March 18, 2010 at 9:05 am EDT | by Joe Phillips
Hottest hatchbacks

Forget boxy and boring, today’s econo hatchbacks mix shapely sheet metal with flared fenders and street-cred wheels. And while all the sexy rides below may slip effortlessly into the smallest of parking spots, they also boast loads of cargo space.

What’s more, these cars are affordable: Each offers stellar gas mileage and MSRP’s under—sometimes way under—$25,000. And because they’re fun to drive, these hot hatches help drivers keep their cool—in rush hour or on the way to happy hour. 

Honda Fit
Mpg: 27 city/33 highway
Cargo room: 20.6 cubic feet (57.3 cubic feet with rear seats down)

Last year, the popular Fit got a fab redo: edgier styling, more legroom, bigger seats for full-sized keisters, and a backseat that can be folded without having to remove the headrests. Other plusses include lots of rear visibility, gobs of cargo space, and a firm suspension for taut handling. Two trim levels, both with lots of standard gear: one-touch windows, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, tire-pressure monitor, and CD/MP3 player. Upgrade to the Sport model for bigger tires, stability control, nav system, and steering-wheel paddle shifters. For greenies, a hybrid model is expected later this year. But there are two turnoffs: Too much road noise and no satellite radio. 

Price: $20,000
Mpg: 21 city/29 highway
Cargo room: 31 cubic feet (44 cubic feet with rear seats down)

While the Honda Fit is practical, the Mazda3 scores on macho. There’s that crouching profile, sporty rear spoiler, and pouty wide-mouth grille. For added butch points, choose the $24,000 Mazdaspeed3 version, with its tuner-like 283-hp turbo and lots of fun-loving torque. But even the 148-hp base engine—available with automatic or manual transmission—is peppy. And all models are blessed with nimble handling, sharp steering and sure brakes. Options: dual-zone automatic climate control, rain-sensing wipers, Bose stereo, keyless push-button ignition and headlights that turn when cornering. A pint-sized sibling, the Mazda2, is due this summer. 

MINI Cooper Clubman
Mpg: 28 city/36 highway
Cargo room: 9.2 cubic feet (32.8 cubic feet with rear seats down)

Inches are everything, at least with MINI Coopers. While the Clubman sports the same crisp ride and high-quality interior as the base MINI—including funky toggle switches and Frisbee-sized speedometer—it’s actually 9.4 inches longer. This means more cargo and passenger room, and a smoother ride. But instead of a the rear hatch opening upward, there are two vertical “barn doors.” As for side doors, the driver gets one, but there are two quirky “clamshell” doors on the other side. Such clamshell doors are supposed to help rear-seat passengers slide inside, but anyone with a Patsy and Edina sensibility will find the clunky configuration less than, well, absolutely fabulous. For even more room, a Countryman crossover that’s 5.5 inches longer than the Clubman is due in early 2011. 

Volvo C30
Mpg: 21 city/29 highway
Cargo room: 12.9 cubic feet (20.2 cubic feet with rear seats down)

Form over function? Forget the Volvo C30. It has the least amount of legroom and cargo space, and—despite four bucket seats—fits just two people comfortably. But the C30 is all about style. A retro-chic design evokes 1960s Volvos, from a squished flat-nosed hood to the sharply sloped rear with large panoramic window. Inside, a seemingly paper-thin center dash houses easy-to-use audio and temperature controls. This being Volvo, there are plenty of safety features: ABS, stability/traction control, front/side/head airbags and an optional blind-spot warning system. Volvo also offers headlight washers, power-retractable side mirrors, keyless ignition and nav system with real-time traffic. Such options can add up quickly. Even so, the C30 is priced thousands less than most high-end competitors.

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