If you've been busy memorizing the stratospheric horsepower and torque numbers from Mercedes-Benz's latest AMG engine or reliving the muscle-car glory days with the Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger concepts, you may not have noticed that small cars are getting cool. Perhaps it's the pendulum finally starting to swing back from outsized SUVs and ever-more-gargantuan pickups. There also could be some rub-off from the digital world, where smallness is prized. And that three-dollars-per-gallon gasoline scare last fall likely spurred things along. Whatever the factors, small cars have begun to acquire a cachet of coolness they haven't had in decades.
Of course, some small cars are able to pull off the coolness thing better than others. The Mini Cooper probably does it best of all; its raffish Brit charm and undeniable cuteness combined with a "let's party" attitude allowing it not merely to get away with being small but actually to boast about it. But the BMW-developed Mini is a premium small car-a novel concept in America. That label also applies to the Volkswagen Golf and to the Audi A3.
But now we're seeing signs of coolness at the true entry level-say, under $15,000-in what was previously a subcompact wasteland.
You've got to hand it to Scion for turning on a purple strobe light and cranking up the house music in what had been the auto market's dank and dingy bargain basement. It wasn't just the achingly hip marketing and painstaking image making that allowed Scion to elude the subcompact stigma-the cars were different, too. That's particularly true of the cubist xB. Scion showed that a low, low price combined with funky styling and the versatility of a four-door hatchback could create a subcompact that's actually desirable, not merely something you're stuck driving because you've ruined your credit rating.
The success of the Scion experiment has captured the attention of other automakers, who are rushing new small cars to market or remaking the ones they have in the hopes of achieving greater hipness. We've gathered four of the newest offerings that attempt to perfume their econobox bodies with the aura of coolness. Critically, each is offered as a four-door hatchback, since the two-door hatchback still suffers from its '70s poverty-mobile image and pint-size four-door sedans often look like something you expect to see clowns climbing out of. Although all four cars are cheap (less than $15,000 to start), cheapness is not their sole reason for being. The Honda Fit, the Dodge Caliber, the Nissan Versa, and the Kia Rio5 all try to offer a measure of fun, functionality, or style that belies their size.
2006 Dodge Caliber
Save for the hot-rod SRT4 version, the Dodge Neon never glowed very brightly, so when it came time to replace it, Chrysler decided to ditch the nameplate and do something different. "For us to come in with a traditional three-box sedan and try and out-Japanese the Japanese or out-Korean the Koreans," comments Chrysler's senior vice president for global brand marketing, George Murphy, "would be ridiculous." Instead of a compact sedan, then, the Neon's replacement is a compact crossover wagon.
In packaging, stance, and design, the Caliber is a small car, American-style, as different from the Asian members of our group as hot dogs are from wasabi, even though its $13,985 admission price is similar. The base Caliber SE is a genuine stripper, however, with crank windows, no air-conditioning or ABS, and a cabin filled with plastic. Still, it does have side- curtain air bags, illuminated cup holders, and a jack and center-console sleeve for your iPod.
The standard powertrain is a 1.8-liter four with a five-speed manual. Its 148 hp is a big number in the small-car crowd, but it's up against an even bigger number: 2966 pounds, the Caliber's portly curb weight. Buyers of the SE and midlevel SXT can upgrade to a 158-hp 2.0-liter, but for now it's mated exclusively to a CVT, which endlessly revs the engine without the feeling of much forward progress. The top-spec R/T gets a 172-hp, 2.4-liter engine and all-wheel drive, but again with the CVT only. While the Caliber's powertrains don't inspire, the car handles, steers, and rides well and has good body control.
Styling, features, and packaging are the Caliber's contributions to the small-car potluck. Its chunky, aggressive exterior certainly sets the Caliber apart from a typical anodyne economy car. The upright rear end allowed Dodge designers to carve out 18.5 cubic feet of cargo space behind the rear seats. Open the hatch, and two (optional) articulating speakers swing down from the trim panel and face rearward for tailgate parties. Another cool feature is a section of the glove compartment called the Chill Zone that holds four beverage bottles and has cooled air vented through it.
Far more interesting than the Neon, the Caliber is beefy, extroverted, and innovative, yet kind of cheap beneath the surface-a very American approach. Together with Dodge's truly subcompact Hornet concept unveiled at Geneva, it shows that American carmakers need not be shut out of the cool-small-car trend.
2006 Honda Fit
Sixteen-mile-per-gallon Ridgelines, two-ton-plus Pilot SUVs, seven-passenger Odysseys, V-6 Accords. Even the Civics are XXL. Remember when Honda built small cars?
Honda does. In fact, it never stopped building them for customers outside the fifty states. However, with Americans clamoring for more room and more power, Honda got in the habit of bulking up the Civic with each generation. Suddenly, it was no longer selling a car in America to go mano a mano-in size, efficiency, and price-with the subcompacts from Hyundai and Chevrolet as well as Scion, Toyota's new Yaris, and Nissan's upcoming Versa.
And so we get the 2006 Honda Fit, on sale now for about $13,500. An upgraded, renamed version of the popular Jazz-already sold in Europe and Asia-the Fit may be small on the outside (it's 19.2 inches shorter than the Civic), but it's inspiringly spacious inside, thanks to its height (3.5 inches taller than said Civic) and an ingeniously arranged interior that takes advantage of a fuel tank located under the front seats to accommodate five full-size Yanks or up to 41.9 cubic feet of cargo.
A four-door hatchback, the Fit looks eerily similar in profile to the slightly kooky Chevy Aveo and Suzuki Aerio, but it's a quarter step up the econobox performance, sophistication, and safety ladders, with six air bags, standard ABS, and interior fittings that don't trigger our gag reflex. A 109-hp, 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine provides smooth, respectable acceleration along with fuel economy rated at 33/38 mpg city/highway. It's mated either to a fine five-speed manual or a five-speed automatic transmission.
Although one never loses the sense of its height and its utility, the Fit is no SUV blunderer; it corners reasonably on a front-strut and rear beam-axle suspension, while an equivalently humble front-disc/rear-drum brake combination halts the proceedings without embarrassment. Just the same, warehouses already are brimming with all the aftermarket parts home tuners will need to stay broke for years.
Honda expects that 60 percent of its expected 50,000 annual Fit buyers will upgrade, for $1400, to the Fit Sport, set apart by fifteen-inch wheels, a body kit, paddle-shifters for the optional automatic, and an upgraded stereo. Either way, this is all the car many will ever require. Once again, and at long last, a Honda that's fit, not fat.
2006 Kia Rio5
The Kia Rio5 raises suspicions. Examine, if you will, the little spoiler perched just above its hatch, the metal pedals ensconced in the driver's footwell, the fifteen-inch, five-spoke wheels at its four corners, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob installed in the cockpit. Could it be that this puny, pipsqueak of a machine has sporting intentions? Could it also be that this isn't such a laughable notion?
The answers are yes and yes. Thanks to decent steering feel, competent underpinnings, and a relatively low curb weight (around 2400 pounds), the little Kia is a spirited, fun car to run around town or down a twisty mountain road. The key is to keep to roads that point downhill, or at least not uphill, because while the Rio5's 110 hp is competitive with its rivals, it isn't enough to put up much of a fight against inertia. The Rio5 also falters on the freeway, where it becomes loud, jittery, and generally unpleasant. But when not overly taxed, the 1.6-liter four-cylinder is agreeable enough, especially when paired with the five-speed manual, and it will return combined fuel economy in the mid-thirties. You'll want to avoid the automatic transmission, but that's the case with most small cars.
The Rio5 starts at $14,040 and includes six air bags, a CD stereo, all of the sporty bits described above, air-conditioning, and even a pair of foglights. ABS is optional, though, and when fully loaded with carpeted floor mats, an automatic transmission, power windows and locks, keyless entry, two extra speakers, and power heated side mirrors, a Kia Rio5 runs $15,760. That's still a relatively inexpensive price, but it nevertheless exceeds those of the base model Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, cars that are up a notch in size and refinement. (Forget the autobox and the price dips back below $15K.)
The Rio5, though, offers the versatility of a hatchback and is pretty darn stylish to boot. The sheetmetal is crisp and handsome and manages to avoid appearing too cutesy or too cheap. But aside from the aforementioned leather items, the cabin is depressingly standard-issue econocar. The driving position is comfortable, although the fold-down armrest gets in the way of the tall manual gear lever, which has long throws and a numb, notchy feel. But it's hard to argue with the Kia Rio5. It's attractive, reasonably roomy, and surprisingly fun. Consider the suspicions well founded.
2006 Nissan Versa
The new Versa is unusual for Nissan not so much because the sub-Sentra entry takes the brand into new territory in the U.S. market, but because its character is so opposite that of its showroom mates that it's almost the anti-Nissan.
We're not speaking of the styling: The full-width grille-and-headlights treatment follows current Nissan practice, while the tall body, chopped tail, and reverse-angle C-pillar are in line with the brand's recent penchant for, um, the unusual. West Coast bureau chief Michael Jordan says that "it looks French, and not in a good way." Indeed, the Versa could pass for a Renault; the car shares its architecture with the Renault Clio and Modus, as well as Nissan's March, Cube, and Micra.
The real disconnect starts when you pull open the door and slam it with a surprisingly solid thunk. Kmart interiors have been a hallmark of Carlos Ghosn-era Nissans, but here the brand's cheapest offering, in its humble base trim level, wears cloth seat upholstery of a plush suede tricot, which, unlike most of the cloth seats you see today, won't leave you pining for leather. Take a look around, and it's evident that Nissan's dance with the devil's own bad plastics has finally ended. The door panels are nicely upholstered, trimmed in a bit of faux carbon fiber and blessed with armrests more deeply cushioned than those on most cars twice the price. The dash is plainish, though, and a center armrest and leather-wrapped steering wheel are missing on this base trim level car. What is abundant, however, is interior space, with six-footers easily able to sit behind one another on chairlike seats.
The emphasis on comfort is mirrored in the chassis tuning. With generous suspension travel-unlike, say, a Scion xB-the Versa delivers a plush ride for a small car. But the first turn of the wheel tells you this is electric power steering at its worst, utterly disconnected and free of resistance. It's not a setup that encourages one to explore the car's handling limits.
At 1.8 liters, the engine is large for this class, and the standard manual gearbox is a six-speed, both of which sound like a characteristic Nissan approach. Unfortunately, the tall shifter travels through some awfully vague territory. Having six gears doesn't up the fun factor, but you'll be glad for that extra ratio on the highway, as it helps keep the engine revs down. With 125 lb-ft on tap, the engine feels torquey and agreeably responsive up to about 3000 rpm; push it beyond 4000 rpm and the cabin is filled with a loud, hollow, resonance. Granted, we drove a preproduction example, but it sounded like an early Dodge Neon-not a good thing.
Of course, in this price range, sporting character is something that's owner applied rather than baked in. With a base Versa S starting in the low-$12,000 range (including side air bags, air-conditioning, and ABS), there still ought to be something left in the checking account when you place the call to Nismo.