Ode to an ordinary (family) car
I really like cars. A lot.
And given that you're reading the motoring section of this website, I'm guessing you're pretty much in the same boat.
I love the way they look, smell, and feel. A bit like women, actually. Except I don't want to wake up next to one. A car, I mean. That'd be weird. But driving them, even just perusing them, definitely ranks up there with one of my favourite things to do.
I have come to realise that this isn't the same for everyone. Of course, I don't understand it, but I do acknowledge there are a lot of people out there for whom cars are a mere vessel to get from A to B. Yes, a little misguided, but there's no need to point and laugh. Luckily for them, though, car manufacturers make a whole bunch of vehicles that suit this attitude down to the ground. These are the worker bees of the model line-up, if you will. These are the cars you don't really notice, the ones that blend into that swarm of metal and rubber known as traffic.
The fact of the matter is that there's a great need for cars that require very little engagement on the part of the owner. These cars are required to go about their business ferrying their occupants and their accoutrements as safely and as economically as possible. They must be affordable, spacious, comfortable and reliable. Bleep, open the door, get in, turn the ignition, go, turn off the ignition, get out, close the door, bleep-bleep.
And because we motoring journalists are like any other journalists—in other words, always up for a freebie no matter what it is—we do, on occasion, accept the blander examples of automotive engineering to drive. And this is a good thing. A necessary reality check. All this zooming about—cosseted in swathes of expensive animal hide, with several herds of horses at your beck and call—can give one a somewhat jaundiced view of what it means to be an actual car-installment-paying member of the motoring public. To prove that my life is not all about fast German coupes, free petrol, and well-tailored lederhosen, I thought I'd mention I few cars I've tested recently that would certainly tick every box worth ticking.
The small sedan
Mazda 2 sedan
Very rarely does a hatchback with a boot grafted onto its arse look good. And this is no exception. Perhaps not quite as offensive as the booted Opel Corsa of yore, but still this butt looks unmistakably like an after thought. Still, if you absolutely, positively must have a sedan and you don't want to fork out much more than R170k, this is a real contender.
There are two reasons I say this. One, its arse is enormous, which in this case is a good thing. Flip open the boot lid and the immensity of its 450 litres will see you visibly taken aback. It's like some kind of Harry Potter magic. I'm certain my mountain bike wouldn't even touch sides.
And two, it's probably the easiest car to drive— that I've ever had to drive. It's a 1,3-litre with 63kW and 122Nm so there's not much power, but the five-speed gearbox and clutch combo are light and smooth as you like. The steering is also light, which in this market segment is exactly what one wants to zip around tight urban spaces. And one does this in an interior that has all the essential stuff as standard: electric windows, air-con, and a mp3 sound system with an auxiliary connection.
Base price: R168 880
Warranty: 4 yr/120 000km
Top speed: 188km/h (claimed)
The hatchback crossover
It's tough to work out what the Caliber is. Is it, for example, a Golf-sized hatchback? Or a perhaps Nissan Qashqai-esque crossover? Tough to say. Whatever it is, it's pretty butch, with a high ride height and macho lines that tend toward a shrunken SUV.
First introduced to world in 2005 as a replacement to the god-awful Neon, the Caliber underwent a bit of a facelift in mid-2010—most of it in the inside. This redesigned interior includes a new instrument panel with a centre storage bin, bright accents, a centre console with a padded armrest split-lid for added storage space and soft-touch door-trim panels. And what an impressive space it is to be in. Leather trimmed seats with front seat heaters are standard on the entire range, as is four-way power functionality for the driver's seat. There's plenty of storage space too with 1 360 litres at the back once the 60/40 split rear seats are folded.
The other thing that impressed was the engine. There's a 2,4-litre in the range, but I drove the new two-litre, which replaces the 1,8-litre engine. And that means power is up from 4% to 115kW, with and 13% more torque (190Nm). There's a CVT auto transmission, but fortunately I got the 5 speed manual. Look, it's not exactly the most powerful car out there and the ride is a little soft, but for its main purpose in life—carting the family around - it's very comfortable with sufficient power.
Rivals? Well the 2,0-litre Caliber comes in at very reasonable R235k. Which, on the hatchback side of things, means it's on par with the basic Golf 1.4TSI Trendline, and on the crossover SUV side, the basic Nissan Qashqai 1,6 Visia. Clearly more bang for your buck with the Caliber.
Base price: R234 990
Warranty: 3 yr/100 000km
0-100km/h: 11.3 secs (claimed)
Top speed: 186km/h (claimed)
This is not a bloke's car as much as this car is an actual bloke. Its look are undeniably masculine: fairly simple lines, muscular shoulders, a square chin, headlights that stare purposefully into the distance, and a grill that's about as close to a moustache as it gets. Chev have also accessorised in an appropriately many fashion—nice butch alloys and little in the way of chrome jewellery.
Same inside. There's nothing blingy about the Cruze's interior—it's a no-mucking-about office where everything is where it should be. That's not to say it's just an exercise in pragmatism, though, it's actually pretty classy interior. This top line LT has a decent build quality and the styling of the steering wheel and binnacle are, dear I say, class-leading. There's space aplenty too for your head, legs and mother-in-law thanks to the 450-litre boot.
I wouldn't call it's handling "dynamic" in the BMW sense, but then again dynamic handling isn't really a requirement in this niche. That said, it's still pretty good. Based on GM's Global Delta Platform (same as the new Astra but sans multilink rear suspension), Chev has opted for comfort rather than a Nurburgring lap time — cruze-ey would be a clever-clog but nevertheless accurate description. Not wallowy, mind you, sort of relaxed.
Which is a good descriptor for the engine as well. This is not the most sophisticated engine out there—it still talks with an old skool diesel burr—but it is economical (I managed 6.2l/100km) and torquey. The two-litre turbo-diesel is good for 110kW at 4 000r/min and 320Nm torque at 2 000 r/min via a 5-speed manual.
Base price: R261 100
Warranty: 5 yr/120 000km
0-100km/h: 9.9 secs (claimed)
Top speed: 198km/h (claimed)
To conclude then—
Perhaps the best punt I can give them is to say that for all these cars, the same thought struck once giving back the keys. Sure it wasn't "damn, that was so damn exciting, I wish I didn't have to give the keys back". Instead, it was a more boring, yet equally positive, "you know, I could happily drive this on a daily basis if I was so inclined".