Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Are You Ready for a Really Small Car?

Let's say you're eager to buy a car with top gas mileage before you have to endure many more of those wallet-busting trips to the gas pump. But the hybrids that interest you have a waiting list. And plug-in electric cars like the Chevy Volt still are several years away. It may be time to ask yourself: Am I ready for a really small car?

From the truly tiny "smart fortwo," the bigger-inside-than-you-thought "Honda Fit," and "Nissan Versa," a new generation of small cars with regular gasoline engines boasts gas mileage not too far behind the best of the hybrids. And the purchase price for these cars often runs as much as $10,000 less than for hybrid mileage champ Toyota Prius (estimated Prius mileage 48 mpg in the city, 45 mpg on the highway).

If you calculate what it costs to buy and own one of these small cars, it's likely it will add up to the best deal. "The modest purchase price, high resale value, and low maintenance and repair costs make such small cars the winner on sheer economics," says James Bell, editor and publisher of in Campbell, Calif., a service specializing in data on automotive ownership costs. For instance, Intellichoice uses a price with options of $12,884 for a new Toyota Yaris—$9,991 less than the cost of a Toyota Prius. (Intellichoice uses the Prius list price of $22,875, but in reality dealers often charge a premium more than that for the Prius and other in-demand hybrids.) Over five years—counting depreciation and all other costs—Intellichoice calculates that it would cost $21,316 to own the Yaris—or $2,755 less than ownership cost for a Prius.

Buying and owning one of these small cars likely will add up to the best deal.

Attractive as those numbers are, you need to be sure that a small car really could work for you. If you regularly haul six members of your son's soccer team, obviously you need to stick with something bigger. But if carrying groceries and the occasional bag of peat moss for the garden is mostly what you do, you may be surprised how well small cars can fill your needs. For instance, at 13 feet long, the Honda Fit is 5½ feet shorter than the Chevrolet Suburban but at 42 cubic feet has almost one-third the maximum cargo capacity with all the seats folded down. The Fit also costs less than half as much as the big SUV and has nearly twice the mileage in city driving (27 mpg). Here is a rundown of five small cars with prices, mileage, and details about how they drive. Mileage figures are estimates from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Smart fortwo

Starts at $11,590; 33 mpg in city driving, 41 mpg on the highway. It's only 8.8 feet long and, true to its name, it seats just two and won't carry much cargo. But the funky-looking smart—made by the same company that produces Mercedes-Benz vehicles—is perfect for city driving. It maneuvers through traffic jams easily and parks in spaces normally suitable only for motorcycles. The company says smart sales are stronger than expected, and that many buyers commute in their smart—using a bigger vehicle only when transporting the whole family. The main drawback of the smart is a tendency to lurch when the automatic transmission shifts gears, but drivers who spend more time with the smart than I did say they learn to minimize this.
Be sure that a small car really can work for you.

Honda Fit

Starts at $14,750; 27 mpg in the city, 33 mpg on the highway. Much bigger than the smart, the hatchback Fit still is 1½ feet shorter than its corporate sibling the Civic. And it feels bigger, with a smooth ride, sporty handling and—given the high gas mileage—relatively quick acceleration. The Fit has roomy back seats for two that fold down for maximum cargo hauling.

Nissan Versa

From $13,680 with automatic transmission; 24 mpg in the city, 32 mpg on the highway. A slightly better-priced competitor to the Honda Fit, the Versa shares the sporty handling and has even roomier back seats. The Versa comes as a sedan or a hatchback and can easily work as a high-mileage everyday car.

Toyota Yaris

From $12,450 with automatic transmission; 29 mpg in the city, 35 mpg on the highway. Like the Versa, the Yaris comes in both sedan and hatchback versions. It has slightly better fuel economy than the Honda and Nissan entries, but pays the price with somewhat sluggish acceleration with the automatic transmission.

MINI Cooper

Starts at $18,050 with automatic transmission; 26 mpg in the city, 34 mpg highway. More expensive than the other small cars but by far the most stylish in its class, the MINI has been selling in this country since 2001 and has a devoted following. Produced by BMW, MINI is a fashion statement—from its two-tone paint jobs to its huge circular instrument dials. MINI also comes as a convertible and the Clubman station wagon. For all the focus on style and great handling, though, MINI shows up very well in the mileage competition.
Talk to a credit union loan officer for help with your auto financing needs.

Consider safety

Is safety an issue with such small cars? In front- and side-crash testing by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va., all the models here got the top "good" rating except for a "poor" ranking on side-impact crash tests for the Toyota Yaris. But Institute president Adrian Lund cautions buyers that, "In a crash between a larger and smaller car, the physics of the matter means that the occupants of the smaller car are potentially less safe." With this in mind, if you are buying a small car, spend the extra money for safety options like antilock brakes and side-curtain air bags.

If it's time for a new car, consider the money you'll save both on purchase price and on gas with one of these small entries. And in a complete image reversal from a few years ago, you probably will get more respect from the neighbors than if you had a big SUV in the driveway.

Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."

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