BUYERS in the ever-popular B-segment have never had it so good. Where in the past your options were limited both by the number of players in the market and their level of competence, or lack thereof, these days you’re spoilt for choice. You can choose between stalwarts of the sector, the Volkswagen Polo and Toyota Yaris; cars that exhibit a healthy degree of flair, the brand-new Peugeot 208, Fiat Punto and Ford Fiesta; a vehicle that brings MPV-like practicality within reach of buyers on a budget, the Honda Jazz; or three that place value above all else, the Chevrolet Sonic, Hyundai i20 and Kia Rio.

Our sole criterion in selecting the nine cars you see here was that they should cost no more than R200 000 (we admit to taking some liberty with the Fiesta, which is listed at R201 700, but its exclusion would have shorn the test of a deeply impressive competitor and we believe this 1,6 Trend is the one to have).

They run the gamut of engine sizes – from the 1,3-litre Yaris to four cars equipped with 1,6-litre powerplants – and specification, and range in price from R171 600 for the Chevrolet Sonic to the Fiesta’s aforementioned R201 700.

In our final voting to deter-mine a winner, we weighted performance and dynamics lower than ride, comfort, consumption, specification and value for money in order to even out the playing field. Read on to find out which car disappointed the team most, which competitor offers the best value for money and, ultimately, which one strikes the best balance of the bunch. The winner might surprise you.

THE STYLISH ONE - Peugeot 208

The newest car here, the Peugeot 208, garnered much praise for its elegant looks and interesting details such as an indented roof, head- and taillamps that have inward-pointing protrusions, brightwork around the lights, grille (thankfully much smaller than the one on the 207) and windows that contrast beautifully with the Virtual Blue paintwork of our test car, and classy 16-inch alloys.

Although it’s been seven years since the Fiat Grande Punto made its first public appearance at the 2005 Frankfurt Motor Show, it remains a looker thanks to a recent facelift (which has, admittedly, taken away some of the Maserati Coupé-esque similarities at the front-end) and stylish alloy wheels on this mid-spec Easy model.

Another vehicle that hardly betrays its age (even though it’s due for a facelift; see Other options for R200 000 on page 62) is the Ford Fiesta. Launched in the third quarter of 2008, it remains one of the more distinctive options in the class owing to a confident frontal appearance and deeply scalloped flanks. Pretty 15-inch wheels complete the rosy picture.

Two vehicles epitomise classy conservatism, the Kia Rio and Volkswagen Polo. Where the former gains its road presence from the TEC spec’s 17-inch alloy wheels (the largest on test) and LED lamps front and rear, the German car garners respect by virtue of every detail having seemingly been pored over until perfect. Not a line or curve looks out of place and, even close-to four years after its launch, the Polo hasn’t dated.

Slightly less confident in appearance is the Hyundai i20. Its recent facelift saw the company’s new corporate look being grafted onto the front, but only partly successfully as it stands slightly at odds with the rest of the vehicle’s more angular design. At least 16-inch alloys are now standard, where before buyers had to be content with steel wheels with bland plastic covers.

The Jazz’s facelift two years ago arguably made the front-end less attractive, which now instead of having a modern appearance looks dated due to its far more angular appearance. There is a certain charm in its monobox shape that points to practicality having taken precedence over style.

Chevrolet claims its Sonic’s head- and taillamps were inspired by those of a motorcycle. This suspect comparison aside, we’ll simply say that it’s distinctive and leave it at that…

Which brings us to the Yaris, a vehicle so bland in appearance that some members of the test team at times completely forgot it was in attendance when these photographs were taken. Toyota has shown the Yaris can be aesthetically pleasing with the HSD model; perhaps the manufacturer should consider transposing some of the latter’s detailing (LED lamps, a deeper front grille) onto the more mainstream versions.

THE QUALITY ONE - Volkswagen Polo

Volkswagen is an undisputed leader in infusing its cars’ interiors with a feeling of sophistication and quality, and the Polo is no different. From damped grab handles to a plush rooflining, uniform backlighting for all controls and illuminated mirrors for both front passengers, in terms of perceived quality it leads the field.

However, and unlike in the past, a number of other B-segment hatches come extremely close to matching the German’s fit and finish. The Fiesta has a slush-moulded dashboard that matches the Polo’s in the knuckle-rap test, the Rio counters with brightwork aplenty and delightful detailing such as the rocker switches on the facia, while the 208 replaces a number of buttons with an expensive-looking touchscreen that controls the audio system.

Making up the rest of the field are the Jazz, i20, Punto, Sonic and Yaris. The Honda does not boast a soft-touch surface in sight, but the quality of the various plastics is beyond reproach. That said, the unattractive orange instrument lighting, dated cloth upholstery and cheap rooflining don’t help in creating an impression of style.

There’s nothing too much wrong with the i20’s interior but for the fact that the Rio has shown that this Korean alliance can do much better. We’re fans of the blue backlighting, however.

If your eyes never strayed from the Punto facia, you’d think its interior is close to class-leading. There’s nothing amiss with the soft-touch strip running horizontally along the facia, while the gloss-black highlights look great. But, touch the plastic on the doors and feel their brittle nature. They also have a tendency to scratch easily, while our test vehicle exhibited a number of slight trim squeaks.

It should perhaps come as little surprise that the cockpit of the Sonic can’t match that of the Polo; it’s the cheapest car here, yet also offers a 1,6-litre engine, so money would have had to be saved somewhere. That said, we’ve tested a number of Sonics and all have been remarkably rattle-free, which should signal sound build integrity.

The biggest disappointment is the Yaris. From the rough-feeling textured plastic on the top of the dashboard, to the grey trim spanning the length of the facia and onto the doors, its cabin feels cheap and insubstantial. Again, everything should hang together well in the best Toyota tradition, but we wish the manufacturer had made a bigger leap in design and finish over the previous Yaris.

THE PRACTICAL ONE - Honda Jazz

The Jazz is the uncontested leader in terms of practicality in the B-segment. It has the most rear leg- (735 mm) and headroom (990 mm), and the largest boot (288 dm3) and utility space (1 200 dm3, rivalling some far larger vehicles). Its rear seat bases can fold upright to free up an area behind the front seats that can take a bicycle and visibility all-round is the best here.

The rest of the field is more or less evenly matched, with the Sonic offering the most front headroom (900 mm) but the smallest boot (208 dm3), while surprisingly the compact Yaris has the second-best utility space (1 008 dm3). Offering the second largest rear bench is the Polo (legroom 730 mm, headroom 960 mm), while the Peugeot and Fiesta have the least amount of space for rear-seat passengers (the French car felt especially tight for knees).

In terms of driver comfort, the Polo wins owing to a seat and steering wheel that boasts huge adjustment in all the expected planes. It has the most logical layout of controls, with everything clearly marked and falling easily to hand. The Jazz also has a straightforward facia with big buttons for the major controls, but some testers found that its seat does not dip low enough.

The Fiesta drew positive comments for its simple ventilation controls, but some testers bemoaned its narrow seats and plastic steering wheel, especially considering it’s the most expensive.

There’s no faulting the user-friendliness of the Yaris and Sonic’s cabins, with each proving familiar within mere minutes (even the latter’s motorbike-inspired instrument cluster did not draw too much criticism).

Owing to its high spec level (more of which later), the Rio does take a bit more time for familiarity to set in, but all the controls are placed high on the facia and the seating position is sound. Its cousin, the i20, has no surprises up its sleeve and is a companionable car, but for one serious flaw: taller drivers will find that their shins touch the plastic panel below the steering wheel, an annoying quirk that could be remedied by reshaping the moulding.

The Punto provided some comfort-related concerns. One tester has a troublesome knee, which started aching when he drove the Fiat for an extended period owing to the long-arms, short-legs driving position and high-placed clutch pedal. Otherwise, the controls are where they should be and clearly marked.

Now, to the 208. In trying to imbue its hatch with a unique selling point in such a fiercely competitive market, the French carmaker decided to rethink the driving position by placing the instruments high on the facia and installing a very small steering wheel at a low position. Unfortunately, not a whole lot of thinking went into this approach, as shorter testers complained that the wheel obscured the bottom of the dials. However much they adjusted the wheel and seat, this obstructed view did not change. Why fix something that wasn’t broken?

Another bone of contention in the Peugeot's cabin is the touchscreen, which is standard on this top-spec model and the most expensive 1,2-litre version. It adds a lot to the vehicle’s perceived sense of sophistication, but the menus are confusing and the quality of the display isn’t great. It also means the car does not feature a CD player (aux and USB ports are standard), which might irk some.

THE LUXURIOUS ONE - Kia Rio

The Rio’s specification sheet reads like that of a luxury car. As standard, it boasts leather upholstery, climate control, a comprehensive audio system with Bluetooth, rear-sited park assist, auto lights and wipers and LED lamps front and rear.
Not to be outdone, Hyundai has stuffed the i20 full of goodies, but it loses out on the Kia’s 17-inch wheels and cowhide. The Peugeot, on the other hand, boasts that contentious screen and is the only one here to feature cruise control and a automatically dimming rear-view mirror.

The rest of the vehicles have the standard goodies, including electric windows (fronts only on the Sonic, Punto and Yaris) and mirrors, air-conditioning (climate control in the Jazz), audio systems with MP3 and aux input (the Fiesta takes this a step further with Bluetooth and USB, the latter feature also present in the Yaris) and alloy wheels. (See pages 70 and 71 for a comparative table of all the vehicles’ standard features.)

THE FUN ONE - Ford Fiesta

From the sound its 1,6-litre engine makes as it approaches the red line, to the decent spread of torque in all five gears, and especially its composure during cornering, the Fiesta sparkles dynamically. It steers fluently and the gearbox is smooth, while the pedals are well weighted and intuitive in feel. It posted the quickest 60-100 km/h time in third gear and was second quickest from 80-120 km/h in fourth. Ford knows how to make a car’s chassis come to life, and if it’s entertainment you’re after, none of the other eight cars comes close.

Not that it can match the Jazz for sheer accelerative vigour. A sprint time to 100 km/h of 9,39 seconds caught everyone by surprise, especially considering the Honda has a 1,5-litre engine and trails the 1,6-litre vehicles in maximum torque. It also boasted the quickest time from 80 to 120 km/h and has the nicest gearbox in true Honda tradition; the throws are short, the action light and the feel direct. Unfortunately, the engine is a noisy unit, but it remains smooth all the way to the red line.

The most refined powertrain nestles in the nose of the 208. It’s shared with Citroën and Mini and features strong acceleration. That said, the driving experience is marred by a gearbox that is indirect and clunky, and electrically assisted steering that never quite comes to life.

The Polo has both excellent and surprisingly unrefined characteristics. The gearbox is notchy, but the clutch is smooth and easy to modulate. The engine is very gruff, but it performs well and suppression of road and wind noise is the best among these hatches. It steers fluently and the weighting is perfect, but the system is completely devoid of feel and feedback.

The Rio and i20 impressed most testers with their refined natures. Both keep wind and road noise at bay (although not to the level of the Polo), while the Rio especially has a direct gearshift action. The Hyundai’s gearbox had some team members hitting the gate between fourth and sixth gears, but is otherwise impressive. We’re glad to report that both Koreans have some of the best steering systems we’ve encountered on cars that emanate from their country of origin, with none of the distracting self-centring that afflicts the Hyundai Accent and Kia Cerato. The Rio, however, takes the longest to reach 100 km/h and in-gear acceleration is poorest. But, in day-to-day town driving, it doesn’t feel gutless.

Owing to its light mass (the lowest on test at 1 043 kg) and the mechanical feel through its short-throw gearlever, the Yaris is surprisingly fun to drive in cut-and-thrust traffic and belies its meagre power and torque figures. However, the clutch bites quite low, which requires some familiarisation, while it’s noisier at cruising speeds than a number of vehicles here.

Even though the Sonic has one of the larger engines in this test, it’s also the portliest, which contributes to middle-of-the-pack performance and makes extensive use of the pleasant gearbox necessary to maintain momentum. What it does major on is refinement; the cabin is calm at highway speeds and the steering and pedals light and non-intrusive.

Perhaps the biggest disappoint-ment on-road is the Punto. Its MultiAir engine promises much but fails to deliver in terms of performance or smoothness, while the gearbox has a sloppy action and wind noise is always a problem. But, it has an ace up its sleeve...

THE COMPOSED ONE - Fiat Punto

One thing the Punto does very well is ride broken tar with aplomb. Owing to its soft suspension setup and plump tyres, it remains comfortable on a variety of surfaces.

Another vehicle that will leave its occupants unflustered is the Polo. It’s very slightly underdamped at times, evidenced by the nose bobbing on undu-lating tar, but 99 per cent of the time it is composed and quiet over the worst pockmarked roads.
Startlingly enough considering its strong showing in the previous section, the Fiesta rides almost as well as the Fiat and VW. The suspension is noticeably firmer, but the damping is perfectly judged, which means the Ford regains composure very quickly after hitting a road scar.

Aiding the Sonic’s impressive levels of refinement and ease of use is its smooth ride, especially over manhole covers and cats’ eyes.

Once famed for producing cars that glide over surface imperfections, lately Peugeot has taken a more Germanic approach to suspension tuning. The 208 rides well at higher speeds, but becomes slightly flustered when negotiating rough roads at slower velocities. This aspect, combined with noisy rear suspension on our test vehicle, made progress slightly tiring. This is a shame, as the cabin remains extremely well isolated from extraneous noises.

In this segment, Kia again shows Hyundai how it should be done. The former is shod with substantial 205/45-tyres enveloping 17-inch rims that, at first, create the impression that they will make the ride overly firm. Fortunately, this is not the case. Yes, there’s an edge to how the Rio handles certain surfaces, but it still travels along tar better than the i20, which, although by no means poor, simply doesn’t ride as well.

The Yaris has a different problem than absorbing road irregularities (which it does fairly well, by the way). It seems very susceptible to cross winds and is easily deflected from its path. None of the others were as poor in this regard; possibly a result of the Toyota’s low kerb weight and skinny tyres?

Incongruent with its MPV-like interior and family-car ambience, the Jazz has a choppy ride that, although an improvement over its very firm predecessor, can’t match the others in bump-absorption ability.

THE SAFE ONE - Hyundai i20

Like the Jazz, Rio and 208, the i20 boasts front, side and curtain airbags. The Sonic, Yaris and Polo have four each, while the Punto has a unique configuration of front, curtain and knee ‘bags. Critically, the most expensive car here, the Fiesta, has only two airbags. All the cars have ABS with EBD, but none has any form of switchable traction-control system. Each vehicle achieved five stars in the EuroNCAP crash-test programme.

In our 10-stop emergency brake test from 100 to zero km/h, the Fiesta stopped the quickest (2,82 seconds), followed closely by the Rio (2,97) and Punto (3,05). The rest of the vehicles posted average to poor times, with the Jazz taking the longest to come to a standstill (3,42).

THE FRUGAL ONE - Toyota Yaris

The Yaris has both the lowest fuel-index figure (6,72 litres/100 km) and proved the cheapest to run over our 150 km fuel route, achieving just 6,50 litres/100 km. In second place along the route was the Jazz (matching the Yaris’s consumption), with the Rio and 208 (surprising considering its engine displacement and performance potential) sharing the final step on the podium. The heaviest drinker on test was the Hyundai i20, but it's the fact that it placed last with a still-commendable 7,10 litres/100 km that points to the others’ brilliance rather than failure on its part.

THE MOST AFFRODABLE ONE - Chevrolet Sonic

Now, to one of the most important factors in choosing a vehicle in this segment: pricing. At R171 600, the Sonic is the cheapest and has an extensive warranty of five years/120 000 km. Its spec level is the lowest here, however.

Next up is the Punto, which improves on the spec of the Sonic and adds a year to the service plan and 30 000 km to the warranty.

The feature-laden Rio makes a very strong value-for-money case at R174 995. Its warranty of five years/100 000 km lags behind the other two, but it easily bests them for standard specification and has a service plan of four years/
60 000 km.

Costing barely R2 000 more than its Korean cousin, the Hyundai is almost as well equipped but adds 50 000 km to the Kia’s warranty while shaving  a year off the service plan.

Intriguingly, the more expensive the cars are, the shorter the warranties become. At R183 000, the Yaris struggles to make a convincing case considering its three-year/100 000 km warranty, but it has the right badge come resale time.

As the newest car here and one which has the most luxuries buyers in this class would expect – and a few more – the 208
hits hard with its list price of R189 900 and comprehensive five-year/60 000 km maintenance plan. The warranty is limited to three years, though.

Next up is the Jazz, which at a whisker under R200 000 relies heavily on its practicality and renowned reputation for bulletproof reliability to attract buyers. Honda is stingy with the warranty (three years/100 000 km), but the service plan is on par at four years/60 000 km.

As we said at the outset, the Fiesta was granted leave to take part in this test even though its list of price of R201 700 exceeded our limit. As a driving tool, it’s at the head of the class, but only two airbags might prove a hindrance to some. It has a four-year/120 000 km warranty and four-year/60 000 km service plan as standard.

Why have we left the Polo till last, even though its base price is lower than the Jazz and Fiesta’s? Because it’s the only one that lacks a standard service plan. VW will sell you a 60 000 km one for R7 684, which raises the price to R205 384. It only barely justifies this figure thanks to its mature feel and projected excellent resale value, but it’s still a lot of money for a vehicle that isn’t close to being the best equipped in this segment, nor the most frugal.

THE BEST ONE - Kia Rio

Choosing a winner from such a talented field proved a mammoth task. Each vehicle has something to recommend it (and some possess a number of attributes that could clinch a sale), so let’s start at the bottom of the rung.

If you’ve scanned How the team voted below, you would have seen the Chevrolet Sonic bringing up the rear. It’s in no discernable way a bad car, and it even does some things very well (comfort and refinement), but it simply left too many testers cold. And, when you add the necessary Comfort package (R7 500) to lift its spec to a comparable level, it isn’t stellar value. So, the Sonic is the first to go.

Each scoring 72, the Yaris and Punto disappointed for different reasons. Where the Toyota is simply too bland and uninspiring, the Punto exhibits a degree of flair. Conversely, the Toyota can be fun to drive in ideal conditions but the Punto has a lacklustre engine and dull-witted dynamic repertoire. Both companies have extensive expertise with small cars and can, and should, do better.

The next hatch to face the chop might come as a surprise. Since its launch, we’ve been fans of the i20 because it represents great value for money. The facelift has addressed some refinement issues we had before, and the price remains competitive, but the Hyundai’s main problem is automotive cannibalism; the Rio is simply better and cheaper.

If you compare the Jazz’s scoring with any of the other cars (except perhaps the Polo), you’d realise exactly how polarising the Honda is. Some testers love it, others loathe it. It offers a unique package of practicality in this segment, and that remarkable reliability record remains as alluring as ever, but the ride is poor, the cabin feels old and it’s expensive.

Fourth place goes to the newest car here, the 208. We were broadly impressed with its engine, refinement, style and cabin, but less so with the deeply flawed driving position, lumpy ride and weak gearbox. That said, it embodies a revived Peugeot, one that neatly combines style, substance and a sense of fun.

Next to go is the Polo. As an overall package, it’s possibly the best vehicle of the lot. It does nothing badly and a number of things extremely well. But, once you add the obligatory service plan, it’s overpriced. Of course, you could choose the 1,4 Comfortline, but that vehicle has a lacklustre engine and, at R188 773 (including the service plan), is hardly cheap.

The same problem afflicts the Fiesta. At a few thousand rand more than the Polo, Ford is bullish with its pricing. However, the Fiesta scored consistently well in all voting sections, leads the field in the category of dynamics and tied with the Polo for ride and comfort. It stood a good chance of winning, if it wasn’t for the vehicle that relentlessly asserted itself throughout the evaluation and finally won over most testers…

The Kia Rio boasts a near-unbeatable combination of design flair, good packaging, a well-judged ride/handling balance, sophisticated materials and stand-out standard specification. In the light car category of our 2012 Best Buys, the Rio was pipped to the post by the Polo. Subsequently, Kia has broadened the range by launching a four-door saloon version. When the results of voting in the 2013 Best Buys are revealed, don’t be too surprised if a Kia beats a Volkswagen.

ROAD TEST SCORES

Chevrolet
Sonic
Fiat
Punto
Ford
Fiesta
Honda
Jazz
Hyundai
i20
Kia
Rio
Peugeot
208
Toyota
Yaris
VW
Polo
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