By Andy Lilienthal
I know a lot of people automotive biz, including many fellow writers and editors. It's always interesting when we get together and discuss what we've driven, what we like, and what we loathe. I realize we at Subcompact Culture have a pretty narrow scope when it comes to cars. We stick to the smaller segments, which are often the least expensive. Many of my other automotive journalist friends have a far less narrow focus, as they spend time in all sorts of vehicles including premium- and ultra-premium cars. Perhaps you've heard of a little company called Bentley? How about Mercedes-Benz? Still doesn't ring a bell? Maybe FERRARI? ("More than you can afford, pal ...") Me? I spend most of my time south of the $25,000 border. But I think that allows me a different perspective.
The other day a friend and automotive journalist cohort was talking about a new vehicle they'd recently driven. "Remember all that gray plastic from the 1980s manufacturers used? Well they found a way to reuse it," he said sarcastically. However, there's usually truth in jest, and he wasn't kidding. So when I got a chance to spend time with that vehicle, I was prepared for an interior made from recycled Rubbermaid totes. Instead, I thought the interior was not only good looking, but solid and rattle-free. It made me wonder if he just came out of a much more luxurious car. After all, if you had Kobe beef for dinner one night, a fast-food hamburger might not seem so satisfying.
Another friend of mine just spent some time in the Chevrolet Spark. He remarked to me how terrible it was and he definitely wouldn't recommend it to someone. However, he drives an SUV that sold for $35,000 when new. So yes, a rental-spec $12,000 Spark is going to seem a bit rudimentary compared to a luxury SUV. But here's the thing: For a $12,000 car, it's pretty damn good.
If you compare today's entry-level bargain-basement vehicles (Chevy Spark, Nissan Versa, Mitsubishi Mirage) to those of 20 years ago (Geo Metro, Toyota Tercel, Subaru Justy), it's a night and day difference. However, you can't compare the interior of a Toyota Yaris to that of a BMW X1. And for what it is, the new Yaris interior looks attractive and is solidly built, but it'll never be a BMW and nor is it trying be.
Consumer Reports is infamous for not taking into account the fact a small, inexpensive car isn't going to be as nice as a large luxury vehicle. The Chevrolet Spark, Scion iQ, Toyota Yaris, and many other small cars get dinged for low power, stiff rides, and not enough space. Hello?!? These are small, thrifty vehicles, not Cadillacs. Then again, this is also the publication that once criticized the Corvette for having a stiff ride (uh ... it's a sports car!) and even recently called out the Toyota Tacoma for having only "fair cornering capabilities" and "Clumsy handling [that] makes it a chore to drive ..." They do know this is a pickup truck and not a sports sedan, right?
Because we mainly stick to the small cars, we aren't comparing a $17,000 Kia Rio's interior to a Lexus LS, which costs $72,520. We know what to look for in a small car and will report within the genre. We also know that small cars are used differently than big cars. That's what we do. That's who we are.