Cars.comparison: Off-to-College Cars

A new school year is upon us, and kids across the country are making the trek to college. In that spirit, we spent hours driving and scrutinizing three subcompact hatchbacks that would be at home on any campus, including Ford's all-new Fiesta. Find out which one is the editors' choice.

= Category winner
The Contenders
2011 Ford Fiesta SES2010 Honda Fit Sport2010 Scion xD
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Base MSRP

$17,120

$16,410

$14,900

Price as tested

$19,840

$19,860

$17,563

Campus appeal

The Fiesta's low-slung shape and sleek lines prove that hatchbacks can look great with the right design. One editor found the chrome accents in the front bumper a little over the top, but it's pretty appealing overall.

The Fit isn't so much bad looking as it is dorky looking. Its tall, functional shape lacks the Fiesta's athleticism. At least it maintains its predecessor's slender lines — no freshman 15 here.

Looking something like a cross between a car and an armored truck, the stocky xD is distinctive in a good way. You immediately know it's a Scion.

Gas mileage (mpg city/highway, observed over 267-mile test loop)

29/38, 35.2

Despite its highest EPA rating, our Fiesta SES achieved a middling 35.2 mpg over a daylong loop at various speeds. A more aerodynamic Super Fuel Economy Package, optional on the Fiesta SE, bumps EPA ratings to 29/40 mpg.

27/33, 33.5
The Fit outperformed its EPA highway rating in our test loop, but the observed 33.5 mpg falls short of the others. Non-Sport Fits with the automatic offer greater efficiency with a 28/35 mpg rating.

27/33, 35.9
Despite its four-speed automatic and middling EPA ratings, the xD returned the highest mileage in our test loop — nearly 3 mpg better than its EPA highway rating. Not too shabby.

Room for friends

The Fiesta is the only one in this comparison with a height-adjustable driver's seat, a nice feature to have. However, the cramped rear seats reflect the Fiesta's diminutive size. Only your real friends may be willing to put up with it.

The Fit's cabin is the roomiest in front and back, with good front-seat travel and tons of headroom. The backseat sits relatively high off the floor for improved comfort, and the backrests recline. This is the one you'd want for a spring break road trip with your crew.

The xD's chairlike driving position isn't the most comfortable, partly because taller drivers' arms stretch forward to reach the steering wheel, which doesn't telescope. The backseat isn't as roomy as the Fit's, and the seat cushion is lower, which lessens comfort.

Space for stuff

The opening to the Fiesta's cargo area is comparatively small, and the liftover is nearly hip high, but it does offer 15.4 cubic feet of cargo room behind the rear seats and 26 with them folded. With the seats down, however, there's a big ledge in the cargo floor. The liftgate opens high and out of the way.

We're amazed by the Fit's cargo versatility. There's 57.3 cubic feet of cargo room with the backseat folded and 20.6 with it up, which helps the Fit soundly trounce the others. A huge cargo opening and low liftover height make loading up for the trip to campus easier. Plus, the backseat cushions can flip up to create a space for tall and narrow cargo.

The xD's cargo area isn't as deep as the Fiesta's, and at 10.5 cubic feet it's the smallest of these three hatchbacks when the backseat is up. When the seats are folded, it's ahead of the Fiesta with 35.7 cubic feet, but the cavernous Fit still blows it away.

Quality, audio systems
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The Fiesta's stylish cabin feels the highest-rent here, but it lacks a center armrest, which you'll miss come the long drive home for Thanksgiving. The Euro-inspired audio system takes some getting used to, but even then it's not particularly user-friendly. The iPod interface isn't any better.
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Our Fit had some inconsistent materials but high-quality controls. It also had the optional touch-screen navigation system, and you use it to control an iPod connected to the stereo. The screen displays the most song information, but the touch-screen is slow to react to commands.
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Like most general education classes, the xD's cabin is basic and straightforward. Though it looks like aftermarket hardware, our tester's Alpine audio system is a factory accessory. It includes a touch-screen, but the display is small and not especially easy to use while driving.
Drivetrain performance

You really have to rev the Fiesta's four-cylinder engine to tap its power, which is modest overall. The dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission provides the type of quick shifts that are characteristic of this type of gearbox, but it's occasionally clunky at parking-lot speeds. 

The Fit has the most get-up-and-go, thanks in part to a quick-shifting automatic transmission that doesn't hesitate to kick down for passing and always seems to have the right gear in corners. 

Despite having the largest and most powerful four-cylinder in this comparison, the xD is hampered by a four-speed automatic that's slow to downshift. It could use another gear.

Ride quality

All of these hatchbacks have suspension tuning that's on the firm side, but there's a level of refinement in the Fiesta's ride quality that the others lack, and its highway poise is impressive for such a small car.

Bumps and other pavement imperfections yield a sharp response from the Fit's suspension, making the Honda the firmest-riding of this trio. Because of its larger wheels, the Sport rides firmer than the base Fit, but it is the better of two trim levels.

The xD's responses are somewhat abrupt over larger bumps, but it handles smaller imperfections well, remaining relatively composed. It's not far behind the category-winning Fiesta.

Handling

The Fiesta's handling prowess is impressive. It corners effortlessly at surprising speeds without losing its cool. It's a driver's car, through and through. 

Responsive steering with good turn-in is a Fit high point, but it skates through corners a little and couldn't match the Fiesta's sophistication. The Fit is no slouch on a winding road — the Fiesta is just a little better.

The xD's reflexes are the slowest in this test, with vague steering that doesn't provide any feedback. It was clear from its squealing tires that it wasn't up for being driven hard.

Overall value

Merit scholarship. Though the Fiesta sedan comes in a stripped-down $13,320 sedan, the modestly equipped hatchback starts at more than $15,000 — and lacks some features that are standard in the xD.

Athletic scholarship. The base Fit undercuts the Fiesta hatchback by $220, but for that price it has a meager list of features — lacking things like keyless entry and an all-important electronic stability system.

Full ride. With standard steering-wheel audio controls, iPod integration, cruise control and more, the $14,900 xD offers value unlike most cars this side of Hyundai and Kia.

Editors' choice

Magna cum laude. The Fiesta is, hands down, the best-driving car here, and it looks great, but it comes up short in the important practicality component of the hatchback equation, and we couldn't overlook that.

Summa cum laude. The Fit's eager drivetrain is endearing, but it's the remarkably spacious cabin and cargo area — a packaging marvel — that solidified the Honda's position atop the podium.

Cum laude. A strong value choice, the xD isn't a complete slouch in any qualitative judgments, either. Clearly, there's room for improvement, but its unique looks and attractive price are sure to appeal to some.

© Cars.com 09/1/2010
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