Children of the Revolution

Theyíre among the smallest and cheapest babies in Oz; theyíre also bursting with brio and bonhomie

WORDS BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS PHOTOS CRISTIAN BRUNELLI

HEAP cars are revolting. No, weíre not talking about bargain-basement downers like the Chery J1 or Mitsubishi Mirage, but a promising new wave of inexpensive urban runabouts that deliver a surprising amount of driving pleasure. Affordable fun without any nasty aftertaste, if you will.

The brilliant Volkswagen Up may have left the building last year, but thereís still some life in the so-called Micro class, with two newcomers lobbing for our attention. Suzuki leads the charge with the Celerio while Nissan has finally introduced the facelifted Micra, almost two years after it surfaced abroad.

Silly name aside, Suzukiís Alto replacement hits the ground running with $12,990 drive-away pricing for the 1.0-litre three-cylinder five-speed manual. Not short on spec, it includes Bluetooth audio streaming, power windows, electric mirrors and a trip computer. And, sadly, cartoonish styling, like Chicken Little on wheels.

The sky almost fell in for this Thai-built hatch, following a scandal involving repeated UK brake failures. But Suzuki acted fast and fixed the issue, so no local cars are affected. Just to make sure, we slammed those stoppers numerous times.

Micra is priced from $13,490 and the refreshed ST 1.2 three-cylinder five-speed manual gains less ghastly plastics to go with a more mature centre console, sharper-looking nose, different tail-lights and tailgate, standard cruise control (a segment first, and missing in

Thereís more Swift in the Celerio than its frumpy form suggests

the others), fold-down driverís left armrest, rear power windows, upgraded multimedia with (at times patchy) full Bluetooth and USB connectivity, a boot light and a full-size spare. And itís the only five-seater in this group. Feature for feature, the Micra is anything but.

Both these babies are taking on one of our remaining sub-B faves, the Fiat 500. With 3000 sold here last year Ė second in class behind Mitsubishiís ailing Mirage Ė the post-modern Cinquecento is a natural.

But can the Little Lollobrigida stand the heat? In this assembly of all-atmo aspirants, the 500 is eight years old, two doors short and missing essentials like a proper glovebox, split/fold rear backrests and audio streaming. Plus, after last Augustís ĎSeries 3í refresh, the base Pop 1.2 four-cylinder five-speed manual rocketed from $14,000 drive-away to $16,000 plus on-roads, though dealers regularly discount to the old price. Check the papers.

Importantly, the Polish-made Italian is alone here in offering five-star safety (the others get four), seven airbags, auto power windows, time-delay auto headlights, leather-clad steering wheel, massive seat angle adjustment, a hill-hold function and Fiatís City mode steering that makes parking a cinch. All are surprise-and-delight features rare at this price point.

That all counts for diddly if the Fiatís lack of rear doors strikes it from shopping lists, but consider this: at least the pair of doors the 500 does have shut solid, open wide and feature handy shoulder-height, frontseat slide releases with previous-position memory for effortless back-seat access.

However, the Celerio beats the 500 for entry and egress excellence. Suzuki clearly designed its city car from the inside out, with exceptional interior packaging enhanced by deep windows and lofty seating that heighten the sense of space.

Celerioís Swift-style dash is a model of clarity and functional cohesiveness, but after the funky Alto itís all a bit dull and conventional. Some polka-dot trim patterns attempt to groove things up, but practicality wins the day with cupholders, overhead grab handles, a map pocket, ISOFIX child-seat points and a 254-litre boot (a smidge more than Micra and nearly 70 litres ahead of the Fiatís shallow cargo area, though only the Nissan sports a full-size spare).

On the flipside, the Celerio loses points with a clammy steering wheel, tinny audio sound quality, and front headrests and rear backrests that jut out too far,

Endangered species

INEXPLICABLY, unlike everywhere else on the planet, Fiat Australia positions Panda above rather than below the 500, explaining why the five-seater is as rare here as its animal namesake. And just as endangered, too, if the companyís inability to find us a $16,500 Pop manual Ė currently $14,500 endang drive-away Ė for this comparo is any indication.

Curious pricing and invisible marketing suggest Panda fans ought to be quick before it goes the way of the VW Up. And that would be a shame for thereís more than enough Cinquecento-derived chassis goodness to justify the Pandaís continued existence.

a potential deal-breaker for sensitive physiques.

Aside from sharing a commanding driving position and subsequent excellent views all round, the Celerioís weaknesses are Micraís strengths. The Nissanís steering wheel, stereo and rear backrests are strong points, but it squanders its five-seat advantage spectacularly with a torturously bony cushion and poor rear packaging hampered by a sloping roofline (unlike the palatial Suzuki). Also, our test carís seat cloth trim sagged alarmingly in places, and having no lane-change indicator is downright annoying these days.

The Fiat, in contrast, suffers from no such incongruities, due to ambience and quality that seems like the difference between economy and business class. But it isnít perfect. For instance, the driving position is oddly upright and perched, the left footrest is too high, the centre console fouls your knees and greater seat and/or steering column adjustability is required. The 500 forces its driver to mould around it, rather than the other way around. And if you donít

European exodus

DESPITE increasing congestion, local Microsegment sales slipped by 30 percent last year, to fewer than 16,000 units.

Thatís why weíre denied some of Europeís most beguiling babies, including the rear-engined, rear-drive Renault Twingo and its Smart ForFour twin, the Opel Adam, Toyota Aygo/Peugeot 108/ Citroen C1 triplets, Hyundai i10 and the recently discontinued VW Up and its Skoda Citigo sibling.

At least Kia is seriously considering the latest Picanto, also from Europe. Two years ago we drove one in the UK and were impressed with its style, refinement, maturity and efficiency. Brand loyalty is best achieved by snaring young buyers starting out, so if Fiat can make the 500 work here, the others can, too.

fit, too bad. Other foibles include limited rear-seat headroom, poor storage, cluttered instruments (only up-spec models get the TFT screen) and a shallow boot.

However, no rival can match the Fiatís evocatively retro single-binnacle dash, glossy painted fascia, leather wheel, snooker-ball gearknob, fashionable houndstooth seat material and lashings of faux chrome.

The 500 can also do sensible. Its seats are the most supportive, the plastics seem hardy, and four averagesize adults should fit comfortably, despite this groupís shortest wheelbase, thanks to foot room under the front seats. And the Fiatís City steering effort-lightener and large glass area truly aid tight-spot manoeuvrability.

Thereís also far less mechanical and road noise intrusion, while not a rattle was detected in our highmileage test car. Shocked? Donít be. Fiat has been at it since 1899, with benchmark-setting babies like the Topolino (1936-55), Bambino (1957-75) and Cinquecento (1991-98). It also has this groupís longest warranty.

Nowhere is Fiatís experience more obvious than on the road, despite relying on a 30-year-old engine. Far from being shamed by its three-cylinder competition, the Popís 51kW/102Nm 1.2-litre four-pot eight-valve single-cammer surprises with a velvety flexibility in keeping with its lush ambience.

Smart gearing helps the Fiatís lively off-the-line acceleration, but beware a flat-spot if the revs drop and youíre in a ratio too high. Pleasingly, then, the fivespeederís shift quality is the slickest (yet weightiest) here, so the required rowing along isnít a burden.

The numbers donít tell the whole story, however.

The Popís 0-100km/h time of 14.1sec might be almost a second adrift of the Micra and 1.2sec slower than the brisk Suzuki, but the gaps narrow significantly approaching highway speeds, with the 500 pulling willingly into the 120km/h range without straining.

Maybe thatís the four-cylinder advantage, though a preference for premium unleaded is a disadvantage.

Stepping into the Micra is sobering because, while its 1.2 triple is the power leader here at 56kW/104Nm,

Micra squanders its five-seat advantage spectacularly with a torturously bony cushion and poor rear packaging

The Polish-made Italian has surprise-and-delight features rare at this price point

itís the heaviest of the tots, 113kg more than the featherweight Suzuki. So the Nissan is a tad lethargic off the line and doesnít really hit its stride until well past 4000rpm. The STís leading third-gear 80-120km/h acceleration time (10.0sec) reflects the strength and resilience of its top end.

That would all be okay if the drivetrain wasnít so coarse and loud Ė made worse by industrial-level aircon noises Ė with the notchiest gearshift action here.

And at 7.3L/100km against 6.4 for the Fiat and only 5.8 for the Suzuki, it needs to lighten up on the unleaded.

Miserly as the Celerio is, its sparkling 50kW/90Nm 1.0-litre triple is a terrific performer in and out of town, sweeping the 830kg hatch along with infectious enthusiasm. Fizzy without the buzz, its linear torque delivery is a boon, backed up by a sweet and light shift action. This car is happy to crawl around in top gear without hesitation.

Itís therefore disheartening that Suzuki didnít go the extra mile with the steering, which has a sticky straight-ahead dead spot that robs it of potential go-kart dartiness and feel. Beyond that, the Celerio is remarkably responsive and fluent on a winding road, soaking up bumps with a suppleness normally reserved for better French runabouts. Thereís more Swift in the Celerio than its frumpy form suggests.

Age seems to have caught up with the Micra because it feels loose and leaden by comparison, the tyres roaring in protest as the Nissan leans and understeers through the same corners at the same speeds. Silver at COTY 2010 seems a long time ago.

Yet the groupís veteran, the 500, still shows the way dynamically, with the sharpest steering, underscoring

the most agile and composed chassis of the trio.

The helm is the most alive for both interaction and feedback, without feeling too nervous.

And while the short wheelbase makes it bob around at speed on bumpy roads, it remains planted and controlled. ESC intervention on gravel is the gentlest by some margin, further highlighting the carís engineering thoroughness.

Besides its timeless beauty, thatís what separates the 500 from the Celerio and Micra.

Itís the only car here that looks and feels like one youíd choose out of desire rather than economic necessity. Just donít pay full price for a Pop Ė not when it was $14K drive-away little more than a year ago. That should be your haggling starting point. Weíre not mugs, Fiat.

Seeing past the Celerioís dowdiness isnít easy, but it rises above its pricing with an exceptional drivetrain, packaging and chassis composure. Think of it as a roomier Swift, but hit with the dorky stick. So close.

Micra isnít disgraced, but itís clearly off the pace against such polar-opposite obsessives.

While showing wrinkles in the drivetrain, dynamics and refinement, the Nissan still presents a sound (if noisy) value proposition.

Itís far from the worst in class.

The good news is that all three of our sub-B babies prove that thereís still plenty of life Ė and plenty to like Ė at the most affordable end of the market, even if VWís impressive Up couldnít make it work.