Fuel Economy: 28 mpg Hwy, 22 mpg CityIf you’ve finally faced the grim reality that your Corvette dreams have been usurped by the practical needs of a family and you find yourself eyeballing minivans, fear not. The Mazda5 mini-minivan supplies everything its ugly, clumsy, bloated brethren lack, with a much smaller body and a tight suspension that you can actually enjoy driving. I fit a portable P.A. system, a couple of guitars, an amplifier and two adult passengers into one during a recent test without a problem. Even if all you plan on hauling is people, at least the Mazda5 has a third row of seats sized for creatures larger than a ventriloquist dummy. If you have to own a minivan, this is the one that will give you most reason to swagger. The Mazda5’s base price of $18,510 means it won’t break the bank, either.
Fuel Economy: 33 mpg Hwy, 27 mpg CityYou’ve got to admire a tiny hatchback that offers optional shift paddles to go with its wanna-be pocket rocket 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine. The Fit can also be had with a navigation system, a rare and pleasing oddity in a car with a starting price of $14,900. The Fit’s rear seat folds down to make a surprisingly roomy storage space for your groceries, suitcases, lumber, or a tuba. Opt for the Sport trim level and you get stylish amenities like rocker moldings, fog lights, 16-inch alloy wheels, and a roof spoiler. Even the base Fit has a firm and sporty suspension. True, there are a ridiculous 10 cup holders and plastic aplenty inside, and the sun visors are a waste of time. If you’re lanky, you may have troubles squeezing behind the wheel, but otherwise, the Fit’s a singularly handsome urban ride.
Fuel Economy: 19 mpg Hwy, 15 mpg CityIt may seem like a strange choice, but the Wrangler expresses your urban cowboy like no other ride. You can even take this thing out of town and do true off-roading. (Or, more likely for most urbanites, just hit the beach.) The Wrangler’s base MSRP has climbed to $21,165, which might seem expensive for this utilitarian truck, but all versions are now powered by a 3.8-liter V6 that gets a miserable 15 per gallon in the city. Wranglers come in either a basic two-door or the Unlimited four-door version. Each provides a no-frills, uncomfortable driving experience, with controls like Novocain. But hey, some guys don’t like to be coddled, and the noisy interior prevents pointless conversation. Even better, it’s a snap to fit into city parking spaces, and other drivers tend to give you respect, though it helps if you have visible tats and a shaved head.
Fuel Economy: 31 mpg Hwy, 26 mpg CityThe Soul doesn’t win a lot of points from me for its styling, which is supposed to be youthful and clever but I find it boring and derivative. I do like that it’s an inexpensive vehicle (base MSRP is only $13,300) with at least one neat character-adding novelty. The Soul’s door-mounted front speakers are surrounded by red lights that blink and pulsate to whatever music you play. The caveat is that you can’t shut these speaker lights off and they don’t blink in time, just pretending to, like a rhythm-challenged yuppie boogying after a couple of drinks at the office Christmas party. But still, the Soul is a fun runt that’s whimsical and toy-like, with a four-cylinder engine, small dimensions and handy compartments galore. It’s idea for city-dwellers who are looking for a useful vehicle with a small footprint.
Volkswagen New Beetle
Fuel Economy: 28 mpg Hwy, 20 mpg CityUnlike some do-overs of iconic vehicles that keep the name and nothing else, VW wisely hung onto the Bug’s instantly recognizable pod shape when it was re-launched in 1997. The New Beetle has soldiered on mostly unchanged for over a decade since, save for being fitted with VW’s new 150-hp, 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine in 2006. With an $18,690 starting price, it’s still affordable, and for big-and-tall city dwellers that are not fond of pint-sized urban cars, the New Beetle makes for a surprisingly roomy choice. Speedy the New Beetle is not, and despite the “upgraded” engine, mileage is only rated at 20 in the city. While it may not engender much respect from drivers of larger vehicles, you’ll have the last laugh when parallel parking. Prospective shoppers show know this is the last model year for the current version of the New Beetle.
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Fuel Economy: 28 mpg Hwy, 21 mpg CityIts old “Miata” moniker was a more creative name than the bland-as-tofu “MX-5,” but that’s one of the few aspects of this car that hasn’t evolved. This peanut-sized two-seater can still be shoehorned into tight parking spots as well as it carves the corners, which is to say, almost without peers. Its 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes a mere 167 horsepower, but is actually quite powerful for a car this size, and if you opt for the well-equipped Grand Touring model, the interior flavor is positively swank. The MX-5’s one caveat is its lack of storage, but that also means your friends will never ask you to help them move, nor will the gang automatically vote you chauffeur after a night out. The MX-5 starts at just $20,635, and also offers an optional power retractable hardtop, a good choice for keeping valuables safe while parked on the street.
Fuel Economy: 20 mpg Hwy, 13 mpg CityHey, not everyone is a struggling fill-in-the-blank in the big city. For those upon whom fortune has batted her eyes, the $245,000 Ghost provides that one-of-a-kind name synonymous with wealth, class and luxury, but in a lot smaller and less obvious package than its big brother, the Phantom. A 6.6-liter V12 provides plenty of power commensurate with its Hummer-like fuel economy. A recent test drive proved you can come and go as you please in this thing without being surrounded at red lights by paparazzi or yokel tourists, yet even typically self-absorbed Manhattanites still eyeball you like the suave prince you become behind the wheel of this hand-built gem. My only complaints were with the relatively chintzy trunk, and the interior warning bells, which are identical with those found in other vehicles from corporate parent BMW.
Fuel Economy: 30 mpg Hwy, 21 mpg CityAudi doesn’t make a bad set of wheels, and its entry-level A3 wagon ($27,270 starting MSRP) provides relatively plenty of room and excellent mileage: 30 in city if you opt for the diesel model. Squeezing into city parking spaces is a breeze, although quick shifts from reverse-to-drive-and-back when parallel parking are a bit cumbersome unless you spring for Audi's S-tronic dual-clutch auto-manual transmission. The A3’s features list is long, and includes a Bluetooth hookup, xenon headlights, sunroof, adaptive suspension, nav system, quattro all-wheel-drive, and heated and power seats. You’ve also got a choice of two engines: a turbocharged, 2.0-liter four-cylinder or a 2.0-liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel. The gas engine makes 200 hp, but the diesel is the plum option, making only 140 hp but 236 lb-ft of torque. Finally, this great-looking car makes a total Euro-fashion statement, if that’s your thing.
MINI Cooper Clubman
Fuel Economy: 36 mpg Hwy, 28 mpg CityWith a wheelbase that’s stretched a bit compared to the regular Mini, the Clubman has a slightly more forgiving ride and a considerably more useful back seat and cargo area. This makes the Clubman wagon an ideal city utility vehicle, though still somewhat challenging to fit four adults. With 172 turbocharged horsepower and a taut suspension to take full advantage of it, the Cooper S model is as close to a sports car as you can find in a front-drive subcompact. The standard Cooper offers a mere 118 hp, but starts at just $20,450. Both Clubman models are “three-doors,” though by all rights they should be called “two-and-a-half-doors.” The extra portal on the passenger side is concealed and only unlatches, suicide-style, once the main door is open. But it makes back-seat access as convenient as the Clubman is to park on the street.
Dishonorable mention: Smart fortwo
Fuel Economy: 41 mpg Hwy, 33 mpg CityI bring my own bag to the grocery store, I cheered my lungs out at the Live Earth concert in Jersey two summers ago, and I recently paid Staples $10 to recycle my old Dell. It stands to reason I should celebrate and adore the tiny Smart fortwo and its reported 41 miles per highway gallon. But go ahead and hit me with a carrot stick, as this thing should come with its own clown nose. The problems begin with the 70-hp, three-cylinder engine's automatic transmission, which can't make up its mind what gear it wants to be in and announces each change with a noticeable jerk. If the fortwo was priced reasonably, I might feel differently, but its $11,990 base price only buys a stripped down model without air conditioning, power steering, or even a radio. Perhaps the fortwo’s biggest failing is that it is impossible to display any kind of aggression while driving this thing. At least in Manhattan, people take you about as seriously as a barking Chihuahua.