Cool Small Cars: 2006 Kia Rio 5, 2006 Nissan Versa, 2006 Dodge Caliber, and 2006 Honda Fit

Erik B. Johnson
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Brian Konoske

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.

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