In a city like Thermopolis, Wyoming (population 3172), any vehicle will do. Cities with a surfeit of population density and minimum of navigable surface area, however, present challenges. In New York City, parking is at such a premium that a single space can sell for more than the average nationwide home cost -- up to $225,000.
There is a tacit understanding that if you drive and park in major metro areas, you stand a good chance of getting dinged, scratched, robbed, and otherwise molested. Your car does, too. This does not in any way diminish the shock value of seeing year-old Porsche 911s on Park Avenue whose bumpers look like they were embellished with claw hammers. Large initial investment is simply not recommended.
Parking violations are a major source of municipal revenue generation. San Francisco issues 1.9 million parking citations a year, good for more than $85 million in revenue. Scarcity of public parking forces people into "questionable" spaces, with meter maids serving as judge, jury, and executioner. Yes, public transportation is the ideal solution for myriad reasons. For those whose lives require a vehicle, however, one solution is to drive a smaller car that will sneak into the many petite spots that remain otherwise unused. We offer you 10 vehicles ideally suited to city duty, mostly by virtue of being short.
Length: 106.1 inches
The Smart Fortwo, lengthened for our market, is indeed longer than an H2 is wide, but only by 25 inches. The Fortwo will be, by over three feet, the shortest car sold here when it gambols onto U.S. roads this winter. First-generation Fortwo sales slumped after its launch in Europe nine years ago; but shortly thereafter, people realized that its designers were right: the Lilliputian Smart meets almost all their automotive needs. Getting 43 mpg on the highway is pleasant, but unless circling city centers for hours stalking spaces melts your butter, parking ease is the Fortwo's greatest ace. Cross-country trips are possible with a 90 mph top speed. Its 1.0-liter, 71-horsepower, three-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed automated-manual gearbox wont make your drive nearly as pulse-quickening, however, as will being tailgated by Freightliners cruising mere feet from the back of your head.
Penske-owned United Auto Sales, which will handle sales of the Fortwo in this country starting in January, won't need to pull cold, dead, flag-waving bodies out of Chevrolet Suburbans to find buyers. The Fortwo will be marketed only in large metro areas, and as both a sensible solution and highly coveted accessory, should have no trouble selling in boutique quantities, especially with a base price around $12,000.
2008 Mini Cooper
Length: 145.6 inches
A hundred thousand Yipster owners can't be wrong. And they're not: The Mini is a good car and particularly well suited to urban life. Until the Smart hits streets this winter, the Mini will hold the title of shortest car sold in the U.S. The Mini was a lethal parking weapon in San Francisco until everyone else bought one, too, and all those tight parking spots filled. Folding down the rear seats forms a flat floor, allowing the Mini to swallow a copious load of groceries or mid-century knickknacks. They're not exactly cheap, starting at $18,700, but that buys you BMW build quality and engineering. In Cooper S form, the Mini is a pleasure on weekend trips with linked turns that don't involve curbs and stoplights.
2008 Toyota Yaris
Length: 150.0 inches
Its name partially inspired by gay Paree, the Yaris was designed for the tight city centers of Europe and Asia and brought here to replace the insipid Echo. A meager $11,960 will get you into not just a base hatchback, but a Toyota. Slightly cartoonish lines make the Yaris as minacious as a duckling and conceal four more cubic feet of space than a Mini Cooper. Suspension calibration favors ride over handling, offering cushiness rare in this segment and helpful in cities like Detroit where road maintenance is seemingly the charge of pick-ax-wielding orcs.
2008 Honda Fit
Length: 157.4 inches
Unlike most countries, subcompact cars are rarely a rewarding drive in the U.S., largely because price point is generally the cardinal engineering directive. The Honda Fit, however, dispenses fun disproportionate to its $14,585 price tag. Also unexpected are the same high-quality interior materials used in Honda products costing two and three times as much. The Fit's 109-horsepower four-cylinder won't haul you to the checker in a drag race, but will fling you into corners at a clip sufficient to experience a chassis so well tuned that it is one of the quickest cars ever through our lane-change test.
2008 Suzuki SX4
Length: 162.8 inches
Best-in-class cargo space and standard all-wheel drive make the Suzuki SX4 an interesting alternative to compact SUVs for those who want something smaller than an Impreza. We see it as a good solution for urbanites that live in snow-choked barrios like Buffalo or want to pile skis, bikes, and snowboards in and on their vehicles for weekend trips to the mountains. And as a true Suzuki product, not a rebadged Daewoo, the SX4 is injected with a touch of the sporting spirit otherwise flaunted in the brand's mastery of two-wheeled products.
2008 Volkswagen Rabbit
Length: 165.8 inches
We liked the Rabbit enough to place it at the top of a recent compact car battle where it slayed such notable contenders as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. The same agrarian power band that makes it a bit of a snore on open tarmac is ideally suited to city duty, both torquey and tractable from idle. One tester described the Rabbit's ride motions as "liquid," the kind of adjective you want attached to a car that will know cobblestones, potholes, and railroad crossings. The Rabbit is the same length whether you select the three- or five-door model, so if your team frequently travels to Skee-Ball tournaments, we suggest the latter.
2008 Volvo C30
Length: 167.4 inches
Too many "unique" Yipsters sullying the trendsetting Mini ownership experience?
Are you more Design Miami/Basel than Design Within Reach? The Volvo C30 may be for you. Seventeen exterior and twelve interior color options mean you can order yourself up something truly unique (or tasteless). The trademark combination of safety and sensibility are combined with the sexiest interpretation of Volvo design in 30 years. The turbocharged C30 is a good alternative for those whose don't appreciate the harsher edge of a GTI or Cooper S, or simply want better placement from the valet. The $23,445 entry point isn't exactly cheap, but it's the least expensive way to own the Volvo experience.
2008 Mazda 5
Length: 181.5 inches
The Mazda5 remains the most compelling of the two vehicles in the wagon/minivan missing-link market -- the other being the Kia Rondo -- with a 2+2+2 seating arrangement in a vehicle barely longer than a Jetta. The Mazda 5 rides on an elongated Mazda3 chassis, with which it shares its sprightly moves. Rear sliding doors bless both sides, making it that much harder for a speeding taxi to remove an open door, and you with it. While it is the longest vehicle on this list, it is still shorter than the average passenger car and takes full advantage of a high ceiling to offer oodles of usable space for less money than a Mini.
There is another school of philosophy regarding city cars. Discipleship in the School of the Shitbox is usually sought after a third stolen car, the totaled-while-parked morning gift, or when replacing smashed side-window glass for the fifth time. Chariots of the inculcated aren't hard to spot: look for the rustiest, most wretched piece of vehicular detritus that still ekes past inspection. Initial investment should be limited to $400. Window smashed? Thanks for the fresh air, partner. Locks broken? That's okay; you won't be using those anyway. If there isn't already a gaping hole where the stereo once was, make one, and dangle shredded wires from the opening.
Battery acid applied directly to the paint is a good start, although a true devotee commits to a rubdown with 80-grit sandpaper followed with a saltwater rinse. Never before has parking been such a joy. Not sure whether youll fit between that utility truck and a telephone pole? 10 mph in reverse says you will.
The final touch is a jerry can of gas in the back, not there to wet a dry tank, but to send the car heavenward on a dead end street when something as expensive as the alternator gives out.
Length: not short
One day, someone will shine a flashlight into a NYC pothole and find missing pets, Hoffa, their dignity, and a Ford Festiva. We know someone who popped all four tires driving through a double-wide pothole in the Bronx. These unfathomable sinkholes could serve as the solution to our burgeoning solid waste problem.
Bottomless pits of automotive despair would be enough, but NYC adds heaving pavement to the mix. We damn near left a 350Z's crankcase on 27th St in a near-miss with a lane-centered, foot-tall cone of pavement, protruding like a paved-over garden gnome.
We can't think of a more exciting vehicle to navigate New York's five boroughs than a pre-runner, a type of street-legal truck built to reconnoiter off-road courses like the Baja 1000. And what better to drive than one of the trickest pre-runners ever built? $525,000 will buy you a vehicle that resembles a Ford F-150 Crew Cab but shares more parts with the space shuttle. A hand-built, Chevrolet-based V-8, rivaling the displacement of nine Smart engines, produces 648 horsepower on 87-octane pump gas so you can fill up on the filthiest swill available. Unequal-length control-arm suspension in the front and a four-link rear offer 22 and 30 inches of travel, respectively. True, some potholes are more than two-and-a-half-feet deep, but 37-inch tall tires help you span them. And yes, parking will be a bitch, but if you can afford a half-million dollar truck, you can afford the $225,000 parking space.