Affordability has become one of the major issues in the auto industry – for consumers as well as automakers.
A decade ago, the average price of a new car was a bit more than $12,000, according to the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. This year the National Automobile Dealers Association says the average price of an automobile has rolled over the $20,000 barrier.
There are many drivers who can’t – or won’t spend $20,000 on transportation. They might opt instead to pay as little as $12,000 for a subcompact with basic equipment.
But what can you get for $12,000 these days? Plenty, as proved by a test-drive of three subcompacts in that range – the Toyota Tercel, Ford Escort and Hyundai Accent.
We chose to test these three cars, which are similar in price and size, for different reasons:
The Tercel, one of Toyota’s best-selling cars, is a high-quality automobile and the most affordable car the company offers in the U.S. market.
The Ford Escort is a versatile, well-built car and a perennial best-seller.
The Accent, Hyundai’s new addition, is the vehicle the company is banking on to repair its bruised reputation among entry-level buyers.
We drove entry-level models – stripped of electric gadgets and price-bloating knickknacks – for a week, logging about 300 miles in each in combined city and highway driving.
Although the Toyota ($12,471), Ford ($12,110) and Hyundai ($11,217) are priced within several hundred dollars of each other, there are big differences in how the cars are equipped once you get beyond air conditioning, radios and dual air bags.
The lower end of the new car market is where you really have to do your homework to be a smart shopper and to get the best deal. Just because economy cars are priced the same doesn’t mean they come with the same equipment. In fact, our test shows that some cars give you more equipment for less money.
To make an informed buy, you have to do more than go for a quick spin around the block. First, look at each car’s warranty. Then check out things like the rear seat – some small cars have rear seats that fold forward, making a rather small sedan a bit more versatile. Last, look for the small things. For instance, does the car have intermittent windshield wipers, a cupholder and two outside mirrors?
Value figured heavily in choosing the best of this week’s cars. In fact, the car I selected as best wasn’t necessarily the best-engineered.
The Toyota Tercel is all-new for 1995, not a gussied-up older model. The Accent, which replaces the Excel, is new to Hyundai line up for 1995. The Ford Escort has been around in its current form since the spring of 1990.
Here’s how the cars stack up.
Virtually all new small cars these days are equipped with a four-cylinder engine and front-wheel drive. Our test cars were no exception.
The Escort has an 88-horsepower, 1.9-liter four-cylinder engin e with two valves per cylinder. The Tercel’s 1.5-liter engine has four valves per cylinder and generates 93 horsepower. The Accent also has a 1.5-liter four-cylinder; horsepower is rated at 92.
The Accent’s engine is noteworthy for two reasons: It is the first engine Hyundai has ever developed in-house (previous Hyundais used Mitsubishi engines), and it has three valves per cylinder. It’s an uncommon setup.
Generally, a multivalve engine – one with more than two valves per cylinder – runs smoother, but with less power at low speeds, as is true with the Accent. The performance comes when the engine is revved up.
Of the three test cars, the Tercel’s engine was far and away the most refined. It ran with a whisper-smooth demeanor, offered good overall performance and delivered excellent fuel economy. But it was connected to an outmoded four-speed manual transmission. The Tercel may be the only car left on the market you can buy with a four-speed manual; virtually all other automakers offer a five-speed gearbox.
In city driving, the lack o f a fifth gear isn’t going to be noticed in the Tercel. But when you take it on the highway where cruising speeds are often 65 mph or more, the Tercel needs a fifth gear so that its engine can work less hard and be more frugal.
The Tercel’s transmission shows why it’s important to look closely at what you can get for your money. The Ford Escort – which sells for less than the Tercel comes with a five-speed manual. And the Hyundai, which is priced at even less than the Escort, is outfitted with a four-speed automatic.
In any case, the Tercel is easy to drive. The clutch pedal does not require much pressure to push down, and the shifter, though not particularly smooth, is fast-acting.
The Ford Escort, which also came with a standard transmission, requires a bit more effort to drive. The clutch pedal seems a bit on the stiff side, and it is sometimes difficult to find the right gear when shifting. On several occasions I jabbed and poked in vain trying to engage reverse.
The Escort’s performance, however, is very pleasing. It pulls strongly from a stop and delivers good midrange power. Its engine is not as smooth as the Tercel’s, but it is still a very civilized and balanced power plant.
On long highway trips, the Escort was the best of the three cars. Its engine settles into a nice groove at 65 mph in fifth gear, which also helps the car to be more frugal at the gas pump.
The new Hyundai Accent surprised me. This car is proof that Hyundai is serious about building affordable, higher-quality cars.
Its engine is smoother and quieter than the four-cylinder in a new Nissan Sentra I tested recently. Still, it ranked last among the power plants among today’s test-drive trio.
When I took the Accent on a grueling four-hour stop-and-go drive in 90 degree heat on back roads from Orlando to Lakeland, the car performed admirably. But in quick acceleration, as from a stoplight, engine noise became a bit intrusive.
The Accent’s automatic transmission was a bit unrefined. In some instances, such as shifts from first gear to second, the transmission wasn’t as smooth as the automatics in many other subcompacts. A button near the shifter lets the driver switch from Power to Economy modes, a nice touch for an inexpensive automobile.
If you don’t want to drive a stick shift and want to spend only about $12,000, you’ll find your choices limited. Aside from the Hyundai Accent, I can think of maybe one or two cars in that price range that offer a four-speed automatic.
Our dark purple Accent delivered 26 mpg in city driving and 34 mpg on the highway. The grey Tercel checked in with 32 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. The teal Escort returned 25 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway. All three vehicles used the least expensive grade of unleaded.
Overall, I would rank the Tercel as the best-engineered subc ompact of our trio, followed by the Escort and the Accent.
When it came to steering, handling and braking, the three cars performed well – but again, the Toyota had a clear edge over the competition.
For a small car, the Tercel is uncommonly quiet over rough pavement and bumps. Its suspension system – McPherson struts up front and a rear torsion beam – helps to contain noise as well as make the car agile, nimble and easy to drive.
Our Tercel did not have power steering, as the other two cars did, but it was fairly easy to maneuver in tight spaces. And once the Tercel is moving, I didn’t notice the lack of power steering.
All three cars came with front disc/rear drum brakes. The Tercel was the only one outfitted with anti-lock brakes, an $825 option that pushed the price past that of the Escort and Accent.
The Tercel can handle most driving situations with ease. However, its rather skinny 13-inch tires can be made to squeal and loset heir grip in fast cornering, such as would be done to avoid an accident.
The Escort felt a bit stiff compared with the Tercel and the Accent. But our test Escort, delivered with just 35 miles on the odometer, had yet to be broken in. After 300 miles it had loosened up a bit; the brakes and clutch began working smoother, and the car felt a bit easier to drive.
The Escort’s greater weight – it is the heaviest of the trio by more than 200 pounds – robbed it of any sporty feeling. Rather, the Escort delivers a solid and smooth ride. Its four-wheel independent suspension system enables the car to handle competently.
The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering system has a weighted feel, but it responds quickly and crisply.
I would rate the Escort’s brakes as the best of the group; they provide excellent stopping power.
Over the road, Hyundai’s Accent proved to be a cut above average. The car, which also has a four-wheel independent suspension system, handled cleanly and without surprises in most driving situations. However, it bounced quite a bit when driven quickly over something such as a speed bump.
The Accent was the easiest of the trio to turn. Also, the Hyundai can turn a very tight corner.
The containment of road noise is the one major area in which the Accent could be improved. On rough pavement you hear a constant muffled roar. Yet I am tempted to forgive the Accent for this in light of its very agreeable price.
The Accent may not be as smooth and refined as the Tercel and Escort, but it comes with a generous amount of equipment, and it costs less. Think of it as a Timex, not a Rolex.
In a very close race, the Tercel tops the list again in handling, followed by the Escort and the Accent.
FIT AND FINISH
Not even the Tercel’s world-class quality could make up for its spartan furnishings, and this car never lets you forget you’re in the economy class.
I could not see myself driving a base model Tercel each day – though I could and would drive either an Accent or an Escort.
For starters, the Tercel came with a set of heat-absorbing vinyl seats, which were painful to sit on when first entering the car on a hot day. Worse, even after the heat was dissipated, the vinyl made me sweat. But the seats provide enough padding to be supportive.
The Tercel was the only one of the cars that didn’t have a right door-mounted mirror. I’m so used to having a door-mounted mirror on that side that it was disconcerting not to have it.
To its credit, the car was put together with Toyota’s usual fervent devotion to quality. I heard no rattles or squeaks. The dash was as simple and plain as they come, and the stalk-mounted controls for the lights and windshield washers were easy to reach and use.
The Tercel’s air conditioner was the best of the bunch. It cooled the car very quickly.
The car was the only two-door of the three, but it was fairly easy for an ave rage-sized person to flip the Tercel’s front seats forward and get into the back. Rear-seat passengers are likely going to be find enough room to be comfortable.
The Escort also proved to be a comfortable and user-friendly subcompact, but several of its interior parts look dated – especially the square plastic trim where the ends of the dash meet the leading edges of the inner door sills. The controls and switches also are not as well-designed as those in the Tercel.
A strong air conditioner is an important feature in vehicles that travel Central Florida’s roads. Accent’s air-conditioning system didn’t deal well with recent 90-degree heat, taking much too long to begin to cool the car. However, once the lever-operated unit got going, it did a reasonable job of cooling.
I would rank the cloth-covered bucket seats in the Escort as the best among the three cars. They are, in fact, close to great. They have generous padding and are comfortable on long trips.
The Hyundai’s seats also were good,although it was sometimes hard to find a comfortable driving position. I felt the seat was either too far from or close to the pedals and dash.
Of our three test cars, the black decorative upholstery in the Accent was the most attractive.
What wasn’t attractive were the rattles I heard in the Accent. Frankly, I thought Hyundai was past that, but over bumpy roads I heard some squeaking coming from plastic trim parts. The other two cars were quiet.
All three cars came with very basic analog gauges for fuel, temperature and speedometer. The Hyundai’s gauges can be obscured by glare, and the gauges in the Ford are not well lighted. The Toyota’s are flawless – they are cleanly designed and clear, but a little boring.
Visibility in the Tercel and Accent is excellent, but the Escort has a very thick rear pillar that partially blocks side vision.
I found the Escort five-door offered the best combination of comfort, utility and space. With the rear seats folded forward, the Escort can swallow a box big enough to hold a full-size bicycle.
Trunk room in the Accent is a bit on the short side. The car has a very stubby rear end and a fairly small trunk. The Tercel, on the other hand, has ample trunk room. The rear seats do not fold forward on either car – something to think about if you need a car that can hold large items.
The Escort came with electric side mirrors; the Accent offered intermittent windshield wipers, and the Toyota had nothing extra to distinguish it from the pack.
And the winner is . . .
I place the Escort at the head of the class in this test. In the time that the Escort has been on the market, such notable small cars as the Honda Civic, Saturn SL and Dodge/Plymouth Neon have come along and failed to knock it off the nation’s list of top 10 selling cars. And this test shows why. Even the base model offers a nice level of standard equipment, good performance, high-qualityassembly and excellent value forthe money.
The Hyundai Accent places second. I see in this car a company on the move. Hyundai is quickly learning how to build user-friendly cars that don’t fall apart.
Toyota’s Tercel, the best-built car of the three, is close to undriveable in Florida’s heat. The car’s vinyl interior make the car unbearable. Also, its lack of equipment makes you feel like a second-class citizen. If you opt for a better-equipped DX version, the price climbs into the $13,000 to $14,000 range – knocking out many potential buyers. Even though the Toyota was, in my view, the best engineered of the three cars, it’s not the one I would own.
1995 Ford Escort Base price: $10,970. Price as tested: $12,110. EPA rating: 30 mpg city/38 highway. Engine and drivetrain: 88-horsepower, 1.9-liter four-cylinder; five-speed manual transmission. Sa fety: Driver’s and front passenger’s air bags, side-impact protection. Warranty: Three-year, 36,000-mile bumper-to-bumper; 6-year, 100,000-mile rust protection. Incentives: $300.
The bottom line: Even though the Escort is starting to show its age, it was the best of the three tested cars. It has a very solid feel, delivers good performance and is the most versatile. Escort offers the most value for the money of the three cars.