Small is Beautiful: In Praise of Entry-Level Cars

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Nov 27, 2017

My nephew was disappointed. Usually, when I come up north to visit him I’m driving something exotic—BMWs, Audis, a 12-cylinder VW Phaeton, even a Bentley Turbo R once. But here I was showing up at his door in…a Kia Rio LX.

The Kia Rio didn't make much of a first impression, but it is a competent small car. (Jim Motavalli photo)

He heaped scorn on the poor unassuming thing: It’s boring and gutless, suitable only as a mindless clone’s commuting car.

I’ll admit that the Kia is kind of bare bones. The only “extra” is the backup camera, and by May that will be mandated (unless there’s a Trump-ordered review) for all vehicles under 10,000 pounds. But the prices are so low! The 2018 Kia Rio sedan starts at $14,795, and the hatchback as tested goes for $15,095. A six-speed manual is standard in the LX, but most will pay the extra $1,090 for the six-speed auto.

Inside the Kia Rio: No extras, but no big bottom-line price, either. (Jim Motavalli photo)

These days, entry-level cars like the Kia sit forlornly in the back rows of auto dealers. Nobody wants them—it’s all about crossovers and larger SUVs. For example, here’s the percentage some small and subcompact cars were down in September 2017 year to date compared to 2016 at the same time: Chevrolet Sonic, -41.5; Chevrolet Spark, -50; Dodge Dart, -74; Honda Fit, -7.5; Hyundai Accent, -28.2; Hyundai Elantra, -8.9 percent; Kia Rio, -50.5; Mazda3, -18.9; Smart fortwo, -34.8; Toyota Corolla, -8.2. 

Sam Abuelsamid, a senior analyst at Navigant Research, tells me, "As long as fuel prices remain relatively low and stable, there is little likelihood of American consumers returning to cars of any kind soon. Of course, if gas prices spike, all bets are off as usual, but that would likely require some sort of political meltdown in the Middle East."

Look at all that Kia space! (Jim Motavalli photo)

Meanwhile, sedans just seem to be disappearing. In July, light trucks (including SUVs) were an incredible 63 percent of U.S. car sales. And as I discovered on my recent trip to China, that same sensibility also exists in the world’s largest auto market. Some Chinese carmakers sell only SUVs.

SUVs dominate on the Chinese auto show stands, just as they do in the U.S. (Jim Motavalli photo)

But I would still say that for most people, even for families with a couple of kids, small, entry-level cars make the most sense. People ask me all the time for car advice, and I confound their expectations by pointing them at Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas. My two kids, one of whom was six feet tall by the time she was a teenager, happily lived in the back of our Honda Fit—which has very accommodating “magic seats.” Small cars:

Are affordable to buy. Here are some 2017 starting prices: Chevrolet Spark, $13,050;  Ford Fiesta, Ford Focus, $17,860; $13,660; Honda Fit, $16,190; Honda Civic, $18,740; Hyundai Accent, $14,745; Hyundai Elantra, $16,950; Mazda3, $18,095; Mitsubishi Mirage, $13,395; Nissan Sentra, $16,990; Smart fortwo, $14,650; Subaru Impreza, $18,495; Toyota Yaris iA, $15,950; Toyota Corolla iM, $18,850; Volkswagen Golf, $19,895; Volkswagen Jetta, $17,895.

I have a Yaris test car now, and I like it just fine. The gas gauge barely moves around town. And the price ($17,915) includes stability control, anti-lock brakes with electronic brake force assist, a backup camera, and more airbags than you can shake a stick at.

The Toyota Yaris iA is a very reliable small car that won't dent your wallet--just $17,915 in this as-tested form. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Have excellent reliability records. There are no more reliable cars than the Corolla and the Civic. Period. JD Power gives high keep-rolling marks to the 2017 Toyota Prius and Prius v, Chevrolet Sonic, Nissan Versa, Buick Verano, Honda Civic and Kia Soul. 

Get great gas mileage. Stellar performers (in combined fuel economy, 2017 models): Toyota Prius c, 46 mpg; Mitsubishi Mirage, 39 mpg; Chevy Cruze, 37 mpg; Honda Fit, 36 mpg; Honda Civic, 36 mpg; Smart fortwo, 35 mpg; Hyundai Elantra, 35 mpg; Mazda2, 35 mpg; Toyota Yaris iA, 35 mpg; Ford Fiesta, 35 mpg.  

Offer far more interior space than you think. I have a word for you: hatchback. The Kia was extremely easy to load, and if we didn’t have people in the back seat it would have had tons of uninterrupted storage space. Let’s look at the latest Civic, introduced in 2016. It has 37.4 inches of rear legroom, and 15.1 cubic feet of maximum cargo capacity. Compare that to a 2017 Mustang coupe, which has 13.5 cubic feet of trunk space, and 30.6 inches of rear legroom. Even the tiny Rio has 15 cubic feet. Eek. Not a fair comparison? The compact Buick Encore SUV has 35.8 inches of rear legroom, still less than the Civic.

Have great safety ratings. Can you do better than five stars overall in crash tests? Nope. That’s what the Honda Fit gets. Also, the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Chevrolet Sonic, and on and on. Let me repeat—cars can’t get higher ratings. The Chevrolet Suburban—a tank if ever there was one—gets four stars overall, and does worse in frontal crashes than all these cars cited.

The 2018 Toyota Corolla: stellar in all categories--except sales. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I realize I’m probably wasting my time writing about this. Americans have turned against small cars, and it will take $4 a gallon gas—or worse—to get them back on that track.

Abuelsamid offers one ray of hope for small cars--if people end up buying into affordable subscription models that "allow consumers to select a small car for their commute to work and perhaps take a utility for the weekend or family road trip." But he sees these models relegated to the premium segment until self-driving mobility as a service arrives, which won't be until at least the mid-2020s.

My nephew’s reaction to small cars is mainsteam American at this point. But c’mon, cars are the most expensive thing you buy besides your real estate, and you really should be making a decision from the head, not the heart. Small is beautiful. Really.

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One