In the U.S., size matters. We like our big cars and big trucks, and we deal with the big gas bills that go along with them. But, with growing gas prices nipping at our heels, European-style compacts and subcompacts are starting to look better and better. If you’re considering trading in your Chevy Suburban for a clown car, pause and think about the consequences of downsizing. Sure, you’ll save at the pump, and parking will be a breeze, but are the sacrifices in safety, space and power worth it?
Here are some cars that may be too small – or just right – for your new fuel-sipping, Euro-style routine.
Too Small: Smart ForTwo
If you say the Smart ForTwo is too tiny, few will argue with you. It only seats two, and if it’s packed to the ceiling, the ForTwo can only hold 12 cubic feet of cargo. Although it’s a good commuter car for the city, it’s a different story on the open road. With a top speed of 90 mph and a zero to 60 mph crawl at 12.8 seconds, you need nerves of steel to drive a Smart next to Mack trucks on the highway. If that isn’t enough to deter you, the 2010 model’s driver’s side door opened during federal crash testing. In a 2009 crash test performed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Fortwo was crashed with a Mercedes-Benz C-Class, went airborne and spun 450 degrees. Paying $10,990 for a car that only works within city limits doesn’t make sense for most people. And it looks like people have been figuring that out for themselves: Smart saw the ForTwo’s sales drop 41 percent in 2009 and 60 percent in 2010.
Just Right: Fiat 500
The Fiat 500 is also tiny, but it’s big enough to carry friends or lap dog around – for a few minutes, anyway. Its 101-horsepower, inline-4 power plant is powerful enough for most reviewers, propelling the microcar from zero to 60 mph in 9.2 seconds in Car and Driver tests. Its base model starts at $15,500, and the $4,510 price jump over the Smart ForTwo is money well spent. The 500 adds two backseats for carrying extra passengers in a pinch, and has a maximum of 30.2 cubic feet of cargo space. The Fiat 500 hasn’t been crash tested by the U.S. government or insurance industry, but it does well in European tests. Euro NCAP, Europe’s official car safety rating institution, gives the Fiat 500 a rating of five stars out of five for overall adult safety during a crash and three out of five stars for children in car seats. Plus, the U.S. model comes with standard safety features comparable to those in the Smart Fortwo, including seven airbags and electronic stability control with traction control. Available in select cities now, the Fiat 500 may be just the right size for city dwellers when it drops nationwide.
Too Small: Nissan Juke
When reviewers aren’t trying to come up with the best metaphor for describing the Juke, they’re trying to determine where it fits in the market. Is it a car or a crossover? Regardless of what you call it, the Juke fails to hold its own. It has less headroom than subcompacts like the Honda Fit, and only spiteful drivers would cram passengers into the Juke’s almost nonexistent back seat. The Juke requires premium fuel, a constraint usually reserved for performance and luxury vehicles. We’d even be willing to forgive some of these quirks if it weren’t for the Juke’s abysmal cargo space. It offers a mere 10.5 cubic feet with the rear seats up – less than the tiny Smart ForTwo. Even after folding the rear seats down, you only get 35.9 cubic feet of space, one of the lowest numbers in its class. For something that calls itself a crossover – a title that conjures ideas of utility – buyers expect more for the Juke’s $18,980 price tag.
Just Right: Kia Soul
If you’re looking for funky styling, but are disappointed with the Juke’s uselessness, the Kia Soul should be on the top of your list. It starts at $13,300, so you might have some extra cash left over to upgrade to higher trims and get remote keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity and a center console – all available on the $15,495 Soul +. Reviewers say the Soul has plenty of back seat space, so you’ll be able to tote your friends around comfortably. With 19.3 cubic feet of cargo space with the rear seats in use, you can carry their stuff around too. After you kick your buddies out and fold the rear seats flat, you can stuff 53.4 cubic feet of gear into the back. That’s two carry-on suitcases more than the Juke can hold. On top of that, reviewers say the Soul’s performance is competitive in its class of economy hatchbacks, which makes the Soul a far better pick in our book.
Too Small: Honda CR-Z
It bills itself as a fuel-efficient sports car, but the Honda CR-Z does neither especially well. Its hybrid powertrain gets 39 mpg on the highway – 4 mpg less than other gas-electric models like the Honda Insight. Its handling isn’t impressive either; reviewers say it will disappoint those looking for a fun driving experience. Probably the only things that the CR-Z has in common with real sports cars are tiny cargo space, poor visibility and cramped seating. Even though it’s a hatchback, the CR-Z only seats two, and can only fit 25.1 cubic feet of stuff. That’s pitiful compared to other hatches. Plus, its sporty styling decreases rearward visibility to dangerous levels. Other cars do a great job providing better cargo space, sportier handling and better fuel economy, so you’ll want to pass on the CR-Z.
Just Right: Volkswagen Golf TDI
The Volkswagen Golf TDI offers a great combination of sportiness, fuel economy and interior room. Its diesel powertrain gets 42 mpg on the highway and 30 in the city with both manual and automatic transmissions. The two-door model seats five and has 15 cubic feet of cargo space behind the backseats, and there’s even a four-door option. The Golf is also one of the most powerful subcompact cars on the market. With its diesel engine making 140 horsepower and 236 pound-feet of torque, you won’t feel like you’re driving a clown car in a world of gigantic SUVs. Plus, the TDI has a sport suspension, which means this hatch doesn’t handle like a golf cart. For a hatchback with plenty of space, good fuel economy and plenty of get-up-and-go, the TDI wins in all three categories.
Want to see more? Check out our slide show.