Small cars are like small apartments. They can be hellish things: cramped, claustrophobic, and every bit as cheap as their pricetags would suggest. (At least with small cars I’ve yet to come across toxic mould, something I can’t say about apartments.) If you get lucky though, you might find a small space that makes you wonder why you ever wanted a big one. And, one of these three cars did just that in our latest comparison test.

But, lets take a step back a moment. These are three subcompacts from three very different companies. Scion (a Toyota sub-brand) is supposed to be young and cool, which is pretty much a guarantee that it’s not. The Fit from Honda is what we call a “Japanese Honda.” It’s the same car the company sells in its home market, and strange as it sounds, that makes it rare, and – in our eyes – kind of cool. And, the Accent is from a company rising fast.

You’ll likely be able to haggle on price with Scion and Hyundai, but Honda is notoriously unamused by bargain hunters.

But, which one of these subcompacts left us spatially satiated – not yearning for a roomier vehicle?

HeapMedia90029

Well, we’re not pulling any punches here, it wasn’t the xD. The interior feels cheap, with just-okay plastics and a nasty stereo that looks like it was added as an afterthought. The fiddly volume/selection knob is a pain to use while driving, requiring some serious precision button-mashing skills. The Scion was least accommodating of tall drivers and passengers too. The dual-glovebox is a nice touch though, providing easy access to USB connectors.

We also liked all the factory performance parts from Toyota Racing Development (TRD, pronounced “turd”, said some smart aleck non-Toyota fan…). Our tester came fully-loaded with big rims, lowering sport-suspension, a short-shift manual transmission kit and a shiny exhaust the size of a Fisher-Price softball bat. The later yields a surprisingly throaty engine noise, which makes us want to drive this little machine like we stole it. Do so, and it only delivers part-way on the promise of its looks. The ride is surprisingly comfortable even with the sport suspension, and the xD corners extremely flat, without the body roll of the Accent. It feels sprightly, if not quick, with the 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine (125 horsepower / 125 lb-ft). The four-speed automatic is pretty ancient by today’s standards, but the five-speed manual has a nice notchy feel. 

Fuel costs are a large part of the ownership expense of a car in this price bracket, so consumption will be important. The official rating with the manual ‘box is 7.4 L/100 km city and 5.9 highway, which makes it worst-in-test.

So, this is one for the customizers then, but keep in mind, all those mods that make this car worth considering do cost you: short shifter, $305; aluminum shift knob, $70; dampers, $1,290; lowering springs, $1,050; exhaust, $600; rims, $1,525; air filter, $105; spoiler, $480… etc. I could go on. Those are very fair prices, but you could easily add $6,000 to the sticker of your Scion. At least all those parts are covered by the standard warranty.

HeapMedia90031

There’s really nothing wrong with the new Accent. It’s a comfortable place to be, the ride is good and the cargo area is spacious. The Hyundai feels the most like a “grown up car,” we decided. It’s workman-like in the way it ticks all the boxes. It looks like the biggest of the bunch, too. With the lowest base price, it’s certainly the one your parents would urge you to pick.

But, the driving experience is forgettable. The steering feels strangely rubbery and springy, and it isn’t talkative. Turn-in isn’t as sharp as it is on the others in our group, which makes the Hyundai feel not as nimble and chuckable. Thanks to its curvy styling, the rear-hatch opening is small compared to the others and liftover height is relatively high.

Air-conditioning and power-windows are an optional extra on the base model. The mid-level GL trim with an automatic gearbox is very nicely equipped but the price jumps up to $16,599. Still, the Hyundai is a very good deal.

With its 1.6-litre, four-cylinder engine, the Accent gets a best-in-test 6.7 L/100 km in the city and 4.9 highway. Despite its fuel-sipping nature, the motor still pumps out 138 hp and 123 lb-ft of torque. Certainly the most impressive motor on paper here, but not in practice.

HeapMedia90013

Yes, it was only the Fit that left us not wishing we had more money to move up to the compact car bracket. In fact, we might even take a fully-loaded Fit over a base Civic.

This car really surprised us. I’d never driven the Fit before, but I’ve driven most other subcompact and compact cars. The most amazing thing about them is actually how similar they all are. But the Fit is a bit different; a bit clever. It’s the little things: like the way the rear seats can flip up to accommodate bicycles or large boxes; or the way the seats latch in place using the same metal bar that supports the bench when it’s lowered. The floor of the cargo area is low for easy loading, and if you don’t want the rear bench folded up, then it can easily tumble completely flat. The sides of the car are nearly vertical which maximizes interior space. The view all-around is excellent – perfect for city driving – thanks to those tall side windows and gigantic front windshield.

The cockpit is equally satisfying. The steering wheel feels excellent and the surfaces feel more expensive than in the Scion, despite its higher price. Tall drivers won’t have a problem getting comfortable, with plenty of headroom.

The driving experience is what you’ve come to expect from Honda: quality steering feel, fine gearchange, good body-control. The 1.5-litre engine revs nicely, but the Fit feels pretty slow. It has the lowest power output of our group: 117 hp and 106 lb-ft of torque. Fuel consumption is rated at 7.1 L/100 km in the city and 5.4 highway, or better than the Scion, but not quite as good as the Hyundai.

The Fit feels like it was designed from the ground-up as a solution to the question of urban transportation, where the other cars feel like they merely tried to improve on the traditional subcompact formula. And for that, the Fit is our clear winner here.