Sixth Place: 2007 Suzuki SX4 Sport
21 City/28 Highway || Free Price Quote
Of a possible 250 test points, this Suzuki earns 14 more than the Scion, a clear margin, yet they have similar shortcomings: They don't fit our drivers. Both lack seat-height adjusters. Moreover, their pedals are too close to the seat, and the steering wheels are oddly angled. Suzuki compounds the misery with a folding armrest between the seats. Up or down, it's always in the wrong place.
This four-door sedan, Suzuki claims, is the sporting version of the five-door, also called the SX4. Translation: The five-door's hatchback has been replaced by a notchback with a separate trunk. For the record, our sport meter was unmoved. Still, this is a solidly screwed together runabout with accurate steering and good composure over the road, and a relatively good ride, too. The interior theme is simple, executed with quality materials. Dash and door panels have a low-sheen surface that looks particularly rich. Surprisingly, it's as hard as concrete to the touch.
With an EPA rating of 22 mpg city and 30 highway, fuel economy is midpack. In our 300-mile test drive the Suzuki finished in a fourth-place tie, beating out three others to return 24 mpg, 4 mpg behind the most-frugal Corolla.
The SX4 makes the best use of its lofty roofline -- highest of the group at 60.8 inches -- by placing the rear bench at chair height, reducing the need for leg stretch-out room. And there's decent headroom for three-across seating. Unfortunately, the seat itself doesn't fold forward to open cargo space for long items, a feature we believe should be a part of all small cars.
Many comments were written about the pseudo-vent-window styling at the A-pillar, none of them favorable. Inspired by FedEx trucks? An overt appeal to the nerd market? Hey, nerds need cars, too.
Fifth Place: 2009 Mitsubishi Lancer GTS
22 City/30 Highway || Free Price Quote
Lancers come in sensible-shoes DE and ES trim levels, too, but New Year's arrived early at Mitsubishi stores where the 2009s are on the floor. The sport-suited GTS may not be ideally suited to our quest for 35-mpg cars -- standard equipment includes an upsized, 2.4-liter engine with 168 horsepower, 16 more than the 2.0-liter that still propels lesser Lancers -- but car guys do not live by thrift alone. With the GTS suspension tuning and 215/45R-18 Dunlop SP Sport tires, this Lancer rides a bit stiff-legged, although not more so than the Saturn Astra.
The Lancer is the big guy of the group, but barely more than an inch longer than the Corolla; widths of the two are identical. The windshield sweeps steeply forward to a low cowl, making the cockpit feel sportier than all the others. The hugger sport seats add to the mood. The interior shapes and details tend toward busy; black-flannel-like cloth on the seats and center armrest feels soft to the touch.
The upsized engine for 2009 makes the Lancer quickest through the quarter-mile in 15.9 seconds. Fuel economy on the test trip ranked lowest, however, at 21 mpg.
Yet speed is not necessary for this Mitsu to feel sporty. The low 45-series Dunlops miss no opportunity to rumble, roar, and kawop! over pavement imperfections; stones thrown up ping loudly off the floorpan. The balance-shaft four doesn't thrash, but it sends lots of small thrums into the passenger cabin. The steering plays along, with lots of little kickbacks. There's just enough wind rush to sound fast even when it's not.
Fun so far, but the jumpy throttle is silly.
The back seat sits low, but the seat itself has supportive contours and appropriate firmness. The Lancer GTS is a zingy formula obviously not aimed at thrift.
Fourth Place: 2008 Saturn Astra XR
24 City/32 Highway || Free Price Quote
Cue the violins! Financially struggling GM, after years of trying to export cars built with strong dollars into weak-currency markets, has reached into Germany for a small car built in euros to sell here. Profits at last? No way. The dollar plummeted, making this Opel-built, Saturn-labeled five-door an expensive import, at least in the near term.
The Astra follows the European formula for family haulers, a two-box design similar in concept to VW's Rabbit but about five inches longer. The extra length pays off big in the back, with excellent foot space and a cushion perfectly shaped for support, even though it's rather low. Three-across seating is surprisingly good, too, with none of the usual gripes from "hump boy."
The 1.8-liter is about as wimpy as its 138-hp rating would suggest, strolling to 60 mph in 9.3 seconds on the way to a last-place finish in the quarter at 17.1 seconds and 82 mph. Braking was about average, but skidpad grip topped the ranking at 0.84 g. Fuel economy on our test loop ranked fourth before rounding down to 24 mpg, matching the Astra's EPA city rating for 2008.
We very much liked the feel, shape, and look of the cloth seats front and back, but we're less enthusiastic about other interior details -- markings on the knobs and switches are inscrutable, and the center-dash display looks like some IBM leftover from the '80s DOS age. For a German car, the Astra is surprisingly rattly-buzzy inside. The shifter is clunky, too.
The optional Sport Handling package ($695) is surely to blame for the crisp ride, but it brings this car alive in the twisties, with quick responses and lots of kickback in the steering.
The Astra strikes a good compromise between frugality and fun.