It's hard to imagine shopping in the small car class for a roomy ride. Just looking at some of these vehicles can conjure strong visuals of passengers imprisoned like sardines and other compacts...give an even stronger one. But assumptions aside, you might be surprised at the amount of cabin space and utility offered in the latest small cars.

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Generous head- and legroomSuzuki SX4, Scion xB
A cush for your tushNissan Versa, Kia Spectra5, Honda Civic
Space for cargo, not friendsSmart Fortwo
Transformer seatsHonda Fit
A gaping trunkVW Rabbit
Fold-flat seatsSaturn Astra

It's Magic

Few compacts offer as many cabin options as the popular Honda Fit. According to Road and Track, the Fit is "simply one of the best uses of space since the dorky-but-handy-as-heck Honda Element." Its well-publicized "magic seats" allow for a variety of comfort and cargo options, including a "long" mode to accommodate items like surfboards, and a "tall" mode big enough for Edmunds' "49-inch-tall house plant." The Fit's "utility" mode takes it one step further, promoting 41.9 cubic feet of available space with the second-row and front passenger seats folded flat into the cabin floor.

How can your passengers get in on the configurable fun? Both of the Fit's front seats fold flat when employing the "refresh" mode, giving "the feeling of sitting in a chaise lounge," says The Family Car.

Honda Fit

The Los Angeles Times says placing the gas tank under the Fit's front seats is the car's secret ingredient to the flipping and folding. Writer Dan Neil reports, "This seemingly minor rearrangement opens up Alice-in-Wonderland space inside the Fit's subcompact rabbit hole." For the upcoming 2009 Fit, Honda will up the convenience factor by making the seats fold down with just one motion.

There are other small cars and hatchbacks with comfortable and spacious seating. Many reviews describe the 2009 Nissan Versa as one of the best cars for economy, mileage and -- gasp! -- space. Kelley Blue Book says, "Rear-seat riders can expect real comfort, without asking to push the front seats too far forward," and the Oregonian notes "friends won't become enemies if asked to ride in the back seat for an outing."

Scion xB

In terms of headroom, the Suzuki SX4's taller frame gives it an inside edge over other compacts. Edmunds notes, "those who are very tall will appreciate the Suzuki's voluminous headroom in both the front and rear," with Car and Driver estimating enough headroom "for a Texan 10-gallon hat."

And when it comes to legroom, several reviewers say the boxy Scion xB's size conceals the chaise-like accommodations inside. Car and Driver says the car is "so spacious it recalls full-sized vans from the '70s," while MSN reveals "legroom in front and second rows is only an inch or less than what it is in the Escalade."

Some small cars offer such cushy rear seats that they overshadow what's offered up front. When reviewing the Kia Spectra5, Autoweb jokes, "Don't call 'shotgun!' because the tall, firm, supportive, split-folding rear bench seats is the better spot to ride." Road and Track says the Spectra5's rear seats are "an easy fit for 6-footers."

Smart Packing

Smart Fortwo

There are a handful of compact cars that offer good cargo options. Assuming you have no friends -- but plenty of stuff -- you might get by with the newest media darling, the Smart Fortwo. This two-seater might be roughly the size of a gerbil, but it is "a marvel of packaging efficiency," as Edmunds says. According to the manufacturer's site, the Fortwo provides 7.8 cubic feet for cargo up to the car's beltline, with 12 cubic feet available if cargo is stacked to the roof. Taking them at their word, About.com's Aaron Gold loaded "A week's worth of groceries, two full laundry baskets, even Mrs. Gold's bulky massage table" before maxing out.

But you don't have to bank your packing and storing hopes on the Fortwo. MSN reports the 2009 Versa achieves its 17.8 cubic feet of available cargo room with seats up and 50.4 cubic feet of space with seats folded down "because a 'twist beam' rear axle allows for a deep cargo area." The Versa also has storage spots in the upper dash and front door, and its cargo bed has a "reversible mat that is carpeted on one side and plastic on the other, a nice touch if you're hauling dirty equipment," the Detroit News says.

Writers from Kelley Blue Book say the 2009 Pontiac Vibe is a good choice if you need "roominess on a budget," and especially notes both "the rear seats and front passenger seat fold flat to accommodate longer items." KBB lists the generous rear cargo hold of the similar 2009 Toyota Matrix as a favorite feature because "its flat cargo floor can hold a bunch of camping gear, back-to-college supplies or boxes and books for moving day."

Deal Makers

Even the smallest cars with limited space could have key features to slant your perception of comfort or utility. Regardless of how big your trunk is, having a liftover that's too high, a liftgate that's not high enough, or an opening that's too small can make loading items inconvenient.

With seats upright, the Volkswagen Rabbit offers 15.1 cubic feet of cargo capacity. But New Car Test Drive says that when you turn the Rabbit's VW-logo shaped latch, the hatch door "swings open smoothly on struts" to reveal "a low wide opening for the large, nicely shaped cargo area."

Easy-to-fold seats are another asset that can go a long way in this class. The Dodge Caliber makes the most of its 48 cubic feet of available space with seats that "are among the easiest to lay flat in the segment," according to Automobile.com, "with just a tug of a mesh-fabric loop."

It also helps for the cargo floor to be as flat as possible once seats are down. Although the Saturn Astra is not a class leader for cargo room, Motor Trend notes, "There's plenty of trunk room under the hatch, and the rear seat folds flat to create an even larger cargo hold."

The quality of the seating, especially for passengers in the center position, can also make a small car seem bigger. The Honda Civic doesn't offer much extra room for cargo or passengers, but it does get notice for its middle seat. "Though the cushion there is less comfortable than those in the outboard positions, the floor is flat so the seating is reasonably comfortable," says the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "That's rare in an era when most cars disrespect the center-rear passenger."