Downsize Your Ride
S. R. Boland finally got fed up. His 2001 Jeep Cherokee was great for schlepping his two Siberian huskies around. But as gas prices crept toward $3 a gallon last summer, he decided his fuel economy-about 15 miles per gallon-wasn't cutting it. So the Detroit publicist ordered a Toyota Yaris, the funky new subcompact that starts at less than $12,000. Inside, there's about 25 percent less room than in the Jeep. But Boland's dogs fit fine with the back seat folded down, and he expects to get up to 40 miles per gallon when he picks up his Yaris in February. "It's cutting edge," Boland says. "And I decided I want the best mileage I can get."
America's 15-year love affair with SUVs is on the rocks, and one reason is the arrival of comely little cars that make trading down a pleasure-and a bargain. Smaller, cheaper cars used to be bland econoboxes that announced, well, nothing about you. But fresh models like the Volkswagen Rabbit, Honda Fit, Dodge Caliber, and Mazda5 come with cool features and clever engineering that compensate for their smallness. And mini has become a style statement in itself. "Today's compact cars rival the luxury cars of 10 years ago," says Jesse Toprak of Edmunds.com. "It's almost become cool to have a compact."
At some automakers, innovative features also are filtering down. The $15,000 Fit, for instance, comes with a "magic seat"-first seen on the Honda Odyssey minivan-that folds completely into the floor, creating a flat cargo space. The $13,000 Nissan Versa has a sporty six-speed stick shift, and the optional automatic is a sophisticated continuously variable transmission, or CVT, that's not even available on many cars costing $10,000 more. The Rabbit scoots like a leopard, thanks to a sprightly engine, and on the four-door model-base price below $18,000-heated seats, velour upholstery, and power windows are stand-ard. The Caliber and its cousin, the Jeep Compass, can be outfitted with four-wheel drive and other goodies for less than $20,000.
Commuter car. Not so long ago, diminutive hipmobiles like the Mini Cooper and the Scion lineup were hot only among 20-somethings and urbanites unimpressed by baby boomer conspicuous consumption. Now families are joining the trend, says Toprak-often buying down for their second or commuter car. There are more slimmed-down models aimed at mainstream buyers. The Mazda5, for example, somehow fits three rows of minivan-style seats into a vehicle that feels as nimble as a go-cart.
And everybody enjoys smaller gas bills. Boland, who is 50, says he's preparing for gas to hit $4 a gallon. Maybe it will, maybe it won't. But it's one thing he doesn't have to worry about.
This story appears in the December 25, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.