For cars, small is big again. But unlike the cars of yesteryear, choosing a subcompact no longer means settling with cramped penalty boxes that have less space than they do personality. It no longer means facing the scary reality that merging onto the highway has to be done with the utmost of caution in fear of your car not being able to reach more than 30 mph before hitting the interstate.
We’ve wrangled some of the best new vehicles your $16,000 can buy that have loads of equipment — not the sort that make you pay more for an armrest, for example. Starting with the smallest of the small, we’ve checked out the best bang for your buck that comes with a new-car warranty.
2012 Fiat 500
What the 2012 Fiat 500 doesn’t have in size, it more than makes up for in style. Costing about $100,000 less than the next-cheapest new Italian car sold in the U.S., the Maserati GranTurismo coupe, the 500 packs a standard MP3 CD player, front and rear disc brakes, and more fun than you can shake a stick at into its 139.6-inch-long body. Looking much like the first 500 that debuted in 1957, the retro 500 goes the follows the nostalgic route of the Mini Cooper but at three-fourths of the price. Netting an EPA estimated 38 mpg on the highway, it’s as good of a commuter car as it is a looker.
2011 Smart Fortwo Passion coupe
If ever there were a car designed for in-city commuting, the 2011 Smart Fortwo Passion coupe would be it. At just under nine feet long, the Smart can fit bumper-to-curb in tight parking spots and still not stick out into traffic. Though 70 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque routed through a five-speed sequential automatic transmission don’t seem like a lot, the Smart has plenty of getup to move its modest 1808-lb curb weight in and out of traffic. With the ability to personalize the Smart in an unlimited number of colors or unique car wraps and the choice of four interior materials that coordinate with the cloth or leather seats, the Smart might just be one of the smarter cars to get when space is at a premium.
2012 Scion iQ
Likely packing 99 hp and 91 lb-ft of torque in its 1.3-liter I-4 engine, the Scion iQ boasts plenty of power to push it around, weighing just 1996 lbs in UK specification. Expected to come equipped with a standard stereo system that streams Pandora Internet radio among a host of features uncommon for the price class, the iQ should post a threat to the Smart in that it will have a 3 + 1 seating arrangement, allowing it to carry two extra passengers in a pinch. It will also have a long list of dealer-installed add-ons when it hits showrooms starting this fall at a starting price of $15,995 including destination.
2011 Toyota Yaris hatchback
In what is likely to be its last model year before being redesigned, the 2011 Toyota Yaris three-door hatchback provides the long-standing value that comes with the Japanese brand in a cheap, functional, and fairly no-frills package. While starting at $13,915, the cheapest of the group, the 36-mpg Yaris packs none of the amenities of the others as standard — not even power windows or door locks. When optioned up, the Yaris gets expensive quickly, shooting past $17,000. While the car is practical, it takes some not-so-cheap option box checking to get the Yaris beyond the level of basic transportation.
2012 Chevrolet Sonic
Throwing in a serious contender to the cheap-doesn’t-have-to-feel-cheap arena, the $15,695 2012 Chevrolet Sonic LT sedan boasts a standard 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 138 horsepower and 125 lb-ft of torque — massive numbers for its class. Moving that power to the pavement comes by way of a standard six-speed manual transmission or an automatic available for an extra $700. With standard keyless entry, remote power door locks, and a six-month subscription to Onstar, the Sonic has an impressive list of features. Paired with an available turbocharged 1.4-liter I-4, the Sonic should hit 40 mpg highway, too.
2012 Hyundai Accent
Always packing big value into its cars, the 2012 Hyundai Accent comes with an abundance of standard equipment and a sharp design, not unlike the larger Elantra and Sonata sedans or the mechanically similar Kia Rio. While starting at $14,955 including the destination charge, the Accent GLS sedan has standard power windows and door locks, air conditioning, XM satellite radio in its MP3/CD player stereo, and jacks for an MP3 player and iPod. Opting up to the SE or GS hatchbacks only adds more to the package. Hyundai’s best feature for the budget-minded shopper might just be its standard 10-year powertrain warranty.