With demand for economical, fuel-efficient cars spiking in recent years, showrooms have seen a rapid increase of small, entry-level subcompacts. Usually priced in the mid-teens, these pint-sized vehicles are friendly on the budget and can stretch your fuel dollars with gas mileage in the 30-something-mpg range.
Subcompacts are also easy to maneuver and park, which comes in handy in tight urban driving.
But that’s about where the advantages end. And there are often a number of drawbacks that can make driving a subcompact wearisome over time.
With little sound insulation, these inexpensive cars are usually noisy inside. Their small engines don’t provide very quick acceleration. The ride is often stiff or choppy. And the cabins are often tight and cheaply trimmed. Keep in mind, too, that a smaller car is inherently less safe in a crash with a larger vehicle. Even subcompacts with good crash ratings will usually come out on the losing end of an encounter with a large car, SUV, or truck.
Those types of trade-offs are clear in two of the three subcompacts we tested—the Chevrolet Spark and the Mitsubishi Mirage—which turned in some of the lowest scores we’ve seen in recent years: 42 and 29, respectively. Both have long lists of deficiencies, including noisy interiors, patience-testing acceleration, and cheaply outfitted interiors. In addition, the Spark’s ride is very stiff and the Mirage’s handling is clumsy. These are cars that we can’t, in good conscience, recommend that anyone buy.
The Ford Fiesta, which received a new 1.0-liter turbocharged EcoBoost three-cylinder engine for 2014, is one of the few subcompacts that’s any fun to drive because of its agile handling, decent ride, and relatively quiet cabin. Its 66 test score places it among the top three in this class, slightly behind the Hyundai Accent and the four-cylinder Fiesta we previously tested.
Our three-cylinder Fiesta SE was almost $19,000, however, which is pricey for this class. For that amount or a little more, you could buy a good compact car, such as a Hyundai Elantra. For a couple thousand less, you could get one of several other good subcompacts.
With the Fiesta and Mirage, we measured excellent overall fuel economy of 35 and 37 mpg, respectively. The Spark provided only 31 mpg overall, which is unimpressive given its tiny size and meager power. Of course, you can now find similar or better fuel economy in compact and even midsized sedans that are roomier, quieter, quicker, more comfortable, and notably more pleasant to drive.
With as-tested prices of about $16,000, the Spark and Mirage might seem like attractive buys. But if your budget is pushing you in that direction, you’ll do better by buying a used car. For about the same money, you could get a larger and better overall vehicle, such as a late-model Mazda3 or a Subaru Impreza, or a slightly older Toyota Camry. All three did well in our testing, have had consistently good reliability, and made our list of the best used cars in our 2014 Annual Auto Issue. You might give up some mpg, but you’ll probably be happier down the road.