Subcompact Cars Get an Upgrade

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DETROIT (TheStreet) -- During its February sales call last week, Ford's (Stock Quote: F) brass was all fired up about something that has been exciting customers: small cars.

As Hummer hobbles toward its demise and SUV lovers salivate over station wagons, value-driven consumers are embracing compact cars they once derided as "econoboxes." While customers two decades ago derided Ford's subcompact Festiva and Aspire models -- the latter mocked for suggesting drivers "aspire" to economy class -- Ford's 2011 Fiesta is getting a lot more love. After offering buyers navigation systems, premium sound, keyless entry and ignition, heated leather trim on the seats and a choice of nine exterior colors, Ford received more than 105,000 queries, 8,000 reservations and 2,500 orders for a car that's not produced in North America yet.

"The numbers tell us that more than 50% of the 8,000 Fiesta reservations are from buyers who don't even own a Ford," says Ken Czubay, Ford's vice president of U.S. marketing, sales and service. "It is very exciting to see small-car prospects giving us a look for the first time in a very long time."

A lot has changed since Ford rolled out its last U.S. subcompact in 1997. For one, the vehicles labeled "subcompact" now dwarf the power, features and interior space of the Yugos, Hyundai Excels and other underpowered models of the late '80s and early '90s. Also, since China took over as the world's biggest vehicle market last year, big car-loving Americans are no longer in the drivers' seat. As Chrysler's takeover by Fiat threatens to flood the U.S. with zippy Fiats and Tata Motors' tiny offerings create a stir in India, we offer seven examples of small cars making a big impact here:

2010 Kia Rio

Starting price: $11,695

Mpg: 28 city/34 highway

To understand the modern compact car, we must understand its direct ancestor. The Rio is the first compact Kia produced after ending the relationship with Ford that begat the Festiva and Aspire. Though it's slowly being replaced by the far snazzier Kia Soul, its sales nearly doubled last month compared to February 2009 by offering an mp3-player connection, Bluetooth, a punchy 110-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and Kia's 10-yearn or 100,000-mile warranty. It may not have the funky colors, high ceiling and sunroof of the Soul, but it retained value while adding features, making it the missing link between the early subcompact and the modern zippy boxster.

Honda Fit (Stock Quote: HMC)

Starting price: $14,900

Mpg: 27 city/33 highway

This is the gold standard against which the little guys are measured. The 1.5-liter engine is peppy and fuel-efficient, but the interior is the moneymaker. A telescoping steering wheel, 40 inches of headroom in the front and rear, 60/40 fold-down rear seats that can be reconfigured three ways without removing headrests, Apple iPod-compatible audio system with USB ports, up to 10 beverage holders and optional navigation system are mere toys compared to its more than 57 cubic feet of storage space.

Not only does the Fit keep owners amused for very little money, it actually lets them haul a seven-foot item when the passenger seat is folded down. There's a difference between and economy car and an economical one, and the Fit is a fitting illustration of it.

Chevrolet Aveo

Starting price: $12,115

Mpg: 26 city/35 highway

In the spirit of the Kia/Ford compacts, the Aveo is a General Motors-owned Daewoo in disguise. Though the so-so acceleration may conjure nightmares of early Korean subcompacts like the Hyundai Excel, its sunroof, mp3 player port, and more than 42 cubic feet of storage space provide some much-needed upgrades. Beyond its fuel economy, the Aveo may not seem like the strongest argument for a small car. But its 32% sales increase in February from a year earlier suggests someone's paying attention.

Nissan Versa

Starting price: $13,100

Mpg: 24 city/34 highway

This vehicle has sedan versions that are cheaper, but the hatchback is a value even at its elevated price. For used-car cost, you can get Bluetooth, keyless entry and ignition, satellite radio, iPod hookups and options like steering wheel audio controls, navigation and sunroof.

The best part about the Versa, however, is the space. Roof clearance that is the compact equivalent of a cathedral ceiling means big six-foot-tall galoots will have no problem on long rides. A nearly 14-cubic-foot trunk and 50-cubic-foot storage capacity are also bonuses.

Scion Xd

Starting price: $14,900

Mpg: 27 city/33 highway

Toyota pitched the Scion as the Japanese custom job of every suburban teen's dream, with options like shiny shift knobs, spoilers, ambient lighting and sport pedals. In reality, it's a sound system with standard traction and stability control. With about 36 cubic inches of interior space, the Xd doesn't have the cargo capacity, headroom or the interior flexibility of its counterparts. What it does have is a six-speaker, 160-watt Pioneer stereo with an RCA output for a subwoofer.

You're basically sacrificing comfort for your beat palace, but if playing your LCD Soundsystem as loudly as possible is high on your priority list, an upgrade will get you hooked up with an Alpine Media Expander system that includes a touch screen, navigation and enhanced mp3 playback quality. With the tiny Scion IQ set for launch this year, the Xd becomes less of a subcompact and more of a competitor to Nissan's Cube and Kia's Soul.

Subaru Impreza WRA STi

Starting price: $34,995

Mpg: 17 city/23 highway

Fuel economy's great, but it won't win you any races against Vin Diesel or Paul Walker. To all of you wannabe gearheads who think muscle cars all came out of the '70s and go by names like Camaro, Charger or Testostero, there's a generation of racers straight out of The Fast and The Furious just waiting to shut down your GTO with their little hatchbacks.

One of the bigger models among these hatchbacks is this 305-horsepower, turbocharged Impreza, which goes from zero to 60 mph in 4.5 seconds. Want fuel economy? Ride a moped. Want a decent navigation system and a stereo that sounds better than a transistor? There's a Ford Focus out there with your name on it. Want to blow a BMW 3 Series off the line during Friday rush hour? Two words: Impreza hatchback.

Mazda3

Starting price: $19,540

Mpg: 21 city/29 highway

The Mazda3 has all the fun of a feature-filled subcompact with a bit more kick. A 2.5-liter engine gives this little hatch 167 horsepower, which basically dusts most vehicles in its class. As for options, it joins the Fit and Versa in offering an engine-immobilizing anti-theft device, along with eight cupholders, six-speaker CD/mp3 player and front and side airbags. The options, however, are choice. Packages range from upgrades as simple as foglights, a rear spoiler and dual exhausts to automatic xenon headlights, heated mirrors, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, leather upholstery and a power driver's seat with driver memory functions.

Optional tech toys include sunroofs and Bose 10-speaker sound systems with a six-CD changer, keyless ignition and entry, satellite radio, iPod interface and a navigation system with steering wheel controls.

Suzuki SX4 Technology

Starting price: $17,699

Mpg: 25 city/28 highway

The fuel economy leaves a little to be desired, but the space and add-ins are worth noting. It has 54 cubic inches of overall cargo space and a 60/40 folding rear seat that provides both modular seating options at 15 cubic inches of trunk space. Its 2.0-liter, 150-horsepower engine and four-wheel drive makes the SX4 more powerful than most of its contemporaries, but the cruise control, steering wheel with audio controls, Bluetooth and navigation system give it an edge. The SX4 spends a lot of time at the pump, but provides a fun ride between pit stops.

Volkswagen Golf TDI

Starting price: $22,155

Mpg: 30 city/42 highway

Yes, it's nearly double the price of a Kia Rio, but for a car in roughly the same neighborhood as a Mazda3, there's a reason for the sticker shock. The first is the four-cylinder turbo diesel engine, which provides some of the lowest mileage among its little colleagues. The second is the truckload of accessories crammed into a hatchback. The TDI's standard offerings include Bluetooth, a trip computer, eight-way front seats, a 60/40 folding rear seat and touch-screen sound system with a six-disc CD changer, iPod connection and satellite radio. Owners can opt for xenon headlights and a hard-drive navigation system with mp3 storage, but the quiet ride and fuel economy make this feel more like a luxury steal than a subcompact burden.

Mini Cooper

Starting price: $19,500

Mpg: 28 city/37 highway

Did the Mini change how Americans thought about small cars, or did it change how they thought about the Mini? Seeing a little car flex its 118 horsepower and top out at 126 mph in The Italian Job may plant some ideas, but that wide wheelbase, stingy traction and stability control help the Mini's cause.

Nancy Scott, spokeswoman of the car-sharing service Zipcar, says the company considered the Mini its "iconic vehicle," resulting in thousands of college students and carless urbanites trying out the Mini's six-way adjustable seats, climate-controlled glove box and push-button ignition for $11.25 an hour. While it lacks substantial leg room and rear storage, options such as Bluetooth, sunroofs, heated seats, navigation systems and satellite radio make this stylish hatchback seem much less Mini.

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