Subcompacts: These cars can hold a lot in small packages

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You're on a tight budget, or you just want to spend only as much as necessary to buy a car.

You've got a child who's in the market for a first car for college, or -- lucky him or her -- even high school.

You're looking for a second car -- a little runabout to be used in the city or when the other car in the family is otherwise tied up.

Or -- like many of us -- the high gasoline prices scare the living daylights out of you, and you realize that the gasoline party is over and now it's time to pay up.

Welcome to the subcompact car field.

I think you're in for some pleasant surprises.

Subcompacts aren't what they used to be -- cheap, rattly, slow cars with bargain basement interiors and looks to match.

Things have changed because you, the customer, are demanding more. You want the same luxuries and comforts that can be found on larger, more expensive cars. But you just want them in a small size.

Carmakers are more than happy to oblige. You get air-conditioning, full power accessories, nice interiors, a full plate of safety features and everything else on subcompacts -- served up with lots of style, too.

These are no longer "also rans" for customers' attention, and sales figures show that.

Let's take a look at some of them:

Honda Fit, $13,950 to $16,070, 27/34:

Honda's Fit is at once the most popular and most difficult-to-get car in this segment. Why? First, it has an unbelievably large interior with lots of flexibility and options. Second, it has many of the features that people are looking for as standard equipment, while its competitors charge extra for them. Third, it's a lot of fun to drive -- a car that you can be proud to own.

Drawbacks? A small gas tank that seems to empty more quickly than it should despite high gas mileage, and the driving position can be awkward for some people. And you'll get a bit of bounciness every now and then depending on road surface.

Toyota Yaris, $11,300 to $14,400, 29/35:

The Yaris, available in four-door sedan and two-door coupe, brings Toyota quality and dependability to the subcompact class. Not quite as much fun to drive as the Fit, the Yaris still feels sprightly on the road. It has a distinct European flair to the interior, with an airy feel to it. Instruments are spare here, and don't look for a lot of gadgets, dials and gauges.

Plus, the gauges are a bit off-center and will take some time to get accustomed to.

The major problem is a competitive disadvantage because so many other cars offer as standard equipment a number items for which Toyota charges customers extra. The Yaris also falls a bit short in the fun-to-drive category. The engine's noisy, too.

Suzuki SX4, $14,770 to $17,970, 23/31:

If you live in the snowbelt, all-wheel drive is a must. But where to get that feature in the subcompact field?

Look no further than the cute Suzuki SX4, which comes in front-wheel and all-wheel drive. This car's calling card is its nice interior and exterior. I won't say that it's a premium interior, but it's nicer than some of the others that you find in this price class. Anti-lock brakes are standard equipment while skid control is an option. The hatchback is available with all wheel drive while the new four-door sedan model comes only as front-wheel drive. The interior is pretty quiet, too.

Nissan Versa, $12,630 to $15,730, 24/32 to 26/31:

If there's such a thing as a little limousine in this field, it's got to be the Nissan Versa.

Versa has a lovely interior that both outclasses its rivals, and boasts interior dimensions more in line with a compact, not a subcompact automobile. There's even a fold- down rear armrest on this car, and you'll notice expensive looking gauges and interior features as well.

On the other hand, handling isn't a strong point on the Versa with more body lean and sway than the competition. You'll also miss a height adjustment for the front seat, which can be an annoying concern, and the rear seats don't fold flush.

Hyundai Accent, $10,775 to $15,375, 24/33:

Offer a lot more at a little less price, and you can bet you'll get plenty of customers. That's the Hyundai maxim, and it's proven in its smallest car, the Accent.

The Accent's been around for a while, but I bet you've never seen an Accent quite like this year.

Well-built, rugged, with a pleasant, more expensive looking interior, the Accent is long on standard features that most people are looking for, regardless of the size of car concerned.

Front air bags and curtain-side air bags are standard, and air-conditioning is standard on all but the base model.

In terms of drawbacks, the Accent tends to be somewhat noisier on the road, and the storage options inside fall short of the class standard. Also, drum brakes instead of discs gives me pause.

Other subcompacts to consider: Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rio.

Don Hammonds can be reached at or 412-263-1538.


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