Here's the recipe for an economy car: Take your standard small car and remove length and width. Remove sound insulation. Remove as many electronics as possible. Remove horsepower. Remove excitement, an appetite for fuel, and anything else you can. Then add height. Make sure you have plenty of '70s-era airliner fabrics available and a large corporate parts bin from which to choose your bits and bolt-ons. Stir briskly and let simmer. Voil! You've got an economy car, capable of sipping gas and saving green (both the tree and federal reserve note varieties). The bright side--beyond the obvious fuel savings--is that you've got a spanking-new set of wheels at a price that won't break the bank.
2005 Hyundai Accent GLS
The base price for our dowdy Accent was $10,499, a sum that included power steering, a cassette stereo, and dual front and side air bags. We added air-conditioning ($795) and Hyundai's Popular Equipment package (power windows, locks, and mirrors; $495), which brought the total to a wallet-friendly $12,334.
The low price showed. The Hyundai displayed a startling range of interior quality, from quite nice to absolutely atrocious. The good: handsome mesh-look gauges; a nicely grained and attractive dashboard; and great-to-touch rubberized door grabs and locks. The bad: the hard, shiny door panels, steering wheel, and center console, the latter constructed of plastic so cheap, it actually sparkled. The seat materials were decent, but comfort was not. Our passengers grumbled about a complete absence of back support and cushions that were far too short and flat. The seats were upholstered with a grey-checkered mess of a fabric.
We opted for power locks, but there was no switch on the inside. Instead, when the driver's door is manually locked, the other doors secure automatically with a cringe-inducing crunch better suited to potato chips than door locks. The retractable cup holders, which spring out from the lower half of the dashboard, can't hold even a 20-ounce soda bottle. We were afraid to put anything very full in them, both for fear of spills and snapping them off simply from the weight. Front leg- and headroom were acceptable, but the back seat is strictly for cargo and small kids, traits shared by the Accent, the Echo, and the Aveo alike.
The five-speed manual transmission was one of the worst we've used in some time. The throws were extremely long and the interchanges were as notchy as a promiscuous coed's bedpost. That said, once we'd selected a gear, power delivery was smooth and linear. And noisy. The 1.6-liter, 104-hp, in-line four doesn't reach full power until 5800 rpm, and the rev limiter kicks in at about 6000 rpm, so the sound of the engine is a constant companion if you want to get anywhere in a (relative) hurry. This will naturally deep-six any hopes of achieving the Accent's EPA-rated fuel economy of 29 city/33 hwy.
The overall ride was as composed as can be expected from a car rolling on tiny thirteen-inch wheels--until you turned the steering wheel, at which point the body would heave and pitch like an angry bull.
2005 Toyota Echo
Our phantom gray, two-door Echo--the only coupe in our trio--arrived on our doorstep with the most options, including the All-Weather Guard package(rear defogger, rear heating ducts, and a heavy-duty battery; $275), power mirrors ($70), air-conditioning ($925), power steering ($270), fifteen-inch wheels ($90), and floor mats ($88). With those add-ons, the base sticker of $10,895 quickly became $12,613.