Best subcompact cars

These efficient models are just the right size for traffic and parking

Published: March 14, 2014 09:00 AM

These small, efficient models are easy to park and maneuver through traffic around town. The best ones are also relatively quiet, refined, fun to drive, fairly roomy, and packed with the latest features. Several models are available as a hatchback or sedan, so you can choose to have more flexible cargo space or the security of a trunk.

Drawbacks: Be aware that a subcompact car is at a disadvantage in a crash with a larger vehicle. They also generally have subpar performance in crash tests, which leads us to recommend only those that offer the best protection. Most subcompacts have a stiff ride and a noisy, cramped cabin. The gas mileage of many subcompacts is no better than that of the most efficient compact and midsized sedans, which are roomier and more refined. Overall, unless your budget and/or parking space is tight, we advise spending $2,000 more to get a compact car.

Best overall

As a sedan or a hatchback, the Rio feels like a bigger car. It comes well equipped with a six-speed automatic transmission, Bluetooth connectivity, and steering-wheel-mounted radio controls. The sedan’s rear seat is roomy enough for two adults, and the trunk is fairly spacious. On the road it rides and handles well for the class and is a bit quieter than other small cars. Higher trim models offer amenities such as heated seats and a backup camera, though they can push the price up steeply. But fuel economy can’t match that of some larger compact and midsized cars. Reliability has been average, but the hatchback scored too low in our tests to be recommended.

Price as tested:
Overall mpg: 30 (sedan)

The Sonic’s relatively quiet interior and optional safety features, such as forward-collision alert and lane departure warning, set it apart in the class. Inside, the backseat is cramped, but the ride is surprisingly comfortable for a small car. The sedan has generous trunk space, but cargo room in the hatchback is tight. The base 1.8-liter engine feels adequate; the more responsive turbo 1.4-liter is marginally quicker and doesn’t use any more gas. But either version’s fuel economy is unimpressive for a small car. Reliability has been average. The LTZ hatchback we tested scored too low in our tests to be recommended.

Price as tested: $17,290
Overall mpg: 28 mpg

Best for fuel economy

Toyota Prius C

Gas mileage is our overall mpg.

Mitsubishi i-MiEV (electric) 111 mpg equiv.
Toyota Prius C 43 mpg
Smart ForTwo 39 mpg
Honda Insight 38 mpg
Honda CR-Z 35 mpg
Scion iQ 34 mpg
Ford Fiesta 32 to 33 mpg
Fiat 500 33 mpg
Honda Fit 30 to 33 mpg
Mazda2 30 to 33 mpg
Hyundai Accent 31 to 32 mpg
Nissan Versa Sedan 32 mpg
Toyota Yaris 32 mpg

If fuel economy is the bottom line, you can’t beat the electric Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Toyota Prius C and Honda Insight hybrids, or the tiny Smart ForTwo. But each is slow, noisy, and uncomfortable; we also think the ForTwo is a model to avoid. Ironically, the highest-scoring cars in this category get lower fuel economy. But the trade-off gets you a quieter, more comfortable subcompact. Among the nicer-to-drive models, the best get 30 to 31 mpg with an automatic transmission; a manual can give you 2 or 3 more mpg. You can often do just as well in a larger model. In general, subcompacts get about the same mpg as the best compact cars: 32 to 33 mpg overall with an automatic transmission. Similarly, subcompact hybrids get no better gas mileage than larger ones.

Fun to drive

Fiat 500 Abarth

Ford Fiesta ST
Fiat 500 Abarth
Mini Cooper

These three are a real blast to drive, and you can have plenty of fun in them without risking your driver’s license. The Fiesta ST is our favorite car here. Sure, its backseat is tight and the tiny radio screen is hard to reach, but the ST is quick, and it hugs corners with great grip and terrific steering. It also comes with the latest navigation and infotainment technology. The Abarth is the performance version of the cute but flawed Fiat 500. It’s engaging to drive, with plenty of power and an exhaust that pops and burbles with every shift. That might sound invigorating at first, but it grows tiresome. The Abarth also suffers from an awkward driving position and a hard ride. Spunky and stylish, the Mini Cooper is known for combining go-kart handling and great fuel economy. A redesigned Mini is in the wings with hardtop models coming first. It’s too bad previous Minis have been unreliable.

Small car, big footprint

Nissan Versa Note

Honda Fit
Nissan Versa Note
Nissan Cube

Space is at a premium in these tiny cars, so it’s important that manufacturers make the most of it. The best at that is the Honda Fit, with its Transformers-like interior. With the rear seats folded down, the Fit provides a deep cargo area. Folding the seat cushion up vertically against the seatbacks results in a space tall enough to accommodate a bicycle. The Versa Note is another good choice, with a useful, roomy cargo area. Both it and the Fit are narrow, but they have plenty of knee and head room for two adults to sit  comfortably in back. An alternative is the boxy Nissan Cube; interior space is enormous, and it gets a decent 28 mpg overall, but it feels long in the tooth.

Models to avoid

Smart ForTwo

A tiny, two passenger cabin, a herky-jerky transmission, an underpowered engine, and the required use of premium fuel are four reasons the Smart is, well, a dumb choice. There are far better cars in this class.

Even if you need a car that’s easy to park and maneuver on city streets, you can do better than the iQ. The rear seat is awful, the cabin is loud, acceleration is molasseslike, and fit and finish is totally unimpressive.

Aside from its low price, there’s no real reason to buy the Spark. The cabin is extremely loud, the ride is stiff and jittery, the dinky 1.2-liter engine is slow, and handling is lackluster.

2014 Autos Spotlight

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Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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