Small Cars That Don’t Suck

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Gas is at $4 per gallon already – and it’s just barely spring. By summer it could easily be $5 (or even more) and that reality is is behind a reboot in the popularity of small, high-mileage cars. In the past, though, most small, high-mileage cars sucked – even if they didn’t suck much gas. They were slow, ugly and sparsely equipped. You got good gas mileage – and that’s about all you got.

If there’s a bright spot in this resurgence of latte-priced fuel, it’s that modern small cars do not suck. They are cars you’d want to buy even if regular unleaded still cost a buck fifty per.

Check out what’s available – or soon to be available:

* Fiat 500 (base price $15,500)

The scoop: In densely populated Europe, Fiat is big because its cars are small – and also extremely fuel-efficient. That’s important when gas is pushing $10 per gallon – as it may soon be here, too. The 500 (Cinquecento) is even smaller (on the outside) than the Mini Me-size BMW Mini Cooper – by almost half a foot – but it has a taller profile that allows for more head and legroom (even for backseat occupants) than even the super space-efficient Mini offers. It also may offer close to 60 MPG, if we’re lucky and get the TwinAir turbocharged two-cylinder engine that’s currently available in European-spec 500s. But even standard models equipped with the conventional 1.4 liter, 101 hp four cylinder engine should be able to deliver close to 40 MPG on the highway, according to Fiat.

The Ups: Cute as a newborn puppy. As easy to park as a Moped. Huge roster of factory/dealer options, including 14 different possible color combos,including two-tones and stripes. AC,most power options standard on base Pop trim. Good performance as well as economy, due to very light (2,350 lb.) curb weight.

The Downs: Fiat has never managed to thrive in the U.S. before and may not make it this time, either. Buyers could find themselves without dealer support five or six years from now if Fiat can’t maintain a beach head.

* Ford Focus (base price $18,065)

The Scoop: Car journalists who’ve had a chance to test-drive the completely redesigned Focus agree it’s – by far – the best small car that Ford has ever offered. Available in standard sedan and hatchback sedan versions, the new Focus is capable of about 40 MPGs on the highway thanks to state-of-the-art technology such as a fully-automated six-speed dual-clutch manual transmission that functions like a conventional automatic transmission, electric power steering and a Super Fuel Economy Package that includes wind-chating aerodynamic tweaks and low-rolling resistance tires. The Focus also offers razzle dazzle features such as Automated Park Assist which will literally parallel park the car for you, as well as available heat seats and other luxury creature comforts. AC, keyless entry and most power equipment are all standard, too.

The Ups: Family-size car, economy-car MPGs. Doesn’t look, feel or drive like a Blue Light Special.

The Downs: Expect popularity to make it harder to haggle. This one will likely sell for sticker.

* Chevy Sonic (base price $12,500 – estimated)

The Scoop: This new – and much improved – model will replace the long-serving (and long out-of-date) Aveo as Chevy’s most affordable – and most economical – subcompact car. It will be targeting current under $13k value leaders such as the Hyundai Accent and Nissan Versa 1.6 but not just on bottom line price. Like the Fiat 500, the Sonic serves up some style – and performance – to go with the anticipated high (close to 40 MPG) fuel efficiency. For example, a turbocharged 1.4 liter engine/six-speed manual gearbox combination will be offered and even the standard version will come with a 135 hp, 1.8 liter engine – making it about 10-15 hp peppier than other micro-compacts.

The Ups: Class-leading acceleration/handling (Corvette engineers worked on the Sonic’s suspension turning) along with class-leading interior and cargo space. Super affordable MSRP.

The Downs: Won’t be sold in two-door coupe form. Sedan – and hatchback sedan – versions only.

* VW Golf TDI diesel (base price $23,225)

The Scoop: The TDI Golf’s 30 MPG in city driving is almost as good as many current economy car’s highway mileage – and its 42 MPG highway rating is better than anything else on the road that’s not a hybrid (or a motorcycle). The 2.0 liter turbocharged, direct-injected diesel is also powerful: 140 hp and a 236 lbs.-ft of torque (comparable to many gas V-6s), all of it produced way down low in the power band (just 1,750 RPM). All that power just off idle speed makes the Golf TDI an ideal city/commuter car, but unlike most hybrids, it has the legs for high-speed highway work, too. And the range – more than 600 miles on a full tank – is enough to drive from DC to New York and back without stopping to refuel.

The Ups: Near-hybrid fuel economy without the hybrid car complexity, cost – or a bad case of The Slows. No batteries to replace – ever – and the diesel engine should last 300,000 miles or more with decent care.

The Downs: The car is fairly pricey (relative to other current small cars) and so is the fuel. As expensive as gas is, diesel is even more so.

* Nissan Leaf (base price $32,780 )

The Scoop: The last true mass-produced electric car was built in the 1990s, by GM (the EV1). It didn’t make the cut in part because at the time gas was half what it costs today – and also because the EV1 was a super-tiny two-seater, which made it impractical except as a second car or commuter. The Leaf has a better chance because the economics of electric cars make at least some sense now – and also because the Leaf has four doors and can carry more than two people.

The Ups: No more gas bills! And there’s a $7,000 federal tax credit for electric car buyers, pushing the actual net cost of the Leaf closer to $25k, which is only about $10k more than a similar-in-size, gas-powered Nissan Sentra ($15,840). At the current $4 per gallon and assuming four fill-ups a month, a Sentra would use about $3,000 worth of gas annually – so the “break even” point with the Leaf comes after about three years of driving. After that, the Leaf should save you several thousand a year vs. driving something comparable with a gas-burning engine, like the Sentra.

The Downs: Electricity isn’t free. You may not pay at the pump, but pay you will. Still takes several hours to recharge; requires custom-wired 220V recharge station at your home. Max range between charges is just 100 miles.

* Mini Cooper Countryman (base price $21,650)

The Scoop: Everyone (ok, almost everyone) likes the Mini Cooper – the reincarnated, updated version of the micro-car Brit car of the 1960s. The problem has been that not everyone can use the Mini – which up to now came with just two doors and room for two only (or at least, realistically only two). So for 2011, the Mini has grown a pair – of doors. This version of the Mini is called the Countryman. It seats up to five people (with the optional second row three-across bench seat). It also offers all-wheel-drive as an available option, which is another new feature no previous Mini offered. These two updates ought to make Mini ownership more plausible for buyers who liked the original concept but needed a bit more everyday practicality – and better winter-weather capability.

The Ups: As snarky as ever; almost limitless factory/dealer customization possible. Affordable – and efficient – fun.
The Downs: AWD-equipped ALL4 version’s mileage only so-so (25 city, 31 highway) and can get pretty pricey pretty quickly if you’re not careful with options.

* Mazda2 (base price $14,180)

The Scoop: The 2 sedan is Mazda’s newest model and an ultra-ultra compact; it is about a foot and half shorter overall – and weighs about 300 pounds less – than its corporate cousin, the compact-sized 2011 Ford Fiesta – but it manages to give backseat occupants several inches more legroom (34.8 inches) than the larger -on-the-outside Fiesta (31.2 inches). The little Mazda also has a decent-sized trunk – 13.3 cubic feet – vs. 12.8 for the physically larger Fiesta and just 9.3 cubic feet for the similar-sized Toyota Yaris. It also has a surprisingly uptown interior, which can be finished with “piano black” trim inserts and you get the same sporty red-backlit gauge cluster found in other Mazda cars, too. Expect 35 MPGs on the highway.

The Ups: A great car to play Frogger with in city traffic. Lightweight equals peppy performance – and good gas mileage, too.

The Downs: Factory GPS not offered; mileage (surprisingly) isn’t quite as good as the larger – and heavier – Fiesta’s. Try to avoid being hit by an Escalade.

* Scion iQ (base price $13,500 – estimated)

The Scoop: Toyota’s take on the Smart car – take two, you might call it. Because though it’s small and designed mainly to be an in-city runabout like the Smart car, its not scary small like the Smart car is. It’s more than a foot longer – and it seats four. Maybe not comfortably, but nonetheless. The Smart car’s cramped, two-seater-only layout and nonexistent trunk (the iQ has 9.3 cubic feet of storage) made it less than, well, smart for most buyers. The iQ is also peppy: It’s powered by a high-efficiency 1.3 liter engine teamed up with a Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic transmission. In-city gas mileage will reportedly be in the high 30s, according to Toyota. And to address understandable buyer concerns about this teensy car’s safety, all trims will come standard with 10 (count ’em) air bags.

The Ups: Perfect for city dwellers who have to deal with on-street (or in alley) parking. Moped-like mileage. Usable interior and cargo-carrying ability. A conversation starter.

The Downs: For in-city use only; not built to deal with road trips or highway speeds.

* Audi A3 TDI diesel (base price $30,250)

The Scoop: This compact entry-luxury wagon makes a lot of sense in a world dealing with $4 gas – because it burns diesel instead and gets 42 MPGs on the highway – better mileage than any current (gas-powered) compact economy car. Its 34 MPG city rating is pretty solid, too. Oh yeah, that’s with Quattro all-wheel-drive, standard as part of the package. The 2 liter turbodiesel engine scoots the A3 to 60 in about 8.7-8.8 seconds – so it’s not slow, either. And unlike previous diesel cars, which were only sold in a few states because of emissions control issues, the A3 TDI is “50 state” compliant, so you can shop one at any Audi dealer, anywhere in the country.

The Ups: Luxury and economy without compromising either. Long-lived diesel engine should outlast gas burners, cost less to maintain down the road than a hybrid. Wagon layout provides plenty of space (20 cubic feet) and everyday usability.

The Downs: Costs about $3k more up-front than non-diesel A3. Diesel fuel isn’t cheap, either – and can sometimes be hard to find depending on where you happen to live.

* Honda CR-Z (base price $19,345)

The Scoop: Here’s an updated take on the super-popular CRX of the 1980s: Like its ancestor, the CR-Z is small and snazzy. But unlike the old CRX, the CR-Z is a hybrid. It’s powered by a by a 1.5 liter gas engine boosted (on demand) by a small electric motor and battery pack, for a total rated output of 122 hp. A six-speed manual (with Hill Star Assist) is the standard transmission, with a Continuously Variable (CVT) automatic transmission with Sport, Normal and Economy modes the optional unit. Zero to 60 happens in about 9.6-9.8 seconds, quick for a hybrid. EPA rates this one at 31 city, 37 highway.

The Ups: A hybrid with a pulse; be green – but enjoy yourself a little bit, too. Available manual transmission an unusual (and sporty) feature for a hybrid car.

The Downs: Long-term, down-the-road expenses (such as battery maintenance) could offset economy gains. Could be quicker; mileage could be better.



  1. I’ve been interested in the TDI Golf for a long time. Unfortunately, I think they stopped selling two doors in the US. Also, I couldn’t help but notice that a European market Audi TT has what seems to be the same or similar diesel engine getting 20-30 more horsepower and even better fuel mileage. I always wondered if this was in the tune, or if it had a different turbocharger, for example. Most mileage conscious people in the US seem to have gone stupid for hybrids. Of course, diesels don’t come with moral superiority as a standard option.

    • Diesel emissions laws (and fuel) are different in Europe and this may account for some of the disparity. Also, sometimes European version of a given car – though they have the same name as the U.S. version – are actually different vehicles. The VW Passat is one example.

  2. small cars do suck if you’re not a midget I have a new matrix I cant stand to be in it more than 30 min in either seat. with the passenger seat full back my knees are against the dash and I cant straighten my legs. driver side full back is worse the inability to stretch my legs create’s an unbearable ankle angle on the throttle. As a professional commerical driver I hate the fact that these gas sippers cant get out of their own way on frwy on ramps when I’m bearing down on them in an 80,000 lb truck. I’ll take my gas hog Suburban any day. I can drive it 20 hrs easy with no cramps. The choice is mileage and no room or comfort and no mileage I’d rather be comfortable or stay home

    • It depends on the small car! Some are much better than others. For example, the current Mini Cooper – or the new Fiat 500.

      I’m 6ft 3 and more than 200 lbs. – and both of the above cars are comfortable for me, with head and legroom to spare.

      On the hand, there are “normal” sedans (much larger over than the two cars mentioned above) that have marginal headroom (especially if they’re equipped with a sunroof) for someone my height.

      The bottom line is you should test-fit whatever the car is to see whether it works for you.

      • hi eric I will add that I purchased the matrix by choice because it it filled an emergency need a new car right now bill with corresponding funds availability my 1st choice was a ford escape. Way to much price for the vehicle I could get a full size 1/2 ton for less but already have the suburban and the matrix is essentially my wifes car and she loves it its a good thing I live 3 miles from work so gas for suburban not an issue.

        • Hi Ted,

          The Matrix is not a bad car by any means; Toyota has sold a bunch of them over the years (and to Pontiac, too).

          I think you’re being smart using a small car for the A to B work and keeping the Suburban for when you need it. That’s what I try to do, too – only my A to B vehicle has two wheels, not four!

  3. It is a shame that diesel cars aren’t more popular in the US. Utilizing modern technology they have several advantages over the standard gasoline powered Otto Cycle engines, the most obvious of which are MPG and durability.

    The biggest hang-up to diesel engines of course is the myriad government regulations and bureaucratic interference. If left to the market place they would likely do much better.

    As to the price of the fuel you should remember that diesel fuel has about 15% more specific energy than gasoline. So I always figure that if the price of diesel fuel is 15% higher than gasoline they are effectively even. If it’s less than a 15% difference then diesel is a better buy. And of course if it’s more than 15% it’s not.

    Also remember that diesel fuel is basically the same (with only a slight difference in formulation and additives) as home heating oil. That is why the price of diesel fuel is always higher in the cold winter months than it is in the summer. The demand for home heating oil reduces the available supply from the refineries.

    I think that any of these little cars would be better if equipped with diesel engines. They are much more common even in cars this size in Europe and other parts of the world and they do very well.

  4. I’ve been searching for a new car to purchase for a couple days now. Everyone is coming in at least 2k over MSRP. I really like the Yaris, Fiesta, and the Versa. I refuse to spend top dollah!

    Example Sample


    MSRP says starting at $13,155


    If you can make that happen we can do business.

    Toyota Guy:

    Now add freight to that of aproximately 800.00 plus, when is that base price from, there has been two price increases this year alone already. the base price on the one silver one I told you about with only floor mats as an option 1s 14645. Thats 13155. plus 200 for floor mats and 790 for freight and the two price increases of 500.00 since the 2011 model introduction.

    There is nothing cheaper in the Toyota line. Thats as good as it gets. again good luck in your search.

    Other Toyota Guy:

    Thanks for taking the time to speak with me today. I can offer you this Yaris for $14645.00 plus sales tax,title,tags and fees.
    The total wiil be $15,554.82 . Toyota will include 2 years of Toyota Care,a 2 years complimentary maintenance package. XXXXXXX will include lifetime state inspections. Thank you again

    • First, I’d strongly recommend you consider a slightly (1-3 year old) version. The current (2011) Yaris is a carryover; the 2010 was identical. And the 2010 was the same as the 2009… and the 2008. Nothing “new” about the 2011 Yaris except the jacked-up sticker price!

      A new one might have zero miles on it vs. 20,000 or 30,000 or so for a slightly used one, but these are 150,000 mile cars, easily. Why not let the first buyer eat the (huge) depreciation? That same car a couple of years old would probably sell for 8k or so.

      Second, screw Toyota. They are known for high price/forget haggling. I would not pay MSRP “sticker” on any new car that wasn’t a low-production/high-demand model. But a Yaris? Full sticker? Seriously?

      I bet you could do a lot better at a Ford store – and the Fiesta is a much better/nicer car in every way. There’s also the Nissan Versa, which you can get (sticker) for just over $11k with AC. It’s a damn nice car – with a larger interior (especially the back seat) than other cars in the class. Don’t buy anything before you at least look at the Versa, ok?

        • Got Ford to come in under 14k on the Fiesta with a six speed auto tranny out the door. I am going to look at the Versa though like you mentioned before I do anything. I’m just tired of tinkering all the time man! I need relief dood!

          • I hear you!

            Glad you went to see the Fiesta; it’s the better choice vs. the Yaris. It’s a really nice (and much newer) model than the Yaris, which has been the same for at least three model years now.

            If you want to save some dough, though – and still want new – go see that Versa 1.6

            This is a stripper. It doesn’t even have a radio! But it’s less than $10k. You can add AC and still be around $11k, sticker (without haggling). Add a radio later yourself… and who effin needs power windows, right?

        • Are you asking about the base Versa 1.6 sedan? MSRP is $9,900 for that. I think the dealer is steering you toward the Versa 1.8 hatchback… which starts at $14k. Ask about the 1.6 model sedan….

          • Aight man, so I did some researching and seems that the Yaris with a manual tranny will get the best mpg. I didn’t want to pay high Toyota prices though. Anyhow, I ended up finding a 2010 model with 14k on the clock for 13k. We negotiated to 12k out the door. I have a purple Yaris now. Thing will do 80mph no problem. It is a two door hatchback. I really didn’t want to have extra doors. This car will be 99% of the time driving my big ass up and back to work. I will do a “U-Rant” on the whole experience this evening.

    • I remember the CRX very well. They were everywhere in the ’80s. I wonder why you almost never see one anymore? I mean, you do see older Corollas, Subarus and such. Maybe it’s just my area. But I can’t recall seeing a CRX on the road in probably ten years now, at least.

      In any case, the dude is spot-on about weight. It’s ridiculous how heavy cars – especially economy cars – have become. If you updated an 1,800 lb. CRX with EFI (sted carbs) and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic or CVT (vs. three speed no OD automatic) and did nothing else, that would be a 50 MPG car, probably.

      • And it would be a blast to drive. Now why won’t they build it? Oh yeah. It wouldn’t be “safe”…

        I still see a few around here, though they are second gen. I haven’t seen an ’85 in a very long time.

        I still see ’80s Toy trucks every day though.

        • Around here (rural Boonies of SW Virginia) there are a fair number of ancient Subaru Brats still rolling. Remember those? The local yokels value these little beasts because (other than rust) they will last almost forever and can take abuse that would destroy a lesser car in half the time.

          Also old Nissan pick-ups (before they got a name) and the (named) compact-sized Frontier, before they screwed it up by “up-sizing” it back in 2005.

      • I racked up 250k on an ’87 CRX HF, and I regret the day I sold it. It was fun to drive and never got less than 42 miles to the gallon. There was one little problem with the gasket that sat between the engine and the carb; it would warp over time. Towards the end of my owning the car, it became a real pita to find maintenance parts for it. Shame. Separately I’ve been looking at buying a VW Golf TDI. Should I be scared about VW reliability? It would be an easier deal if diesel wasn’t so darn expensive compared to unleaded.

        • I looked around for a bit for a good condition CRX and could not find one. Then I looked around for a TDI for the right price, no luck there either. I ended up getting a one year old Yaris base model and love it.

        • Biggest issue with TDI is the timing belt.

          You need to be sure that it is changed when needed and that the other parts (water pump, etc. that are connected to the belt) are changed as well.

          This can be pricey if the dealer does the work.

          Otherwise the car is fun to drive. (If $ of Diesel is within 20% of regular unleaded you should be ok price wise)

  5. You could’ve left the Fiat off the list, for all I care.

    It’s the one car, I’ll never buy, due to my previous experience with FIAT. I bought a 1976 Fiat 128, and shortly thereafter Fiat folded its tent, and skulked out of town at 2 am, leaving me with a car that I couldn’t even change the oil in. (It had a 9mm Allen key oil drain plug, NOBODY made a 9mm Allen wrench in 1976.)

    Soon I found out the reason for all the skulking around. The Fiat window crank mechanism broke and the drivers side window went below the opening, never to be seen again with out major surgery. I pulled the door panel, and put 2×4 wood blocks in to hold the window at the approximate desired height. Then the clutch cable began going out, (it failed every 6000 miles), like clock work, until it finally lunched third gear.

    Oh, and the windshield washer reservoir was positioned under the battery, and battery acid ate the pump. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to find a replacement windsheild washer pump for an Italian orphan, in 1976? I eventually bought a pump for a Buick (off an automotive close out sale table), and some sort of goo sealant and improvised the installation of pump to bag, yes, Fiat had a bag for washer fluid. Rewired it, and, after a great deal of effort, made it functional. I found a replacement window crank 5 years later at a junk yard. I carried a quarter inch ratchet and 8mm socket to repair the clutch cable, for the next 70,000 miles (WHY did they have to put the dozens of teeny tiny 8mm bolts under the engine bay?). Got to where I could replace that cable in 15 minutes, never did fix third gear. I found a 9mm allen wrench at a lawn mower repair shop, where I had taken some valves from a GM diesel to be ground. Not sure WHAT it was designed for, but they had two.

    Any way, FIAT can take the Fiat 500 and shove it up its collective backside before I will buy another Fiat of any sort.

    Eventually, I traded it for a used Chevy Citation, but at least Chevy had a dealership.

    • Man, that was a great story! I don’t mean to laugh – and ah feel your pain (former Corvair owner; former VW owner, so I know something about on the fly DIY repair) but that was a great read! Maybe this crop of Fiats will be better… but I hear ya!

  6. I’ve been buying, owning, and driving subcompacts for 45 years. In 2007 I bought a Toyota Yaris hatchback because my ten year old Geo Metro hatchback (a great car IMHO) finally gave up the ghost. I have 38,000 on the Yaris (and why didn’t you list it?), and it has needed nothing but new wiper blades, tires, and oil and filter changes. It has little personality and it’s pretty basic, but is was also relatively low cost. When I next need a car I’ll be driving most of those on this list to see what I like, except not the Leaf just because of its price. For the cuteness factor the Fiat 500 wins hands down for me.

    • Hey Don,

      I didn’t mention the Yaris in this article because it’s about new (new design/new model) cars. But you’re right, the Yaris is a great little car. Welcome to the site, by the way!

    • I was kind of kidding on the Hummer comment….but I am driving my 1956 Chev Bel-Air now, and with oil stock profits, am having it fully restored to its former glory. Seriously though, I’ve noticed more people driving because of the effect of high oil prices on the economy here in western Canada, not less. But I did notice in the past few months that LA and San Francisco’s freeways seem to be noticeably less congested, and getting around a lot easier.


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