much that care must be taken in order not to light up the tires. The chassis and suspension worked perfectly together, exhibiting a rigidity that even the Mazda couldn’t match for feel.

It was when our racing driver took out the Peugeot for a few timed flying laps that we were stunned. One lap registered a 1:49.07. I asked George to take out the car again, just to make sure that the number was correct and not an error. George then proceeded to nail down a 1:47.23, followed by a 1:46.88, a full five seconds quicker than the Civic. We thought we stuck a sheep amongst wolves with the Peugeot. After thoroughly lapping and driving the 308, it seems we actually dropped a lion in their midst.

 

THE VERDICT

Fun as this exercise was, we do have to derive our pick from this group. Some performed as expected, some threw a few – or even a lot of- unexpected surprises.

We liked the Kia. It’s an honest and enjoyable car for everyday driving and for the casual out of town jaunt. The Kia looks good doing it and comes in with great value, especially with that 5-year warranty. But we felt the Forte5’s abilities (especially with that 2.0L engine) were hampered by tires that produced as much noise as they did grip. If the suspension was slightly firmer and the rubber was a bit better, then the result would have been very different.

The Focus performed well, looks much better, and has almost every feature you will ever need on the road in it. The EcoBoost has the right stuff, but we feel there could be a lot more done in terms of engineering to truly make the Focus better. The gearbox could be improved upon further (especially in low speed driving) and the braking could use improvement as well.

Before going in, we thought this was going to be a contest between the Civic RS and the Mazda3, and who can blame us? The 3 has been a stellar performer for the last two years, grabbing awards like if a mall announced a three-day sale. Much of the model’s success has been because of driving dynamics and driving ergonomics; this is a car you can hop into and immediately be quick. But the limits aren’t as high when compared directly to the rest. Perhaps the imminent update will allow it to resume its position as king of the hill.

So the Civic and the Peugeot, then? Believe me when I say, this surprised all of us. To say the modestly different Peugeot beat the more powerful Civic RS over a lap is like downplaying Michael Phelps’ medals as a good achievement. No, the Peugeot obliterated the Civic’s lap with a combination of torque, a lightness of being, and a well-sorted chassis.

But this comparo wasn’t about all out lap times. We wanted to find something that would excite us as well as how it performed on the tests; we’re looking for something that exhibited the qualities of a proper driver’s car. Believe me when I say that we were stupefied when we drove the 308 against the rest, but the Peugeot’s unconventional driving layout was what decided the matter.

So the Honda, then. The RS looked great, it was the quickest on the acceleration tests and braked in the shortest distance once we compensated for compressor surge. The Honda was also the most efficient overall, and you’ll feel great behind the wheel of one. It was also the best over our high-speed lane change test.

Some will ask how the second-most expensive car in the group became the winner, and that’s a valid point. Our logic, however, was simple: we weren’t looking for value for money. We were looking for an automotive athlete, one that taps into our passion for driving.

On that note, the Honda Civic RS met what we were looking for.

 


SPECIFICATIONS

2016 MAZDA3 SKYACTIV 2.0R 5DR

Engine: Inline-4, 1998cc, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder,

Direct Injection, VVT, 6-speed AT

Max Power: 153 bhp @ 6000 rpm

Max Torque: 148 lb ft @ 4000 rpm

0 – 100 km/h: 12.3 sec

Top Speed: 210 km/h

L x W x H (mm): 4460 x 1795 x 1450

Wheelbase (mm): 2700

Tires Tested: Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 215/45R18

Price as tested: PhP 1,208,000.00

2016 KIA FORTE5 2.0 SX

Engine: Inline-4, 1999cc, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder,

Direct Injection, DCVVT, 6-Speed AT

Max Power: 159 bhp @ 6500 rpm

Max Torque: 143 lb ft @ 4800 rpm

0 – 100 km/h: 11.3 sec

Top Speed: 200 km/h

L x W x H (mm): 4350 x 1780 x 1460

Wheelbase (mm): 2700

Tires Tested: Nexen CP643A ECO 215/45R17

Price as tested: PhP 1,190,000.00

2016 FORD FOCUS 1.5 SPORT ECOBOOST

Engine: Inline-4, 1498cc, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder,

Direct Injection, Turbocharged, 6-speed AT

Max Power: 178 bhp @ 6000 rpm

Max Torque: 177 lb ft @ 1600 – 5000 rpm

0 – 100 km/h: 9.9 sec

Top Speed: 210 km/h

L x W x H (mm): 4358 x 1823 x 1484

Wheelbase (mm): 2650

Tires Tested: Michelin Primacy LC 215/50R17

Price as tested: PhP 1,088,000.00

2016 HONDA CIVIC RS TURBO

Engine: Inline-4, 1496cc, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder,

Direct Injection, VTEC, Turbocharged, CVT

Max Power: 171 bhp @ 5500 rpm

Max Torque: 162 lb ft @ 1700 – 5500 rpm

0 – 100 km/h: 9.5 sec

Top Speed: 201 km/h

L x W x H (mm): 4633 x 1799 x 1416

Wheelbase (mm): 2700

Tires Tested: Yokohama Advan dB Decibel 215/50R17

Price as tested: PhP 1,418,000 (White Orchid Pearl)

2016 PEUGEOT 308 HATCHBACK ALLURE

Engine: Inline-4, 1598cc, DOHC, 4 valves per cylinder,

Direct Injection, VVT, Turbocharged, 6-speed AT

Max Power: 148 bhp @ 6000 rpm

Max Torque: 177 lb ft @ 1400 rpm

0 – 100 km/h: 10.4 sec

Top Speed: 220 km/h

L x W x H (mm): 4253 x 1804 x 1457

Wheelbase (mm): 2620

Tires Tested: Goodyear Efficient Grip 225/45R17

Price as tested: PhP 1,490,000.00

mm
Executive Editor