Once upon a time, inexpensive cars were, well, inexpensive… and not much more. You paid a little and got less. Crank windows, perhaps a soviet-era AM radio and a crash structure of only the finest polystyrene.

Those were the days of yore. Cheap cars simply can’t be built that way anymore. The Feds want less of us perishing in crashes, so they’ve raise safety standards. Meanwhile, consumers now demand more than a vinyl seat and one easy-listening radio station in their vehicles. Then there’s rising fuel prices and global economic fallout happening…

Canada’s subcompact car market then, is more crowded, competitive – and competent – than it’s ever been. Hallelujah. By our count, there are around a dozen entries in this segment.

That’s a great many machines to consider, but in our books Honda’s Fit tops them all. Small, smart and nimble, it already defeated the new Scion xD and Hyundai Accent in a November comparo, but is now facing new rivals in the Chevrolet Sonic and Toyota Yaris. Can they best our favourite first car?

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In other markets around the world where this new, third generation Yaris is sold, kit like satellite navigation and a panoramic sunroof are available. Not so in Canada. This least expensive Toyota (starting at $13,990) is all about reliable and simple transportation. For better or worse.

On the plus side, it’s bursting with standard safety features like a class-leading nine airbags. It’s also lightweight, even compared to Honda’s Fit and offers a best-in-segment turning circle and lowest-in-test fuel consumption, averaging 6.2 L/100 km. Even our mid-level LE tester with a convenience package ($16,990) is elemental transportation – everything you need, nothing you don’t.

For those who care about such things (read: us) the Yaris is barely adequately powered (the 1.5-litre four-cylinder makes a lowest-in-test 106 horsepower 103 lb-ft of torque); the four-speed automatic transmission antiquated compared to everything else in this segment and there’s wind, road and engine noise. Not unpleasant, just present.

We do know the top-line, $18,990 Yaris SE puts the car in its best light cosmetically and features-wise, but for us, the Toyota can sometimes leave us feeling like Oliver Twist. We want more please, sir – we know this car could be even better with just a few minor tweaks.

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Chevrolet has built a good small car. I can’t believe I just typed that. It’s taken millennia, but this new Sonic finally moves GM into the subcompact forefront. The hatchback looks good, is comfortable, fun-to-drive and is bolted together solidly.

The only subcompact built in North America, the Sonic’s sold in 50-plus countries (part of the reason the car had to be done well…) and is priced in Canada from $14,495. Much appeal comes from available features, largely unheard of in this segment until only recently. Our mid-pack LT tester wore options like a six-speed automatic transmission, Bluetooth audio, remote start and heated front seats – for just $17,495. Impressive. Sonic’s also the only subcompact offering an optional turbocharged four-cylinder engine (from $20,995), for the hotter-hatch buyer.

The Sonic can’t topple the Fit though for a few, frustrating, reasons: The base 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine is smooth and makes a best-in-test 136 hp and 125 lb-ft of torque. But it’s hampered by the Sonic’s tonnage, 100 lbs. north of the Honda’s. This also contributes to the worst average fuel economy here at 6.9 L/100 km.

What’s more, both Sonics we’ve tested of late were just north of 10,000 km and emitted a strange binding noise from their steering. We’re not sure if it’s ‘normal’ or an issue that plagues all examples.

Finally, the rear seats merely flop down to max-out cargo space (though there is covered storage under the rear floor). The low-tech design is frustrating in a global car that could have copied Honda’s Magic Seats (and the Fit’s example overall) to deliver something even more desirable – and domestic.

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Strike up the band. Break out the Saki. The Honda Fit is still the best all-around subcompact on the market in Canada. The Japanese automaker likes to think of itself as an engineering company that happens to build cars and its subcompact is a prime examples of how clever and innovative it can be with a car that measures a hair more that four metres in length.

The trickery in the Fit lies in how it’s been made to feel fun and functional at the same time. For starters, how it steers, brakes and handles: Spunky, is probably the best word for it, with the little 1.5L four-cylinder whirring out 117 hp and 106 lb-ft of torque smartly through a five-speed autobox. It averages a mid-test 6.3 L/100 km. Sightlines are great, all controls nearby and the seats front and back, comfortable.

Fit is not perfect, mind you. First, its $14,580 base price and as-tested $20,080 sticker is highest in our group, if only by a couple of hundred dollars. Don’t opt for the Sport model like us and to some eyes the Honda can look quite pedestrian versus rivals like Sonic. It also offers the fewest available airbags, at just six. Finally, and most important, to keep the Fit’s weight down, those aforementioned engineers passed on using (the right amount?) of sound deadening materials around the front wheels, so there always road tires noise intruding rudely into the cabin.

Redeeming though, are the Fit’s standard rear Magic Seats. This is Honda engineering at its very best. In an unconventional move, the car’s fuel tank has been moved under the front seats, freeing up a huge amount of space below the second row. This allows the 60/40-split rear bench to articulate downward for a unique here, truly flat floor and a massive 1,622 litres (57 cu-ft) of cargo space. Fold the front seat down and a 2.3 metre (near eight foot) thing will fit inside. Finally, flips up the rear cushions and there’s over four feet (one metres) floor-to-ceiling for carrying tall items. Even with its rear seats up, Fit has best-in-test cargo room.

There’s still much that the competition, old and new, can learn from this Honda, which is why for us, it still leads by example.

You may also want to consider:

Mazda2 – Basic like the Toyota Yaris, but pulled off to better effect.

Ford Fiesta – Another domestic that competent and offers lots of optional niceties.

Kia Rio5 – Looks and features at a good price.

Hyundai Accent – The Kia’s brother and the same story – features + price.

Mini Cooper Countryman – Much pricier, but cool and built by BMW.

Suzuki SX4 – The only one in segment offering AWD.

Nissan Versa – The least expensive car in Canada. Does not feel like it.

Scion xD – Often overlooked. Great street cred.