For obvious reasons, Automobile Magazine comparisons typically round up cars with similar base prices. If the scientific method works for scientists, surely it's good enough for us. Consistent as these apples-to-apples tests are, though, they don't always reveal the complexities that go into buying a car in the real world, where varying levels of equipment and add-ons can quickly muddy our neat and simple categorizations. Take for instance, three small sporty hatchbacks currently in our fleet - the Suzuki SX4 Sportback, the Mini Cooper, and the Volkswagen GTI. On paper, they're three completely different cars in three different price segments. But look a little closer The SX4, loaded with navigation, Bluetooth, bigger wheels and other extras, carried an as tested price of $18,513, which is within a grand of a base Mini Cooper. The Mini, for its part, came with a slew of options that shot its sticker to $25,000 - about a thousand dollars more than the base price of a two-door GTI. Each of these vehicles fares very well when compared strictly to competitors in its traditional segment, but we couldn't help but wonder how they'd match up in a clearly unfair fight, the sort that breaks out all the time when real people go shopping for real cars.
To be perfectly clear, this is not a conventional comparison. We knew before we even left our parking garage that the Mini Cooper would be more refined and better driving than the Suzuki and that the GTI, likewise, would have a clear edge over the non-turbocharged Mini. The question then, was whether these advantages could be mitigated, perhaps even eliminated by the appeal of some very useful extras. Would the niceties on the SX4 make us forget about the more appealing Mini? And do the custom bits on the Mini really add up to a car we'd pick over a GTI? Read on for our thoughts.
SX4 Sportback vs. Mini Cooper
Amenities: Navigation, Bluetooth, upgraded stereo, keyless ignition.
The better car: Mini Cooper
The verdict: The sum of the Mini is greater than the Suzuki's parts.
The idea that a subcompact doesn't have to be an econobox is still a rather novel one in the U.S. market. There are basically two approaches to building a more expensive "B-segment" car. The first route, taken by this Suzuki as well as the popular Honda Fit, is to start with a cheap car and simply add content. The second method, which the new Mini largely pioneered, is to build a subcompact that's intrinsically more costly, and presumably more refined and better driving.
If you have not driven a Suzuki lately - and judging by the brand's recent sales numbers, you haven't - you'll likely be surprised by the SX4 Sportback's strong all-around performance. Beyond the usual small car strengths, including good fuel economy, good visibility, and easy maneuverability, the SX4 offers surprising refinement and tons of content. The suspension, upgraded in Sport models with performance-oriented KYB dampers, does a good job absorbing large bumps and the six-speed manual transmission keeps revs tolerably low on the highway. The only point of controversy is the navigation system. The "in-dash" system appears to be an off-the-shelf Garmin unit that has been stuck unceremoniously to a spring-loaded door atop the dash, and wired to read directions through the eight-speaker stereo. Some editors dismissed the system as little more than a gimmick, but others praised it as a cheap, but effective solution.
We expected a big difference in driving the Suzuki back-to-back with the Mini, but actually were less bowled over than we expected. The Mini isn't significantly quieter, and it's also feels no faster, as its weight advantage is largely mitigated by the Suzuki's larger, more powerful four-cylinder. It's only when the pace becomes frenetic that the Mini asserts itself. The SX4, even with the performance dampers, is simply no match for the Mini when it comes to road holding and body control (our Mini did have optional larger wheels, but otherwise had no mechanical upgrades). The SX4's steering feel and shift action, though decent when considered on its own, feels hopelessly vague and sloppy compared to Mini's heavy, precise steering and tightly gated manual gearbox, which are as good as one expects from a BMW-product.
But it's not the driving dynamics that would make us shy away from the SX4, at least not entirely. Much as we discovered with our similarly equipped Four-Seasons Honda Fit, there's a point at which the gadgets and accessories can push a subcompact too far beyond its natural price. All the equipment, useful though it may be, fails to make the SX4 Sport feel like more than what it is: a very good cheap car.
And that's the big advantage of the Mini Cooper. Even though a base Mini lacks most of the Suzuki's frills, it feels every bit like an expensive car. There are quantifiable advantages, including a more attractive interior and features not available for any price on the SX4, including Xenon headlights and hill-start assist for the manual transmission. Compared to the bland Suzuki, the Mini's style also qualifies as a substance. Some may find the hatchback's irrepressible cuteness cloying, but it can never be accused of being dull or dreary, which are the usual adjectives for this class. Ten minutes in the Mini, and the SX4's keyless ignition and navigation just don't feel that tempting for a similar price. Add in the fact that the Mini returns significantly better fuel economy, and the choice becomes even clearer.
There are, no doubt, some folks who are scoffing as they read this, indignant that we'd pick a less practical, less-equipped car simply because it has a pretty face and makes us say, "whee!" in corners. To those people, we can recommend the loaded SX4 without reservation. It drives well, has tons of space, and, thanks to its simple yet effective nav system, will never be seen circling aimlessly around a city late at night. But if you're like us and want to squeeze every last bit of fun out of your driving, be it on a curvy road or even when zipping through traffic, the Mini excels where the SX4 is merely competent. That edge makes the Mini the better pick at this price point.
Mini Cooper vs. Volkswagen GTI
The options you'd have to go without: Silver metallic paint, seventeen-inch wheels, leather seat bolsters, USB/iPod adapters
The better car: Volkswagen GTI
Verdict: There's no shame in the Mini, but pick your extras wisely.
On top of getting Americans to buy a relatively expensive compact, Mini has succeeded in selling all sorts of pricey options. Our test car had a healthy $5000 in what we'd consider rather peculiar extras.
You might have been wondering how we could compare the SX4 to a "base" Mini, even though the latter's sticker above that of a "stripper", and the answer is simple: almost none of the options (save for the aforementioned tires) have any affect on the car's comfort or performance. Unless, that is, you consider silver paint a go-fast extra or really, really want your Mini to talk to you. That's right, talk. Our Mini came with a $4500 Camden package, the centerpiece of which is some in-dash hardware that provides a nonstop and very cheeky commentary on your driving. To wit:
"This is engine. I want to make an announcement. I am warmed up and really, really ready for action!" "Fuullll thrrotttlle!"
""Be careful, everyone! It's raining out!"
A few editors found the voices novel and entertaining. Just as many couldn't stand them and shut the system off within moments of climbing into the car. Mostly though, we shrugged with indifference and wondered why anyone would spend $4500 on such a kitschy use of technology.
In contrast to this childishness, the Volkswagen GTI - in this case represented by our two-door four-seasons test car - could hardly be more adult. The base interior is quiet and logically laid out, and comes with upscale features like a touch-screen radio interface. It's also considerably quicker than the Mini, thanks to its much more powerful turbocharged engine. And even though this GTI is wearing upgraded eighteen-inch wheels shod with snow tires - a combination that has wreaked havoc on ride quality - the car was more adept at soaking up Michigan's plentiful frost heaves and mid-corner bumps than the budget BMW. To its credit, the cheaper Mini lands a few punches of its own. In particular, we found the gearbox slightly more precise and the steering more responsive, though the latter could be a result of both cars wearing the "wrong" wheels and tires. But there's no doubt, if you're looking for dynamic excellence for less than $25,000, the GTI is the right choice.
This is the part where every Mini owner blows a gasket because we're neglecting to mention that Mini itself offers a higher-horsepower alternative. This is true. But slot a Cooper S in for the GTI, and the thought process remains the same - more power or more goodies?
Take heart, Mini mavens. Even though the GTI more than asserted its superiority in back to back driving, several editors decided they might just prefer a well-optioned Cooper. For the most part, we weren't convinced - as we certainly were with the SX4 - that the more expensive car translated to more fun on the road. Whether zipping through back roads or dodging through city traffic, the Mini doesn't lack for smile inducement, and, again, has a clear fuel economy edge. And then there are the nearly endless possibilities for customization. Surely, we don't recommend these options, but that's just it - Mini offers something for everyone. Given a car that punches above its weight to start with, and then another $4500 to make it ours, and we might be tempted to take it over a more mature and more powerful GTI. Just make sure ours has the Union Jack on the roof and no voices in the dash.
More than anything, our findings stress the importance of test-driving as broad a range of vehicles as possible, and carefully considering what features are necessary. In other words, figure out exactly what you want from your car. If you've sampled everything and decide a built-in navigation system is a top priority or desperately want that cute paint-job, then by all means, don't let us stop you (we reserve the right to mock your choice after the fact). But walk into a dealership uninformed, and Mr. Salesman could send you away with lots of gadgets you'll never use at a price that could have bought you a better car.