Why Small Cars Are a Smart Buy

They're stylish, fun, practical—and, oh yeah, cheap.

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I spent a week recently driving the new GMC Yukon hybrid—and couldn't wait to get out of it. Not because there's anything wrong with the strapping, eight-passenger SUV. In fact, it's polished and comfortable, and the hybrid system seems to work great. It's just too darn big.

So are lots of other cars. Over the past 20 years, Americans have grown accustomed to defaulting upward when choosing a car—buying more than they need, rather than less. Now, the trend is reversing. Thanks to record-high gas prices and a tottering economy, sales of the largest cars and SUVs are down 20 percent so far this year. The only category where sales are rising is compact vehicles. A nationwide automotive downsizing is underway.

The last time this happened, after the oil embargo of the 1970s, Americans drove small cars for a while—and decided they hated them. As gas prices retreated, cars got plumper again. But this time, American drivers might find smaller rides a lot more appealing—and stick with them. Here's why:

Small can be sexy. In the 1970s and '80s, small meant bland and uncomfortable. Dolorous, even. Think Chevy Citation. Ford Escort. Even the early Honda Civic was panned as a rattletrap. There will always be a few grim bottom-dwellers, but these days there are plenty of terrific cars that just happen to be small. The Mini Cooper is an obvious example, but compacts like the Volkswagen Rabbit, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Scion tC, Honda Civic, and Hyundai Elantra offer plenty of comforts and good mileage for less than $20,000. Upscale models like the Audi A3 and BMW 1 series are as swank as larger luxemobiles. And as demand continues to grow, the manufacturers will build even better compacts.

Petite is practical. Except for hauling, everything is easier in smaller cars. You can wheel into just about any parking space without scouting for one with extra room on the sides. A two-point turn in a big SUV like the Yukon is a no-point U-turn in a hatchback like the Rabbit or Mazda3. You don't need an expensive back-up camera to avoid rear fender-benders, because you can see what's behind you. Maneuvering in traffic is less stressful, because there's less machine protruding in every direction and getting in the way of all the other cars.

Lighter cars perform better. Sorry, but there's no such thing as a "sporty" SUV or large sedan. The most exhilarating cars are small. Now, not everybody wants or needs a Volkswagen GTI or Mazda Miata or Audi TT, but the basic principle applies to all cars: The less mass the engine needs to propel, the more nimble and responsive the car will be. That's why the sprawling 7 series is considered BMW's flagship, but the much-smaller 3 series is the true car-lover's car. People downsizing from a big SUV or sedan to something smaller will notice that there's less body roll on turns and that the vehicle seems easier to control. They might even discover that driving can be fun.

Small cars are safe. Many drivers "feel" safe in an SUV, because they're sitting higher. But that's a false sense of security. The higher center of gravity makes SUVs more likely to roll over in a crash. The safest cars tend to be large sedans, but stricter federal and industry safety standards—and widely publicized crash-test ratings—have significantly raised the safety performance of all cars. A compact is still at a disadvantage if it collides with a higher or heavier vehicle, but new technology like side-curtain air bags and electronic stability control makes accidents more avoidable and survivable, a boon for smaller vehicles. As for "feeling" safe, many small cars now come with big 16- or 17-inch tires, sophisticated steering, better noise dampening, and other enhancements that make them more stable on the highway and less likely to waver in a gust of wind.

You can reclaim your garage. Downsizing from a Yukon-sized SUV to a smaller crossover, like the Saturn Vue, can clear nearly 2 feet of garage space. In most houses, the garage was built to accommodate a midsize car, not a bus. Imagine stepping around your car once again, rather than shimmying.

Better use of interior space. The Honda Fit is one of the smallest cars on the market, but its rear "magic seat" can be rolled into the floor to maximize storage space or reconfigured for other purposes. The result is a compact car that can comfortably seat 6-footers on one trip and haul a load of mulch on another. More and more cars come with this kind of interior flexibility, which allows many families to drop down one size category and still get the same practicality. Most appealing are a dozen or so crossovers, like the Saturn Outlook, Toyota Highlander, and Mazda CX-9, that can haul nearly as many people as a minivan or big SUV, but in a tidier package. Sure, there will always be tribes that need the biggest vehicle they can find, but most of us can get by with a bit less. It might even seem like more.

  • Rick Newman

    Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback to Success and the co-author of two other books. Follow him on Twitter or e-mail him at rnewman@usnews.com.

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