There’s a pretty simple reason why we bring you regular updates on the Management Fleet, aside from keeping in respective car company good books! It’s all very well featuring Porsches and Lamborghinis and things that make us go oooooh, but not every member of our beloved crankandpiston massive can afford them. What can we drive that’s fun, but doesn’t cost very much?
Such questions have a valid point. We love the McLaren MP4-12C and the Ferrari 458 Italia, but we won’t be able to afford either any time soon. No, our budget is much more likely to be somewhere around the $15,000 mark, which places us in the value-for-money hatchback segment. So that got us thinking. Which of these little bargains would be our pick for the petrolhead? Those thoughts led us to pick three of the most recent additions to the Middle East market for a showdown: our own all-new long-term Chevrolet Sonic; a former member of the Management Fleet, the new-generation Toyota Yaris; and the hatchback version of Kia’s latest Rio. All bring something slightly different to the market, but cost within a few hundred dollars of each other, in the top-spec versions we’ve gathered together.
Our plan was to take all three on a trip across the UAE from Dubai to Al Ain. This would see how easy each one is to live with in the city and on the freeway. Once we arrived in Al Ain, a special treat awaited – a thrash around the renowned and respected Al Ain Raceway kart track. Joining me, my colleague James and photographer Moe for this trip would be Rami Azzam, a respected local kart racer and twenty-something hatchback fan (he’s currently on his second Golf GTI). Who better to cast his opinion into the ring?
On a bright winter’s morning we meet at crankandpiston HQ and hand out the keys. Rami gets the Yaris, James will be piloting the Rio and I swipe the chunky fob to the Sonic. Downstairs in the car park, we gather initial opinions, starting with the Rio. “It looks good, really good,” says Rami, sounding surprised at himself.
“Yeah, it does look excellent,” opines James, “but perhaps not as good looking as it could have been.” Both have a point. For a company much maligned over the years, Kia is undergoing something of a renaissance with some really eye-catching and good-looking cars. The front of the Rio, with its signature grille and swooping headlights, complete with LED running lights, it very pretty. The back though is a little bland, and reminds me of an old Seat Leon.
The hedgehog-blue Sonic is a very different beast, with twin headlights reminiscent of a Mitsubishi Evo, or the Morette units that people used to modify their cars with a decade ago. In fact, the modifying scene seems to have had quite an impact on the Sonic’s designers, with aftermarket-style rear light clusters and a rather questionable fake metal race-style fuel filler cap. Rami thinks it looks like an electric car, with its chopped off, straight down rear end, but both James and I acknowledge its rather moody, snarling look when compared to the other two. Nobody really acknowledges the Yaris; although it’s got a more dynamic look than its predecessor, its already so often seen on the streets of Dubai that it doesn’t have much of a visual impact.
Not convinced by the looks, I jump into the Sonic. The out-there visuals continue inside. Anyone that’s played the Fallout series of computer games will recognise the shape of a Pip-Boy in the place of an instrument cluster. For those that haven’t, a large analogue rev counter sits to the left of a bright blue digital display with speed and trip information. It’s very funky, but not exactly subtle.
We get out on the road and begin heading through central Dubai towards the long cross-country E66 freeway. For all my eyebrow raising at the Sonic’s styling, I can’t deny that it feels very well put together for this price point, although some of the materials have that plasticky feeling that betray its value-for-money purpose. But it has an angular, sporty edge to it that you wouldn’t necessarily dare hope for at this price. It looks a little too try-hard funky to my ageing eyes, but that may well be exactly what the target market wants. In addition, the steering is hefty with a chunky wheel rim, the seats are nicely supportive laterally and I’ve got tons of headroom – it’s actually pretty spacious for a small car. Luckily for me, it’s also the only car here with cruise control. Result.
Power comes from a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine with 113bhp, making it the most powerful car here, and it pulls nicely. The gearbox is a five-speed affair (again, the only one with more than four gears) and although it’s a little clunky in its changes, that extra top gear makes for a relatively calm cruise out of town. I’m leading the way inland with James and Moe behind me in the Rio, and after occasional glances in the rear view mirror to check they’re still with me, I decide that the Kia is definitely the best looking car of our group. That said, I’m more impressed with the Sonic so far that I expected.
Once out of town we stop for fuel and a quick first impressions chat. Youngster Rami is enamoured with the Sonic’s style. “That looks really good on the road,” he says. “It’s different, compared to everything else on the road. The matt effect on the backlights looks really funky. I saw the Yaris coming up behind me and thought it was a Golf.” Make of that what you will.
James remains disappointed with the looks of the Kia, but he’s in the minority. Rami and I both like little features such as the toggle-style switches above the gearstick, and the general mood of it is more exciting than the Yaris without being as gaudy as the Sonic. We move on to the Yaris and agree that the proliferation of them makes it difficult to have a concentrated opinion on it. “I thought it looked really good when it first came out, compared to the old one,” says Rami, “but now compared to the other two it maybe looks a bit bland.” However, he’s much more impressed with the driving experience so far. “It’s really smooth, really comfortable so far,” he says. “The only thing is that it doesn’t have a rev counter, or cruise control.” I resist the urge to feel smug, having both equipped in the Sonic.
Time to move on, and we swap cars again. This time I end up in the Rio as we continue towards Al Ain. There’s an air of class to this Kia – chrome feature surrounds and stylish design give it a certain sophistication that one doesn’t really expect in this price bracket. Not so keen on the black plastic centre panel, but the piano black bits make up for it.
The seating position is quite high and there’s no cruise control, but there’s a feeling of airiness and quality to it, less brittle at its touch points. Everything on this 5000km-old car feels well screwed down. On this long stretch of straight tarmac, it’s smooth, comfortable and blighted only by the continuous beeping noise of the speed warning chime as I cruise at a perfectly legal 120kph.
Up ahead is Al Ain and, not much further, the Raceway where we’ll really start putting these $15,000 hatchbacks to the test.