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On The Road

Superb subcompacts

Photo By: courtesy of Mitsubishi
Photo Courtesy Of Mitsubishi

The 2013 Mitsubishi Lancer received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s highest rating for crash integrity. Priced at ,640, the Lancer has a fuel economy of 25 mpg combined.

As we’ve written many times in our reviews, perhaps the most significant advance in the automotive industry in the past 10 years is the introduction of affordable subcompact cars by all manufacturers.

These cars offer the latest in safety systems, excellent fuel economy and competent handling, while still managing to be stylish and often fun to drive. They are practical for parents buying new cars for their driving-age children and for young singles and families starting out on their own.

We drove three of the latest offerings last month: the latest-generation Lancer from Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi, Rio from Korean manufacturer Kia and the all-new Dodge Dart, the first jointly developed product of the recent acquisition of Chrysler Corp. by Fiat. While all of these are recommended purchases by most reviewers, perhaps reflecting the cultural backgrounds of the companies, they epitomize three different views of what customers want.

What these cars share, as with the other subcompacts we’ve tested, is low price, good fuel efficiency and the ability to carry four passengers comfortably within a small dimensional footprint. They all have spiffy designs, intended to appeal to the styling whims of the millennial generation.

But that’s where the similarities end. In a nutshell, the Kia Rio SX offers nice trim touches and a complete range of accessories within its as-tested price of $21,340, but it skimps on the driving experience. In contrast, the comparably priced Mitsubishi Lancer SE is a solid performer with excellent driving manners but charges extra for stylish trim and accessories.

Fortunately for American manufacturing jobs, the Dodge Dart manages to hit the sweet spot in the middle. Built in Belvidere, Ill., the Dart is an attractive, fun-to-drive car with good interior space, excellent fuel economy at 31 mpg combined (city/highway) and top-of-the-line equipment. For all this, Dodge still manages to keep the price under $25,000.

Mitsubishi Lancer SE

The Lancer is an excellent choice for the practical family buyer, especially one concerned with safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives the Lancer its highest rating for crash integrity, indicating that the car can sustain impact from front, back, sides and at an angle without intrusion into the passenger compartment. It has a spacious interior with good space for rear passengers and offers a quiet, comfortable ride. But its fuel economy, 25 mpg combined, is not as good as either of the other two cars.

Even with its price of $22,640 – higher than the Rio – our test vehicle did not include a navigational system or backup camera. The interior trim was pretty basic, with cloth seats and hard black plastic surfaces on the dash and door tops. Even the exterior color on our test car – appropriately called Tarmac Black – seemed calculated not to excite an emotional response.

Kia Rio SX

By contrast, the Rio, with its midlevel SX trim, was all about making the driver proud to show off the car to passengers.

At $21,340, our test car was priced less than either of the other two in this group, but it had heated leather seats, a navigation system with backup camera and good audio complete with satellite radio.

The Kia felt sporty to drive, with good pickup and handling in the corners. The car is rated against Environmental Protection Agency standards at 31 mpg combined (a result some reviewers have challenged).

Where we felt let down, however, was that the Rio had no sound deadening whatsoever, with consequent tinny reverberations of every road noise in the cabin. To make this worse, the engine was noisier in operation than the others in this group. We guessed that one could always turn up the sound system, but it was evident that extra costs for this car had gone toward bling, not comfort.

Dodge Dart

For us, the Dodge Dart was clearly the winner in this group of three. The Dart is the first beneficiary of the 2011 deal that took Chrysler out of bankruptcy when the company was sold to Fiat Corp. Usually deals like this mean throwing out the good stuff while being hindered by continuing problems. But this combination seems to be working well. Chrysler and Fiat have both jettisoned marginal products, and have found synergies in their better products.

The Dart is their first example to make it to the showrooms. Built on the chassis and suspension of the current Alfa Romeo Guilietta (Alfa is also owned by Fiat), but with a body that is 12 inches longer to provide more backseat and trunk room, the Dart nevertheless offers European-style responsive handling, while absorbing bumps to provide a smooth and predictable ride.

Our test vehicle had the optional turbocharged four-cylinder engine with increased torque and pep, which we definitely recommend. Even with that sporty engine, fuel economy is still rated at 31 mpg combined.

With an as-tested price of $24,460, it was generously equipped with practical additions such as a tire-pressure monitoring display and a backup camera and navigation system displayed on an 8.4-inch screen, as well as the optional “Rallye” upgrade that includes sporty cosmetic details like 17-inch wheels and fog lamps.

The only complaint we had with the Dart was that the front seats were a little too firm and limited in their adjustment range.

The bottom line: All three of these cars offer good value for the money, but we would definitely prefer the Dodge Dart, especially with the equipment of our test vehicle. Our only suggestion is that people who are in the market for a four-door sedan at or under $25,000 should cross-shop the Ford Focus and Mazda 3, which we’ve previously reviewed.

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