Small Car Buying Guide

For tasks such as commuting, running errands, and zipping around town, a small car is often the most practical choice. Automakers are constantly lavishing more attention on packaging to maximize interior space and add increasingly upscale amenities. As a result, the latest compact cars today have the rear-seat room you might expect in a midsized car of only a few years ago, while some smaller subcompacts still have reasonable space for two in back. 

What to Know

Many small cars have tall roofs, providing generous headroom 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 interior functionality that’s similar to that of 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 from 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 MX-5 Miata, Subaru BRZ, and Toyota 86, 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-term owner costs that won’t strain your checkbook. These 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 will surprise you with their handling agility.

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 $13,000 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. 


Small Sedans and Hatchbacks
The small-car category is home to rudimentary economy models and premium compact cars. Thrifty models tend to get good fuel economy, but many also have elevated noise levels and limited space for rear-seat passengers and cargo. Many small cars come as either sedans or hatchbacks; the latter body style adds cargo-carrying versatility similar to that of an SUV. Powerplants are usually four-cylinder (and sometimes three-cylinder) engines ranging from 1.2 liters to 2.0 liters in size. Fuel economy averages from the mid-20s to mid-30s miles per gallon overall. Some higher-end models have turbochargers that boost power.

Sporty Cars
This category includes sporty hatchbacks such as the Mini Cooper S, Subaru WRX, and Volkswagen GTI, plus sporty coupes such as the Fiat 500, and true sports cars such as the Mazda MX-5 Miata and Toyota 86. Engines are usually four cylinders and often turbocharged in the sportier models. The emphasis is on crisp handling; keep in mind that the ride typically suffers as a result of these models’ 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 nonsporty small cars.


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

Engines and Fuel Economy
The four-cylinder engines offered in most small cars are practical choices. Some small sporty models offer a turbocharged four-cylinder. A few even offer three-cylinder engines to maximize fuel savings. Manual transmissions can be thriftier than automatics, though the difference is narrowing, and in some models the automatic transmission is the more economical choice. 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 while wringing as much acceleration as possible out of very small engines. Some small cars use a dual-clutch, a type of automatic transmission primarily developed for performance cars. These transmissions do deliver good fuel economy, but they often shift harshly and can feel “grabby” during low-speed maneuvers such as parallel parking. Some inexpensive cars use four-speed transmissions as a cost-saving measure. These old-tech transmissions generally don’t offer the performance or fuel economy of a car equipped with a newer six-speed automatic or CVT.

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 you’re comparing it with and on whether you count depreciation in the calculations or only fuel savings.

Even among cars with small engines, there is a significant range of fuel economy, and the smallest cars aren’t necessarily the most fuel-efficient, because a shorter body leaves less room for optimized aerodynamics. Be sure 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 aid traction. Otherwise, two wheels could be overwhelmed by power and unable to gain a foothold. While AWD aids acceleration in slippery conditions, it doesn’t help you stop any shorter. It also adds cost and weight, and usually cuts fuel economy by about 1 mpg.

When comparing small cars, try getting into 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 it spread to other body styles.

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 constitute the majority of cars on the road. But with responsive handling, many small cars have an advantage in avoiding an accident altogether. 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 front airbags, 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 curtain airbags that cover front and rear side windows. We recommend them.

Electronic stability control is a computer-controlled feature that automatically 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 one so equipped. 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. (Learn more about car safety.)

Advanced Safety Technologies
Forward-collision warning (FCW) and automatic emergency braking (AEB) are two valued systems that are fast becoming standard equipment on many new vehicles. FCW technology provides a visual, audible, and/or tactile alert to warn the driver of an impending collision with a car or object directly in its path. If a car equipped with AEB senses a potential collision and you don’t react in time, it starts braking for you. IIHS data show rear-end collisions are cut by 50 percent on vehicles with AEB and FCW.

Other modern safety advances include telematics systems that alert emergency personnel if an airbag deploys; lane-departure warning systems that sound an alert if you change lanes without signaling; lane-keeping assist to center the vehicle in the lane if you start to drift; and blind-spot warning systems that indicate vehicles driving in the blind spots to the side and rear of you. (Learn more about car safety.)

Entertainment and Convenience
The latest mobile electronics enable cars to deliver the fidelity of home theater, along with Bluetooth smartphone connectivity, Android Auto/Apple CarPlay compatibility, and navigation guidance. Factory-supplied systems usually offer voice-activated controls for audio, phone, and navigation with various levels of sophistication. You’ll frequently find redundant audio controls on the steering wheel.

Audio System
The standard audio package is a stereo radio tuner with speakers left and right and fore and aft, with satellite radio and various inputs for external devices. CD players are becoming rare. An upgraded system typically has a more powerful amplifier (so you can play music loud with minimum distortion), along with more and better-quality speakers to enhance clarity and sound separation. Top-level systems add digital sound fields, noise canceling, and surround sound.

Cars at every price level have a USB port for connecting a smartphone or an iPod and for charging mobile devices, though some high-end European models have proprietary adapters that require a dealer-supplied plug to connect your device.

Satellite and HD Radio
Subscription-based satellite radio (SiriusXM) offers a broad selection of channels catering to a variety of musical and information interests, with uninterrupted service from coast to coast. Subscription packages range from $11 to $20 per month, and you can add service for your smartphone, computer, and home satellite radio for an additional fee.

HD Radio allows conventional (aka 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 subchannels that can be broadcast alongside a station’s main frequency. This function can be used for delivering traffic updates, weather information, or more diverse music content.

Navigation Systems and Connectivity
In-car navigation systems are a great feature 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 high-end audio system, that can add an additional $1,000 or more. Built-in systems have large, clear screens mounted 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. And, of course, smartphones can provide great navigation guidance. (Learn more about portable GPS navigation systems.)

Bluetooth connectivity is now ubiquitous, enabling devices such as smartphones to wirelessly communicate with the car’s audio system. This allows convenient hands-free phone operation as well as playback of music stored on the phone. Many infotainment systems can stream Internet-sourced audio to the car using apps, such as Pandora and Aha.

Telematics systems, popularized by GM’s OnStar, use a combination of cellular telephone and GPS technology to connect drivers with a call center staffed 24 hours a day, seven 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 calls to check on the car after an accident. If need be, these systems can summon emergency services, using the car’s built-in GPS receiver to give first responders your car’s location.

New vs. Used

When in the market for a small car, the first consideration is whether to 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. And 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. One of the best strategies is to find a car you like that’s only two to three years old. Such a 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 stay on the road for 200,000 miles or longer. Rust isn’t nearly as big a problem as it was years ago, and solid-state electronics have eliminated the need for frequent tune-ups.

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. Recent reliability stars among small cars have mostly been from Honda, Hyundai, Kia, and Toyota

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

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. 

Learn more in our New & Used Car Buying Guide

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