Small Passenger Cars
Compact size in a broad price range.
Listen up, car shoppers. The easiest place to find fuel-thrifty autos is in the small car segment.
The small car class also is where you can find the lowest-priced new cars. And the segment has new entries, including the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris and Chevrolet HHR, that are getting a lot of attention.
But expect to spend some time shopping around. There are nearly four dozen small-car nameplates sold in the U.S., and manufacturer's suggested retail prices start around $10,000.
Body Styles and Fuel Economy
Small cars come in several body types—sedans, 3- and 5-door hatchbacks, wagons and even a compact, 6-passenger van of sorts.
Yes, "small car" refers to all sorts of vehicles, including sedans such as the long-running Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra as well as coupes such as the Chevrolet Cobalt, Mitsubishi Eclipse and Chrysler Crossfire. Other types of small cars are hatchbacks such as the Chrysler PT Cruiser and wagons such as the Subaru Impreza Wagon and Ford Focus Wagon.
But don't let the word "small" fool you. Today's new small vehicles can be big on value, flexibility and safety features, not to mention fuel savings.
Indeed, the 2007 Toyota Yaris ranks as the best fuel-sipping, gasoline-only-powered small car in the country with a federal government mileage rating of 34 miles per gallon in city driving and 40 mpg on the highway. This is for a 106-horsepower Yaris with 5-speed manual transmission. Note that the Yaris is available both as a sedan and a 3-door hatchback.
The overall highest mileage small car, though, is the 2006 Honda Civic Hybrid. An electrical motor supplements this hybrid's 110-horsepower 1.3-liter 4-cylinder gas engine. The result is a government fuel economy rating of 49/51 mpg for this sedan. (Honda's previous best-mileage hybrid, the Insight hatchback, was dropped as of the 2007 model year.)
Diesel-powered small cars also are a choice for optimal fuel economy. Volkswagen sells diesel versions of its Golf, Jetta and New Beetle. Government fuel economy ratings for the diesel-powered New Beetle and Golf are as high as 37/44 mpg in models with manual transmissions.
(Note that VW won't sell 2007 diesel models of its small cars. The reason: The current, 1.9-liter turbocharged direct injection 4-cylinder diesel engine in the cars doesn't meet new U.S. limits for nitrogen oxide emissions. Thus, VW officials kicked up production of their 2006 diesel-powered small cars so U.S. dealers will be able to keep selling them on into the 2007 model year, according to a VW of America Inc. spokesman. These cars just won't be labeled as 2007s. The spokesman said this is a stopgap measure until the 2008 model year when VW will debut a new, common rail diesel engine.)
Also, buyers need to check that diesel vehicles are sold in their states. Five states—California, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine and New York—don't allow sales of diesel consumer vehicles because of emission regulations.
Small Car Characteristics
Most small cars are available only with naturally aspirated 4-cylinder engines, and why not? With their small size, vehicles in this class typically don't need a lot of power to get them from place to place.
But shoppers can find small vehicles with larger engines, too. For example, all versions of Volvo's smallest car, the S40 sedan, are powered by 5-cylinder engines, while Infiniti's G35 has a 280-horsepower V6 and Ford's Mustang is available with V8s. Indeed, the top Mustang, a limited edition Ford Shelby GT500, has a 500-horsepower 5.4-liter V8.
Most small cars are front-wheel-drive vehicles, which means engine power goes to the front wheels which then pull the rear wheels along. Front-wheel-drive cars tend to weigh less than rear- or all-wheel-drive vehicles and they include the Hyundai Accent and Elantra, Ford Focus, Saturn Ion, MINI Cooper, Kia Spectra and Scion xA, xB and tC.
In recent years, more small cars have come to market offering all-wheel drive. Examples include the Audi A3, which uses Audi's quattro all-wheel-drive system that's controlled electronically and doesn't require any input from the driver, and the new-for-2007 Dodge Caliber hatchback. The Suzuki Aerio, with a starting price of just over $16,000, is the least-expensive all-wheel-drive vehicle on the market.
But don't forget Subaru, which makes all-wheel drive standard on all its cars, including its lowest-priced model—the Impreza small car. It starts at more than $18,000. Jaguar's smallest car, the X-TYPE, also comes only with all-wheel drive. There is no front- or rear-wheel model.
Shoppers can find only a few smaller cars that are rear-wheel drive. These tend to be sporty models such as the Ford Mustang and the BMW 3-Series.
Honda Small Car News
New for 2007, the Honda Fit is a 5-passenger, small hatchback designed to slot below the Honda Civic in showrooms. Sold in Asia and Europe for years, the Fit comes to the States with a 109-horsepower 1.5-liter VTEC 4-cylinder engine. An intriguing engine partner is a 5-speed automatic transmission. No other small car in America has this many gears in its automatic transmission. Honda officials note that more gears provide for better fuel economy and performance. A 5-speed manual transmission also is available.
Be sure to check out the Fit's rear seats. Yes, they split 60/40 and have seatbacks that fold down like those in other cars. But there's an additional feature if someone needs to haul tall cargo in this car. The Fit's rear seat cushions can be raised off the floor and folded against the seatbacks, providing what Honda calls the "tall object mode."
Other small-car news at Honda is the first-ever Civic Si. New for 2007, this sedan basically has the same, 197-horsepower 2.0-liter 4 cylinder with i-VTEC that's in the Civic Si coupe and deeply bolstered front seats, like those in the coupe. Civic Si coupes have been around in the States since 1986.
Toyota's New Small Car
Toyota dropped its ECHO small car and replaced it in calendar 2006 with the 2007 Yaris. Also sold in Europe and Japan, the Yaris slots below the Toyota Corolla and is offered in two body styles: sedan and 3-door hatchback. But in the States, the Yaris rides on a longer and wider platform than it does in overseas models.
The Yaris' claim to fame is its long wheelbase—which, incidentally, is the distance from the center of one wheel on one side of the vehicle to the center of the other wheel on that same side. The Yaris wheelbase is longer than many competitors', which helps provide generous interior space. The engine is a 106-horsepower version of the 1.5-liter four cylinder, with VVT-i, that's in the Scion xA and xB cars. A 4-speed automatic and 5-speed manual are offered.
Nissan's New Versa
Nissan hasn't sold a car the size of the Versa in the United States for decades. Less than 15 feet long, the Versa is available as a 5-door hatchback and a sedan and with a starting price of less than $13,000. It slots below the Nissan Sentra sedan. Power comes from a 120-horsepower 1.8-liter, 4-cylinder engine and it can be mated to a continuously variable transmission that helps maximize fuel economy by automatically seeking optimal gearing as the vehicle is driven. This CVT as well as some weight savings help account for the Versa's top fuel economy rating of 30/36 mpg.
The Caliber is Dodge's least-expensive vehicle, with a starting MSRP of more than $13,000. But this doesn't mean the Caliber is short on features. Curtain airbags are standard. Options include a Boston Acoustics sound system with speakers in the hatchback liftgate that can articulate to direct sound out of the back of the vehicle when the driver is parked and tailgating. Another clever feature: a beverage storage bin that uses air conditioning to cool as many as four 20-ounce bottles or cans.
While the 4-cylinder engines available in the regular Calibers deliver less than 200 horsepower, the high-performance Caliber SRT4 puts out a whopping 300 horsepower from its 2.4-liter turbocharged 4 cylinder.
Six-Seat Small Mazda
The Mazda5 is a new take, at least for Americans, on small cars. The Japan-built Mazda5 is only 3 inches longer than a Corolla. But it can seat six—two people in each of the three rows in the vehicle—which makes the Mazda5 something of a downsized van with the lowest-price for a vehicle that can seat six. Starting MSRP is under $18,000.
Riding on a modified platform of the Mazda3 small car, the Mazda5 has some nifty features, such as second-row seat cushions that hide storage space and a pull-out center console. Power comes from a 157-horsepower 2.3-liter 4 cylinder, and the vehicle handles nimbly, with a turning circle of less than 35 feet.
Luxury in Smaller Packages
Small cars aren't just mainstream models. Some luxury makes also include small cars in their showrooms.
For example, Audi added the A3 to its lineup recently. With a starting price tag of less than $25,000 and a 5-door hatchback design, it is a decidedly "premium" small car powered by a 200-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged 4 cylinder or a 250-horsepower 3.2-liter V6. The A3's Direct Shift Gearbox (DSG) automatic transmission is one of the hottest new automotive technologies in Europe, since it allows very quick gear shifts without loss of traction because of its use of an electro-hydraulically controlled twin clutch. Basically, it's designed to be an automatic transmission that provides the driving pleasure of a manual.
Cars in this segment may be small, but they can include versatile storage space and decent passenger room.
For example, the retro-styled Chrysler PT Cruiser includes a surprising 40.9 inches of rear-seat legroom, which is more than in some midsize sedans. The rear seats also are removable, which leaves an SUV-like 64.2 cubic feet of cargo space.
Chevrolet's HHR, which also is a retro-styled wagon, is similar in its interior roominess. There's 40.6 inches of legroom in the HHR back seat and a maximum 63.1 cubic feet of cargo space when the rear seats are removed.
Meantime, the Saturn Ion coupe has dual rear access doors that help make it easier for passengers to get in and out of the back seats. The small rear doors—not plainly visible on the outside because door handles are hidden—also make it easier to get items out of the back seat.
And the Toyota Matrix, as well as its sibling, the Pontiac Vibe, features a high sitting position, which improves passengers' views out of the vehicles as well as passenger seat comfort. Total cargo space is 53.2 cubic feet. Note the front passenger seatback can fold down to accommodate long items to extend from the back all the way through the interior.
Many small cars have been on the market for some time and continue to receive upgrades and win buyers.
The Ford Mustang, for example, has been a strong seller among young and old alike ever since it was redesigned with strong heritage looks for the 2005 model year. The Mustang dates back to 1964 as the original "pony car." For 2007, Ford is selling new performance versions of the Mustang, including the Shelby GT and limited edition Shelby GT500.
Another long-lived nameplate is the VW New Beetle. VW's original Beetle dates to the 1940s in Europe and was a popular car for young Baby Boomers in the 1960s and '70s.
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If I were to buy a car now, I would definitely buy the small car type. Aside from the fact that they are cheaper than the larger ones, they can be big on value too because of their flexibility and safety features. Another plus is you get to have save more when it comes to fuel.
I personally like Ford's small cars: