February 28, 2011 By Andy Leuterio

Battle of the B’s

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Words by Andy Leuterio, Photos by – Vincent Garrucho

A hatch is a hatch is a hatch… or is it? Today’s crop of subcompact hatchbacks, the so-called “B-segment” cars, are rife with personality and driving enjoyment that belie their size. A genre pioneered by the Toyota Echo and capitalized later on by the first generation Honda Jazz, these are not “cheap” cars in the same vein as the Kia Picanto or Suzuki Celerio. Rather, these occupy a price point a hair below entry-level variants of the compacts, and with a premium to match the performance and driving comforts one normally expects from their larger siblings.

Two new entries in 2010 livened up the competition previously occupied by just the Toyota Yaris, Suzuki Swift, and Honda Jazz: the spunky Mazda2, and the fiesty Ford Fiesta. The Mazda2’s extroverted styling and playful handling hold true to Mazda’s “Zoom-Zoom” credo, while the Fiesta’s European flair gives it serious cachet for those looking for a change from the usual suspects.

Will either be enough to dethrone the reigning champ, the Honda Jazz? To determine how they fared, we rounded up our gang of editors for a day of driving in the metro and on the highways. 2010 Philippine Hill Climb Champion Carlos Anton also joined us at the Clark Speedway (where he also holds the current lap record) to share his insights on how each car behaves when pushed hard. And because these aren’t just one trick ponies, we also took the time to evaluate each car’s ergonomics, passenger riding comfort, versatility, and overall “bang-for-the-buck”.

And here’s how it played out…

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5th Place – Toyota Yaris
With its cheerful styling and reliable engineering, the Yaris appeals to the youthful market that’ve come to trust the Toyota brand for idiot-proof maintenance. At the hands of our team, everyone appreciated the car’s safe and predictable handling, with a nose that erupted in understeer at the limit to keep the tail from breaking loose and spinning the car out of control. The car’s 1.5-liter engine is also a proven fuel miser, and the 4-speed transmission with Euro-style gate delivers quick and smooth shifting. Still, it placed 4th in our 0-100kph acceleration test and 5th around the Clark Speedway with Carlos at the wheel. Overall, the Yaris proved a predictable and fuss-free experience. It just lacked the verve to really make a strong impression.

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CARLOS’ Impressions: “On track it was the only car I could not manipulate to lose its tail. Its rear end was planted to the black stuff all the time, and the car would instead understeer forcing you to brake slightly earlier… make sure you give the front end enough room to steer into the corner. The steering was the heaviest of the five tested and I liked it because it gave me feel around the track.”

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During my initial test drive, I immediately noticed how nimble the Yaris was. Weaving in and out of traffic was a cinch as steering felt light and the car was relatively small. It also had a tight turning radius which no doubt helped in maneuverability.

On the highway the Yaris is very stable. The power is instantly felt when you step on the accelerator and the transmission is smooth between gear shifts. I had an easy time getting all the way to 140 km/h; though getting past that was more difficult.

The cabin is very comfortable with seats that feel like a firm couch. You do sit rather high; similar to how you would driving a van. Though the cabin space is generous, cargo space is minimal. If you need to carry anything more than a few bags, you’ll have to drop the rear seats to make room. – Frank de Castro

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In its quest to make comfortable seats, it seems like Toyota forgot to add good bolstering. Folks who still refuse to buckle up for safety will find themselves sliding from side to side when the driver decides to have a bit of fun on the twisty bits. And that centrally-mounted instrument cluster can be a bane to drivers who want to hide how fast they’re going (the missus, on the other hand, will love it).

All told, the Yaris feels like any other Toyota—it feels just like home.” – Gerard Jude Castillo

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4th Place – Mazda2
This one was a surprise. Going by the seat-of-my-pants feel, the Mazda2 with its Peugot 206-inspired styling feels fast. It has a light and playful demeanour about it that had just about every tester flooring the accelerator at any opportunity and attempting a j-turn at every corner.

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Still, the lightest and smallest car of the bunch was handicapped by several factors: the lively suspension is so soft that it leans into nearly every turn, the 1.5-liter engine is the weakest of the lot and isn’t helped by a basic 4-speed automatic with an odd placement just below the dash, and the car’s lightweight feel comes at a cost of too little insulating materials. The numbers don’t lie: 5th at the 0-100kph sprint, and similarly 5th around the track with Carlos at the wheel.

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CARLOS’ Impressions: “I enjoyed the “Hold” button on the shifter that helps you keep the gear you’re… in or actually use it to go down one gear when needed. However, I did expect that for a new design it would have paddle shifters to keep up with the competition. One of the rear wheels lifts around a fast corner and makes the tail of the car lose although it won’t let you go into a full spin. Braking was good and predictable and the car felt light on its feet although it did not show it with its lap time.”

Two areas where the Mazda2 shines are cabin ergonomics and fit and finish. Although quite plasticky, the cabin doesn’t feel cheap. The doors close with a solid “tink” that even felt more rigid than its bigger (and older) Mazda3 stablemate. And all the switches are right where they should be. The metal grain trim used on the door panels even feels expensive.

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If you don’t mind the sporty feel, then take a ride in the Mazda2 hatchback. It’s a fountain of youth on wheels. – Gerard Jude Castillo
Although the Mazda2 shares the same platform with the Ford Fiesta, it is a very different car. Mazda has always been known for their design trend and the 2 represents that rightfully so. It’s a cute little hatch that has mischief and playfulness written all over it.

The power is there the moment you step on the throttle, making you feel as if you’re going faster than you actually are. And since it’s so light, you can easily toss this car around. – Jason A. de la Cruz

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3rd Place – Suzuki Swift
Talk about exceeding expectations. As the relative old man of the group, nearly every tester had written off the Swift for last place coming into the tests. After all, what does one normally expect from a 1.5-liter engine and a 4-speed automatic?

Yet the little car with the rally heritage and oversized Mini looks did a Rocky, endearing itself to drivers on both the track and on the highway. At the former, the car exhibited a near neutral demeanour that allowed Carlos to produce lap times second only to the Honda Jazz. On the highway, the car’s firm steering effort and stable ride belied its small size, making it a good choice for all day touring. If the car had a more sophisticated drivetrain and an updated interior, it might have moved even higher up the rankings.

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CARLOS’ Impressions: “It has one of the quieter cabins, and it rode the curbs of the track well. Power was almost right up there with the Honda. You could feel its rally-bred genes out on track with its precise steering and predictable rear slide immediately making me toss the car into the corners. Although its tail would willingly break traction when you needed it to, it would not let things get out of hand.”

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Front seat passenger and keen observers will immediately notice the straightforward yet somewhat dated look of the dash. And simply sitting in the cabin tells you that you’re in a car that was introduced awhile back.

A word of warning to tall passengers: stay away from the backseat as there is no legroom whatsoever. And those thick C-pillars can give claustrophobics a panic attack.

The Swift, however, surprises with its cabin silence. The engine can hardly be felt or heard even when the car is pushed. And passengers don’t get tossed around. Sure, the G’s are felt but there is still a sense of stability around the bends and on the straights. It simply feels solid overall.- Gerard Jude Castillo

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The handling was a bit on the twitchy side since the Swift doesn’t have the Electronic Stability Program like the Fiesta’s. However, an experienced driver will be rewarded with good times with its nimble handling. For the novices out there, the Swift will build up your confidence in time for you to find the limits.

One of the aspects that I would like to see improved is the 4-speed automatic transmission. I had to use the manual shifting mode often to get it to go down a lower gear. Even just following traffic on city roads makes it cruise in a higher gear. With the latest cars now having 6-speeds, dual clutches and paddle shifters, the Suzuki would be a much better car to drive with a more contemporary transmision. — Mike Potenciano

 

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2nd Place – Ford Fiesta Sport
The much-hyped Fiesta was a favorite coming into this test. With the largest displacement engine, 6-speed dual clutch transmission, and nimble handling from its Euro-tuned suspension, the little Ford felt the most stable among all the cars around the track and during the long drive to Clark. Testers also appreciated the sporty cockpit with its ideal driving position and quality fit and finish. However, the Fiesta’s vault-like solidity also made it feel porky when pushed hard, and lack of a manual override with the admittedly smart- and smooth-shifting tranny frustrated testers who like to shift for themselves when the pace gets frisky. As a fashion statement and all day touring machine though, the Fiesta just reeks of “X-factor”.

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Carlos’ Impressions: As soon as I sat in it I was in shock! It had the perfect driving position, and my hands fit nicely on the racing inspired steering wheel. The nobs, shifter, dash all felt so “German” and the gauges talk to the driver beautifully.

It had the quietest cabin, and after the first corner I knew its grip level was different. I immediately felt confident to do a quick lap. The transmission is constantly thinking for you, downshifting at the first step of the brake and finding the best gear to be in around corner. Probably the smartest gearbox of the bunch, I just let it do what it wanted. I only felt the slight lag coming out of a hard corner and realized that the traction control was kicking in, but other than that it was amazingly fast. My fastest lap was only a fraction of a second off the Jazz and Suzuki, but at no time did I feel on the ragged edge like I did with the other two. I honestly feel that it would have brought home the bacon had the traction control not kicked in whenever it did.

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The handling proved to be a revelation with the Fiesta proving to be the most stable of the lot. The Electronic Stability Program installed did its job beautifully as even the rear passengers felt at ease going hard around the track. It also posted the second best time around the short course and all of the testers felt confident driving the car to its limits.

The Fiesta boasts of having the strongest engine in the field even if it’s just by a very slight margin (121 bhp versus 120 for the 1.5-liter Honda Jazz). The 6-speed power shift automatic transmission really kept the power at its peak on the track. However, I would really love to see a Paddle Shift option and not just a Low and Drive gate. Hope my prayers are answered soon, but for now the Fiesta is my all-around car for street and track use. – Mike Potenciano

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This car feels a lot more expensive than its price suggests. Slam the door, for example, and you’ll hear a solid “thud”. The doors even feel heavier than any other in its class. And the materials used throughout the cabin are first rate, save for a few areas covered in hard plastic. Cabin space is likewise aplenty, although that sexy rear quarter window cut-out on the hatchback may make some feel a bit “enclosed”. There’s even a cargo area cover to conceal precious items

People accustomed to European cars will find all the switches right where they should be. And speaking of Euro, the silence and firm yet supple suspension reminds one of the quieter and more solid rides from the continent. In fact, the only time passengers will realize the driver has hit the bends is when they start feeling the slight g-forces. It’s that stable. The Ford Fiesta really does give that “big car feeling at a small car price”. – Gerard Jude Castillo

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1st Place – Honda Jazz
When all was said and done, the Jazz proved to be the race car of the bunch. The little VTEC engine paired with the 5-speed paddle shifters won first place honors in the 0-100kph sprint and timed laps by Carlos. It was the only car able to chirp its wheels from rest, and it just accelerated from corner to corner with the energy of a rabid Chihuahua. However, the car’s split personality also won points for versatility with the roomiest cargo area and its fold-to-the-floor rear seats. Not everybody liked the Jazz’ humongous dash or its minivan-ish looks, but on balance the car provides the best compromise between practicality and driving enjoyment.

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Carlos’ Impressions: The car that is supposed to set the bar in its class failed me miserably with its extremely high seating position which made me feel like I was driving a minivan. I felt like I was sitting on top of the car rather than in it. With the size of the dash, you could serve dinner for five. Everything also felt of low-grade plastic inside. But those are its bad points.

On the good side, the engine was typical Honda: Damn Good! It would scream to the redline and the gearbox would let you hold the gear without up-shifting. Steering was just right, not too light and not too heavy. Transmission was precise and quick enough to do what a racer would want. I could almost see an extra 8 kph more on the fastest part of the track compared to the other models tested. It was one of only two cars that probably had enough power to make you lose control, and made the car the twitchiest one of the bunch. But bottom line is… it is still the quickest of the lot.

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This is the priciest car of the lot, but it’s obvious where all the money goes. The engine is a screamer, the 5-speed automatic is a joy to shift, and the chassis feels go kart-like. Yet the responsible part of me can’t help but admire the cabin that’s actually roomier than some compact SUVs if you fold down the seats. Now if only Honda would hire some Italian designers…- Andy Leuterio

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The large windows and station wagon configuration help make the cabin bright and airy. Seating position is high and gives the feeling of being inside a “mini” minivan. Being a Honda, fit and finish are excellent, choice of materials are top-notch and every switch and door handle falls right into hand.

Speaking of minivans, the Jazz’s unique-to-the-class ULTRA flexible seating allows for all kinds of cargo to be loaded every which way. More knick-knacks can even be stowed away in the numerous cubbyholes scattered throughout the cabin as well as in the dual glove-box.

On the move, engine and road noise can be heard yet aren’t intrusive. A decent conversation or “sound-tripping” at moderate volume is still possible. And drivers can even have their fun in the twisties without unsettling passengers too much.- Gerard Jude Castillo

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