Small cars used to be "cheap" cars; their materials were cheap, their build-quality was cheap, and their features were even cheap. Anybody remember the original Honda Civic, Ford Pinto, or Plymouth Cricket? Point made.

Today's small cars, by and large, are not cheap cars. They're well-built from good materials like rust-resistant galvanized steel and offer a wide range of features you'd expect to find only on luxury cars such as satellite radio and navigation systems.

Unlike other comparisons that focus on perennial top-selling small cars like the new Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, or Honda Civic, this review looks at four distinctly different choices. These cars offer a range of style, features, performance, and fuel efficiency; the Volkswagen Rabbit, Saturn Astra, Subaru Impreza, and Suzuki SX4.

About Thinking Small(er)

As an automotive journalist, I'm often asked, "Why can't America build small cars like the Europeans?" The thinking is that American manufacturers are technically or intellectually incapable of producing a small car. Reality is rarely so simplistic.

Perhaps a better question is, "Why don't Americans like small cars?" It's not like there haven't been small cars around for sale in the U.S.

The answer is that, generally speaking, Americans prefer vehicles that best fit their driving environment, their wallet, their perceived needs, and their actual needs. Our country's wide open spaces, historically low petroleum costs, and popular culture fueled the popularity of trucks and SUVs.

Today, the higher cost of fuel has changed everything ... at least temporarily. Americans appear to be more willing than ever to consider smaller vehicles to drive in their big country. As buyers look to smaller cars, they'll discover that there's more to enjoy than high mileage. Today's small cars utilize their interior space very well, deliver acceptable zip, and offer high-end features to satisfy most every want. Let's take a look at our four choices.

2008 Volkswagen Rabbit: Pat the bunny

MSRP: $15,600 - $17,575

Invoice: $14,799 - $17,045

Since the introduction of the Golf 34 years ago, from one perspective, almost nothing has changed with this iconic small car. It is still an affordable front-wheel-drive car with a simple two-box design (a small box houses the engine and a larger box outlines the passenger compartment). More realistically, however, a lot has changed. The 2008 Rabbit is larger, more fuel-efficient, much safer, higher quality, and a far better performer.

What we liked

AOL Autos editors have driven several different Rabbit models (two- and four-door hatchbacks) in the past few months and have found their build quality to be excellent. We like the rich materials used inside; the cloth used on the seats felt comfortable and durable, and the textured carpet had a premium look.

We also like the 2.5-liter 5-cylinder engine. It produces 150 horsepower and 170 lb-ft of torque that delivers powerful acceleration. The feeling is similar to a V-6 engine in terms of the immediacy of its power delivery. The chassis is tuned to be responsive and smooth, which gives one the impression that of driving a larger car.

What we didn't like

It's tough to look at the exterior of the 2008 Volkswagen Rabbit and see a thing of beauty. The high nose tends to give it a bulky, inelegant lumpiness. And as much as we liked the engine, the standard package is not as frugal as some other small cars, with the best combination delivering 22 mpg city, 29 mpg highway. We're also confused as to why four-door models are so much more expensive than the two-doors: go figure (and I'm sure some of you will).

2008 Saturn Astra: An Astra-nomical leap forward.

MSRP: $15,875 - $18,375

Invoice: $14,843 - $17,181

You may not know that Saturn is a wholly owned subsidiary of General Motors. Back in 1990, GM created Saturn to be a different kind of car company, but after 10 years, Saturn offered nothing but second-rate vehicles through their first rate dealer organization. The good news is that in the last two years, Saturn benefits from all-new products, including the handsome, German-built Astra (produced and engineered by GM's Opel division).

What we liked

The all-new Astra possesses a toned, athletic look. The longer you look at it, the more handsome the car gets, and we think it's the best looking car in this grouping. The beauty is more than skin deep, as the doors close solidly with a good "thunk" and the materials used throughout seem to be of high quality.

Sitting in the comfortable driver's seat, our model was equipped with a large two-panel sun roof. The optional glass roof gave the interior an airy aura that increased the interior's feeling of spaciousness.

We also liked the mileage from our model that was equipped with a 5-speed manual; 24 mpg city/32 mpg highway, about 10-percent better than the Rabbit. Handling was nimble and was, for the most part, smooth.

What we didn't like

To achieve better fuel mileage, manufacturers will often off trade out performance. That is certainly the case with the Saturn's 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. With only 138 horsepower, the acceleration from our 2008 Saturn Astra was lackluster. Practically, we can live with modest pickup, but harder to live with day in and day out is a lack of engine refinement. Even though there are not any nasty vibrations, the Astra's engine doesn't sound refined, especially when accelerating hard. (The Rabbit was much quieter, and performed as if it were never stressing.)

Inside, the basic controls were great to look at but confusing to use; if you buy one it will take some time to figure out how everything works. One must remember that this is an Opel, developed in Europe for Europeans. Little was done to modify it for our market, so you'll find some new symbols and controls to get used to.

Another cultural curiosity, because Germans don't drink anything while they drive, the front seat's only cup holder is at the rear of the front console. Not a convenient location for your Big Gulp.

Next Page: Subaru Impreza & Suzuki SX4 Sport

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