The term "B-segment" has been bandied about in the automotive press lately without much explanation regarding what it means. It comes from Europe, where they use letters to categorize vehicles by the size of their platform. Here in the good old U.S. of A., B-segment cars are typically referred to as subcompacts.

2010 Fiat 500

The 500 will be the face of Fiat as it re-engages the American market. Reliability questions abound, but the chic, retro-designed 500 was European Car of the Year in 2008.

The backbone of America's daily commute in the late 1990s, subcompact cars have changed a lot in the last decade, transforming from tiny metal boxes with cookie-cutter carcasses and cheap, small engines into rather impressive, stylish rides that generally perform better than their meager price tags would suggest. They are the automotive equivalent of a cheap date — soft on the wallet and shy at the pump — but go well beyond "basic" transportation. And each car in the group has its own angle, be it fuel efficiency, innovative physics-defying cargo solutions, peppy performance, a superior interior or an eclectic combination of all of the above.

The big players in this category include the Chevy Aveo, Honda Fit, MINI Cooper, Nissan Versa, Scion xD, Scion xB, smart fortwo, Suzuki SX4 and Toyota Yaris. Rookies in the ranks include the hip-to-be-square Kia Soul and Nissan cube. The Aveo is a price leader; the Fit has a highly configurable interior and sporty nature; the MINI Cooper is a rare European contender with an eye for the fast lane; the Versa is versatile; the Scions are youthful and innovative; the fortwo is a mpg-meister; the SX4 is more rugged; and the Yaris plays the Toyota dependability card.

In a world where auto sales are more volatile than a vial of nitroglycerin, the B-segment is growing, and it is about to get even bigger as a new crop of contenders will soon hit the streets. These newcomers have their own identity crises and high consumer expectations to deal with, but they are all rather impressive in their own right. Here's a look at what's coming down the pike.

Fiat 500

Bing: View Pictures: Fiat 500

The drum roll ahead of the Fiat 500's American debut will be deafening. The tiny car has to really wow the crowd if the Fiat-led Chrysler revival is going to work. It's a tall order, as the Italian automaker left our shores in 1983 with its tail between its legs and the nickname "Fix It Again Tony" tattooed on its forehead. But Fiat has come a long way in the last quarter century, and the 500 has the credentials to impress. It was the 2008 European Car of the Year, as decided by 58 journalists from seven magazines and 22 countries. The big question is how its Euro-chic aura plays in America's heartland.

In Europe, where the car has been a home run, selling 250,000 units to date, three 4-cylinder engines are offered: a 1.2-liter rated at 59 horsepower, a 1.3-liter turbodiesel providing 68 horsepower and a 1.4-liter that scares the century mark with its 94-horsepower output. Conjecture puts the 1.4-liter engine under the hood of the model bound for this side of the pond, and based on the current state of the U.S. dollar, we wouldn't be surprised to see the 500 built in North America at some point; if the dollar stays low, it might be cheaper to produce the cars here rather than in Europe.

Read:  Can Chrysler and GM Survive?

Mazda Mazda2

Click to enlarge pictureMazda Mazda2 (© Mazda Motor of America, Inc.)

The Mazda2, the 2008 World Car of the Year, looks to be the "driver's car" of the group.

Bing: View Pictures: Mazda Mazda2

The Mazda2 is off to a great start; its portfolio includes a runner-up finish to the Fiat 500 in the 2008 European Car of the Year balloting and winning the 2008 World Car of the Year award. The two previous World Car winners include the Lexus LS 460 and BMW 3-Series, so the diminutive hatchback is in good company.

Known as the Demio overseas, the Mazda2's identity crisis will be with the Ford Fiesta, which is built on the same "global" chassis and shares a good measure of sheet metal with the Mazda. Will the power of zoom-zoom prevail? Thanks to intuitive suspensions, Mazda vehicles have always provided an engaging drive, as illustrated by the Miata, Mazda3 and RX-8. After its unveiling at the 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show, we can't wait to get some seat time in the Deuce.

360° View: Mazda Mazda2 at the 2008 Geneva Motor Show


Ford Fiesta

Click to enlarge pictureFord Fiesta (© Ford Motor Company)

After selling an impressive 500,000 copies in its first year in Europe, Ford hopes the Fiesta will dominate the entry-level segment when it arrives in the U.S.

Bing: View Pictures: Ford Fiesta

The Ford Fiesta is a newcomer to the European market but has racked up 500,000 in sales since its debut in October 2008. That's an impressive one-year tally. Will it be the same "bull in a china shop" on the North American stage when the curtain rises in 2010? We foresee buyers playing the patriotic card and sticking by the Blue Oval for a number of reasons, one of which is respect for Ford not taking any bailout dollars.

Plus, the Fiesta was a finalist in the 2009 World Car of the Year balloting, along with the VW Golf VI and Scion iQ. The entry-level automotive segment means more now than it ever has as automakers tussle for market share, so this Fiesta needs to be a well-attended party.

360° View: Ford Fiesta at the 2008 Geneva Motor Show


Scion iQ

Click to enlarge pictureScion iQ (© Rod Hatfield)

The Scion iQ has more and bigger questions surrounding its U.S. debut than any other car on this list. It's great at what it's designed to do, but will America want what it does? Is it too small to embrace?

Bing: View Pictures: Scion iQ

Toyota will be rebadging its diminutive iQ as a Scion this year. The iQ is a solid machine. In 2008 it took home Japan Car of the Year honors, but its viability here in the U.S. is seriously in question. First, it has a major identity crisis: Does it really belong in the B-segment or should the iQ and smart fortwo be put in an A-class or micro-mini-car segment?

The questions don't end there. Do Americans have a size threshold, making the iQ somehow too small to be taken seriously? Will a true city car that seats a maximum of three occupants while displacing 1.3 liters under the hood fly in the land of land yachts? Have our psyches pulled a 180-degree turn, or are gas prices currently too low for us to embrace such a diminutive ride that sacrifices utility for efficiency?

Slideshow: Scion iQ at the 2009 New York Auto Show


Beyond price and mpg, what qualities do you want from a B-segment car?

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Evan Griffey served as an editor of Turbo & High Tech Performance, a pioneering publication about sport-compact tuning. Today Griffey freelances for Import Tuner, Sport Compact Car, Car Audio and Siphon.

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