By JEREMY SINEK
Special to The Globe and Mail
Saturday, February 17, 2018
The auto industry narrative of late has been the supposed stampede from cars to compact crossovers.
While it's true that Canadians buy more compact CUVs than compact cars, there's life still in the Civic/Corolla segment. These are cars that are considered compacts, though many are much more than that.
The bigger losers in car sales have actually been subcompact cars (down 19 per cent in 2017) and intermediates (down 14 per cent).
The subcompact decline in 2017 was a continuation of a trend in which the smallest cars' sales have plunged 40 per cent since 2014 - despite the advent that same year of the $9,998 deal with the Nissan Micra, a challenge that forced Mitsubishi and Chevrolet to price-match with their smallest cars. However, most Canadians still want to drive a more substantial car, a role that can be played by today's compacts.
Compact car sales grew 2.9 per cent in 2017, trailing the overall market's 4.6-per cent gain, but suggesting the slump has bottomed out. If Canadians come back to their first love, they will find a selection of compact-car sedans, hatchbacks, coupes and wagons that can provide all the car most drivers ever really need.
Driving the rebound last year were new hatchback versions of the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Cruze. Sales of the Civic and Corolla grew 7 and 10 per cent respectively in 2017 while the Cruze, which only added the hatchback midway through the year, was up 3 per cent. The Volkswagen Golf, a compact hatchback, advanced 27 per cent (not including the GTI) while its Jetta sedan sister vehicle retreated 17 per cent.
The Golf is also available as a wagon.
Perhaps buyers seeking the versatility of a tailgate are realizing that for about the same price as a base-model subcompact CUV - which in most cases means a CUV that's frontwheel drive, not all-wheel drive - can get a larger, betterequipped hatchback car with better fuel economy, power and cargo space.
On the subject of space, many so-called compacts fit that definition in terms of their price positioning - namely, starting MSRPs around $16,000, with manual transmission and no air - a price point that has changed little over the years despite advances in safety, sophistication and roominess.
According to the definitions used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, a number of today's compacts qualify as mid-size cars with combined passenger/trunk volumes totalling 110 cubic feet or more.
These little big cars include the sedan versions of the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza and Toyota Corolla; and the VW Jetta only misses being upgraded by 0.4 cubic feet.
Several compact hatchbacks also meet the EPA's definition of mid-size, though that can be misleading as cargo volumes are measured by more generous criteria than the criteria for sedans.
For example, the Ford Focus hatch makes the cut while the Focus sedan doesn't, even though both have the same passenger volume.
Safety features punch above their weight. Even the base Toyota Corolla ($16,790) includes standard pre-collision warning and braking, adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping assist. Similar technology is available, albeit not usually standard, on other compacts.
One reason the market is swinging to crossover SUVs is the availability of all-wheel drive. But you can also get AWD in a couple of compact cars - in the case of the Subaru Impreza, at a starting price ($19,995), far below all-wheeldrive CUVs. The $34,345 VW Golf Alltrack is an AWD version of the Golf wagon.
Subaru and VW also exemplify the stunning 300-ish-horsepower pocket-rockets found in this segment - the Subaru WRX STI and Golf R. The Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type R feed the same need for speed. Not forgetting a level of less-extreme, 200-250-horsepower sport-compacts like the Ford Focus ST, Honda Civic Si, Hyundai Elantra Sport, Nissan Sentra Turbo, Subaru WRX and VW Golf GTI.
At the other extreme, green or lean options in this category include the Chevy Cruze diesel, full-electric versions of the Ford Focus and VW Golf, the Nissan Leaf, Hyundai's electrified Ioniq threesome, the Chevrolet Volt Plug-in and the Toyota Prius.
Luxury features available include old-hat dress-up stuff like leather and a sunroof and also multi-way power seats, heated steering wheels, heated-andventilated front seats, heated rear seats, satellite navigation and connectivity.
As well, the best modern compacts have smooth refined engines, and increasingly automatic transmission is standard on all but the basest trims.
AT THE SHOW: COMPACTS
2018 AUDI A5 SPORTBACK The hatchback impresses with a turbo-four that punches out 252 horsepower. If that's not enough, an S5 Sportback raises the ante with 354 horsepower from its twin-turbo V-6.
2019 KIA FORTE Kia's redesigned compact sedan (a five-door will follow) is upsized inside and out and has a standard eight-inch touchscreen.
The 147-horsepower 2.0-litre Nu engine can be paired with Kia's first continuously-variable automatic transmission.
2019 VOLKSWAGEN JETTA The Jetta finally migrates to VW's jack-of-all-trades MQB architecture and gets a size uptick in the process. It will launch this spring with a 147horsepower 1.4-litre turbo engine hitched to a six-speed manual or eight-speed automatic transmission.
2018 CHEVROLET CRUZE HATCHBACK DIESEL Chevy added a diesel option to the Cruze sedan last summer and now you can have the 137horsepower, 1.6-litre gas-sipper in a hatch, too. Either way, choose a six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic.
2018 HYUNDAI IONIQ Ioniq isn't just an electrified car - it's an electrified-car franchise.
It launched last spring in impressive conventional-hybrid and full-electric versions and is now joined by a plug-in hybrid.
2018 MINI COOPER HARDTOP The Mini Cooper is a throwback that stands out for its unique retro features. It comes with three- or five-door configurations in a fun-to-drive environment with plenty of circular design cues on the inside. Opt for the six-speed manual for ample enjoyment.
2018 NISSAN LEAF The original mass-produced modern electric car is into its second generation. Nissan is taking orders for the $35,999 model that claims a 242-kilometre range. A faster, longer-range version will come later.
2018 SUBARU WRX STI TYPE RA Subaru will make 500 copies of the RA to celebrate the modified STI that set a four-door record at the Nurburgring. The production RA has an upgraded chassis, more power and is lighter than the stock STI. Canada will get 75 of them.
The Subaru WRX, a 200-250-horsepower sport-compact, exemplifies the value buyers can find in the compact segment.
The Volkswagen Jetta almost qualifies as a mid-size, according to passenger/trunk-volume definitions used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.