When shopping for one’s very first new automobile, the subcompact segment is the traditional gateway to a whole new world of independence and mobility. Smaller cars are also chosen by seasoned car owners for their tidy size, making city life easier thanks to their compact footprint and low ownership costs. With frugal engines, simple maintenance needs, and little complexity, subcompacts have always been a rational choice for the budget-savvy. Designed for owners who need to extract maximum value from their hard-earned dollars, subcompacts are often known to last and last, faithful little warriors of the daily grind.
Discerning drivers also pick the subcompact category for the playfulness that comes inherent to a lighter, nimble car. Manual transmissions, rev-happy engines, and direct steering have made some of these small cars legends in their own right. And many consumers don’t really want – or need – anything bigger. Sometimes being small is the ultimate luxury. Manufacturers have adjusted to market demand and added features and content to their smaller offerings, which in turn has had the boomerang effect of making their larger compacts more competitive to price-conscious consumers. This and the seemingly insatiable market demand for crossovers and SUVs has affected subcompacts, with past stars of the category now part of the history books. Last year’s winner in this segment, the Honda Fit, for example, will be discontinued for 2021.
But fear not, for the subcompact market is alive and well with quality offerings that trade numbers for variety. Yes, there are fewer subcompacts to choose from in 2021, but our diverse team of 20 experts voted on the top five offerings of the category, cars we are confident in recommending to friends and relatives.
Here are the finalists for the 2021 autoTRADER.ca Awards Best Subcompact Car. Winners will be announced in February 2021.
Nothing says “21st century” like a clean-sheet design battery-electric car (BEV). Launched in 2017, the Bolt was the first BEV to challenge Tesla on the range front. As General Motors’ first mass-produced electric car, the Bolt was fully engineered around EV architecture and thus makes no compromises to accommodate other types of drivetrains. Its “skateboard” platform places the 66-kWh battery pack – upgraded from 60 kWh at launch – below the passenger compartment floor, helping both packaging and this tall subcompact’s centre of gravity.
While it adopts a classic small-car layout with its five doors and front-wheel drive, everything else about the Bolt is novel. Under the stubby front hood we find a 200-hp, 266 lb-ft electric motor that provides this subcompact with plenty of oomph. The Bolt is, in fact, quicker than many classic Chevy muscle cars with a zero-to-100 km/h time barely above six seconds flat. Moving to the cabin, seating is perched higher than expected, creating a bit of a “saddle” effect that gives the driver a good view of their surroundings. Materials appear durable and ready for intensive use, but are perhaps a bit spartan at this price point.
Official numbers say it has 416 km of range, but many have surpassed the official ratings. The little Chevy offers a 7.2 kWh on-board charger and is able to replenish 80 per cent of its battery capacity in 30 minutes thanks to its high-speed CCS Combo port. The Bolt is a compelling option for the environmentally conscious consumer.
As Chevrolet’s entry-level car, the Spark adheres to a strict budget but nevertheless adds spice to the daily commute with a cheerful design, vibrant colours, and a surprising amount of refinement. The small 1.4-litre four-cylinder has no turbos or gizmos, but delivers a solid 98 hp, moving the light Spark with competence with either the five-speed manual or the well-adapted CVT automatic transmission. The cabin pursues the cheerful design through fun colour inserts and is loaded with current tech expected by today’s consumer.
This zippy park-on-a-dime city car can become crowded with more than one passenger – the max is four – and its wheelbase is so short that taller drivers may not be able to lower the rear seatback flat behind them. But as a first purchase, it extracts value, comfort, and fun from your hard-earned dollars. And its white paint option is called “Toasted Marshmallow” – so cuuuute!
The Rio pretty much epitomizes the subcompact segment. Available as either a five-door hatchback or a sedan, the Rio holds the fort for South Korea, as the popular Hyundai Accent retired at the end of 2020. Affordable and offering a dose of European style, the Rio follows the classic front-wheel-drive layout, with a frugal 120-hp 1.6-litre four-cylinder, all-new for 2020, mated to your pick of a six-speed manual or CVT automatic transmission, sitting on top of a simple chassis with struts up front and torsion beam out back.
The Euro vibe – inside and out – is not a coincidence: the Rio’s design was a collaboration of Kia’s Californian and German studios. The Germanic traits don’t stop at visuals – all Rios possess a nice grip on the road and will please Canadian consumers who would love for Volkswagen to offer its smaller Polo over here. Generous soundproofing and a rigid platform seal the perceived quality.
Easy to buy, cheap to maintain, and punching above its price class, the Rio is a recurring recommendation from our team of expert reviewers, offering style, value, and individuality with its two body styles, trims, transmissions, and colour palette.
Mini’s cheerful little Cooper pulls at the heartstrings of our team of expert reviewers for its unmatched driving experience. But there’s more to Mini than that legendary go-kart playfulness. Beyond any nominee listed here, the Cooper offers myriad configurations and can be fine-tuned to one’s wishes and then some, from affordable city car to weekend track toy and everything in between.
The menu starts with a 134-hp turbocharged three-cylinder, and moves to a 189-hp turbo four in “S” models, paired with your choice of six-speed transmissions, manual or automatic, with every combination available in either body style and with multiple shades of paint, roof colours, and stripes. There’s even an all-electric Cooper SE 3 Door should you like to enjoy your zippiness paired with zero emissions.
Being this mini means a pretty tight rear seat in the 3 Door, which seats four; the 5 Door benefits from a longer wheelbase, yielding room for five and better trunk volume, too.
The first-generation Versa was very popular with Canadian shoppers, its main attractions being European styling, a roomy cabin, and a larger-than-average engine for the category. But the Versa Note that followed was left in the shadow of the cute-as-a-button Micra. For 2021, the Micra is retired (the Note left us after 2019) and Nissan opted to hit the market with style, launching a sleek and all-new Versa sedan (the only body style now offered). In a complete departure from previous generations, the new car borrows styling cues from Nissan’s latest sedans and looks just like a scaled-down Sentra – not a bad thing at all!
A five-speed manual transmission is offered on the base Versa S, while its optional CVT automatic is standard on the higher SV and SR trims. All models come with front-wheel drive and a 122-hp 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine, while drum brakes and a torsion beam suspension in the rear help keep costs down. Savvy shoppers will notice that, unlike many subcompacts, the Versa range uses tires in popular sizes, another cost-reducing factor in a category where every dollar counts, and in a country where every car needs two sets of tires!
All Versas come standard with such niceties as cruise control and automated two-way emergency braking, while the full Safety Shield 360 safety suite is available on upper trims, along with automatic climate control and an advanced trip computer. With seating for five and crowd-pleasing style, the Versa is indeed worthy of its nomination.