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Small cars

Small car buying guide

Last updated: April 2014

Getting started

For tasks such as commuting, running errands, and zipping around town, a small car is often the most practical choice. In recent years, automakers have lavished more attention on packaging to maximize interior space. Most compact cars today have the rear seat room you might expect in a midsized car of only a few years ago, while smaller subcompacts still have reasonable space for two in back.

Many small cars have tall roofs, providing generous head room and an airy feel to the cabin. In particular, hatchbacks can be especially practical. Fold down the rear seatbacks and lift the hatch, and you can have similar interior functionality to a small SUV. The Honda Fit is a good example of clever use of space. Its fuel tank is far forward, freeing up space for rear seating and luggage. The lesson here is that practical considerations can benefit greatly by smart design.

When it comes to sporty cars, small is beautiful. Small cars are inherently light and nimble”two qualities that count a lot for spirited driving. Small sporty cars are commonly front-wheel drive, though there are rear-wheel drive choices, such as the BMW 2 Series, Mazda Miata, and Subaru BRZ, that are particularly rewarding. For those faced with winter traction challenges, there are a few models with all-wheel drive, such as the Subaru Impreza.

Key things to consider

Make a list of your priorities to help you to narrow down the field of small cars you'll consider. Think about what's most important to you, such as low initial price, superb fuel economy, satisfying driving experience, comfortable ride, good luggage space, room for passengers, and long-range owner costs that won't strain your checkbook. Those factors tend to be interlinked. For example, fuel economy often goes hand in hand with low weight, small size, and modest power. Good ride comfort is easier to achieve in cars with a longer wheelbase and more weight. Agile handling is not confined to cars with sporty looks. Plenty of small hatchbacks handle terrifically.

The most economical strategy is to set your sights on a car that has enough room to meet your needs without buying more car than necessary. Consider starting with our lists of Recommended small cars and working your way up the line from the smallest and least expensive.

What you'll spend

Prices for small cars vary widely, from about $14,000 for basic transportation in a subcompact to $35,000 for a high-performance model. Figure on spending about $18,000 for one of our Recommended models with popular features. We've found plenty of fine small cars priced under $22,000.

Types

Small sedans and hatchbacks


The small car category is home to rudimentary economy cars and premium compact cars. Thrifty models tend to get good fuel economy, but many also have elevated noise levels, and limited space for rear passengers and cargo. Many small cars come as either sedans or hatchbacks that add versatility to the basic design. The powerplants are usually four-cylinder engines ranging from 1.4 liters to 2.0-liters in size. Fuel economy averages from the mid-20s to mid-30s mpg overall. Some higher-end models have turbochargers that boost power.

Sporty cars


This category includes sporty hatchbacks such as the Mini Cooper S, Subaru Impreza WRX, and Volkswagen GTI, plus sporty coupes such as the Scion tC, and true sports cars such as the Mazda Miata and Scion FR-S. Engines are usually four cylinders and often turbocharged. The emphasis is on crisp handling, and the ride typically suffers as a result of stiff suspension and low-profile tires. The cabins are often noisy, too. Fuel economy varies from about mid-20s to low-30s overall, with the higher-horsepower models delivering worse fuel economy than non-sporty small cars.

Features


Below we highlight important features for you to consider when purchasing a small car.

Engines and fuel economy

The four-cylinder engine offered in all small cars is a practical choice. Some small sporty models offer a turbocharged four-cylinder, or even a V6. A few even offer three-cylinder engines to maximize fuel savings. Manual transmissions can be thriftier than automatics, though the difference is dwindling. Modern automatics with five, six, or more speeds can help fuel economy by letting a car cruise at lower revs and also contribute to good performance. Continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) also aim to save fuel. If you're budget conscious, look for a car that does not require premium fuel.

Gasoline/electric hybrid technology can save significant amounts of fuel, although some hybrids' higher initial cost might take years to recoup, depending on fuel prices. Some models pay off rather quickly, although the perception of return on investment partially depends on what choose for comparison and on whether you count depreciation in the calculations or only fuel savings.

Even among non-turbo, four-cylinder cars, there is a significant range in fuel consumption, making it important to check our test-based fuel-economy Ratings.

Drive wheels

The vast majority of small cars use front-wheel drive. The space efficiency inherent in that design allows a car to have a smaller engine compartment (the engine is mounted side-to-side, rather than longitudinally), leaving more room inside for passengers and cargo. It's also effective in slippery conditions because the engine's weight sits directly over the drive wheels. Some small cars, such as the Subaru Impreza, have all-wheel drive. AWD provides heightened foul-weather traction by distributing power to the wheels that can best put it to the ground. Otherwise, two wheels could be overwhelmed by power and unable to gain traction. While AWD aids acceleration in slippery conditions, it does nothing to aid stopping. It also adds cost, weight, and usually cuts fuel economy by about 1 mpg.

Access

When comparing small cars, try getting in and out of all the seats.. A well-designed car should provide wide doors and enough clearance so that front and rear passengers can enter and exit easily without bumping their heads. With many two-door coupes, accessing the rear is a chore, the seats are not comfortable for large adults, and it can be a challenge to secure a child safety seat. Check the vehicle's sight lines to ensure clear visibility in all directions. Historically, this has been a limitation common to coupes, though in recent years we have seen in it spread to other body styles.

Cargo

If you ever expect to carry long or bulky cargo, look for a fold-down rear seat with a tall, wide opening to the trunk. Even a small pass-through port can be handy for long, slender items such as skis. A hatchback with a split-fold rear seat can be quite practical for hauling cargo.

Safety features

There is no question; small, light cars are at a disadvantage in collisions with larger, heavier vehicles that comprise the majority of cars on the road. But many small cars have an advantage in avoiding an accident. And size can't prevent single-vehicle collisions. Contemporary safety-oriented designs and equipment help to even the odds.

Not all models offer equal protection, so it's important to check the safety Ratings. Consumer Reports'safety Ratings include assessments of crash-avoidance capabilities and crash-test results, based on tests performed by the federal government and the insurance industry. Further, road tests detail issues regarding child seat installation and the effectiveness of front and rear head restraints.

All new cars have standard left and right front air bags, Chest-level side air bags front-seat passengers. lap-and-shoulder belts in all outboard seating positions, and top-tether and lower LATCH attachments in the rear seats. Almost all also offer head-cushioning side-curtain air bags that cover front and rear side windows. We recommend them.

Electronic stability control (ESC) is a computer-controlled feature that automatically and applies brakes selectively to individual wheels to mitigate sideways slides when cornering. ESC is now standard on all new cars, and if you're looking for a used model. we highly recommend it. This proven safety system has reduced injuries as much as safety belts did. It can also help reduce the risk of rolling over and other crash types. A related feature, traction control, can help you to get going on a slippery road but doesn't aid safety. (Learn more about car safety.)

Emerging safety technologies

The latest automotive safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an air bag deploys, lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling, rear-view cameras to prevent back-over accidents, and blind-spot warning systems that indicate that vehicles are driving to the side and rear of you. Automatic-braking systems are also spreading. These apply the brakes if you're approaching the car ahead too fast and ignore an audible warning that alerts you to the situation. Such premium safety features are not available on many small cars, but over time, they are expected to trickle down from more upscale models. Some small cars, notably GM vehicles and those from Audi, Hyundai, Subaru, and Volkswagen, offer a cellular-based telematics subscription service that provides emergency aid and numerous travel-related services. (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and convenience

The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with cell-phone connectivity and navigation guidance. The latest systems even offer preinstalled or downloadable apps to find gas stations, make restaurant reservations, or check stock prices, for example. There is a wide range of information and entertainment features available from the factory, and even more available through the aftermarket.

Audio system

The standard car-audio package is a stereo radio tuner and in-dash CD player with speakers left and right and fore and aft. An upgraded system typically has a more powerful amplifier, so you can play music loudly with minimum distortion, and more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise-canceling, surround sound, hard-drive music storage, and DVD-Audio playback.

Depending on the package, an audio upgrade can add many hundreds of dollars to a car's sticker price. Almost all cars offer a jack where you can plug in an MP3 device for playback through the car's audio system, and most have added one or more USB ports that allow you to recharge and control an iPod or other music player.

Satellite and HD radio

Subscription-only satellite radio (Sirius/XM) offers broad channel selection, catering to a variety of musical and information interests, much like cable TV. Most vehicles offer satellite radio readiness in some audio systems.

HD Radio allows conventional (or terrestrial) AM and FM stations to broadcast their content over digital signals with higher fidelity. It also allows stations to add more programming over several additional channels that can be broadcast alongside a station's main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic or weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation systems and connectivity

In-car navigation systems can be a valued featured if you often drive in unfamiliar territory. They typically retail for $750 to $1,500 when offered alone, but nav systems are often bundled with other features, such as a backup camera or a high-end audio system that can add another $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens that are in the center of the dashboard and have generally intuitive controls. They are integrated nicely into the car, and most systems use touch-screen displays that make it easy to enter destinations and scroll through menus. Many can also respond to voice commands, giving you the added safety of keeping your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel. For a subscription fee, many systems can provide real-time traffic reports, which can alert you to congested traffic, accidents, or road construction. But small portable GPS units can offer most of the same capabilities for far less money. (See Ratings and learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is becoming very widespread, enabling wireless devices such as a cell phone to wirelessly communicate with the car's audio system. This allows convenient, hands-free phone operation. Many new infotainment systems can interface with your smart phone using apps to stream music and other Internet-sourced data to the car.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM's OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at the touch of a button. For a monthly or annual fee, such concierge services can provide directions and other travel aids. They also have an SOS feature that automatically summons emergency aid following an air-bag deployment, using GPS technology to give first-responders your car's location.

Brands

BMW arrow  |  Chevrolet arrow  |  Ford arrow  |  Honda arrow  |  Nissan arrow  |  Scion arrow  |  Toyota arrow  |  Volkswagen arrow

Below we highlight the most popular and the most significant sedan brands, with a synopsis of traits common among their sedans.

BMW

BMW has long set the standard for European-style "driver's cars." We have long given BMW high marks for the cars' agility, handling finesse, sophisticated engineering, and impeccable fit and finish. We have criticized the lack of rear seat room in the smaller models and the over complexity of some controls, as well as persistent small gripes such as inadequate cup holders and mediocre radio reception. Reliability has not been BMW's long suit. Some models hold up well, some assuredly do not.

Chevrolet

Chevrolet is an iconic, all-American brand, though its smallest offering, the Aveo, is a mediocre car made by the successor to the Korean Daewoo company. While the larger Cobalt was no great shakes either, it's due to be replaced by the Cruze, which could turn out to be a lot better.

Ford

Ford has turned a corner in reliability, compared with the rest of Detroit, with most Ford products, especially newer designs, scoring average or better on our reliability surveys. The Focus used to be tops in its class, earlier in the decade, but now is only midpack.

Honda

For years, Honda made a name for itself, and a good one, selling just two vehicles in the U.S., the Civic and Accord. While it now competes in other segments, the Civic and Accord remain vastly popular cars for the right reasons: They are high quality, reasonably priced, and have excellent reliability.

Nissan

In recent years, Nissan has made marked improvements in interior quality and packaging, though fuel economy and dynamic performance are midpack. It offers the subcompact but roomy Versa and the small Sentra.

Scion

The youth-focused division of Toyota, Scion is focused on small, affordable cars with design personality and clever features. The xD provides very good fuel economy at an affordable price.

Toyota

Known for fuel economy and quality, Toyota offers several small cars with varied personalities and test scores. The subcompact Yaris is reliable and inexpensive but one of our lowest-rated cars. The Corolla is a well-balanced sedan with great fuel economy.

Volkswagen

A specialist in small and midsized cars, Volkswagen can be counted on for excellent fit and finish, crisp handling and good ride composure. Reliability has been spotty--good one year, poor the next. That's a shame, because otherwise the cars score high in our tests and are fun to drive.

New vs. Used

When in the market for a small car, the first consideration is whether to buy a new or used car. Buying a brand-new car certainly has its benefits. Most notably, new cars can have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements”a particular concern with small cars. And with a new car, you know what you're getting, and it is backed by a comprehensive factory warranty. You don't have to worry about potential service problems or concealed collision damage. Further, you can have your choice of color, trim line, and option.

The crucial drawback with buying a new car is rapid depreciation. A new car can shed a third of its value in its first two or three years on the road. If you have financed the new car with a low down payment, you can easily find yourself "upside down" on the loan, where you owe more than the car is worth.

Used cars can be a welcome alternative. The used-car market is about three times the size of the new-car market, so there's certainly plenty of choice out there. One of the best strategies is to find a car that you like that's only two to three years old. Such a car has already taken its biggest depreciation hit, which works to your advantage, but it should still have most of its useful life ahead of it. Modern cars, if soundly maintained, can stay on the road a long, long time. Rust, for example, isn't nearly the problem it was years ago. Solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for a lot of regular servicing.

The key to selecting a good used car is to focus on reliability, even when a prospective automobile is still covered by its original factory warranty. Look for a car that has done well in our Reliability survey. For many years, the reliability stars in our records have mostly been Japanese-nameplate models, especially those from Honda, Scion, Subaru, and Toyota. But a handful of domestic and Korean models have been standouts, too.

CR's reliability scores are no guarantee, of course, but they do carry the weight of probability. If you shop for sedans with top-notch reliability scores, the odds are on your side. But every used car is unique. A careful prepurchase inspection remains a vital part of the process. If you do research and take care in the car selection, a used small car can save you significant money in the long run.

See our used car buying guide.
   

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