The best small cars for 2009

Hands holding a toy car

Small is in vogue and automakers are responding with a tantalizing selection of economy cars for 2009.

Our three favorites -- the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa S and Scion xD -- are chic five-door hatchbacks that are fun and affordable to drive.

Buy one, and you'll be shocked at how little they have in common with the boring, low-rent econoboxes you remember from just a few years ago.

Honda Fit

Finding a Fit in your favorite color may be a challenge. Demand is that outsized for this sophisticated and intelligently packaged hatchback.

It's fun and practical, with fuel economy better than just about anything this side of those pricey hybrids, plus a jackpot of standard features, all housed in an enlarged interior and exterior that makes the all-new 2009 Fit even better than the wildly popular first-generation model.

Plus, it's got "Honda" written all over it in quality, reliability and respectability.

All of our favorites come with four-cylinder engines. Though the Fit's 117-horsepower, 1.5-liter engine is the smallest of the bunch, it gets the best mileage -- an estimated 28 miles per gallon in the city and 35 m.p.g. on the highway.

The Fit remains small and nimble, but the '09 is a little longer and roomier, with more rear legroom and cargo space behind the backseats.

The brakes prudently and responsibly feature an antilock system (ABS) that allows you to steer around trouble even as you lay into the brake pedal with all your might. We just wish all of our favorites would put disc brakes on all four wheels instead of opting for cheaper drum brakes on the rear.

Though the 2009 Fit's safety ratings haven't been determined, earlier models had five-star ratings all around. The new design includes side-impact air bags for front occupants and head-protection curtain air bags all around.

Standard Fit features include air-conditioning; power windows and door locks; a 160-watt AM/FM/CD audio system with a USB port to jack in an iPod or other personal electronic device; revised, more-comfortable front seats, and improvements to the Fit's already nifty 60/40 split-folding, rear-seat design that quickly allows you to configure the cargo area in one of four ways.

The significant new addition to the Fit lineup is a navigation system for Fit Sport models. You can't get stability control, a critical safety-enhancement, without buying the navigation system.

Unfortunately, that and a five-speed automatic transmission push the price for a top-of-the-line Fit to $19,340, including the $670 destination charge. We think that's too much for a budget-sensitive car like this.

The regular Fit Sport with automatic transmission is a more reasonable $17,580. But most of the same wonderfulness is available in the base model that costs $15,420 with an automatic transmission.

That's what we'd buy.

Nissan Versa S
Starting at just $13,685 including destination, the Versa S underscores Nissan's reputation for delivering a lot of car for the money -- in this case, the lowest price of our three favorites.

But don't be deceived. The Versa offers just about everything the others do, plus a few things they don't, such as the added flexibility of a six-speed manual transmission.

For 2009, antilock brakes remain a $250 option we never would omit, and cruise control at $200 is a must for long-haul drivers. But aside from that, the Versa S earns full marks as a class competitor, making it our bargain recommendation.
In addition to being a standout for price, the Versa stands head and shoulders above the competition in terms of headroom and legroom. Rear-seat legroom is nothing shy of a blessing for adults, thanks to the 102.4-inch wheelbase (versus 96.5 for the Honda Fit and 96.9 for the Scion xD). And when you're not hauling people, you can pack 50 cubic feet of cargo into the back. That's roomy.

Even though it looks sporty in a European, hot hatchback kind of way, the Versa isn't really a performance vehicle. The ride is pleasantly comfortable, but carving up corners and braking on a dime are not its strengths.

Working with the six-speed manual, the 1.8-liter, 122-h.p. four-cylinder performs as you'd expect from a commuter car -- think solid performance with no outstanding virtues or vices, including its fuel-economy (26 m.p.g. city/31 highway).

For those really looking to squeeze the m.p.g. sponge, you can pay an extra $1,000 for the continuously variable automatic transmission and boost your fuel economy to 27 m.p.g. city and 33 m.p.g. highway.

Even if you spend the $1,000 to get the four-speed automatic transmission, the Versa S comes with plenty of comfort and convenience -- air-conditioning, an AM/FM/CD sound system and 60/40-split, fold-down rear seat are all standard.

If safety is your primary concern, the Versa will impress with front-seat-mounted, side-impact and curtain-type air bags protecting both rows of outboard occupants from flying glass and debris in the case of a side-impact collision or rollover.

Unlike the Honda Fit, the Versa offers appealing options, including a rear roof spoiler ($250) and cruise control ($200), as well as some bundled appearance and features packages that you may want to invest in with the money you save buying a Versa in the first place.

Scion xD

The xD was all-new last year as a replacement for the xA hatchback and rolls into '09 with no changes other than a marginal $100 price increase (and a $50 hike for destination, a profit-bumping ploy you'll see this year throughout the auto industry).

The xD is markedly larger and plumper than the old xA, but it's much more finished feeling, too.

Scion's pitch to younger buyers is the ability to accessorize, and the list of add-ons for all its models is as long as your arm. A cursory list of xD add-ons includes a navigation system that incorporates a thumping upgrade of the stereo, XM or Sirius satellite radio and a bunch of cosmetic options that we wouldn't buy but that can make the car feel more customized, if that's important to you.

While unconventional, the Scion's neo-box exterior tries a little too hard to be hip. Thankfully, the interior tells a different story. The xD's insides are downright attractive, with sport front seats and a terrific 160-watt, six-speaker AM/FM/CD stereo with iPod/MP3 playback capability.

As a performance beast, the xD holds its own. A 128-h.p., 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine is nicely matched to the five-speed manual transmission. The combo gets 27 m.p.g. in the city and 33 m.p.g. on the highway. A four-speed automatic transmission adds a reasonable $800 to the cost and subtracts just 1 m.p.g. from the mileage ratings.

The Scion's 16-inch wheels and tires also give it a comfortable confidence at higher speeds that the Honda and Nissan can't quite match.

Safety equipment is as good as it gets in this class. Scion is the only one of our favorites to provide standard antilock brakes and offer a traction and stability control system as an option ($650).

Given the fine driving environment and the generous list of safety and convenience features, the xD is a great choice if you're looking for a lot of standard equipment.

The starting price of $15,320 ($16,120 with the automatic transmission) buys a lot of fuel-efficient car, and about the only option or accessory we'd deem vital is the stability-control system, which would make the xD an entertaining, useful and safe runabout for around $16,000.