Photo By: Courtesy of Toyota
“Small” when you’re talking about cars can mean many things. For example, last month we drove three small cars that are similar in size and safety but vastly different in price and purpose.
The redesigned Toyota Yaris is a two-door and hatchback model, well-suited for a young single person interested in a safe, practical car that can hold lots of cargo or three BFFs – all at a price of just under $18,000.
The Nissan Sentra is a four-door sedan that would be ideal for a young couple with two children who want a car that can fit family transportation needs at a price under $20,000.
And, as a study in contrasts, the quirky but cute new MINI John Cooper Works Coupe costs twice as much as the Sentra – and carries only two passengers – but may be one of the most responsive small sports cars on the road today.
Starting with the least expensive first, the second-generation Yaris is an example of the great small cars that are revolutionizing the affordable end of the transportation market.
A few years ago we noted in this section that several manufacturers had just introduced small cars that were inexpensive enough for college students or recent graduates but for the first time were equipped with antilock brakes, stability control systems and body structures that made them as safe as full-size cars costing much more money.
However, we did not include the first-generation Yaris in the group because of its interior design, which placed the speed- ometer and gauges in the center of the dashboard outside the driver’s standard range of vision. Not only has Toyota rectified that issue with the new design, placing the gauges directly in front of the steering wheel, but the company now also boasts – as standard equipment – all the safety features offered on other Toyotas. That includes stability control, traction control, antilock braking and Smartstop brake assist.
Also worth noting: The handling has been tightened up a bit, and we found the car to be quick into the corners and composed through the curves, The consequence is an automobile that can be driven with confidence and – dare we say it – even provide a little fun along the way.
In addition, as with the other three-door hatchbacks in this market niche, the packaging is eminently practical, with rear seats that can hold two adults (though it takes a bit of youthful agility to get in and out) or fold down to offer substantial cargo space that can easily be accessed through the rear hatch. The Yaris is also available in a five-door model for a few thousand dollars more.
On the negative side, the Yaris might be considered a little underpowered, especially relative to competitors like the Ford Fiesta, Chevy Sonic, Hyundai Accent and Honda Fit, but it has enough power to be safe in traffic – and fuel efficiency is excellent.
The Nissan Sentra we drove the following week is an example of how the competence being built into these small chassis can be upgraded through some packaging tweaks to meet the needs of younger families or practical empty nesters.
Though the wheelbase is roughly the same as the Yaris, the Sentra is a true sedan, with four doors and a trunk. Designed as a sedan, the rear seating area is a bit larger than the Yaris’, so a parent can easily put children into safety seats in the rear. In addition, the rear seats can be folded down separately or together to extend trunk space for large-item shopping trips.
Unfortunately, the Sentra doesn’t offer a flashy exterior or snappy handling, and the continuously variable transmission doesn’t lend itself to quick acceleration. Of course, in the young-family market niche, neck-snapping power and head-turning design aren’t part of the equation, but then those attributes rarely figure into the decision-making of the budget-minded family. The purchase price of less than $20,000 and fuel efficiency of approximately 30 mpg are going to be much more important.
What else can a manufacturer do within this compact wheelbase? If purchase price and all-purpose versatility aren’t as important to the purchase decision as performance and handling, then the brand-new MINI Coupe, especially with the John Cooper Works performance package that we drove, may be just the ticket to driving fun.
The basic design, built on the MINI Cooper chassis but configured with only two seats and a nipped-off rear end, was introduced last summer to appeal to drivers looking for performance rather than practicality. The price is twice that of the Yaris or Sentra, but it is actually less than that of other sports cars offering the same acceleration and handling.
Exterior design is certainly extreme and eye-catching. If observers think the top reminds them of a baseball cap with the bill turned to the rear, it’s not coincidental; the designers say they had exactly that intention in mind when they started putting designs on their computer screens.
The front-seat area, circular center-mounted gauge cluster and dash are nearly identical to other MINIs, but the rear area is quite different. In place of the two rear seats of the coupes, the designers have created a capacious trunk area that is directly accessible both from the front seats and from the trunk hatch. The product is that rare commodity in sports cars: luggage space.
As to performance, our handling test loop of Page Mill Road, Skyline Boulevard and Highway 9 down into Los Gatos was convincing. This is absolutely the best-performing, best-handling automobile we’ve ever driven with a retail price less than $50,000.
The emergence of safe, practical, fuel-efficient automobiles in compact sizes is one of the great accomplishments of the automotive industry over the past decade, and these three examples effectively illustrate the wide range of choices available to the consumer.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.