Small Cars

In a market long driven by bigger is better, a surprising number of American motorists have begun to adopt a different mantra: Small is beautiful.

1. Kia Soul // (Shown on the Auto Section introduction) Korean wagon/crossover the Soul (from Seoul) is part of a growing list of small, boxy vehicles that prove it’s hip to be square. Those who still think of Kia as a purveyor of basic no-frills transportation will be surprised. True, this five-door hatchback is pleasantly affordable, with a base price of just under $14,000, but it looks decidedly up-market, with just enough sculpting to make the square body interesting.

The Soul delivers an unexpectedly frisky ride for its ungainly shape. The Sport edition makes an impressive launch from 0-60 in fewer than nine seconds.

Large doors make it easy to get in and out, and there’s an acceptable amount of room for rear passengers, thanks to the tall seating, a layout that also yields great visibility. Favorite feature? The neon-like lights that surround the speakers, pulsing and throbbing to the beat of MP3 tracks.

2. Chevrolet Volt // General Motors is hoping it can plug into the emerging market for battery-powered vehicles with its extended-range electric Chevrolet Volt. The sedan, due out in late 2010, is designed to deliver at least 40 miles on battery power alone, and at full highway speeds. That’s more than enough, studies show, for 75 percent of American commuters to use every day.

But unlike pure-battery electric vehicles, there’s no range anxiety.  When the lithium-ion batteries run out, Volt’s small internal-combustion engine fires up, serving as a generator to power the electric motors that drive the wheels.

The overall design is handsome, and the interior is pleasantly well outfitted, as they should be at a list price expected to top $40,000.  The good news: The Volt qualifies for a $7,500 federal tax credit and possibly some state tax breaks, as well.

3. Fiat 500 // Europe’s car of the year will make a belated debut here soon. Until now, few if any Italian micro-mobiles would have appealed to American drivers, even with the growing interest in mini-cars with maximum fuel economy. They were too small and tinny. But the latest incarnation of the 500, or Cinquecento, shows that small can be beautiful and fun to drive.

The styling has a hint of retro, though the overall feel is modern. And while the 500 will be one of the smallest cars on American roads, the interior layout is unexpectedly roomy.

Significantly, Fiat plans to sell the Cinquecento under its own name, rather than rebadging the car as a Chrysler or Dodge. But we’re hoping the automaker will offer both the base car and the upscale Abarth edition, which delivers a significant dash of performance while still maintaining solid fuel economy.

4. VW Golf/GTI // Golf, one of the best-selling nameplates in the world, has undergone an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, update. The 2010 model’s look is just a bit crisper, underscoring VW’s disdain of heavy-handed styling. That approach is echoed in the cabin, where an emphasis was placed on maximizing functionality while delivering a more sophisticated, upscale feel. There are pleasantly fewer hard-plastic surfaces than in the old Golf.

In its segment, Golf is a well-equipped pick, with a full array of safety features and plenty of creature comforts, including a great audio system. But buyers pay a premium for the German offering, reflecting the weak U.S. dollar.

VW offers a variety of powertrain offerings, including a high-mileage diesel that delivers 42 mpg/highway, better than most hybrids. Those who want a truly sporty ride, however, will likely opt for the high-revving GTI, arguably a brand of its own.

5. Mazda3 // Mazda is the little automaker that could. Whether you credit the Zoom-Zoom ad campaign or the sporty feel that has been built into most of its products, the Japanese brand is winning over customers who traditionally opted for bigger, better-known names such as Honda and Toyota. The Mazda3 is one good reason why.

Offered in both hatchback and four-door trim, the Mazda3 has gone through a complete redesign for 2010, and it just could change the minds of those who thought a small car would cramp their style.

While the 2010 model’s design is a bit more aggressive, the underlying platform has been largely left as is, good news considering the old model boasted a solid grip of the road, with precise steering and surprisingly little body roll. If anything, the new model inspires even more confidence. The bigger of the Mazda3’s engines gets even more power for 2010 — and better fuel economy.

6. BMW 1-Series // How small is too small? That’s the question American automakers and auto buyers alike are asking these days. The bigger, the better, or so goes traditional reasoning, and nowhere is that more true than in the luxury market, where a driver’s personal success was long measured by sheet-metal inch.

The original Baby Benz, and later, the Mini and Audi A3, began to reshape perceptions of luxury. Now comes BMW’s redefining 1-Series coupe and cabriolet. The new Beemer is nearly a foot shorter than the popular 3-Series, though seating isn’t quite as compromised as you might expect, especially up front. Nor has BMW stripped the 1-Series down. It’s every bit the luxury car you’d expect from Bavaria, just in a smaller package.

7. Nissan Cube // So many companies have come up with a box-mobile. This Japanese maker actually invented the genre with this asymmetric crossover, but waited years before coming up with a left-hand drive for the States.

The new Cube isn’t quite as cute as the original Japanese model, but it’s more functional, thanks to the increase in interior space. And it maintains that quirky asymmetric design.

Nissan has cut the price of its base model to compete with the Soul.  Higher-level models feature an array of standard and optional gear that let buyers personalize their Cube. Funkiest feature? A shag carpet circle that’s affixed to the top of the instrument panel with Velcro.

8. Hyundai Genesis Coupe // There was a time when a stand-up comedian could get a laugh simply by uttering the word Hyundai, but these days, the maker is no joke.  It’s rolling out a series of products that, while affordable, are stylish, well-equipped, and unexpectedly solid in quality and reliability.

Hyundai’s first luxury model, the Genesis sedan, won honors as the 2009 North American Car of the Year. The Genesis Coupe is the four-door’s down-market cousin. Where the design of the sedan is more traditional — and more derivative, clearly influenced by the classic Mercedes-Benz look — there’s a bit of the bad boy in the styling of the 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe, which the company calls its “most passionate, most emotional car ever.”

Though the Coupe doesn’t get the sedan’s luxurious V-8, buyers can opt for the same V-6 engine. Put it in the Track-edition coupe, and you’ve got a street racer to fear.

9. Mini Convertible // Not all car statistics are about mpg. The new Mini convertible, for example, has an Openometer, which tracks the time driven with the top down.

The original Mini revolutionized the European auto industry when it debuted 50 years ago. When BMW took over the British marque, an all-new Mini was developed, one that showed American drivers that small can be beautiful and luxurious.

Among the most appealing aspects of the new Mini is the ability for customization — a Union Jack roof decal, for example. The automaker has been expanding the lineup with the Works and Clubman editions. The convertible is a personal favorite, however, even despite a few flaws that include some serious obstacles to visibility when the top is up — another reason to keep that Openometer ticking.

10. Ford Fiesta // The eagerly awaited Fiesta fulfills Ford’s vow to re-enter the small end of the auto market, a niche now dominated by such Japanese products as the Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris. It signals a shift in direction by Ford, which has long developed separate products for each of its key markets. The Fiesta is the first of an array of new Ford passenger cars designed and engineered in Europe, a list that will soon include a replacement for the compact Ford Focus and the small C-Max “people mover.”

Banish any memories of the Korean-made Fiesta, last seen here in 1980. This is no bare-bones subcompact. The exterior is sculpted and stylish, and the interior has the high-tech feel of the latest smart phones. Ford promises to deliver a small car that will be surprisingly lavish and well equipped.

Photographed at the new Rosa Parks Transit Center at Cass and Michigan, downtown. Bus arrangements courtesy of Detroit Department of Transportation.