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Can the cheapest autos on our market really shift expectations? We find out...

It's an interesting one: a test requested by readers that doesn't involve performance cars, bakkies, SUVs or even such staples of mid-range motoring as B-segment hatchbacks and compact sedans. This test encompasses a segment in our market that's so niche that the representatives here comprise three-quarters of the sub-R180 000 automatic hatchback models available (Honda, unfortunately, was unable to supply a Brio).

This segment may be a rarefied one in South Africa, but it's one with a surprisingly broad customer base that ranges from younger, style-conscious folk whose commute is often mired in traffic, to empty nesters who are downsizing and are after something simple to pilot that doesn't break the bank. With this in mind, we gathered three of the cheapest new automatics on the market to see if leaving the shifting to a computer leaves too much to be desired.

Design and packaging

Aesthetically, the Suzuki sits very much on the function-over-form side of the fence – its neat but rather blocky frame plays host to a cabin that, by virtue of plentiful headroom and glazing, feels airier than its higher-shouldered, darker-trimmed rivals. Even so, despite the impression of spaciousness you get when sitting in front of the functional but solid dash, the Celerio serves up the least rear legroom here.

Although they're based on the same platform, the two Koreans couldn't be more visually divergent. The Hyundai is neat and looks more upmarket than the somewhat slab-sided Suzuki, but it's rendered rather dowdy when parked next to the sharper-suited, funkier Kia.

The Hyundai's facia may reflect its conservative exterior, but it is ergonomically sound and the material quality is good. However, it's the Kia's cabin that feels the most special thanks to plastics that appear just a touch denser than those used on the Suzuki and a high-tech looking dash with a sporty binnacle and funky trim details. Lower-slung seats that are bolstered for smaller frames further hint at the Kia's sportier bent.

By contrast, the Suzuki's pews are supportive but simply flat, while the Hyundai's seats strike a good balance. All the cars feature rake-only adjustment for the steering column, but it's the driving position in both the Hyundai and Suzuki that are somewhat perched, especially in the latter where there's no height adjustment for the driver's seat.

That said, the Kia's good looks come at a cost. Despite possessing the most rear legroom, the stylish little hatch plays host to a luggage compartment that, at 112/774 dm3, is even smaller than the structurally similar Hyundai's. The Suzuki, meanwhile, sports the most generous boot and utility measurement, spanning 168/846 dm3.

Performance

Ease of use is the key proviso that each of these cars has to meet and this essentially boils down to just how well their automatic transmissions mesh with those small, modestly powered engines. The Koreans have gone the conventional route, each adopting a four-speed torque-converter unit.

Being coupled with a three-cylinder engine in the Kia and a four-cylinder in the Hyundai, the powertrains possess individual nuances, but both work well in their respective applications. Take the Kia: although its engine is smaller than that of the Hyundai, it's more lively and free-revving, and willing to gamely cling onto the gears when gunning the throttle and shifting assuredly otherwise. It's also less vocal than the coarse-sounding Hyundai, which contributes to the Kia exhibiting the best NVH suppression of the three. The Hyundai's setup feels more leisurely and slightly smoother in its shifts than the Kia.

For round-town driving, the 1,1-litre unit doesn't feel as lively as the Kia's, but it's nippy enough to comfortably deal with most driving conditions. It's when the speeds climb above 120 km/h that the four-cylinder's extra torque announces itself, making the Hyundai feel reasonably strong while the Kia runs noticeably short of puff at the top end.

Suzuki has opted for a very different approach, using what's basically a manual gearbox with a transmission-control unit that actuates the hydraulics involved in shifting through the gears. It's a setup that some of us at CAR have encountered previously in certain Alfa Romeo and Smart models and, with its jerky, often poorly mapped gearshifts, it's never been a particularly effective one.

Suzuki claims that its automated manual transmission is a good compromise between the convenience of an automatic and the involvement of a manual 'box, but in the Celerio this setup flits between nuanced and nadired. Knock the selector into manual and, once you've learnt to time lifting off the throttle between shifts, it works well enough and can be quite fun as it clings tenaciously onto your chosen ratio and downshifts are reasonably brisk. But that's about the extent of this 'box's virtues.

With "D" selected and left to its own devices, some noticeable flaws present themselves in the form of shudder under low-speed creep (especially evident when the car is cold or steering turned full-lock) and pronounced lurch between gearshifts that knocks the wind out of the already modestly powered engine. Mashing the throttle can also exacerbate things when the 'box decides to double downshift, resulting in almost a second of what feels like clutch-down loss of momentum in a manual car. Some testers even resorted to keeping the car in manual when entering busy junctions so this momentary lapse didn’t affect their exit and eventually resorted to driving in manual all the time. Granted, you eventually learn to time slight lifts off the throttle to smooth things out, but it somewhat goes against the main reason you would buy an automatic, to simply select D and pay it no further mind.

On the road

The substantial on-road feel of the Korean cars has perennially impressed our team and it's especially evident in the company of the lighter Celerio. It's not that the Suzuki feels insubstantial, but it does concede to crosswinds a little sooner than its peers. There's the impression that the car has a higher centre of gravity than the others, perhaps owing to its elevated ground clearance and driving position.

It's more softly sprung than its competitors and generates a bit more lean in corners, but this is offset by a ride that isn't as choppy or prone to crashing over larger road scars as the otherwise composed Koreans.

Although their steering actions are light enough to prove town-friendly, there's a satisfying spot of weightiness to the Kia's rack that lends itself well to the car's sporty demeanour. The Suzuki's steering is especially light, favouring fingertip wieldiness over feel, while the Hyundai's tiller strikes a neat balance between the two. Factor in overall lengths of around 3,6 metres and circa-9,5-metre turning circles, and none of them present any parking challenges.

Given that safety features that were previously the preserve of larger cars are increasingly filtering down into A-segment models, it's remarkable that both Korean firms continue to offer their respective lower-spec models without a safety feature as essential as ABS. While the difference in stopping times between the Koreans and the Suzuki constitute just half a second, the disparity between distances is distinct, with the Kia and Hyundai halting four and 10 metres astray of the Suzuki, respectively. But what's even more telling is the manner in which they respond to emergency braking.

In the case of those downsizing from likely better-equipped larger cars, or younger drivers used to ABS-equipped cars, both parties are less likely to possess the dexterity or knowledge to safely cadence brake in an emergency. Although their brakes work well enough at lower speeds, the usual reflex action of stamping on the anchors when a hazard quickly presents itself will see both the Korean cars locking up their wheels and skewing off their intended lines in a trail of tyre smoke and freshly laid rubber. By contrast, the same exercise in the ABS-equipped Suzuki has it coming to a far more composed halt without crabbing.

Both Korean cars feature driver airbags, whereas the Suzuki adds a passenger-side 'bag to its list of safety features. Those carting kids will be interested to know that the Kia is the only member of the group that features Isofix child-seat anchorage points.

Value for money and fuel efficiency

Here the Celerio really begins to exert its control over its peers, not only coming in at an appreciably lower price point, but also doing so with a more rounded standard specification that includes such features as electric windows all-round, air-con, electric mirrors and a Bluetooth-enabled audio system with steering wheel-mounted controls, in addition to the above-mentioned safety features.

Being the more expensive members of the trio, we expected the Koreans to trump the Celerio on the standard equipment front, but were instead presented with an odd mixture of specification. For instance, while the Kia has such unique-to-this-group features as auto headlamps and Isofix, the omission of rear electric windows, steering wheel audio controls and especially Bluetooth in a car that's stylistically directed at younger, likely tech-savvy, buyers is conspicuous.

The Hyundai compares more favourably with the Celerio, its only noticeable omission being remote central locking.

Both Korean cars feature a five-year/150 000 km warranty that betters the Suzuki's three-year/100 000 km item, but Hyundai has taken things a step further with the recent addition of a two-year drivetrain warranty extension on top of the existing plan that covers, among other things, the transmission's
torque converter.

The Celerio counters with the standard inclusion of a two-year/30 000 km service plan. It may not sound like much, but it will take care of the car's first two scheduled services, and that's invaluable to buyers on a tight budget. An equivalent plan for the i10 costs around R5 500 via an accredited Hyundai service provider, while a two-year/45 000 km service plan for the Kia weighs in at just over R8 000.

Our mixed-use fuel route runs also saw the Celerio come out on top, with an average fuel consumption figure of 5,7 L/100 km, compared with the Hyundai's 6,0 and the Kia's surprisingly thirsty 7,0 L/100 km.

TEST SUMMARY

The verdict is a somewhat contentious but quantifiable one. We're very taken with the Kia and Hyundai, particularly in terms of their styling, solid build and generally good road manners. But a combination of pricing that's no longer competitive and sometimes-odd standard specification contributes to their relegation to also-ran status here. Their ultimate shortcoming, though, is their lack of ABS - an omission that we're unwilling to forgive in vehicles of their ilk.

Just as frustrating was Honda South Africa's inability to avail us of the final member of the sub-R180 000 automatic club, the more powerful and well-equipped Brio 1,2 Comfort hatch automatic, which had the potential to make a big impact in this test.

Some may argue that the Suzuki's transmission is equally capable of rendering the car deeply flawed, and to some degree they'd have a fair point. Although it's far from resolved, it's an aspect of the car to which the driver can more instinctively adapt than committing the action of cadence braking to muscle memory in the event of an emergency. In the end, the Celerio's bearing as a solid-enough, honest car that's a fantastic value proposition in this company lends considerable weight to it securing pole position.

*From the August issue of CAR magazine

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