There's no Napoleon complex here – these small cars have power, style and great fuel economy
Perhaps the best cameo in the history of the movies occurs in the 1992 drama, Glengarry Glen Ross. Alec Baldwin — as slick as a tiger shark and just as fierce — has been dispatched by head office to shake up a regional team of moribund real estate salesmen. In a gasp-inducing, take-no-prisoners scene, he verbally slices and dices the sad-sack sales reps as if he were a human Cuisinart. Then Baldwin announces the details of a new one-month contest that has been designed to kick-start sales. First prize: Cadillac Eldorado. Second prize: A set of steak knives. Third prize: You’re fired.
Upon hearing the conditions of the gambit, Ed Harris — one of the veteran salesmen on the receiving end of Baldwin’s profanity-laced lecture –— has the temerity to ask Baldwin what his name is (since he never bothered to introduce himself). What follows next is one of the most scathing putdowns on film.
“F--- you, is my name,” Baldwin screams at Harris, who is sitting mere centimetres away. “You know why, mister? You drove a Hyundai to get here tonight; I drove an $80,000 BMW.” Notably, Baldwin doesn’t say “rusted-out Hyundai” or “broken-down Hyundai.” He merely spits out the brand name as though an entry-level compact identifies its driver as a citizen of Loserville.
Yet, when it comes to automobiles traversing North America’s highways and byways, ’twas ever thus: a feeling of contempt for small rides. Back in the days of Mad Men, bigger was always considered better. But these days, as the price of petrol surges ever higher, “downsizing” — and for that matter, “Hyundai” — are no longer dirty words. Indeed, in the 20 years since Glengarry Glen Ross was released, Hyundai has morphed into far more than a manufacturer of cheap econoboxes. Just check out its $63,000 luxury-laden sedan, the Equus.
Small gets big
These days, a growing number of vehicle buyers are looking at how much fuel cars consume. “Big is beautiful’ is increasingly being eclipsed by “small is sensational” and “frugal is fantastic.” The good news is that, be it import or domestic, there’s never been so much choice when it comes to good quality (and very affordable) small cars.
Even better: in the past, a “small car” was characterized as being a bare bones ride. Yet, today, small cars can be optioned out with the same comforts found in full-size luxury cars — from heated seats to power everything. In fact, even brands better known for luxury and performance are getting in the small car game; case in point: BMW’s new 1 Series.
And forget about the down-market “econobox” look of the past — small cars now feature sculpted lines worthy of vehicles that cost several thousand more.
Some small cars have even latched on to that intangible known as the cool factor. At time of writing, the current “it” car on Canadian roads was none other than the diminutive Fiat 500, which is now being sold at 58 Canadian Chrysler dealerships.
“This  could be the Mini Cooper of 2011 — a car that’s small but different,” says Chrysler Canada spokesman Daniel Labrie, noting he expects the 500 (base price: $15,995) to appeal to those car buyers who aren’t necessarily in the market for a sub-compact (think urban hipsters).
How the world has changed: the hottest small car is found at Chrysler dealerships, home turf of big Ram trucks, 4x4 Jeeps, and the iconic Hemi powerplant.
Granted, a small car cannot fill everyone’s needs — a family of four simply can't commute in a two-seater Smart car. But if you can indeed get by without the girth of an SUV, crossover, minivan, or full-size sedan, a small car renaissance is happening in new car showrooms across the nation. Here are a few notable models.
2011 Ford Fiesta
Those who had the misfortune to drive a ’70s Ford Fiesta likely have a sour taste in their mouths. After all, that underachieving car was the dictionary definition of “rust bucket.” But the new Fiesta is indeed something worth celebrating. Positioned to compete with the likes of the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit, the Fiesta starts at just $14,449 and is being marketed as a “big small car” given its surprisingly generous interior. Notably, the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada has proclaimed the fuel-sipping Fiesta as the “Best Small Car under 21K.”
2012 Ford Focus
Ford Canada spokeswoman Christine Hollander says the all-new and vastly improved North American Focus will have “80 percent commonality” with the company’s European Focus (that’s a very good thing, by the way: the European-spec Focus was always a superior car.) And for the 2013 model year, Ford’s superb EcoBoost engine (a powerplant that increases horsepower while improving fuel economy) will be available. The base price for the 2011 is $17,549.
2012 Honda Civic
The all-new Civic was unveiled at the North American International Auto Show in January. Gone is the wedge-shape of the current model; in its place are far more sculpted lines. Honda says the new Civic will deliver the equivalent of 5.8L/100km. The 2011 starts at $14,990.
2011 Chevrolet Cruze
One of the most hyped cars in recent times, General Motors has high hopes for its small, global car (already available in 60 countries) that replaces the Cobalt (which few shall mourn). Highway fuel economy has been pegged at 4.6L/100km for the manual Eco model. The base model Cruze starts at $14,995, although you’ll have to fork out $24,780 for the LTZ Turbo model. The General has had bad luck with small cars in the past, ranging from the Chevette to the Cavalier. That losing streak is likely to end with the Cruze.
2011 Hyundai Elantra
At the press unveiling of the Elantra, Steve Kelleher, president and CEO of Hyundai Canada, declared this new model is destined to become Canada’s best-selling car, overtaking the Civic, Mazda 3 and Corolla in the compact class. That’s a tall order, but it is selling briskly. Style-wise, this 148-horsepower Elantra outclasses every other Elantra before it — both inside and out. Fuel economy is rated at 6.8L/100km city and 4.9L/100km highway. Base price: $15,849.
Will the small car renaissance continue? As long as petrol prices keep soaring, demand for small cars will soar, too. “If you don’t think gas prices affect what vehicles consumers are buying, think again,” notes automotive analyst Dennis DesRosiers. “With gas prices spiralling out of control in April, consumers came back to the small car and light truck market in hordes.”
Indeed, sales of subcompact cars shot up 17.1 percent in April from the same month in 2010 while sales for compact models jumped 11.3 percent. Those models easily outpaced the overall market, which improved 6.9 percent in April compared to the same month in 2010.
Perhaps back in the pre-OPEC days, the pedigree of a car was measured by sheer length and the number of cubic inches lurking under the hood. But for a significant portion of the marketplace, vehicle satisfaction comes down to “kicking gas” — a task that has never been easier given the choice in the market.
This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.