City Car Comparison – Cheap Cars, Cheap Eats, Big Apple

“Take a bunch of cars to New York City? On purpose? That has to be the dumbest damn idea I’ve ever heard.”

Those are the words of Automobile Magazine’s technical editor, Don Sherman. Sherman once lived in Manhattan, and Sherman likes driving.

“Well,” I said, “the whole idea was to take cheap city cars to a big, expensive city. We figured that we’d try to find some good, cheap food while we were at it.”

Grumbling noises emanated from the other end of the phone line, followed by silence. I started to say something, to utter some minor defense, but Sherman piped up again.

“Harrumph,” he said. “Well, good luck with that.”

This is the sort of reaction you get when people hear that you’re attempting to spend a cheap weekend in the most expensive city in the country. Nevertheless, we – a handful of the Ann Arbor staff and I – headed for New York and the culinary unknown. We took along a smart fortwo, a Saturn Astra, a Scion xD, and a Ford Focus coupe – not the least expensive batch of small cars, but the newest and most interesting ones on the market. And as we plunged into the Holland Tunnel, Sherman’s parting words echoed through my head: “Why in the hell would you ever want to drive in the five boroughs?”

We burst out of the Holland Tunnel into a stark winter day and are immediately cut off by a turbaned dude in a black Ford Crown Victoria. The Crown Vic, like much of the traffic around it, has no rear bumper.

By the next block, the truth is apparent – it’s not just bumpers. Half of the cars in New York have some kind of cosmetic collateral damage, just as half of the cars in Michigan have salt-eaten rocker panels and half of the cars in Los Angeles are driven by people who use too much teeth whitener. Driving in Manhattan is a violent, deliberate ballet of steel. If there’s any logic, it’s in calculated audacity: Stick your nose into someone else’s lane at the right time, and you have the lane. If they have a nose on you, you let them in. This works very well, except in those cases where you don’t have a nose at all – like when you’re driving a Smart ForTwo.

At less than nine feet long, the Smart appears to be the perfect city car. It’s tiny. At $12,235 for the base coupe, it’s cheap (our photo car was the $5000-pricier convertible). And with an EPA city fuel-economy rating of 33 mpg, it’s relatively easy on fuel. What it lacks in crumple space and people-carrying practicality, it makes up for in maneuverability – the ForTwo is so small that you can literally put it almost anywhere you want. There’s always space.

Regardless, Manhattan traffic is Manhattan traffic, and no matter what you’re driving, it gets old fast. We pass up the cheap-eat possibilities of pizza-by-the-slice and dirty-water hot dog carts and bolt for the Brooklyn Bridge. We need room to stretch out.

Our first stop, Bocca Lupo, comes highly recommended – New York magazine included the bistro in its annual list of the city’s best cheap food. Bocca Lupo is located on a quiet corner of Henry and Warren streets in Brooklyn’s Cobble Hill neighborhood, and if you’re not looking for it, you probably won’t notice it. There’s no sign, just some large, thin-framed windows buried among grande-dame brownstones and arching trees.

Bocca Lupo’s lunch menu, a tidy, thickly laminated card, is filled with grilled panini and a host of delicate tramezzini (Venetian tea sandwiches), all of them between six and ten bucks each. (If this seems a little costly, remember the location; cheap is relative, and what plays in New York doesn’t always play in Peoria.) The waitress brings out a handful of minimalist, tapas-style plates that makes what I would normally eat for lunch look like roasted pig poop. A butternut squash and pancetta bruschetta ($2.50), all crispy sweetness with cinnamon undertones, comes first. A tarragon chicken salad and arugula tramezzino ($6), blooming with tarragon and hand-pulled strips of delicate, tender chicken, is next. A prosciutto and piave panini ($9), crispy but not crunchy, moist but not oily, is last. We are amazed, blown away by finger food that actually makes us hungrier as we’re eating it.

We roll out happy and full. So far, so good.

The same can’t be said for the Smart. After a few miles, the ForTwo’s drawbacks emerge. Yes, it’s cheap, and yes, it slices through traffic, but it’s not very adept at real-car duty. Ride quality is good on smooth pavement, but over nasty, pothole-ridden streets – is there any other kind in New York? – the ForTwo falls apart. The ride becomes choppy and crashing. In the wet, a sharp lift of the throttle or sudden turn-in breaks loose the ForTwo’s tail (motto: “Germany! Bringing you the finest in rear-engine weirdness for more than eighty years!”), and the standard electronic stability control takes a lifetime and a half to intervene. Icing on this very small, very compromised little cake includes optional power steering that simply feels dead, a reluctant and rough automated manual transmission, and grabby, unfriendly brakes. All in all, it leaves us wondering: what good is a city car that isn’t comfortable in the city?

The Ford Focus coupe is the Smart’s exact opposite: large, cushy, and more comfy than a broken-in couch. The $16,695 Focus SES is a stark visual departure from previous Focuses, and although its looks leave a little – OK, a lot – to be desired, ride quality is at least on par with that of much more expensive iron. New York streets often resemble paved motocross tracks, but compared with the Smart, the Focus trundles along as if sprung on mattresses. Wrapped in relative comfort, we traipse across Brooklyn to our next stop: Ba Xuyên.

If Bocca Lupo is cheap for its location and quality, then Ba Xuyên is just cheap, period. Three and a half bucks buys you a hefty sandwich carved out of a crispy, fluffy, authentic French baguette.

The entire restaurant is the size of a one-car garage, a tiny white room in the middle of an any-ethnicity-will-do Brooklyn neighborhood. (Jewish grocery? Check. Mexican grocery? Check. Chinese restaurant? Check.) The restaurant’s storefront is stuffed into a noisy commercial block on 8th Avenue, and while it doesn’t look like much, more than a few people told us that it was the best place for bánh mì – a Vietnamese sandwich – in the city.

We order a little bit of everything – sandwich-fill options range from a seemingly endless selection of pork to the oddly named Chicken Fu – along with a bunch of scary-sounding but nevertheless tasty drinks with labels like “Wonderfarm Tamarind.” The rich, salty, and tender pork sandwich is our favorite. Pickled daikon (a type of Asian radish); sweet carrots; big, leafy hunks of cilantro; sweet chili sauce; garlicky mayonnaise; and other tasty veggies nestle in the baguette alongside the pork. The sweet, tart, smooth, spicy, tender, crunchy mix makes your toes curl and your eyes roll back.

After we pile into the cars and leave Brooklyn, things take a turn for the difficult. An unexpected snowstorm has thrown traffic asunder; the Bronx is now out of the question, leaving only Queens and Staten Island within striking distance. We glance at a map, take a quick look at the falling snow, and make our decision.

As we head toward Queens, we realize that the true city car is a unique animal. You want low-end torque, lots of it, for squirting through traffic. You want a taut, long-travel suspension, so you can fly over bumps but still pop across an avenue just by thinking about it. And you want some semblance of sturdiness, because few places chew up cars like a big city.

An extended, higher-speed stint in the Ford soon reveals that, like the Smart, the Focus is a compromised city car. Previous Focuses boasted a lively chassis, a healthy amount of steering feedback, and well-damped body motions. No longer. While the new-for-2008 Focus shares its platform with the previous-generation car, it offers none of the original’s personality or charm. Interior materials are disappointingly crude, throttle response is sluggish, and the newly retuned suspension means saying good-bye to the spritely agility the Focus was once known for. Topping things off, there also isn’t enough low-end torque for point-and-squirt city driving.

On the surface, the $17,545 Saturn Astra XR four-door hatchback – a badge-engineered version of the German Opel Astra – fits the city-car bill. It’s small, nimble, and European. The wide streets and open feel of Queens suit the Astra, and while it seems fairly expensive in this company, that price gets you decent (if a bit dead on-center) steering feel and remarkable suspension tuning. The Saturn likes to dance, whether it’s sideways up a twisting on-ramp or flitting across Queens Boulevard.

Our third stop lands us just a few blocks away from that legendary street, underneath an elevated railway and next door to a tax-specialty shop. Unidentified Flying Chickens is an überhip fried-chicken shop, but it’s not just any überhip fried-chicken shop. It’s a Korean fried-chicken shop.

We didn’t know what that meant, either.

Korean fried chicken, it seems, is something of a New York phenomenon. The Koreans see fried chicken as something of a bar-top beer snack, a bite of crispy bird that you swallow while watching the latest . . . the latest broadcast of whatever sport it is that Koreans watch. (Soccer?Kim Jong Il’s Comrade Deathmatch Comedy Hour bootlegs from up North?) In New York, however, Korean fried chicken is a meal.

Unidentified Flying Chickens doesn’t have much of a menu, but that’s OK, because what it does offer is flat-out fantastic. (New York magazine voted its birds the best Korean fried chicken in the city.) It takes about fifteen minutes – everything is made to order – but $9 gets you a small order of wings or drumsticks. Seventeen bucks gets you a whole chicken, and it’s worth the price. The birds here are thin-skinned, crispy on the outside, moist but not greasy, and covered in any one of four flavor-packed glazes (hot, soy-garlic, spicy mustard, or sweet and spicy). The tart, vinegary pickled radish cubes offered as a side (you can also choose macaroni salad, a garden salad, or fries) are tongue-puckeringly addictive.

Stuffed to the gills with chicken, we hop back on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to Staten Island. It’s at this point that the 138-hp Saturn reveals its Achilles’ heel – climbing an on-ramp, we get out-dragged by a Toyota minivan. Granted, our test car is equipped with an acceleration-sapping four-speed automatic transmission (a $1325 option), but it’s still embarrassing. Adding insult to injury, the Euro-transplant interior makes few nods to American tastes, filled as it is with unfriendly ergonomics and indistinguishable, hieroglyphic-covered buttons. It’s a shame, because if it weren’t for these factors, the Astra would be at the top of its class.

The last stop on our quick tour of the Big Apple offers us what no visit to New York should be without: pizza.

Joe & Pat’s Pizzeria on Staten Island is an institution, and while it’s not as famous as some of the other New York alternatives, that just means quicker service.

My ride for the trip across Staten Island is the fourth and final car in our small group, the $15,170, Toyota-built Scion xD. Of all the cars we’ve gathered, the Scion is probably the most enjoyable and entertaining to drive in the city – which is ironic, because few of us would pick it for daily use elsewhere or for a blast down a winding country road. The Scion’s grunty, 128-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder; its quiet, well-finished cabin; and its easygoing, nimble nature all add up to a pleasant city car. Few aspects of the xD are brilliant, but by the same token, nothing offends.

Oddly enough, you could say the same thing about the decor in Joe & Pat’s. The inside of the small, narrow Italian restaurant is done up in Overwrought 1960s Greek Diner, but that’s part of its charm. Yes, it smells like an old attic, and yes, the tables and chairs remind you of the furniture on Charles in Charge. But the food – oh, the food.

Let’s start with the pizza: A sweet, crushed-tomato sauce. A flour-dusted, crackly, yet flexible and smooth thin crust. Cheese that runs off the top in a holy river of mozzarella. It’s artful. It’s delicate. It’s hearty. And we love it.

Other things on the menu? A lemon, parmigiana, and arugula salad that road test editor Marc Noordeloos called, “Without a doubt, the best salad I’ve ever had.” A fantastically ample – and yet not filling – fried calamari and cucumber salad with a sweet, thick balsamic glaze. And scattered everywhere were the juiciest, fruitiest, tartest grape tomatoes known to man. Cost? Our favorite kind of cheap – cheap by volume. Five people stuffed themselves silly, consumed a pitcher of beer, and ended up with a meal’s worth of leftovers, all for eighty-five dollars. Glorious.

As for the Scion, it fared the best in our small, city-centric tour. It’s easy to drive, easy to park, and relatively easy on fuel (27/33 EPA city/highway when equipped with a manual transmission). It exemplifies the qualities we look for in a city car – it disappears beneath you, it’s comfortable and capable, and it feels indestructible. We came away satisfied, proving that you can eat or drive cheap in the greatest city in the world without making yourself miserable.

We took a bunch of cars to New York City. We ate well and had a good time without spending a fortune. And, yes, we did it on purpose.

  • The Specs
  • Saturn Astra
  • Scion xD
  • Smart ForTwo
  • Base Price
  • $14,920 (Focus S two-door)
  • $15,995 (Astra XE four-door)
  • $15,170
  • $12,235 (ForTwo Pure coupe)
  • Engine
  • DOHC 16-valve I-4
  • DOHC 16-valve I-4
  • $15,170
  • $12,235 (ForTwo Pure coupe)
  • Base Price
  • $14,920 (Focus S two-door)
  • $15,995 (Astra XE four-door)
  • DOHC 16-valve I-4
  • DOHC 12-valve I-3
  • Displacement
  • 2.0 liters (122 cu in)
  • 1.8 liters (110 cu in)
  • 1.8 liters (110 cu in)
  • 1.0 liter (61 cu in)
  • Horsepower
  • 140 hp @ 6000 rpm
  • 138 hp @ 6300 rpm
  • 128 hp @ 6000 rpm
  • 70 hp @ 5800 rpm
  • Torque
  • 132 lb-ft @ 6000 rpm
  • 125 lb-ft @ 3800 rpm
  • 125 lb-ft @ 4400 rpm
  • 68 lb-ft @ 5800 rpm
  • Transmission Type
  • 5-speed manual
  • 5-speed manual
  • 5-speed manual
  • 5-speed automated manual
  • Drive
  • Front-wheel
  • Front-wheel
  • Front-wheel
  • Rear-wheel
  • Steering
  • Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
  • Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
  • Power-assisted rack-and-pinion
  • Rack-and-pinion
  • Suspension, Front
  • Strut-type, coil springs
  • Strut-type, coil springs
  • Strut-type, coil springs
  • Strut-type, coil springs
  • Suspension, Rear
  • Multilink, coil springs
  • Torsion beam, coil springs
  • Torsion beam, coil springs
  • de Dion axle, coil springs
  • Brakes F/R
  • Vented discs/drums, ABS
  • Vented discs/drums, ABS
  • Vented discs/drums, ABS
  • Discs/drums, ABS
  • Tires As Tested
  • Pirelli P6 Four Seasons
  • Michelin Pilot HX MXM4
  • Dunlop SP Sport 5000
  • Continental ContiProContact
  • Tire Size
  • 205/50HR-16
  • 225/45HR-17
  • 195/60HR-16
  • 155/60TR-15 175/55TR-15 (f, r)
  • L x W x H
  • 175.0 x 67.9 x 58.6 in
  • 170.5 x 69.0 x 55.8 in
  • 154.7 x 67.9 x 60.0 in
  • 106.1 x 61.4 x 60.7 in
  • Wheel Base
  • 102.9 in
  • 102.9 in
  • 96.9 in
  • 73.5 in
  • Track F/R
  • 58.6/58.1 in
  • 58.5/58.5 in
  • 58.5/58.7 in
  • 50.5/54.5 in
  • Weight
  • 2588 lb
  • 2833 lb
  • 2625 lb
  • 1808 lb
  • EPA Mileage
  • 24/35/28 city/hwy/combined
  • 24/32/27 city/hwy/combined
  • 27/33/29 city/hwy/combined
  • 33/41/36 city/hwy/combined

Buying Guide
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2008 Scion xD

2008 Scion xD

MSRP $14,550 Base (Manual) Hatchback


26 City / 32 Hwy

Safety (IIHS):


Horse Power:

128 @ 6000