MINI Clubman

Click to enlarge picture2010 MINI Cooper Clubman (© Perry Stern)

MINI Cooper Clubman

The modern MINI Cooper and Cooper S have been resounding successes for BMW and are jolly good city cars. But the Clubman variant, with its wagonlike profile and square back, is even better at it, with three additional inches of legroom in the rear. Even 6-footers can easily climb into the rear through the small, rear-hinged access door on the right side. The Clubman also has 60 percent more cargo space behind its quaint double rear doors than the standard MINI — 9.2 cubic feet versus 5.7 — and is still only 13 feet long. We like the base Clubman for its excellent fuel economy of 28 mpg city/36 mpg highway and its sporty 1.6-liter 118-horsepower engine.

Watch: MINI Clubman Test Drive

Nissan cube

The cube is a pure product of resolutely urban Japanese culture and, as such, is exceptionally adept in the city. Under its cartoonish body lines is a tiny lounge on wheels. The interior is a design treat that cleverly mixes oval and round shapes for controls that are nonetheless clear and intuitive. And the wavy, circular ceiling surface, which mimics a fallen drop, is guaranteed to raise a smile. The cushy seats work wonders in traffic but won't keep you in place on a twisty road. Folding the 60/40 seatbacks boosts cargo volume from 11.4 to 58 cubic feet, but rear access is awkward in tight spots. The third-generation cube is powered by a 1.8-liter 122-horsepower 4-cylinder engine rated at 27 mpg city/31 mpg highway.

Compare: Nissan Cube vs. MINI Clubman vs. Chrysler PT Cruiser

smart fortwo

Click to enlarge picturesmart fortwo CDI (© Chrysler LLC)

smart fortwo CDI

A common sight in Rome or Paris, the smart microcar made its U.S. debut in 2008. At only 8.8 feet, the second-generation fortwo is by far the shortest in this group and arguably the best for adapting to street life in a big city, where it needs only half a parking space. This surprisingly spacious and comfortable two-seater has cheery design, colors and patterns that make it fun inside, too. With only 8 cubic feet of cargo volume, this machine is ill-suited to shopping for antiques, but grocery bags are fine. The spunky smart is also stingy at the pump, with fuel economy ratings of 33 mpg city/41 mpg highway. On the other hand, its grunty 1.0-liter 70-horsepower 3-cylinder engine must be fed premium gasoline.

Bing: Customized smart fortwo

Toyota Prius

The third-generation Prius has a bigger 1.8-liter 98-horsepower gasoline engine than previous models but is nonetheless more frugal and has lower emissions, thanks to myriad upgrades to its hybrid powertrain. The system's calculated overall output is now 134 horsepower, up 24 over the previous iteration. The Prius can now accelerate to 60 mph in 10.14 seconds, a notable 1.3-second improvement. Its fuel economy ratings are also the best in the land at 51 mpg city/ 48 mpg highway. With its airy, spacious cabin and versatile 4-door hatchback body, the Prius is at its best and most efficient while navigating city streets. Long highway hauls are not its strong suit, though. The upcoming plug-in version of the Prius will only make it more attractive for city folks.

Volkswagen Golf TDI

Click to enlarge picture2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI (© Volkswagen of America, Inc.)

Volkswagen Golf TDI

The Volkswagen Golf TDI hatchback has 12.4 cubic feet behind its folding rear seats but is 10 inches shorter than a Prius. The choice between the two cars is extra maneuverability and versatility. The Golf is powered by a 2.0-liter direct-injection turbocharged 4-cylinder diesel engine that produces 140 horsepower and 236 lb.-ft. of torque at only 1750 rpm. Fuel economy ratings are 30 mpg city/ 42 mpg highway with an optional 6-speed dual-automated-clutch gearbox. We recommend it, especially for city driving, since the TDI engine has a light flywheel and stalls easily with the standard 6-speed manual. As a bonus, the automatic gets slightly better mileage on the highway.

Call it a natural effect of a downsizing economy — the small car has earned its rightful place in the U.S., especially as an urban vehicle. City dweller or not, is there a small car in your future?

A professional auto journalist for more than 25 years and the founding editor of Sympatico / MSN Autos, Marc Lachapelle is a two-time winner of the Canadian Journalist of the Year award from the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada, an accomplished photographer and licensed racer.