Compact and spunky. No, we’re not talking Ellen Page or Tom Daley (though we could be). Instead, there’s a host of zippy, smallish vehicles perfect for rush-hour maneuvers or scampering around tight parking garages.
KIA SOUL TURBO
Mpg: 26 city/31 highway
0-to-60 mph: 6.5 seconds
Hip hamster commercials aside, the Kia Soul is one of the quirkiest yet likeable rides on the road. This year the Soul gets, well, a lot more soul, including a fresh redesign with wraparound headlights and sportier wheels.
Along with the tepid base model and the electric Soul EV (pricey at $32,500), there’s an affordable turbo version with a new, more powerful engine. The turbo comes with red accent lines, shiny dual-exhaust tips and funky orange stitching on the seats, dash and elsewhere around the cabin. There are plenty of high-quality materials and soft-touch surfaces, along with a flat-bottomed steering wheel and easy-to-use infotainment system with smartphone integration.
For some reason, certain features available on other Soul models are missing here: ventilated seats, forward collision warning and lane-departure warning. The Soul also lacks paddle shifters, emergency braking and all-wheel drive, which can be found on some competitors’ models.
Still, there are quite a few pleasing options, including heated steering wheel, heated front/rear seats and an impressive panoramic moonroof. There’s also gobs of room for hauling passengers and cargo. Perhaps best of all, Kia offers one of the longest warranties: up to 10 years or 100,000 miles.
LEXUS IS 300 AWD
Mpg: 19 city/29 highway
0-to-60 mph: 6 seconds
It’s easy to find comfort in full-size sedans and huge, honking SUVs. Not so much in compact cars, though the Lexus IS 300 AWD proves otherwise. The wicked styling — still shapely after all these years — certainly helps. So does the form-fitting interior, with bolstered bucket seats, ample backseat legroom and a high-tech dash/center-console combination that looks like it belongs on a fighter jet.
The brushed-aluminum trim, especially on the steering wheel, foot pedals and shifter, adds more than a dash of class. Things are almost too quiet in the cabin, though that makes it easier to focus completely on the composed handling and braking. Must-have options include rearview camera, voice-command activation, 15-speaker mark Levinson stereo and large, 10.3-inch infotainment screen.
There’s even more safety gear, including blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert, adjustable pedals and more. Overall, the IS 300 is an easy ride, and strikes a nice balance between poise and performance.
NISSAN SENTRA NISMO
Mpg: 25city/31 highway
0-to-60 mph: 7.1 seconds
With a Lexus or Mercedes, it’s easy to sit back and relax, especially on long drives. But with the Nissan Sentra NISMO, you hit the ground running and don’t ever stop.
This is the high-performance version of Nissan’s popular compact sedan, though the engine is less than blistering. Where the sportiness shines is in the tight suspension, taut steering and large, 18-inch wheels. Racy red accents are everywhere, from the outside body cladding and side mirrors to the seats, steering wheel and center console.
The ride and handling are definitely stiff but comfortable. And the primo brakes would be right at home on any motorsports racecourse. Alas, the quiet cabin is full of cheapo hard plastic and the controls and infotainment system should have been updated eons ago.
But what this Sentra lacks in va-va-voom, it makes up in room: the oodles of passenger and cargo space are comparable to a midsize sedan. Another plus: certain must-have options include backup camera, push-button start and Bose audio.