July 5, 2011 | by Joe Phillips
Autos: Best compact cars

As with pickles and porn stars, inches matter. But bigger isn’t always better — which is why low-cost, high-mileage compacts are now so popular.

To help you choose, some automakers are taking a page from the “Cars 2” playbook and churning out Lightning McQueen wannabes — with bulging fenders, raised rear ends and smiling (or sometimes snarling) grilles. It all adds a bit of flair and whimsy.

Other automakers are ramping up recycled content and safety gear. And some are touting the latest high-tech gadgetry.

Add them all up and there are almost (yikes!) 200 different models out there. Here are four of the best.

Fiat 500
$16,500
Mpg: 30 city/38 highway
0-to-60 mph: 10.8 seconds
Cargo space: 30 cubic feet

Fiat 500

Just like BMW when it launched the MINI Cooper 10 years ago, Fiat is getting raves for designing its own cutesy minicar, the 500. Yet Fiat hasn’t sold cars on U.S. shores for more than 25 years and the 500 is really a make-or-break car for Chrysler (which Fiat salvaged from bankruptcy in 2009). So there’s lots of pressure on this retro compact to succeed. It helps that the 500 is sturdy, comfortable and, despite the petite 101-hp engine, a blast to drive. There’s more cargo room than in a MINI Cooper, which costs $5,000 more. And the 500’s cabin is nerdy-chic, full of glossy hard plastic, chrome accents and quirky gauges. As with MINI, the Fiat offers a choice of assorted colors and accessories including pearlescent paint, roof racks and a huge panoramic sunroof. Three trim levels, though even the base model boasts power doors/locks/windows, seven airbags and cruise control.

Ford Focus
$17,000
Mpg: 26 city/36 highway
0-to-60 mph: 7.6 seconds
Cargo space: 13.2 cubic feet (sedan), 23.8 cubic feet (hatchback)

Ford Focus

With all the attention on Ford’s hot new Fiesta, there’s been little focus on the Focus. And no wonder: after 11 years, the styling was as stale as hip huggers and shoulder pads. But now the Focus gets a complete redo, with curvy sheet metal that echoes the Volvo S40 and Chevy Cruze —two of the sleekest compacts on the road. Handling is taut and firm, especially around corners, and braking is superb. Inside the techie cabin, there’s keyless entry/ignition, a rearview camera and five-way touch-pads on the steering wheel for stereo and info displays. There’s also a semi-automatic parallel-parking system and a safety feature that restricts vehicle speed and audio volume for teen drivers. Eco-geeks will love how the car’s seats, carpeting and sound insulation are made from used denim. And an electric version hits showrooms this fall.

MINI Cooper Countryman
$22,000
Mpg: 28 city/35 highway
0-to-60 mph: 7.6 seconds
Cargo space: 41 cubic feet

MINI Cooper Countryman

MINI dubs the Countryman a wagon but it’s really a kickin’ crossover. The design is ruggedly hip and the handling is just as nimble as other MINIs. The four-door Countryman is 16 inches longer, 4 inches wider and 5 inches taller than a regular two-door MINI Cooper, so there’s gobs of passenger and cargo room. An optional roof rack adds even more stowage. And both rear bucket seats recline and slide. Choice of two trim levels, but opt for the more powerful 181-hp turbo, which includes all-wheel drive. Manual transmission is standard, though an optional six-speed automatic offers paddle shifters for lickety-split acceleration. Lots of (very pricey) options: heated seats/mirrors, dual-pane sunroof, sport-tuned suspension, rear parking sensors, Bluetooth, smartphone integration and more. Biggest downside: a too-noisy cabin.

Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart
$ 28,000
Mpg: 17 city/25 highway
0-to-60 mph: 5.8 seconds
Cargo space: 10 cubic feet

Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart

Mitsubishi offers various versions of the Lancer. The base models are too slow. The high-test Evo costs too much. And the turbocharged Ralliart is, in Goldilocks parlance, just right: plenty of speed at a moderate price. Perhaps the biggest surprise: the Ralliart’s automatic transmission is better in both shifting and acceleration than most manual transmissions, which are usually sportier. Yet while the Ralliart is a true tuner car for “players,” it can pass for a young executive’s ride during the week. Styling is muscular but not overly aggressive. And the cabin, despite some cheap plastics, has good driver visibility, snug seating and a club-scene Rockford Fosgate stereo.

 

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