Shootout: Battle of the C-Segment Hatchbacks

Shootout: Battle of the C-Segment Hatchbacks
 

Earlier this year we evaluated four premium C-segment hatchbacks from Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volvo. This time around we look at the lower tier of the hierarchy: models with the same C-segment dimensions, albeit from sub-premium brands. Only one of the contenders in attendance here holds the title of 2017 South African Car of the Year.

With that in mind, you might assert that we could have packed it in and called it a day. Case closed with conclusive evidence proving beyond a shadow of doubt that the Opel Astra is the finest C-segment hatchback money can buy. Not so simple. We all know the landscape is in a constant state of change. Each day is never as it was before and manufacturers are in a perpetual battle to flummox competitors.

The long-standing Volkswagen Golf was recently given a minor upgrade, addressing previous deficiencies. And although an impressive accolade may hold the other German car in good stead, that does not mean other contenders simply fall off shortlists. The list includes the Renault Mégane, Kia Cerato and Mazda 3. Obviously, there are other rivals to be mentioned, who are not present here.

Conspicuous by absence is the Ford Focus. Headquarters told us a unit would not be available. In any case, recommending a Blue Oval product is tough these days, given the reputational damage of the brand. Although the monthly sales figures for the company indicate that buyers could care less about fiery incidents from the not-so-distant past. The aged Toyota Auris would have been massacred, so little point in including it. Honda repositioned the Civic, offering the model in sedan format exclusively, thus discounting it from this list. We approached Fiat for a unit of the Tipo, but that was also not available to join. The show must go on.

Opel Astra 1.4T Enjoy: R295 800

At the time of writing, it had just been announced that the Opel brand would survive in South Africa. Despite General Motors stating their intent to disinvest from the market, Opel will continue to be distributed under the Williams Hunt banner. Good news, because it would have been a pity if the Astra had lost out on its chance to fully exploit the plaudit of being 2017 South African Car of the Year.

In our view, the element that gave the model a shot at victory was the inclusion of impressive technological features that were segment-firsts – when the product was launched anyway. This includes forward collision and lane-keeping alert systems, plus collision-mitigating autonomous braking. It is standard fitment in the middle-range 1.4T Enjoy model tested here. For more money, the Sport model throws in a self-parking feature, blind-spot monitor plus heated seats in the front and rear. Now that is remarkable.

Where we can fault the Astra is in the aspect of quality. There is a lovely veneer to all the immediate touch-points, with noticeably cheaper plastics slapped in all the other areas. The steering column adjustment on our unit was obstinate and some of the steering-mounted controls showed a tendency to work only when they felt like it. Which is disappointing, because if the Astra had the core substance to match the razzle-dazzle of its generous specification, we would be more inclined to endorse it without reservation.

Power from this engine is stout (110kW and 230Nm); but the stodgy six-speed manual transmission does a disservice. However, this model is a bastion for good value, sneaking below the R300 000 mark. Be in no doubt that the Opel Astra is a good car. But is it a great one? How it managed to trounce contenders such as the Volkswagen Tiguan and Audi A4 in the Car of the Year competition makes for hours of musing.

Volkswagen Golf 1.4 TSI Comfortline DSG: R356 400

Do you recall the Volkswagen Golf (7) was a South African Car of the Year 2014 finalist? You may also remember how that affair transpired, with the curious emergence of the Porsche Cayman S as the winner, following the Boxster in 2013. Although the Volkswagen did clinch second place overall. We were reminded after sampling the mildly-enhanced version (7.5) that quality is a virtue that endures.

The Volkswagen Group MQB platform underpinning the Golf still impresses with an outstanding ability to make silk of almost any surface. That is coupled with a confident resolve at higher speeds and over serpentine layouts. Staffers with dynamic aspirations described the Golf as inert. But for the intended application, can that be a criticism? The engine and transmission combination is difficult to fault. This 1.4 TSI Comfortline DSG (92kW and 200Nm) delivers easy pace and velvety shifts.

This unit is only available with the seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox – the manual is reserved for the 1.0 TSI model. Cabin ambience and refinement is peerless – only the Japanese rival in attendance seemed to come close for fit, finish and the general impression that panel gaps are watertight. But… and this is a big one, the price in relation to standard fare is tough to palate, notwithstanding how brilliant it is from tactile and driving perspectives.

Some of the technological highlights available in the other German car are offered here too. The difference is that they are sold as options. Volkswagen will even charge you R350 for an ashtray and a lighter. Fully-specified, this 1.4 TSI Comfortline DSG can reach lofty figures. You might even see economic sense in just buying the GTI altogether. A real non-sequitur then: because for the base price of this Comfortline, you could have a fully-loaded Opel Astra 1.4T Sport…

Kia Cerato 1.6 EX: R299 995

“Nice” is an adjective with plenty of sting. It denotes a neither-here-nor-there, middle-of-the-road type of blandness that nobody in this world truly aspires to. The third-generation Kia Cerato might have had plenty going for it when it was launched in 2013. But times have moved along considerably since. And we sat down wracking our brains in a bid to be constructive and diplomatic about the underwhelming Korean – rather than dismissing it outright.

That Kia proffered a demonstration unit is good indication of the faith their faith in the product, so let us give it a balanced overview. On the positive side, it looks appropriately good. The inoffensive Cerato hatchback projects a self-assured anonymity. The person responsible for the interior might want to remain anonymous for pulling-off such a disinterested job. Things feel way out of date inside the bland, dark confines of the car. You will not find much in the way of infotainment either, with this 1.6 EX model serving nothing more than a 1990s-looking LCD display screen, backlit in red. Which sets the tone for the driving experience.

It is dour at best and full-on depressing at worst. Its normally-aspirated engine (95kW and 157Nm) sounds strained and feels equally laboured when trying to maintain momentum at freeway speeds. The six-speed manual transmission does what it is supposed to, nothing more, nothing less. The Cerato is certainly the most appliance-like of the lot. But whereas the Volkswagen Golf or Opel Astra could be likened to polished Smeg items, this conveys more of a sorrowful no-name character. A disposable product that fulfills its intended purpose and that is all. Toyota used to be known for such an insipid approach.

But since many of their (newest) cars strive to infuse some thrill, has Kia risen to fill the chasm? It takes all sorts, we suppose. But the sad part is that Kia stirred such expectation in times of late with cars such as the latest Sportage. After all, the manufacturer claims to have the power to surprise. Sorry, Kia, but your Cerato is simply all out of tricks in this company. The only thing that surprises is that ambitious price.

Mazda 3 1.6 Dynamic: R290 500

The Mazda 3 has many merits in its favour. For starters, captivating aesthetics. Although this can be dependent on colour – and the flat white pictured here does little justice to its charm. Then you have the interior, offering good proof that the German carmakers are not the only folks adept at crafting a classy lounge. Everything is bolted together with fantastic solidity. Even the plastics on places one would usually overlook are of a good standard.

Its digital interface, which emulates a BMW iDrive approach, works superbly. Standard fare in this middle-grade 1.6 Dynamic is reasonable too. It might lack many of the forward-thinking features of the Opel Astra, for example. But it is not as lacklustre as the Kia Cerato. We love the seating position, too, certainly geared towards drivers with sporting aspirations despite this being an economy box.

The five-speed manual (!) is a peculiar pairing with its lack of sixth-gear, although it offers short, snappy shifts. But we think a sixth gear would be redundant, as this engine (77kW and 144Nm) barely achieves velocities that would warrant it. It is one fly in what is otherwise good ointment. If we thought the unit in the Cerato was flaccid, Mazda proved one-upmanship.

One needs to wring the neck of this unit to maintain acceptable progress – forget about overtaking on even a slight incline. A pity, really, because in every other department the 3 truly excels. It is also the cheapest contender here. You might as well save money, because you will not be saving time over any journey in this underpowered 3.

Renault Mégane 1.2 GT-Line: R368 900

Things are going well for the Renault brand locally, pushing volumes that French connections like Peugeot could only dream of. This can be attributed to a strong product offensive and shrewd marketing pronged by finance deals that make most of their products accessible. Even the ghastly Kwid manages to find hundreds of buyers monthly.

The new Mégane is anything but ghastly. Alluring and dynamic styling is among its arsenal of weapons. At night especially, the Gallic hatchback cuts an interesting profile thanks to the fascinating design of its front and rear light clusters. And if spirited driving is your thing, it has the most suitable chassis in the class: tangibly more involving than others here. Obviously, that means a trade-off in other areas of on-road behaviour. Not that the car is unbearable under regular cruising conditions.

The boosted 1.2-litre engine (97kW and 205Nm) makes characterful noises, with its turbocharger spool and noticeable expelling of pressure. While a manual can be had here, our test vehicle was equipped with the dual-clutch EDC gearbox. The transmission is agreeable, if not as sharp in responses as the Volkswagen DSG variety. Only minor niggles drew criticism from our panel. They included interior trim bits with a tendency to rattle, such as the gearlever. And integrating the climate control system with the digital interface struck us as a dim idea.

It can be distracting trying to adjust fan speeds while on the move. Simple rotary dials would have been fine. The model is pricey too, with the largest base price of all the attendees of this battle. If you are determined to stray from the herd, however, then the Mégane is bound to win your affections. As a rational choice, the outlay it demands will steer you towards one of the more conventional choices.

Verdict:

Unequivocally and without reservation, the Volkswagen Golf is the most accomplished from refinement and quality perspectives. It feels a notch above the rest and its relation to a certain other German offering with a four-ring emblem is quite clear. Factor-in the cachet of the badge and the expansive dealership network and you have a logical winner.

But the Opel Astra undercuts it in price – and its bountiful equipment means customers will not feel shortchanged. It can wear the title of runner-up proudly. The Mazda 3 is an interesting, well-priced package. Just expect to get to your destination very slowly. A respectable (and fitting) third for the 3. We love the charisma of the Renault and enjoy its sporting slant.

But the price is glaring – and it is not justifiably better than the Golf or Astra. And in last place, we have the Kia Cerato: nice, but not nice enough. – Brenwin Naidu (Pics: Waldo Swiegers)