Kia Rio (2006 starting price: $11,350; 29 mpg city, 38 mpg highway) The second-cheapest car in America at a little more than $11,000. The Rio looks kind of silly, like a bumper car, with rubberized stripes running the length of its sides. And its trunk is unacceptably tiny. Also, it reveals some serious limitations on the highway: As I edged toward 60 mph, the engine grew noticeably cranky. (Even more so with the air conditioner on. The moment you blast the A/C, the car loses all oomph.)
The Rio easily bests the Ion, though, when it comes to tooling around the city. It handles and accelerates more smoothly at modest speeds. I'd also like to commend the Rio for including a driver's-side armrest. You'd be surprised how many cars omit this key feature, leaving your right elbow dangling awkwardly in the air as you steer.
Nissan Versa (2007 starting price: $12,550; 30 mpg city, 34 mpg highway) Of the six cars I tested, the Versa model I tried had by far the swankiest interior. From its leather steering wheel to the sleek lines of its dashboard console, the design here was much higher-end than you'll find on your typical low-end car. The Versa also offers a keyless ignition system—a feature that feels rather out of place on an economy compact. (Despite the initial allure, I fail to see all the fuss with the keyless lifestyle. Is it really such a burden to take your keys out of your pocket?)
Lovely though its inside accouterments may be—and you'll pay $700 extra for the options package with that leather steering wheel and accompanying swank—the Versa's exterior does absolutely nothing for me. It has an unfortunate flaring and bulging of its lower hindparts. (Slate's Mickey Kaus termed this a "droopy-assed design" back when it appeared on the Nissan Altima, and for some unfathomable reason Nissan remains enamored of the look.)
Drivingwise, I didn't love the way the Versa handled around town. For a subcompact, it was surprisingly oafish and clunky. I always felt like I was dragging that big butt around behind me.
But the biggest flaw on the Versa I tried was with its stick shift. The transitions were herky-jerky, and engaging the clutch was less smooth than it should have been. Worse, there's a real issue with the location of the gears. Reverse is in an odd spot—the upper left corner, as with some Volkswagens I've driven. This would be OK, except that Nissan placed a sixth gear just where you'd expect reverse to be (the lower right corner). Several times I shifted into what I thought would be reverse only to find that when I released the clutch the car jolted forward and quickly stalled. No doubt one could adjust to this in time. (Or one could just buy an automatic.) But it's an annoyance and even a bit of a safety hazard.
Scion xA (2006 starting price: $13,270; 31 mpg city, 38 mpg highway) The Scion was pleasingly responsive and handled well. Acceleration and pickup were exceptional. (No problem passing trucks on the highway—something the Rio, for example, had real issues with.) Around town, the Scion glided through close-knit traffic, fit into claustrophobic parking spots, and showed off a turning radius that amazed me. Getting into the awkward garage entrance beneath my apartment building generally requires a three-point turn, but the Scion's tight arc had me cruising straight in without hesitation.
Once in the garage, the Scion even turned some heads. (Well, one head.) A guy walking to his car stopped, looked the xA up and down, and asked what it was. With its sporty hubcaps and distinctive hatchback windows, the car is definitely eye-catching. Inside, it feels plush and cozy. The rear seats fold down to create wonderful trunk space. (I fit some large IKEA boxes in there when I ran errands.)
My biggest problem with the xA: its image. Scion explicitly courts the aftermarket freaks who adorn their cars with gaudy modifications. Intricate paint jobs, flashy spoilers, weird accessories. It's become known as a car for those who express themselves through cars. And that's not me. (Particularly unsettling: The xA I drove came equipped, from the factory, with fluorescent interior lights. These illuminate the area around the floor mats and make you feel like you're at a techno rave. Which would be fine if the car came standard with several hits of ecstasy—but I'm not seeing that option anywhere in the literature.)
Toyota Yaris S Sedan (2007 starting price: $13,245; 34 mpg city, 40 mpg highway) The Yaris just edges out its corporate cousin the Scion, which, by the way, it shares an engine with. The Yaris S Sedan's exterior looks like an uncomfortably scrunched-up Corolla. I don't like the snub-nosed, bubble styling of the car's front end (it's rounded but then abruptly abbreviated). Nor am I a fan of the rear spoiler (an option included on the Yaris I drove), which seems misplaced on a teensy car with a 1.5-liter engine.