Small Car Buying Guide

For everyday tasks such as commuting, running errands, and zipping around town, a small car is often the most practical choice. With the ever-increasing demand for SUVs, automakers have taken efforts to maximize interior space and add new technologies to keep shoppers interested. As a result, the latest compact cars today have the rear-seat room and amenities you might have expected in a midsized car only a few years ago.

In addition to being affordable, many of CR’s tested models returned 30-plus mpg overall. That fuel economy is one of the top reasons that buyers choose small cars. As a bonus, their size often contributes to nimble handling. Typical drawbacks are a stiff and noisy ride.  

Types

Buyers have the choice of sedan and hatchback body styles, many of which have tall roofs, providing generous headroom and an airy feel to the cabin. Hatchbacks can be especially practical. Fold down the rear seatbacks and lift the hatch, and you can have interior functionality that’s similar to that of a small SUV.

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. Although small cars are commonly front-wheel drive, there are rear-wheel-drive choices that are particularly rewarding to drive. For those faced with winter traction challenges, there are a few models with all-wheel drive, such as the Subaru Impreza and Mazda3.

Nonturbocharged four-cylinders are the most common engine option. However, a few, like the Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra, offer hybrid engine options for even better fuel economy. Plug-in hybrids, with the ability to drive short distances on electric power only, and full electric vehicles (EVs)—such as the Honda Clarity and Chevrolet Bolt—are also available, but expect higher prices.

CVTs (continuously variable transmissions) are quickly becoming the most common transmission available in small cars. They offer fuel-economy benefits and can improve the acceleration performance of small engines. A CVT does not shift gears like a traditional automatic; that can result in a noisier and less satisfying experience. Some CVTs simulate gear changes in an attempt to mask these traits. Traditional automatic transmissions are still available, such as the six-speed automatic in the Mazda3. A few models are still offered with a manual transmission, which may help save money on the purchase price, but they tend not to be more fuel-efficient than CVTs and automatics.

Prices of small cars can vary widely, from about $14,000 for basic transportation in a subcompact to $35,000 for a high-performance model. EVs can top $40,000. Figure on spending at least $20,000 for one of our recommended models with popular features. We’ve found plenty of fine small cars priced under $24,000.

A white Hyundai Elantra.
Hyundai Elantra

What Small-Car Buyers Should Consider

Seating
Most small cars can comfortably seat two people up front, but rear seat passengers might get pinched, especially in some of the smaller subcompact models. Some, like the Nissan Sentra, have a rear seat that’s surprisingly roomy, which is not a given in this category. Be sure you know how many people will typically ride in your car when you’re considering one of the smaller models.

Cargo
Usually, small-car buyers have to sacrifice the relatively low introductory price for a smaller package. Some hatchbacks can fill cargo-carrying duties, but the rear seats will have to be folded. So you’re either carrying passengers or cargo, but typically not both at once.

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.

Handling
Some small cars will thrill you with their handling prowess. Sporty models such as the Hyundai Veloster, Mini Cooper S, and Subaru WRX shined in our handling evaluations. With the focus zeroed in on crisp handling, ride comfort typically suffers as a result of these models’ stiff suspension and low-profile tires. However, other options, such as the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra, still offer commendable small-car handling capability with a more compliant ride.

Safety and Advanced Driver Assistance Systems Technologies
Consumer Reports’ safety ratings include assessments of crash-avoidance capabilities and crash-test results, based on tests performed by the federal government and insurance industry. Further, our road tests detail issues regarding child seat installation and headlight performance.

Forward collision warning (FCW), automatic emergency braking (AEB) with pedestrian detection, and blind spot warning (BSW) are crash-avoidance technologies that CR believes should be standard on all vehicles. They are offered on most small car models, but be wary of some lower trim levels that may omit them. These should be on the next new or used model you buy.

FCW technology provides a visual, audible, and/or tactile alert to warn the driver of an impending collision with a car or an object directly in the vehicle’s path. AEB responds to an imminent collision, braking if the driver doesn’t react in time. BSW monitors a vehicle’s flanks, warning the driver that another vehicle is alongside, where it may be difficult to see.

Other modern safety advances include telematics systems that can alert emergency personnel if an airbag deploys, such as GM’s OnStar service; lane departure warning systems that sound an alert if a driver changes lanes without signaling; lane keeping assist to maintain the vehicle position in the lane if the driver starts to drift; and rear cross traffic alert that monitors the sides of the vehicle when a driver is backing out of a parking spot, and can even apply the brakes if needed. (Learn more about car safety.)

Drive Wheels
The vast majority of small cars use front-wheel drive. This can be more effective and easier to control in slippery conditions compared with rear-wheel-drive. A few small cars offer all-wheel drive to provide heightened foul-weather traction. However, expect added cost and slightly reduced fuel economy.

Towing
Small cars aren’t designed for towing. Period. If your life requires regular trailer towing, you’ll have to step up to a larger car or an SUV.

New vs. Used

Like with any type of car, the first decision to make in choosing the right one is whether you’ll buy new or used.

New cars have the very latest safety gear and engineering improvements, not to mention a bumper-to-bumper factory warranty. With a new car, you know what you’re getting; 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 level. Plus, financing rates are typically lower than for a used vehicle.

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 finance 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 are certainly plenty of choices. A 2- to 3-year-old car has already taken its biggest depreciation hit and should have the majority of its useful life ahead of it. Modern cars, if soundly maintained, can run for 200,000 miles or longer. Material and corrosion resistance improvements mean rust isn’t nearly as big a problem as it was years ago.

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.

Consumer Reports’ reliability information is no guarantee, of course, but it does carry the weight of probability. If you shop for small cars with top-notch reliability, the odds are more in your favor. Nevertheless, 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 end.

Whether buying new or used, it is important to do research so that you can choose a good model and to follow that up with effective negotiation.

Browse the Consumer Reports Used Car Marketplace.

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