After around 90 minutes of motorway and a hassle-free nip through Al Ain itself, we arrive at the Al Ain Raceway in our Kia Rio, Toyota Yaris and Management Fleet Chevrolet Sonic convoy. Joining me the jaunt as always is my colleague James, photographer Moe, and Rami Azzam a respected local kart racer.
Sitting just outside of the city, right next to the Omani border, the Raceway is a world-class facility that last year hosted the Rotax Max Challenge World Finals and welcomed dozens of the best young racers in the world. Which should mean it’s up to scratch for three miscreants in some hatchbacks. We’re given free reign of the 1600-metre international circuit, and waste no time in giving the cars a thorough workout.
I take the Kia out first and start building up confidence through the tight, technical and twisting course. It’s just the right size for cars of this type and power, as I can push the throttle into the floor on the straights without fear. All of us have tipped the Kia for great things based on our cruise so far; it’s the early favourite to surprise us.
Sadly, pushing things on show up its shortcomings. Looks and comfort count for little on a track, and at the first enthusiastic bit of cornering the front Kumhos howl in protest. The car’s weight overwhelms the grip quickly, and through the bus-stop chicance at the end of the lap the chassis can’t react quickly enough to the changes of direction; it’s too soft and slushy. A fanfare of tyre squeal is the result at speeds that really shouldn’t trouble the Rio that much. The steering is too light as well, with not enough feeling of connection to what’s going on ahead.
On the plus side, the gearbox is the only one here that has a configuration that lends itself for manual changes while pressing on. Flick the lever over a notch and the simple forward-up and back-down system works well while threading between apexes, and the shifts are nice and slick. That said, I find I rarely venture out of second and third.
After a few laps we jump between cars and I get back into the Sonic. What a difference. The steering has heft and a texture to it and chucking the little blue car into hairpins shows a marked improvement in handling. The fronts grip with a minimum of fuss and the chassis is far more composed, giving a much more dynamic experience. The Chevy feels lithe, nimble and just plain confident compared to the reluctant Rio, and even with experienced racer Rami in the Kia behind me, I soon open up a gap. The extra power also shows through – five more bhp than the Rio – and it’s delivered through a sharp and eager throttle.
The brakes though are a little squishier than the Rio, with less feedback through the pedal. My only major complaint is the gearbox layout. It might have five speeds, but why Chevrolet chose a rocker switch on the side of the lever as a method of changing between them manually is beyond me. It’s almost impossible to find quickly and hugely counter-intuitive. In the end I give up and stick it back into D. Not ideal, but the Sonic has still set a new standard.
Last up is the Yaris, which so far I’ve found hard to get excited about. Until I start to give it some welly, that is. The steering is a little on the light side, but the chassis is by far the most competent and nippy here. I keep the somewhat unusual gearbox layout in 3, which holds third gear as I chuck the little Japanese box around the circuit. The engine has the least power here at just 83bhp, but it’s fizzy and eager and perfectly suited to this particular pursuit.
We gather at the far side of the circuit and swap impressions. All of us are disappointed by the Kia, more so because it’s so good when not being pushed. “I really wanted it to drive well, but it just understeers everywhere and didn’t feel like the steering wheel was doing anything,” Rami says. “The chassis was smooth but didn’t feel like it was going to turn in. Different tyres might help but I’m not sure it would make much of a difference. I love the look of it, but I don’t like the way it drives.” James concurs. “The Kia I saw as being the dark horse coming into this, but you’re fighting the car all the way around. It’s quite disappointing. The gearing and acceleration are fine but you can’t throw it into the corners.”
The Sonic though is garnering some love. “It’s quick on the straights compared to the other two and turn in is really good. Keep it at the limit and it’s fun,” Rami says. “I don’t like the way it changes gears, but I like the gearbox itself.”
The Yaris? None of us had particularly high hopes, but it’s been the pleasant surprise of this exercise. “Handling wise, it’s by far the best,” says James. “You can hurl it into a corner and keep pushing, and it’ll stick.”
So, which would we pick? James is opting for the Sonic. “Of the three, it’s the one I’d like to live with on a daily basis. Comfort-wise it’s the best, and it’s steering has a really meaty, satifsying feel. I’m not so keen on the gearing on the circuit, you seem to wait for it to select a gear and by the time it has, you’re already around the corner. There’s plenty of power though. I like it because it looks like it’s trying hard.”
For Rami, it’s the drivability of the Yaris that wins him over. “I didn’t expect the Yaris would keep up with the Sonic. I’m really rather taken with it,” he says. “I’ve got to go for it.”
Weirdly, after much agonising, I disagree with both of them. It’s not really the crankandpiston way, and I cringe slightly as I admit it, but I find myself always heading back to the Rio. Yes, it’s far too slushy to drive hard, but as evidenced by the cross-country journey, it’s the one that impresses the most on regular drives. It’s the classiest inside and out, and also the cheapest of the three at $14,975.
I do retain a soft spot for the Sonic though – the only reason I haven’t chosen it is the styling, which just doesn’t sit well with me, though James and Rami are both fans. It’s a decent drive and more comfortable than the Yaris, but the Toyota blows both out the water when it comes to agility. Shame it’s so dull to look at and feels a bit cheap.
So there we have it. It’s a three-way tie. Each of these little hatches has something major going for it, and which one you’ll prefer depends on your priorities. But rest assured, being on a budget doesn’t mean you can’t have excitement on the road.