2008 Kia Rio || Get a Free Price Quote
Base Price: $11,515
The Kia Rio shares the same chassis with the Accent but is, per parent company Hyundai's branding strategies, "sportier." You'll also find the same 1.6-liter mill under the hood as that in the Accent, but in the Rio, these four cylinders of fury are put to use by a car all-around better to translate it into cornering speed.
The Rio is one of those rare cases where the automatic gets better fuel mileage than the manual, in this case 3 more mpg, for a highway figure of 35. The four-speed automatic does, however, produce a grinding sound at highway speeds, not our soundtrack of choice to accompany five-hour journeys.
Two grand more will move you into the Rio5, a better car for a number of reasons. For starters, it looks like something you might actually want to drive, will carry more stuff, and has standard 15-inch wheels and lower-profile tires to sharpen up handling.
2008 Toyota Yaris || Get a Free Price Quote
Base Price: $12,210
You can thank pump prices that leave SUVs to rot in driveways for Toyota's decision to export the Yaris to the States, designed for and hugely popular in the European and Japanese markets. Any Toyota you can purchase for $12,000 is worth looking at, even if Toyota quality ain't what it used to be. Still, an off-year for Toyota is still better than the average annum for the majority of manufacturers in the vehicles-as-appliances segment.
In our testing, the Yaris returned 36 mpg, the best of any car here, while making an entirely commendable 8.9-second run to 60 mph using all of its 106 horsepower. Although you might have fun lighting up a single 175/65-14 tire at a stoplight, the party ends when you hit your first set of esses. The Yaris takes no dynamic advantage of its low weight and suffers from the body roll and uninspired steering of a vehicle with much greater mass, rather than the tossable heart warmer we know Toyota could build.
It's never pleasant to watch a car get uglier, and Toyota hasn't done better by the Yaris than the model it launched in Europe and Japan in 1999, although the fact that it looks like a happy cartoon of its former self won't bother parents subjected to thousands of hours of Disney's finest. The Yaris is also available in sedan form, but it exhibits all of Toyota's worst current styling gaffes in one package. If you need four doors and a trunk, it's one of the cheapest sedans here at $12,885 -- only a dinner at Outback more expensive than the Chevy Aveo sedan.
2008 Smart Fortwo || Get a Free Price Quote
Base Price: $12,215
If time is money, then time spent hunting for a parking space -- 20 minutes if you live in New York, 45 minutes if you live in San Francisco -- will make the Smart Fortwo your best financial asset. Parking spaces that seem impossibly small aren't. That sliver of macadam between the H2's hitch and the crosswalk? The Smart will fit.
Smart-aleck "Where's the other half?" comments do point out the capacitive limitations of the Smart: With eight cubic feet of cargo space, there will be no Costco runs in the Fortwo (although a jaunt through the store for drive-up food sampling would be fun and feasible). As light traffic in many carpool lanes indicates, the Smart would however very well meet most commuters' needs. For driver and passenger, space abounds: The Fortwo features just slightly less head- and legroom than the gargantuan Mercedes-Benz GL.
A Lilliputian footprint, a subton curb weight, and a tiny engine should promise stellar fuel mileage, but the Smart does not deliver. We got 32 mpg in mixed driving. Unexceptional mileage might be excused if there were spirited performance to be had, but indeed, the Fortwo is the slowest-accelerating passenger car sold in this country, obliterating the quarter-mile in a tick under 20 seconds. Europeans and Canadians can buy the won't-pass-U.S.-emissions diesel Fortwo that returns over 70 mpg on the Euro highway cycle. We hope the reliability issues that plagued the first generation's turbocharged drivetrains were obviated by fitment of the larger, naturally aspirated 70-hp, 1.0-liter engine.
2008 Kia Spectra Sedan || Get a Free Price Quote
Base Price: $13,520
Much like the Hyundai Accent/Kia Rio twins, the Kia Spectra shares much with the Hyundai Elantra. Like all other Kias and Hyundais, the Spectra sports a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, making the Spectra a good bet if you plan on keeping the car that long, which we suggest you do, as the residual value stinks.
The Spectra sedan is not cheap-looking, although it does borrow a bit from the fifth-generation Honda Civic. It looks better in hatchback form as the Spectra5, the first of several reasons to choose the latter if you can pony up the extra $3000. Other reasons include a sport-tuned suspension, a 16-inch wheel-and-tire package, and lots of usable space.
Even if you opt for the cheapest possible Spectra, you are treated to a decent list of options including an adjustable steering wheel, a CD stereo with six speakers, lots of interior room (more than in the Volvo S60 and Audi A4), and most important, the most extensive list of safety features at this price point. Front, side, and curtain airbags; shoulder belts for all five occupants; and front-belt pretensioners and force limiters are standard. Six airbags aren't standard on some vehicles that cost twice as much.