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Intriguing New Small Cars for 2012Jerry Edgerton / February 13th, 2012
High gasoline prices and new models adapted from Europe convinced American buyers in 2011 that maybe they should consider small cars after all. Now, a new selection of 2012 small cars is catching shoppers' attention. AutoTrader reported recently that new 2012 small-car models from Chevrolet, Hyundai, and Fiat—as well as the redesigned Volkswagen Beetle—have shown some of the biggest recent gains in consumer interest. These cars will offer options not previously typical in the small car category, such as leather seats and navigation systems. "In the past, small cars didn't fare very well with American shoppers as many of the available models were considered cheap and lacking in features," says Rick Wainschel, vice president of automotive insights at AutoTrader, Atlanta. "However, the small cars being produced today are exciting, fun to drive, and fuel-efficient." The new European-inspired small cars introduced in 2011 sold well. The Chevrolet Cruze, especially, outdid analysts' predictions by becoming one of the best-selling of all U.S. models in several months in 2011. Following the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Cruze, some versions of the new models will have highway gas mileage ratings that approach 40 miles per gallon (mpg). That has become a marketing benchmark in this class—along with reasonable prices. Here's a closer look at the 2012 small-car models that are sparking consumer interest:
Chevrolet SonicThe Sonic is a sportier-looking and better-performing replacement for the Aveo as Chevrolet's lowest-priced small car. It has a distinction that will matter to many buyers: It's the only subcompact made in the U.S. under a wage-reducing agreement with the United Auto Workers. Reviewers praise the Sonic as fun to drive and a worthy competitor to chief rivals Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit. You can get the Sonic in sedan or hatchback versions, both of which were rated a Top Safety Pick by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), Arlington, Va. The four-cylinder, 135-horsepower engine—the same one used in the Cruze—is rated at 25 mpg in city driving and 35 mpg on the highway. The Sonic base model starts at $13,735 and ranges up to $18,495 for its top-end version.
Ford FocusFord has sold a version of the Focus here since 2000, but in recent years it has been a boring also-ran in the compact car class. Now the redesigned Focus—bigger than the Chevrolet Sonic and a more direct competitor with the Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze—is on sale as a 2012 model. Like the subcompact Ford Fiesta, the SFE version will hit 29 mpg city, 40 mpg highway, although the rating for the standard model is 26 mpg city, 36 mpg highway. The sedan version will start at $16,995 and the hatchback at $18,790. Reviewers like the interior comfort and features. And they praise the handling, aided by a new feature called torque vectoring control. This technology adds braking force to wheels on one side during sharp turns.
Hyundai VelosterThe Veloster continues two attributes that have powered Hyundai's recent U.S. success: eye-catching styling and high mileage ratings. Reviewers praise its quirky exterior design and its comfortable, upscale-seeming interior. Though styled as a coupe, the Veloster has a third door for access to the not-too-roomy back seat. The four-cylinder, 148-horsepower engine is rated at 28 mpg in city driving, 40 mpg highway. But test drivers say the Veloster, with its focus on high mpg, is not a peppy fun-to-drive small car like a Mini Cooper. The Veloster has one price level at $17,300, but can range up to $18,550 with options like navigation and rear-view safety camera. The Veloster does not yet have crash-test ratings.
Fiat 500Fiat, now the majority owner of Chrysler, has brought in the popular Fiat 500 from Europe and is selling it through some of its already-established Chrysler dealers. Fun to look at and fun to drive, the 500 shows its sharp handling on winding roads, although its 101-horsepower, four-cylinder engine (rated 30 mpg city, 38 mpg highway) leaves it feeling a little underpowered. I only gave it a quick test-drive, but reviewers say the ride and noise level on high-speed interstates make the 500 a poor choice for owners who drive long distances. Despite its small size, the 500 got a Top Safety Pick rating from the IIHS. The Fiat 500 even has cute names for its different versions, with the Pop starting at $15,500, the Sport at $17,500, and the Lounge at $19,500.
Volkswagen BeetleIn a new look for a classic model, Volkswagen has given the Beetle its first redesign since 1998. The top is flatter and the hood longer than that design, and this car is wider, lower, and longer. VW is aiming at more male buyers (about 60% of Beetle buyers have been women). In addition to the design, a 200-horsepower, four-cylinder engine with strong acceleration is aimed at attracting men. Reviewers, mostly men, applaud the addition of this option and praise the acceleration and handling. The turbo is rated for 22 mpg city, 31 mpg highway. List price on the Beetle ranges from $18,995 for the base model to $23,395 for the turbo version. The 2012 Beetle does not yet have crash-test ratings. Small cars are not for everyone, of course. Large families may need SUVs with three rows of seats. And pickups are crucial for many owners who use them in their work. But if who and what you haul will fit in a smaller package—and if you're shopping for style, high gas mileage, and plenty of comfort and convenience features—give these new small cars a look. All photos courtesy of the manufacturers. Jerry Edgerton writes the Cars and Money blog for CBS MoneyWatch.com. He is a former automotive writer for Money Magazine and the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."