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The concept makes perfect sense; a compact city car paired with an automatic transmission should, in theory, present the ideal urban transport solution. At about four metres in length, a B-segment hatch is easy to weave through traffic and park in cramped bays, while the addition of a self-shifting gearbox removes the strain of pumping a clutch and flicking through a manual ‘box in congested commuting conditions.

But theory and practice don’t always correspond. Small automatic hatchbacks used to be wretched things; heavier on fuel and far slower than their manual brethren, they were more pain than pleasure.

In recent years, however, and thanks to the advent of punchier engines and quicker-shifting boxes with more gears that are closely stacked together, cars of this breed have started fulfilling their original brief with aplomb.

We’ve gathered four B-segment hatches with different transmission setups to see which combination works best.

THE DETAILS
The manual version of the newest car here, the Mazda2, impressed the CAR team by putting in a strong performance against the new Opel Corsa (May 2015). Here we’re again testing the 1,5 Dynamic, but this time hooked to a six-speed torque converter automatic transmission. We’d like to find out whether the Mazda retains its sporty nature once shorn of the brilliant manual ‘box.
Also sporting a torque converter but lacking the Mazda’s top two gears is the Hyundai i20 in flagship Fluid trim level. It has a small engine and an old-fashioned gearbox, yet costs the most, so has it all to prove.

Next up for assessment is the recently facelifted Toyota Yaris. Its 1,3-litre engine is known to punch above its weight thanks to the Yaris keeping its waistline trim, but here it’s paired with a continuously variable transmission (CVT)... If you’re a regular reader of CAR, you’d know we’re not exactly fans of that gearbox setup. Let’s see whether the Yaris’s ‘box can convince us otherwise.
Rounding up the quartet is the Ford Fiesta. At seven years since its international launch, it’s the oldest vehicle here by some margin, but its stylish bodywork hides a three-time
International Engine of the Year, the 1,0-litre Ecoboost powertrain. What’s more, this three-cylinder thrums in conjunction with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. Counting against the Fiesta is Ambiente trim, which has far fewer standard features than the others.

We’ve tested all four cars in various guises in the past, and those articles are all available online at CARmag.co.za, so here we’ll focus on their drivetrains, how their setups translate into easing the stresses of commuting, what you get for your money and finally whether they are the cut-price alternatives to larger vehicles they promise to be.

UNDER THE SKIN
The Mazda’s 1,5-litre SkyActiv engine offers the most power here (82 kW) and the second highest torque (145 N.m), yet the vehicle weighs the least
(1 044 kg, or a whole 106 kg less than the portliest, the Fiesta). Considering it has a close-ratio six-speed automatic transmission that puts the peaky engine right in the thick of its torque peak, it’s no surprise the Mazda sprinted to 100 km/h in just 10,31 seconds. It’s also the fastest in-gear, needing just 4,57 seconds to race from 40 to 80 km/h and 7,83 seconds from 80 to 120.

Hot on its heels was the Fiesta. Although the vehicle’s mass played a role in curbing ultimate acceleration, the turbocharged Ecoboost engine’s 170 N.m of torque delivered from a mere 1 400 r/min, aligned with the smooth-shifting dual-clutch, allowed it to reach 100 km/h in 11,52 seconds. In the aforementioned overtaking-acceleration sectors, the Fiesta required 5,06 and 9,16 seconds.

The Yaris was third fastest, as it reached three figures in 12,13 seconds and took 5,16 seconds to hit 80 km/h from 40. It just bested the Ford from 80 to 120 km/h by 0,29 seconds. The CVT puts the Toyota’s engine right where it delivers it peak power – near 6 000 r/min – which predictably makes for noisy progress until the transmission decides to drop the revs.

Bringing up the rear is the i20. It delivers its maximum torque at a decent 3 500 r/min, but its 1,4-litre engine is hobbled by the four-speed auto that offers ponderous shifts and a reluctance to select a lower gear when additional momentum is needed. The i20’s acceleration times? A sluggish 13,08, 6,08 and 12,38 seconds, respectively. At least the engine remains refined throughout the speed range.

ON THE MOVE
The Hyundai’s sub-par showing on our performance test strip has less relevance in cut-and-thrust motoring, where the four-speed feels less compromised, the engine hums in the background, the ride is pliant and the cabin hushed. Adding to what must surely be the most refined cockpit in this class are comfy, supportive seats (with the most shoulder- and headroom front and rear of all four rivals) and light, feel-free steering. The Hyundai also has the largest boot with the rear seats in their place, but its loading lip is the highest at 740 mm. Lastly, it’s fuel efficiency is below average, a drawback with this engine we’ve also noted on our manual i20 long-termer .

Aligning itself more with the i20’s unfussed nature than the Mazda’s sportiness, the Yaris has less rolling comfort – the wheelbase is the shortest here, leading to a spot of choppiness on undulating tar – but better steering feel and response through a sporty-looking, leather-trimmed tiller that’s the only one to boast shift paddles. Its body control, however, is mediocre and one tester even experienced disconcerting lift-off oversteer when easing off the sensitive throttle in a tight corner. Subjectively measured, it’s also the noisiest of the four vehicles at highway speeds, but its cabin loading space is the largest when measured with our ISO blocks and it’s light on fuel.

Neither car can hold a candle to the Mazda and especially the Ford when it comes to on-road prowess. The former displays an eagerness to change direction, its electric power-steering system feeling quick and direct and its suspension controlling body movements better than most B-segmenters. A slight downside to the Mazda’s cornering capability is a firm ride. The damping is mostly very good, but transverse ridges and the like can catch out the 2. What’s more, the Mazda has the least amount of rear legroom and the smallest boot, but compensates with acceptable fuel economy.

The Fiesta has no dynamic issues. All Fords ride well, but the city hatch is especially compliant. On these wheels and in this spec, the Fiesta has the best rolling comfort in the entire class. Yet its handling is predictable and benign, it steers fluently and brakes well.

The Fiesta betrays its age, however, with cheap cabin plastics, narrow, shapeless front seats and tight rear legroom.

ON THE SPEC SHEETS
This is where it gets tricky for the Fiesta. At R229 900, it’s the cheapest of the lot. But buyers should take their time to study its spec sheet. For example, in Ambiente spec the Ford does not offer audio or air-con as standard. To add a Bluetooth/USB-equipped sound system, as well as factory fitted air-con, to the Fiesta’s equipment tally costs R14 130. Doing that, though, doesn’t address the Blue Oval’s spec shortfall; it still doesn’t have a trip computer, height-adjustment on the too-high driver’s seat, rear electric windows, alloy wheels or even an alarm. For this reason, we’d recommend the Trend version that retails for R241 900 and adds enough toys to place it on par with the Toyota.

Unlike the Fiesta, the Yaris is arguably very well priced. Its spec tally includes Toyota’s excellent Touch infotainment system (the CAR team’s favourite here because it’s simple to use and lifts the cabin’s humdrum ambience), as well as side airbags – two more than the Ford – and handsome 15-inch wheels.

Next up in terms of price is the Mazda, which at R223 000 looks like conspicuously good value. Like the Yaris, it too has an infotainment screen – controlled by a tactile knob on the transmission tunnel – and leather trim on the small steering wheel, gear knob and handbrake handle. Surprisingly, the youngest vehicle in this quartet has a mere two airbags, but its cabin has the smartest trim and classy instrumentation nestled under a deep cowl.

Topping the price charts is the i20. R255 900 is a lot of money to pay for a 1,4-litre B-segment hatch, but Hyundai can justify the pricing to a degree by mentioning this Fluid model offers everything the other cars do, except a touchscreen infotainment system, and adds climate control, glovebox cooling, auto-folding side mirrors and rear-sited park distance control (although that plastic steering wheel is a real eyesore). It also has the best warranty. Incidentally, all the vehicles have service plans as standard.

TEST SUMMARY

There are valid reasons to recommend each vehicle, but it was clear from the outset that only two contenders would ultimately vie for test honours.

The Yaris wasn't one of those two. Although it is well priced, easy to park and pilot, and comes from a company with an extensive dealer network and famed product reliability, its ride is too unrefined and the cabin too small for it to mount a serious challenge.

Nor was the i20 in the running... Despite its class-leading refinement and large cockpit, we couldn't ignore the fact that it consumes too much fuel and is relatively expensive. In final voting, the Toyota and Hyundai each scored a middling 72/100, four points adrift of the second-placed vehicle.

As you'd have guessed, only the Ford and Mazda were left fighting for overall victory. We're fans of the former because it has the best engine and chassis in the class. The Ecoboost engine remains a marvel years after its launch - its distinctive, though muted, warble is addictive - and the ride is sublime. But we can't ignore the dated, cramped interior and poor spec.

Which leaves the Mazda. It has deficiencies, sure - a vehicle with such a long wheelbase shouldn't be so cramped - but it's great fun to drive, performs admirably, has sensible pricing and great design inside and out. It shows that small-car automatic motoring needn't be boring, nor an exercise in compromise.

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