Economy-car seekers have good reason to be happy in 2011 as a number of new, well-reviewed compact cars, hatchbacks and sedans hit showroom floors. For much of the past decade, cheap gas prices and consumer preferences resulted in a dearth of new and competitive economy cars. Rising fuel prices and consumer focus on saving money has spurred manufacturers to create new models that are fuel-efficient, feature-rich and engineered to deliver exceptional ride quality and interior finish for the price. The fruits of this labor for many brands -- like Ford, Chevrolet, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Mazda -- are available now in the form of new-for-2011 economy cars.
Also good news: economy cars don't have to be boring. You'll find them among Car and Driver's 10Best Cars, Motor Trend's Car of the Year finalists and Automobile Magazine's All-Stars -- all awards for which ho-hum cars need not apply. Even the tough critics at Autoblog.com and TheTruthAboutCars.com find some under-$20,000 rides to love.
Economy cars are an attractive choice for first-time buyers, for those who want value and fuel efficiency, and for those who simply want reliable and basic transportation. Because these cars don't have as much interior space as midsize sedans, they generally aren't as comfortable for families. ConsumerSearch has separate reports on family sedans and station wagons, many of which have starting prices not far from those of economy cars. If fuel efficiency and environmental impact are your primary concerns, you might also be interested in our report on hybrid cars.
For reviews of the most economical cars on the market, try sources geared toward the average car shopper, such as Cars.com, ConsumerGuide.com, Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds.com and ConsumerReports.org. Those last two sources helpfully concentrate on practicalities that many reviewers gloss over -- namely fuel economy, reliability and safety.
Safety can be a concern with economy cars. To shave costs, some ultra-cheap base models may not include important safety features like curtain airbags and electronic stability control as options. And as cars get smaller, they get worse at protecting occupants in a crash, according to the independent, insurance-industry-funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Subcompact cars get high ratings in frontal-crash tests -- but only against cars their own size.
In 2009 the IIHS examined this safety concern by constructing a special test in which they crashed three subcompact economy cars -- the Honda Fit (Base MSRP: $15,100 to $16,860), Toyota Yaris (Base MSRP: $12,995 to $13,715) and Smart ForTwo microcar (Base MSRP: $12,490 to $17,690) -- into midsize cars like the Toyota Camry at 40 mph. The midsize cars protected their crash-dummy occupants better than the smaller cars. "Intrusion into the Fit's occupant compartment was extensive," the IIHS wrote. Ditto the Yaris, whose "door was largely torn away," and the Smart ForTwo, which "went airborne and turned around 450 degrees" on impact. All three subcompacts were rated Poor in the test.
While weight and structure size are a significant safety factor, not all economy cars are created equal. Some are designed to better absorb the impact of a crash. Choosing an economy car with a high safety rating, side air bags and stability control will go a long way in assuring the highest possible level of crash protection. This year, the IIHS awards its Top Safety Pick designation to more than 15 small cars including the new 2011 Hyundai Elantra sedan (Base MSRP: $14,830 to $19,980) and 2011 Volkswagen Golf hatchback (Base MSRP: $17,995 to $19,755), both of which are ConsumerSearch Best Reviewed picks with excellent overall reviewer feedback. The 2011 Ford Fiesta (Base MSRP: $13,320 to $17,120) also bucks the subcompact trend by being named a Top Safety Pick by IIHS. It's the only minicar to earn that distinction so far.