Personal Picks: Small cars

Consumer Reports News: June 29, 2009 01:03 PM

With all the doom and gloom news dominating the airwaves these days, it’s good to know that there’s a new, small car that really blew us away...and it doesn’t cost a fortune. For about $17,000, the manual transmission Honda Fit goes from 0-60 mph in under 10 seconds, holds five people (or lots of cargo) and still gets 33 mpg overall. Remember the “economy” cars of the 1980s? While several got terrific fuel economy, none were as comfortable, fun to drive, or as safe as the Fit. It does so many things well, the Fit is the answer to many buyers’ needs.

As gas prices continue to climb, more and more people may retreat to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. All of the other fuel-thrifty models in this test group--the Chevrolet Aveo, Nissan Versa, Suzuki SX4, and Toyota Yaris--were competing for second place.

But vehicle choice is a personal one, and here are our staff picks:

Mike Quincy: The Smart ForTwo sparks more conversation than just about anything I’ve driven in the last 10 years. But when people ask me about the diminutive design, I immediately bring up the Honda Fit. I’ve repeated these lines so many times: For about the same money as the Smart, the Fit is immensely more fun to drive and easier to live with. The Fit is faster, has superior steering, loads more cargo room, and only gives up 6 mpg overall. I don’t hate the Smart, but there’s no way I’m buying one over a Fit. Finally, what puts the Fit over the top for me is the relationship between its four-cylinder engine and manual transmission. I can’t think of many engine/transmission combinations that come close to the shear precision of their operation. And after running through the gears in our manual Sport model, I have to again remind myself that it only costs $17,000. The Fit is the smartest choice.

Gabe Shenhar: The engineer in me admires the originality of the Honda Fit design. What a genius of a car. With the gas tank mounted under the front seats, rather than the rear seat, it frees up a lot room, which gives the car its amazing spaciousness and in-cabin flexibility. It’s not for nothing the Fit has already established a cult following during the relatively short time it’s been for sale in the U.S.

But I’d have trouble shelling out $16,000 on a new Fit that’s still a noisy and jittery-riding car. For me, a used Mini Cooper for similar money would be much more enjoyable with similar gas mileage, go-kart agility, and nicer interior (but, admittedly, less space). You can’t have everything.

Rick Small: These small sedans are enjoying a surge in popularity due to poor economy and fresh memories of high gas prices. The Subaru Impreza is a nice car, but only comes in AWD--hurting fuel economy--and the driving position doesn’t fit my tall body as well as some. The Hyundai Elantra is very nice, has a long warranty and good fuel economy. The Toyota Corolla gets very good fuel economy but my tall frame also doesn’t fit in it so well. The Ford Focus has lost some of its grip and with it went braking distances and some of the fun-to-drive factor. The Focus’s driving position is decent for tall drivers but it has no rear headrests which is a serious safety omission. The VW Rabbit feels more solid and sporty than some here and has a good driving position for taller people.

All that being said, my favorite, though, is the Mini Cooper. Both the base and S models are a blast to drive, get very good fuel economy and surprisingly have a very good driving position for tall drivers. The back seat is petty much for storage or very small passengers, however. The Honda Fit has a versatile interior, a useable rear seat and good driving position for taller drivers; a new tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel really helps here. The manual shifter feels sporty. Fuel economy is very good--even with the automatic transmission--but if you want even more mpg, get the manual.

Tom Mutchler: True confession time: I had already written my Personal Pick for this group, the Honda Fit. I started out with a diatribe about the lack of ESC unless you get navigation, but then noted that the Fit was great fun to drive with a very clever interior.

But then I read a post on our expert forums by a Pontiac Vibe owner, suggesting that his car might be the best "budget car" over the Fit. Never mind that the Vibe is larger than the Fit and isn't really a subcompact, or that the MSRP of his Vibe 1.8-liter manual with air and power accessories is $18,630 compared to the $16,730 Fit Sport manual.

Let’s examine his idea. First, that price difference mostly dissolves with the Vibe’s incentives. You can likely buy that Vibe for a little over $17,000; you’ll probably pay list for the high-demand Fit. The Fit doesn't give you the Vibe’s standard ESC or a fold-flat front passenger seat or OnStar. (You do get iPod control and alloy wheels on the Fit Sport; the cheaper base Fit lacks cruise control.)

The Fit isn't exactly a ball of fire and the interior trim is on the cheap side - ditto for the Vibe. Neither is that quiet inside. We haven’t tested a Vibe 1.8-liter manual, but given that our Toyota Corolla manual got 32 mpg overall with the same engine, we’d expect the larger Vibe to get something less. Not quite up to the Fit Sport manual’s fuel economy, but probably still quite good.

Both have room for four and a spacious cargo area. The Vibe has long been reliable too--remember, it's basically a Toyota Matrix that costs less.

My heart still leans towards the spunky, fun-to-drive Fit (or a used Mazda 3s Touring); put simply, I wouldn't look forward towards hustling a Vibe down a twisty road. But logic says that a discounted Vibe is a fine alternative.

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