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Safety, style advances build case for subcompacts


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Safety, style advances build case for subcompacts

There are two types of subcompact cars: hatchbacks and the other ones.

Face it, sedan versions of subcompacts are silly. Their tiny trunks and oppressive backseats make these cars uncomfortable and unable to carry much of anything.

For decades, Americans have been denied most universal small carry-alls because carmakers felt consumers wouldn't buy them (and then, by not selling them, proved themselves right). But it may have also been that Americans just don't buy tiny cars.

Even today, sales of subcompacts remain low — sales are down 13.6 percent through October and only make up 5 percent of all car sales, according to Autodata.

Hatchbacks, too, carried a dubious reputation of being poorly built claptraps with the propensity for not handling accidents. Few people remember the Ford Pinto fondly.

There's no comparison, however, to those old subcompacts and the ones coming out today.

These new cars are well built, come with tons of safety features, offer high fuel economy, versatility and, sometimes, a little bit of sportiness. It's time to give up the past and embrace the future.

Here's a comparison of six subcompacts and some of the best and worst features they offer:

Fuel economy

Not all engines are created equal in the subcompact world. Logic might suggest that the engine with the least amount of power would offer the best gas mileage, but when looking at vehicles such as the Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Chevrolet Aveo and Mazda2, that formula doesn't play out.

The Mazda2's 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine pushes out 100 horsepower, compared to the most powerful subcompact in this comparison, the Nissan Versa, which manages 122 horsepower. But there's only 1 mpg difference on the highway for these two vehicles, with the Versa reaching 32 mpg and the Mazda2 obtaining 33 mpg.

Overall, the Fiesta does the best between managing power and efficiency. Its 1.6-liter engine pushes out only 120 horsepower, but its six-speed automatic transmission — the only subcompact to offer a six-speed — helps this little car manage 38 mpg on the highway. There is also an even more fuel-efficient Fiesta that hits 40 mpg on the highway, but the Super Fuel Economy package costs an additional $395 on the midtrim SE model and has a starting price of $17,260.

Looks

One of the downsides of the subcompact segment is how ugly most of these cars are.

The Toyota Yaris and Mazda2 are remarkably unappealing and the Aveo LS5 looks as if its back end has been severed by a giant meat cleaver.

The Honda Fit possesses some unique styling cues but still has the face only an owner could love. Only the Nissan Versa and the Ford Fiesta seem to mesh style and smallness well. The Fiesta simply looks fun with dramatic lines and a well-proportioned profile.

The Versa is nearly as dramatic and holds its own well in the hatchback world. Both would look great in the driveway. The others need to stay in the garage.

Performance

In the overall car world, subcompacts do not blow anyone's doors off. They are small cars, with little engines and short wheelbases. None really handles like a go-kart; go-karts are fun.

The best any of these cars truly manage is nimbleness. The higher center of gravity doesn't help handling, either.

There are some true leaders in the subcompact world, however. The Yaris and Aveo are simply the worst-handling and poorest-performing hatchbacks on the road. They lack pick-up and their bodies list in big turns or even high winds. They are not even fun to park.

The Mazda2 and Versa offer a little more fun on the open road. They still feel underpowered, especially at higher speeds. When you're merging onto a highway and a big semi is bearing down on you, you want that extra boost.

The Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta offer spirited rides and can handle curves with aplomb. Both provide crisp handling, well-balanced steering and hope to this segment. They are, I dare say, fun to drive.

Now, for this comparison, I only considered automatics. But if you really want to have fun, I'd recommend a manual transmission. This gives you a lot more input into the engine and is one of the reasons Europeans have stuck with manuals as Americans have shunned them.

Most automatic transmissions have one goal, to get to the highest gear as quickly as possible. This means shifts are early and often. Driving a small engine with a manual lets the driver feel his way through the gears and experience a significantly different vehicle.

Interior space

When it comes to space, subcompacts will never offer much. They are by name smaller than compacts. But how that space is used and what comes in that space varies greatly.

Nowadays, consumers do not have to give up many amenities. They should expect Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free operation of cell phones, comfortable seats and killer stereos.

A few key features include cabin quietness (the Fiesta wins easily here); versatility (the Fit offers the most configurable space inside the cabin); high-grade materials (the Fit, Fiesta and Versa stand above the others); and price.

This is perhaps the trickiest aspect of any hatchback. For carmakers that offer sedan versions, those cars are often thousands of dollars less.

Additionally, just adding an automatic transmission can jack up the price by $1,000.

The Yaris hatchback is the most affordable and the Versa is on par with that. The Fiesta, which scored the best overall, is also the most expensive out of the six.

Ultimately, consumers will have to decide, but in the case of subcompacts, it's clearly a case of getting what you pay for.

Through and through, the Ford Fiesta is the pick of the liter.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20101118/OPINION03/11180376/Safety--style-advances-build-case-for-subcompacts#ixzz15e6RiDHZ

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