Small cars: We've found three surprisingly good choices

Hands framing a toy car

If $3 a gallon gas has you shopping for a small car, here are the three models we recommend.

Buy one and we suspect you'll be pleasantly surprised because these small cars have so little in common with the subcompacts we've come to know and rarely love over the years.

Yes, they're still affordable to buy and own. All of our choices have base prices that start under $15,000 and they'll go 30 miles or more on a gallon of gas.

But while "small car" used to be synonymous with a barebones econobox, our favorites offer the comfort, safety and convenience of much larger, pricier models.

Honda Fit

For buyers who want a fuel sipper with some zip, the Honda Fit fits the bill. Literally.

Available only as a four-door hatchback, the Fit has a rear door that opens skyward like that on a minivan or sport-utility vehicle, making it practical to load and unload groceries or other cargo. With the rear seats folded absolutely flat, it provides a tremendous amount of cargo space 42 cubic feet, about twice the trunk size of the much larger Ford Five Hundred.

The interior is more expensive looking than its price tag suggests. Its gauges look like they were borrowed from pricier models from Acura, Honda's luxury division. Seats are supportive, and the interior layout is uncluttered and finely crafted. Controls are intuitive, similar to other Hondas.

Start the engine and you'll quickly find how fun the Fit is to drive. It accelerates smartly away from stoplights or onto freeways. Its handling is light and nimble. Its steering responsive. Think of it as a go-kart with a body around it. Yet the Fit still delivers great fuel economy -- 31 miles per gallon in the city and 38 m.p.g. on the highway.

Most critical safety features are standard equipment, including antilock brakes, front seat side airbags and side curtain airbags for front- and rear-seat passengers.

While the Fit is just going on sale here, its quality should be outstanding. Honda sells the car as either the Fit or Jazz in more than 70 countries. Any kinks have long ago been worked out.

The fit only comes in two versions and options, well, there aren't any.

For $13,850 you get a five-speed manual transmission. For $15,790 you get a Sport model with a five-speed automotive transmission, larger wheels and wider tires for improved stability, keyless entry, cruise control, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, some exterior styling pieces and an MP3-compatible audio system.

That's the one we recommend.

Drawbacks? Not many. Just the small gas tank, which means you'll be stopping a lot despite the excellent mileage.

Nissan Versa

For the driver who needs to carry three passengers in the back on occasion, the Nissan Versa is the best bet.

While our other favorites claim to have room for five, Versa actually delivers. It has the most comfortable rear seats and the most rear seat room. In fact, is has more rear-seat legroom than the larger Nissan Sentra.

Available now as a four-door hatchback and later this year as a four-door sedan with a traditional trunk, the Versa feels the roomiest inside, thanks to its tall roof. The interior is well crafted with high-quality materials used. The rear seats split and fold flat, creating a cavernous cargo area of 50 cubic feet.

Under the hood, the Versa has the largest engine of the trio. It comes standard with a sporty six-speed manual transmission the number of gears of fancier sports cars -- a traditional four-speed automatic or a continuously variable transmission (CVT) that shifts automatically and almost imperceptibly when it is optimum for fuel economy.

The Versa comes standard with front seat-mounted side airbags and side curtain airbags that stretch from the front to rear seat. Antilock brakes are optional. Reliability shouldn't be a problem. Although it's just going on sale in the United States, it's long been sold in other markets as the Tiida.

In the U.S., the Versa comes in two versions, the very base 1.8 S and the uplevel 1.8 SL. We'd recommend the SL version, which comes with power windows, power mirrors, keyless entry and cruise control, and the optional continuously variable transmission.

With that transmission the Versa is rated at 30 m.p.g. city and 36 m.p.g. highway. With a standard 13.2-gallon fuel tank largest of the three fuel stops will be few and far between. We'd also suggest adding the optional anti-lock brakes for $250 and the $150 floor and trunk mats, bringing the grand total to $15,850.

Our beefs with the Versa are the annoying and complicated levers to recline the seats, cost-extra safety features and pricy options that can push the cost of the Versa to the high end of the segment. Further, it simply is not as much fun to drive as the Fit.

Toyota Yaris

If you're looking for a comfy ride more than sporty driving, the Toyota Yaris is the ticket.

The Yaris comes with two side doors and a rear hatch or as a traditional four-door sedan. The sedan is longer by 20 inches than the hatchback. It's the best choice for carrying passengers; the hatchback is best suited for carrying stuff.

Like most Toyotas, the Yaris is built for a comfortable ride, not sporty driving. It's quiet, cushy and cocoons the occupants from the outside and the road whereas the Honda and, to a lesser degree, the Versa let the driver connect more to the pavement. The Yaris also delivers the best gas mileage of our three choices -- 34 m.p.g. to 40 m.p.g.

Quality should be top-notch. Not only is it a Toyota, but the Yaris is a proven model that's sold over the world. Indeed, it's the top-selling Toyota in Europe.

There's a basic version of the hatchback and sedan and a better-equipped "S" version of the sedan. The basic cars are barebones. They come with air conditioning and little else. Not even a sound system.

So start by choosing either the hatchback or sedan with a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. We prefer the five-speed because it makes the Yaris feel like it has a bit more oomph. But you can't go wrong either way. The hatchback starts at $11,050 with an automatic costing an extra $900. The sedan starts at $11,925 with the automatic costing an extra $725.

We recommend adding:

That brings your grand total to $13,785 for a hatchback with the manual transmission and $15,285 for a sedan with an automatic.

However you equip it, you can't expect the Yaris to be as fun to drive as the Fit. And why Toyota insists on a center-mounted instrument panel is beyond us. Putting gauges, like the speedometer, in above the climate and audio controls in the middle of the dashboard is annoying.

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