Given the lingering trauma of $5-per-gallon gas prices a few years ago and the higher fuel-economy standards set by the federal government, automakers have made small cars a priority. An array of new compact and subcompact models is due soon, including the redesigned Ford Focus and the tiny Scion iQ, a competitor of the Smart ForTwo.
Add seven new hybrid models and the first wave of plug-in electric cars (see Should you plug in?) and it's clear that fuel economy is one of the driving forces in today's auto market.
Here's a look at some of the notable new models that have recently hit showrooms or will arrive in the coming months. We've included actual or predicted fuel economy figures where available. We'll fully test the vehicles as soon as we can buy them. In the meantime, check the Consumer Reports Cars blog for updates.
The compact Cruze is headed to the U.S. after making its debut in Europe and Asia. Buyers can choose from three trim lines and two four-cylinder engines, including a new 1.4-liter turbocharged version that Chevrolet says will achieve as much as 40 mpg on the highway with a manual transmission. Either engine is available with a six-speed automatic or manual transmission. Ten standard air bags, electronic stability control with rollover sensing, and OnStar are among the safety features. The Cruze will be priced between $17,000 and $23,000.
We've had a chance to drive early prototypes of the Cruze, and it looks like a great leap over the mediocre Cobalt. The Cruze is much quieter and has a more spacious and refined interior.
Aimed at young buyers, the Nissan Juke is a sporty crossover based on the Versa hatchback and is meant to combine attributes of a small car and an SUV. The U.S. version has a direct-injection, turbocharged, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that will deliver 180 hp. It is matched with either a continuously variable automatic transmission or six-speed manual. Front- or all-wheel drive will be available. Pricing is expected to start at less than $20,000. Standard features include six air bags, antilock brakes, and ESC. Optional features include leather seats, push-button start, navigation system, and power sunroof.
The Versa did well in our testing, which gives the Juke a good starting point. Although the Juke is big on style, the interior is snug, especially the backseat.
The next-generation Focus will be available as a four-door sedan or hatchback and will be based on a platform used for 10 models around the world. Here it gets a direct-injection, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. New available features include push-button start, a rearview camera, a semiautomatic parallel-parking system, and a new version of Ford's Sync infotainment system. Pricing will start at about $17,000. An electric-powered model will arrive later in 2011.
Once one of our top-rated small cars, the Focus hasn't kept up with its competition after more than a decade without a complete redesign. Our initial impressions after driving early versions of the new model indicate that it could be a big improvement.
Chrysler's new parent, Fiat, returns to the U.S. for the first time since the early 1980s with the tiny 500, a two-door hatchback with seating for four. Sized between a Smart ForTwo and a Mini Cooper, the 500 will be offered first with a 100-hp, 1.4-liter four-cylinder engine matched with a six-speed manual transmission. A sportier, turbocharged Abarth model is expected to follow, along with a semiconvertible with a roll-up canvas top. An electric version will arrive in 2012. Prices have not been announced, but the 500 starts around $14,000 in Europe.
We found a European version of the 500 fun to drive, but the ride was rather harsh. The interior is small but has a chic, retro European look.
Designed for city dwellers who want something easy to park and fuel efficient, the iQ is a tiny two-door barely larger than a Smart ForTwo. The cabin seats four. The rear seat is tiny, but the front is roomy. Space-saving features include a compact air-conditioning system, electronic steering, and slender seatbacks. The engine is a 1.3-liter four-cylinder matched with a continuously variable transmission. Scion claims fuel economy will be in the high-30-mpg range. ESC and 10 air bags are standard, including an industry-first rear-window curtain bag. We expect the iQ to be priced starting at $15,000.
Our initial impressions of the iQ indicate that it's a better execution of a micro car than the Smart ForTwo, which didn't fare well in our tests or with consumers.
Designed by Ford of Europe, this subcompact is about the size of a Honda Fit and available as a four-door hatchback or sedan. The 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine is certified by the Environmental Protection Agency for 38 mpg on the highway and 29 mpg in the city. A manual transmission is standard; a new six-speed automated manual is optional. The interior has an upscale look and feel and seating for five. High-end models have a leather interior. Safety features include front, side, and curtain air bags as well as a driver's knee bag. ESC is standard, and prices start around $14,000, including destination charges.
Our early impressions of the Fiesta are that it's agile with good steering and ride control, and its interior quality is notablefor the class, but it can get pricey.
This subcompact provides seating for five and is available only as a four-door hatchback. It's already a hit in Europe, and the version sold here has a 100-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine paired with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Mazda claims the 2 will get up to 35 mpg on the highway. Two trim levels are offered. Standard safety features include ESC and curtain air bags. Prices start at $14,730, including destination charges.
While the Mazda2 is closely related to the Ford Fiesta, it is roomier in the rear, less plush inside, and the more affordable of the two cars. Early impressions indicate that the Mazda2 is nimble and is a nice-driving car all around.
The largest Mini yet has four doors, roomier rear bucket seats, available all-wheel drive, and the look of an SUV. The cargo area has generous underfloor storage, folding rear seatbacks, and a pass-through. Powertrain choices include the 1.6-liter naturally aspirated or turbocharged four-cylinder engines found in other Minis, matched with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Both engines get a slight horsepower increase for 2011. The Countryman is expected to sell for about $30,000.
With extra room and AWD, the Countryman will be more practical and versatile than other Minis, but it seats only four. We hope it won't lose the agility and sportiness that make Minis fun to drive.
Honda says its redesigned minivan has more interior room and better aerodynamics and rear visibility and gets up to 28 mpg on the highway. The engine is the same 3.5-liter V6. We're told there are no plans for an all-wheel-drive version, so the Toyota Sienna is the only minivan offering AWD. Pricing will start around $27,000.
Despite the new look, we don't expect this redesign to stray far from Honda's successful formula. And that's a good thing. The claim of improved fuel economy is probably helped by a new six-speed automatic. We'll see whether it improves on the 19 mpg overall that we got with our last Odyssey.
The redesigned Jetta sedan, measuring 3.5 inches longer overall, has more rear leg room and a lower base price of about $16,000. Gasoline and diesel engines are carried over, and a hybrid version is coming. Most versions will have the 2.5-liter, five-cylinder that got 24 mpg overall in our Golf. The Jetta wagon is unchanged; Volkswagen says it will retain the sporty demeanor and upscale interior.
The Jetta is now a distinct model, rather than simply a Golf with a trunk grafted on. The added space could make it a more appealing choice for families, especially if recent improvements in reliability continue.
This midsized sedan has been redesigned with a wider, lower stance; a 3-inch-longer wheelbase; and a more spacious cabin. The new 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine is good for 200 hp, and the optional V6 has been replaced with a turbocharged, 274-hp version of the four-cylinder. A hybrid model will arrive early next year. The Optima is expected to be priced in the low-$20,000 range.
Our first impression is that the Optima drives much like the highly rated Hyundai Sonata, which shares its platform and got an impressive 27 mpg overall in our tests. The interior is roomy and nicely finished.
This small SUV has grown longer, lower, and wider. Kia claims its 176-hp, 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine will deliver more power and better fuel economy than the outgoing V6. We got 22 mpg overall with the similar Hyundai Tucson. A more powerful turbocharged version will arrive later. The engine is mated with a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. Curtain air bags and electronic stability control are standard. Pricing starts at about $19,000.
The new Sportage looks sportier than its predecessor. But rear visibility is even worse than in the similar Hyundai Tucson.
The Explorer has shed its trucklike, body-on-frame platform for a carlike unibody design shared with the Taurus and Flex. It will seat up to seven in three rows of seats. Ford promises much better fuel economy, thanks to improved aerodynamics, reduced weight, a six-speed automatic transmission, and the turbocharged, direct-injection EcoBoost engine that's optional on front-wheel-drive versions. Safety features include available rear inflatable safety belts claimed to provide better protection for children. The base price is about $29,000.
The use of a turbocharged four-cylinder engine in an SUV of this size is a first. Ford claims the EcoBoost engine will deliver the power of a V6 and the fuel economy of a four-cylinder. We'll see when we test it.