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On The Road

Little cars, lots of fun: Four new models worth at least a test-drive

Photo Courtesy Of ChryslerChrysler's Fiat 500 has an $18,000 sticker price. It is inspired by the styling of the cult classic Fiat Cinquecento, a tiny Italian car of the 1960s.


Each year in the spring, the automobile manufacturers bring their new cars to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca for local journalists to drive and review.

This year, four new cars captured our attention – the Fiat 500, Nissan JUKE, MINI Countryman and Lotus Evora. They are all too small to be considered practical, but they sure are fun.

Fiat 500

By the numbers: Two doors; four-cylinder engine; front-wheel drive; 100 hp; 28 mpg city, 36 mpg highway (EPA); $18,000 MSRP.

Our thoughts: A made-in-Mexico competitor to the MINI, the Fiat 500 is inspired by the styling of the cult classic Fiat Cinquecento, a tiny Italian car of the 1960s. The 500 will be on sale at some Chrysler dealers later this spring for just under $20,000. It is 5 inches shorter and has 20 fewer horsepower than the MINI and has been described as terminally cute in a “Hello Kitty” sort of way. Nevertheless, the 500 is surprisingly comfortable and competent on both the track and the street. It won’t attract the fast-and-furious crowd, but the young person who buys this car instead of a VW Beetle or Honda Fit will enjoy the ride.

Nissan JUKE

By the numbers: Two doors; turbocharged four-cylinder engine; all-wheel drive, 188 hp; 27 mpg city, 32 mpg highway (EPA); $19,000-$24,000.

Our thoughts: People who prefer clothes designed to stand out in any crowd will probably love the unabashed in-your-face styling of the JUKE. Those able to get beyond the wild exterior will find what could be the smallest off-road-capable car on the road. The JUKE can fit five and take them anywhere they want. On the track, we were astonished to discover that the JUKE’s superlative cornering ability and good pickup out of the corners allows it to stay with ridiculously more expensive machinery. It’s just amazing how much ugly you can buy for such a small price.

MINI Countryman

By the numbers: Four doors; nonturbo or turbocharged four-cylinder engine; all-wheel drive; 118 or 177 hp; 32 mpg city, 39 mpg highway (EPA); $25,000-$35,000 MSRP.

Our thoughts: This cute ute has two additional doors and is bigger and heavier than anything else in this group, but it still rates as the most fuel-efficient of them all. Surprisingly, even though it was scaled up, this new MINI hasn’t lost that peculiarly attractive look that has made its smaller siblings such successes. With the wheels out on the corners, there’s good space in the interior and the car has the signature “go-kart” handling that BMW designed into the other MINIs. Even with the smaller engine, the car can handle highway speeds, and we’re promised that it can handle dirt- and snow-covered roads with competence. However, unlike the JUKE, we were inclined to back off a little the first time we tossed this car through some backroad twisties, as it rocked back and forth more than we liked.

Lotus Evora

By the numbers: Two doors; mid-engine/rear drive V-6 engine; 276-345 hp; 18 mpg city, 27 highway (EPA); $73,000-$91,000 MSRP.

Our thoughts: OK, this car isn’t really in the same class as the others – except for its size and newness – but once we drove it, we couldn’t put it out of our mind. Briefly, this is the best car we have ever driven through the Corkscrew at Mazda Raceway. It’s small, fast and so direct in its response that the car felt as if it had grown around us like Iron Man’s suit. It’s a trifle more practical than the high-performance Lotuses that came before it, with a reasonably well-finished interior, a hardtop high enough to allow a helmet to be worn comfortably and doors that could be entered and exited without crawling on hands and knees. If only it didn’t cost as much as the new Jaguar XJ premium sedan we’re driving this week and reviewing next month.

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