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Best small cars: Gas-sippers deliver on the road

May. 19, 2011 - 01:01PM   |   Last Updated: May. 19, 2011 - 01:01PM  |  
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Gas is $4 a gallon, and it's barely spring. By summer, it could easily be $5 or more, and that reality is fueling a resurgence 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 was about all you got.

If there's a bright spot in this emergence 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 gallon.

Some of the best bets available now or soon to be, with photos above:

Fiat 500

In densely populated Europe where gas is pushing $10 a gallon, Fiat is big because its cars are small — and also extremely fuel-efficient. 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 passengers, than the super-space-efficient Mini. The 500 also may offer close to 60 miles per gallon, if the U.S. is lucky and gets 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 horsepower 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 possible color combos, including two-tones and stripes. AC and most power options standard on the base Pop trim. Good performance as well as economy thanks to a very light2,350-pound curb weight.

• The downs: Fiat has never managed to thrive in the U.S. 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 beachhead.

• Available: Summer 2011.

• Base price: $15,500.

VW Golf TDI diesel

The Golf TDI's 30 miles per gallon in city driving is almost as good as many current economy cars' 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 horsepower and 236 pound-feet 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 or 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 Washington, D.C., 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 hybrid batteries to replace, 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 more so.

• Available: Now.

• Base price: $23,225.

Chevy Sonic

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-$13,000 value leaders such as the Hyundai Accent and Nissan Versa 1.6, and not just on bottom-line price. Like the Fiat 500, the Sonic serves up some style — and performance — to go with the anticipated close-to-40-mpg fuel efficiency. For example, a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine with 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 to 15 hp peppier than other microcompacts.

• The ups: Class-leading acceleration and 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.

• Available: Fall 2011.

• Base price: Estimated $12,500.

Nissan Leaf

The last true mass-produced electric car was built in the 1990s, GM's EV1. It didn't make the cut, in part, because at the time, gas cost half of what it does 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 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 versus driving something comparable with a gas-burning engine.

• 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 220-volt recharging station at your home. Max range between charges is just 100 miles.

• Available: Now.

• Base price: $32,780.

Ford Fiesta

Fiesta shares some DNA with its corporate cousin, the 2011 Mazda2, but it's larger outside, has a more powerful engine and state-of-the-art technology and equipment, including an available dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission that combines the efficiency of a manual with the ease of use of a conventional (hydraulic) automatic transmission — plus Ford's unique Sync voice-recognition system for controlling the car's media and entertainment systems.

• The ups: All trims come standard with AC and more features and equipment in general than higher-priced competitors such as (for now) the segment-leading Toyota Corolla (base price $15,450) and Honda Civic sedan (base price $15,655). Class-leading 30 mpg city and 40 mgp highway is almost as good as a diesel and creeping up on the real-world mileage of a hybrid.

• The downs: Ford's new Euro-style two-piece outside rearview mirrors with wide angle and close-up lenses can be confusing — if you're not used to driving an RV.

• Available: Now.

• Base price: $13,220.

Mini Cooper Countryman

Everyone (OK, almost everyone) likes the Mini Cooper, the reincarnated, updated version of the micro Brit car of the 1960s. The problem has been that not everyone can use the Mini, which until now came with just two doors and room for only two (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 option, another first for the Mini. 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, efficient fun.

• The downs: The AWD-equipped ALL4 version's mileage is only so-so (25 city, 31 highway) and the car can get pricey pretty quickly if you're not careful with options.

• Available: Now.

• Base price: $21,650.

Mazda2

The 2 sedan is Mazda's newest model and ultra-ultra compact. It's 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 versus 12.8 for the physically larger Fiesta and just 9.3 cubic feet for the similar-sized Toyota Yaris. It 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. Expect 35 mpg 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 Fiestas. Try to avoid being hit by an Escalade.

• Available: Now.

• Base price: $14,180.

Scion iQ

While small and designed mainly to be an in-city runabout like the Smart car, it's not scary-small like the Smart car is. It's more than a foot longer and it seats four — maybe not comfortably, but four 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 automatic transmission. In-city gas mileage will 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 for road trips or highway speeds.

• Available: Summer 2011.

• Base price: Estimated $13,500.

Audi A3 TDI diesel

This compact entry-luxury wagon's 42 mpg highway rating is better than any current gas-powered compact economy car's. Its 34 mpg city rating is pretty solid, too. Oh yeah, that's with Quattro all-wheel-drive standard. The 2-liter turbo-diesel engine scoots the A3 to 60 mph in about 8.8 seconds, so it's not slow, either. And unlike previous diesel cars, which were sold only in a few states because of emissions control issues, the A3 TDI is 50-state compliant.

• The ups: Luxury and economy without compromising either. Long-lived diesel engine should outlast gas burners and 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 more upfront than the nondiesel A3. Diesel fuel isn't cheap, either, and can sometimes be hard to find depending on where you live.

• Available: Now.

• Base price: $30,250.

Honda CR-Z

Here's an updated take on the superpopular 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 1.5-liter gas engine boosted (on demand) by a small electric motor and battery pack for a total rated output of 122 horsepower. A six-speed manual with Hill Star Assist is the standard transmission, with a continuously variable automatic transmission with Sport, Normal and Economy modes in 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. Available manual transmission is 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.

• Available: Now.

• Base price: $19,345.

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