Big fun in small packages––the latest in economy cars
VW GOLF GTI - The latest generation of VW’s practical “hot hatch” is the best one yet.
You don’t hear the term “economy car” much any more, yet we still have small cars. The economy car segment exploded in response to the fuel crisis of the 1970s when Americans were suddenly clambering to trade in gas-guzzlers for small, cheap, fuel-efficient vehicles from Japan. American manufacturers responded with some half-baked models including the Chevrolet Vega and Chevette, Ford Pinto, and AMC Gremlin. With an emphasis on low cost and frugality, these vehicles offered as much excitement as dry white toast. Fortunately today’s economy cars still offer compact packaging, low cost, and great fuel economy, yet with performance, quality and technology expected in much more expensive vehicles.
Honda Civic Si / The original Civic hit our shores in 1972 and has been a sales success ever since. Currently in its tenth generation the Civic has grown in size and refinement, yet is still a fuel economy champ and is available as a two-door coupe, four-door hatchback, or four-door sedan. There are numerous trim and engine choices, from the base 158-hp Civic sedan which delivers 40 mpg highway to the bonkers 306-hp Civic Type R. Civics come brimming with technology and safety features, including LaneWatch which, when the right turn signal is activated, uses a camera in the passenger side mirror to project a complete view of the side of the car, eliminating the blind spot. As a cyclist, I think this could prevent some car-bike collisions. My favorite Civic is the manual trans-equipped Si Sedan. It’s a blast to drive, comfortable, roomy, loaded with tech and delivers up to 38 mpg on the highway. Civic prices start at under $19,000
VW Golf GTI / The GTI is still the go-to driver’s car in the compact car segment. The original “hot hatch” does everything well and is one of the best small cars available anywhere, at any price. The five-door hatchback design is supremely versatile, yet the driving experience is more German sports car than practical family sedan. The GTI is built around a responsive 2.0 L turbo engine that delivers up to 34 mpg highway. The GTI starts at under $26,000.
Ford Fiesta ST / Ford’s smallest car comes in multiple flavors. But my favorite is the 197-hp ST. Only available with a six-speed manual transmission, the ST is tuned for performance yet delivers the fuel efficiency of an economy car. The last one I drove delivered 37 mpg on the highway. One caveat: The optional Recaro seats are aggressively bolstered, so those with a large frame might find the fit a bit tight. The Fiesta ST starts at only $21,200
Chevrolet Sonic / Affordable, looks great and fun to drive. What more do you need in an economy car? My choice? The Turbo with the manual transmission and RS Package. Sonic prices start at just over $16,000
Mini Cooper / Two doors or four. FWD or AWD. Hardtop or convertible. No matter which Mini you get, fun is standard equipment. But unlike many competitors, even the least expensive model delivers cool style, an innovative interior, and a great driving experience. The turbocharged three-cylinder in the base models is plenty responsive and well-matched to either the manual or automatic transmission and delivers up to 38 mpg. Mini prices start at $21,600
Subaru Impreza / Standard AWD, top safety ratings, reliable and durable. The redesigned Impreza continues as a top choice for affordable, all-weather drivability and is available in either a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback. The Impreza boasts the largest interior in its class and returns up to 38 mpg. Impreza prices start at just $18,495
Mazda 3 / The Miata of compacts. Mazdas are known for their excellent driving dynamics and the Mazda3 is no exception. It also looks good, both inside and out. The Mazda3 delivers up to 37 mpg and starts at under $19,400
Kia Forte SX / The Forte SX boasts a five-star safety rating, 201-hp, a long list of standard features, and good handling. Plus the roomy interior makes the back seat livable for even tall adults. The Forte SX is well-equipped at $23,800.
Faster Than Usain Bolt
Chevrolet Bolt / While the all-electric Bolt comes in at a higher price than other economy cars, it’s still an appealing choice. With a range of over 200 miles, great torque, and excellent driving dynamics, the Bolt is quite fun to drive. The small exterior dimensions hide a roomy interior and make the Bolt easy to maneuver. Considering most people drive less than 40 miles a day, the Bolt can easily be charged at home each night. With the federal tax credit, the Bolt is about $30,000.