Compact wagons: Useful, fun and eye-catching

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If you want a fuel-efficient car with a little more personality and room than the typical compact sedan, consider one of these stylish new urban transporters.

The Chevrolet HHR, Scion xB and Kia Spectra5 come with four doors and a rear hatch for cargo loading. All have economical four-cylinder engines and front-wheel drive. All are easy to maneuver and park, yet surprisingly spacious inside for people and cargo. All of these wagons start in the mid-teens, and even with some extras, still cost less than $20,000

Chevrolet HHR

The HHR's biggest selling point is its cavernous cargo space. Flop the second row seat flat and roll in a bike without removing the front wheel. Fold the front passenger seat to carry a ladder or surfboard. Hoist a kayak onto the roof without using a step ladder.

Small kids and dogs have no trouble climbing into the HHR, which shares many of its structural and mechanical components with the Cobalt compact sedan, and therefore sits much lower to the ground than a sport-utility vehicle.

Of course the eye-catching Chevy is supposed to resemble a scaled-down 1949 Suburban -- a classic SUV. The interior has some retro-styling hints as well, such as the chrome-rimmed gauges. We aren't thrilled that the HHR looks so much like the Chrysler PT Cruiser -- the same designer created both. But it's still a great blend of cool and practical.

The HHR comes with a choice of two four-cylinder engines and a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. The car beneath its truck-like exterior provides nimble handling and a comfortable a ride. It growls loudly when you nail the gas pedal, but acceleration isn't anything to brag about. The HHR also delivers below average mileage for a compact -- 20 miles per gallon city and 25 m.p.g. highway.

We'd recommend the base LS (not the fancier LT version), the automatic transmission ($1,000), anti-lock brakes ($400) and side curtain airbags ($395) for a grand total of $19,315. Chevrolet offers lots of options, including a remote starter for cold days and various audio systems, which can boost the price higher. Plus 2007 models are now covered by General Motor's five-year or 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, which includes roadside assistance.

Scion xB

All-new for 2008, Scion's xB is bigger in every significant dimension. Its growth spurt includes a full foot in overall length, with slight increases in width and wheelbase, and a roofline that's a whisper taller than before.

Less of a straight-ahead 4-door box than its predecessor, but still no stranger to 90-degree angles in its shape, the new xB straddles an attitude in the area right between edgy and maturity. Standard 16-inch wheels and wider, sportier tires play to this broad middle ground and add cornering credibility to the mix.

Stepping in to replace the first-generation xB's languid 1.5-liter engine is the 2.4-liter inline-4 from Scion's popular tC coupe. This engine upgrade catapults the horsepower from 103 to 158, which brings the xB cleanly into line with its competition in the small-wagon market like the HHR and Spectra5.

That promise of more power by half absolutely caught our attention, but the front-wheel-drive car's weight is up, too, and its fuel-economy numbers are down. The old xB was a plodder and, by comparison, this new Scion is a sports car.

Whether you choose the 5-speed manual transmission or the sequential 4-speed automatic, the EPA says you’ll get 22 m.p.g. in the city and 28 on the highway -- unexceptional for this class.

Inside, a 6-foot-4 driver could get lost and four of his 6-foot-4 friends could ride along without once complaining about headroom or legroom. The seats are supportive over short and long distances, and the center-mounted digital instrumentation delivers the requisite info with deep-orange clarity. Outward visibility is expansive, as is cargo space -- two more points in favor of the box.

Standard features include a 6-speaker, 160-watt Pioneer AM/FM/CD player, plus iPod and auxiliary audio jacks, as well as air conditioning and cruise control.

A monument to safety among its peers, the 2008 Scion xB standards include front and rear disc brakes with Brake Assist, traction and stability control, front and side airbags for the driver and front-seat passenger, and side-curtain airbags for both rows. Just reading that list makes us feel protected.

Unadorned (but still striking, especially done up in Hypnotic Teal Mica paint), the Scion xB starts at $15,650. The hassle-free ease of the sequential 4-speed automatic ($950) is a natural "built-for-comfort" lifestyle convenience.

We recommend that you spring for the automatic, and then, as the top fashionistas say, accessorize like mad. Our favorites are a wicked rear spoiler ($423) and punk "carbon fiber" window trim ($299).

Kia Spectra5

Kia has added styling pizzazz and utility along with a low price to the Spectra5.

Like the Spectra sedan, the Spectra5 has four doors but, instead of a traditional sedan trunk, it has a rear minivan-like hatch for easy loading of cargo. The rear seat splits so that you can fold one side or both completely flat for various combinations of cargo and people carrying.

The Spectra5 has a sporty appearance. A sharp crease runs along the side to give the illusion of an aerodynamic wedge. The interior has touches reminiscent of sports cars, like metal pedals and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

It's also more fun to drive than the HHR or xB. Indeed, it's more fun to drive than most economy cars. The sport-tuned suspension lets you whip around corners and working through the gears of its five-speed manual transmission only adds to the overall performance. Despite that the Spectra5 delivers better fuel economy than the HHR -- 25 m.p.g. in town and 33 on the highway.

The Spectra5 comes with six air bags, including seat-mounted side bags and head-protection curtains. However, you'll pay extra for anti-lock brakes, even on the top models.

Prices start at $16,575, and there are only a few options -- automatic transmission ($1,000), moon roof ($700), anti-lock brakes ($400) and remote start ($250).

We'd stick with the manual transmission to maintain the car's sporty flavor and add anti-lock brakes for a grand total of $18,925. You'll also get Kia's great warranty -- five years or 60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper protection and 10 years or 100,000 miles on the engine and transmission.

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