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In this report

Best economy hatchback is the Honda Fit, but others are closing in

More reviewers give the 2011 Honda Fit (Base MSRP: $15,100 to $16,860) top ratings than any other subcompact hatchback. It lands on all kinds of best-car lists, including Car and Driver's 10Best list, Cars.com's Best Bets and Edmunds.com's Top Recommended list. While in the past the Honda Fit "used to be a no-brainer" as Edmunds.com puts it, reviewers now note that consumers have competitive alternatives; overall, the 2011 Ford Fiesta (Base MSRP: $13,320 to $17,120) has almost as many reviewer picks as the Fit.

Even so, the Honda Fit remains the favorite among economy cars for now for its alluring combination of fun, frugality and utility. The Fit is motivated by a 117-horsepower, 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine with a standard five-speed manual or an optional five-speed automatic. Since the Honda Fit weighs a scant 2,500 pounds, testers say its small engine does an admirable job of getting the car up to speed while delivering real-world highway fuel economy of 32 to 34 mpg. These qualities, along with a taut suspension, make Edmunds.com editors say that "'frugal and fun' might as well be printed on the Fit's business card."

Yet by far the most impressive feature of the Honda Fit is the utility it provides. The Fit hatchback's cargo capacity and interior versatility just can't be found in compact-car competitors of the same price. In describing its top picks of the year, Edmunds.com says that "the cargo and passenger space within this small car is simply amazing, as is Honda's way of allowing one to make the most of it." For example, the rear seats can fold completely flat, and rear-seat cushions can be moved up to accommodate tall objects. As a bonus, the surprisingly large interior is fashioned out of high-quality materials and is designed with good visibility in mind.

To top it off, the Honda Fit has delivered excellent reliability as judged by a leading consumer publication, carrying on Honda's longstanding reputation for quality.

What are the Honda Fit's most commonly referenced drawbacks?  Road noise from the tires, wind noise and a noisy engine, which, because of its lower power output, is often working hard to move the Fit. Also, more than a few experts express concern over the Honda Fit's long braking distance from high speeds. In a Car and Driver comparison test, the Fit took a disappointing 197 feet to come to a stop from 70 mph.

However, although the tiny 2011 Honda Fit fares well in frontal-crash tests against cars its own size, crashes against midsize cars are a different story. When the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crashed a Fit face-first into a Honda Accord, the Accord protected its crash-dummy occupants nicely, but the crash intruded into the Fit's cabin, where the dummy's head hit the steering wheel through the airbag. Tests showed a high risk of leg injury in the Fit, too. "Overall, this minicar's rating is poor in the front-to-front crash," the IIHS concludes in this minicar-to-midsize crash test. In the IIHS's traditional impact tests, the Fit scores the highest Good rating for all but the rollover-protection test, for which it is deemed Acceptable.

The new 2011 Ford Fiesta is a very close runner-up to the Honda Fit as the best pick among economy hatchbacks (it's also available as a sedan). The Fiesta has the driving manners of a larger car and is available with many unexpected upscale features such as Ford's Sync infotainment system, keyless ignition and leather seating. TheTruthAboutCars.com notes that "it's quiet and fast on the freeway," and that, "the Fiesta is trimmed and assembled like a decent German entry-level luxury car." Furthermore, the Ford Fiesta sips fuel at an Environmental Protection Agency-estimated rate of 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway when ordered in the high-efficiency SFE trim, and, as noted in the introduction to this report, it is the only IIHS Top Safety Pick in their minicar category.

On the downside, all those optional features can greatly increase the Ford Fiesta's price, it has notably less cargo and rear-passenger space than the Honda Fit, and many reviewers agree that the Fiesta isn't quite as fun to drive. The 2011 Mazda2 shares its basic architecture with the Ford Fiesta, but it is more basically equipped, has a different powertrain and is not recommended as often as the Ford.

Another hatchback, the 2011 Volkswagen Golf (Base MSRP: $17,995 to $19,755), is also a favorite among reviewers and is a compelling alternative. The Golf is larger and more expensive, but it has an upscale interior and poised road manners to match.  A diesel engine option for the Golf is also available, and that model is discussed separately below.

2011 Hyundai Elantra raises the bar as the best economy sedan

If you prefer a traditional four-door sedan, the all-new 2011 Hyundai Elantra (Base MSRP: $14,830 to $19,980) raises the bar for economy cars because of its high style, high-quality interior, efficiency and low price. Autoblog.com says that "the little sedan has the bones to be king of the compact roost," and Automobile Magazine declares that Hyundai has "cracked the code of the compact economy sedan" by offering a car that is not only well equipped and pleasurable to drive, but also cheaper than its competitors.

Elantra owners are treated to an interior that is "simply stunning," according to a review in The Detroit News, and an exterior that TheTruthAboutCars.com admiringly describes as "a well-executed assemblage of coupe-like curves and creases." The new Elantra sedan has an impressive array of available features, too. Edmunds.com says "the interior can be loaded up with high-end features that aren't even offered on some legitimate midsize cars, let alone compact ones: keyless ignition/entry, a rearview camera and heated rear seats." Technology options like Bluetooth compatibility and integrated navigation with real-time traffic are also available.

Beyond the style, features and good ride quality, the Elantra continues to impress. The EPA gives the Elantra's 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine, producing 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque, a fuel-efficiency rating of 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway with both the manual transmission and automatic transmission -- in all trim levels. Competitors like the 2012 Ford Focus (Base MSRP: $16,270 to $22,765) and 2011 Chevrolet Cruze (Base MSRP: $16,275 to $22,225) can achieve similar mileage, but they require specific, extra-cost, fuel-efficiency option packages in order to do so.

As of this writing, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra sedan has not yet been crash tested by either the IIHS or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The Elantra does come with a host of standard safety equipment, including antilock brakes, active front head restraints, front side airbags, front and rear side curtain airbags, traction control and stability control.

The Elantra's closest competitor is the new 2012 Ford Focus (Base MSRP: $16,270 to $22,765), which reviewers laud for its style, sophisticated ride quality, fuel efficiency and impressive interior --  much like the Elantra. The Elantra comes out ahead on price with an MSRP that starts at more than $1,000 cheaper.

Perennial favorites like the 2011 Honda Civic (Base MSRP: $15,605 to $25,490) and 2011 Mazda3 (Base MSRP: $15,800 to $23,010) are also excellent all-around vehicles. The Mazda3 has the sportiest handling of the bunch, and the Honda Civic has a proven reliability record that is beyond reproach. The new 2011 Chevrolet Cruze (Base MSRP: $16,275 to $22,225) is also praised by reviewers for its nice ride and impressive fuel efficiency. Furthermore, all three of these cars have been tested by the IIHS and get the Top Safety Pick award.

The 2012 Honda Civic was unveiled to the public on April 20 at the New York Auto Show. The car also arrived at dealers the same day. We'll have a report on the 2012 Honda Civic soon, as reviews have already started to become published."

The once-sleepy compact sedan segment is now flush with competitive models, and the consumer stands to benefit as manufacturers try to leapfrog one another in quality and affordability. In a field of strong competition, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra stands above its current rivals for its unbeatable combination of style, quality, efficiency and value.

2011 Volkswagen GTI is the best sporty compact car

Along with being a runner-up in the best hatchback category and being the best pick for top fuel economy with a non-hybrid powertrain, the 2011 Volkswagen Golf (Base MSRP: $17,995 to $19,755) also takes the best pick for the top sporty compact car in the form of the 2011 Volkswagen GTI (Base MSRP: $23,695 to $29,825). While the GTI is based on the Golf chassis and looks similar inside and out, many performance enhancements turn the GTI into a uniquely sporty car.

The VW GTI retains all the good aspects of the Volkswagen Golf: unmatched interior quality, practicality, comfort, composed driving manners, top safety ratings, and good looks. The GTI gets a 2-liter four-cylinder turbocharged engine that delivers 200 horsepower and 207 pound-feet of torque, which pulls the car to 60 mph from a standstill in just over seven seconds. In 2010, the GTI was named Automobile Magazine's automobile of the year, where they praise the car for its "universal appeal" and claim that it is "just as much fun to drive and with just as much street cred as cars costing three times as much". Reviewers can find very little to fault the GTI as it is an all-around great performer. As with the diesel-powered 2011 Volkswagen Golf TDI (Base MSRP: $23,225 to $23,885), the GTI's main drawback is a high base price that starts at almost $24,000.

The MazdaSpeed3 (Base MSRP: $23,700), Mini Cooper S (Base MSRP: $23,000 to $27,850), and Honda Civic Si (Base MSRP: $19,325-$19,525) are other economy car-based performance models that offer sporty thrills. The 2011 Scion tC (Base MSRP: $18,275) is a well-reviewed sporty car that comes in at a considerably cheaper base price. Reviewer consensus is that while some of these competitors are in fact faster and nimbler, none can eclipse the Volkswagen GTI in all-around comfort, performance, and refinement.

2011 Volkswagen Golf TDI offers near-hybrid fuel-economy numbers

Many economy car shoppers will want to find the car that maximizes their fuel economy, as better mileage means less money spent at the pump. The 2011 Volkswagen Golf TDI (Base MSRP: $23,225 to $23,885), whose four-cylinder diesel engine produces 140 horsepower and a muscular 236 pound-feet of torque, garners an impressive EPA-rated 30 mpg city, 42 mpg highway and 34 mpg combined. This fuel-efficiency level, as of this writing, is only eclipsed by electric and hybrid cars, except for the two-seat 2011 Smart ForTwo (Base MSRP: $12,490 to $17,690), which is much smaller and makes many compromises to achieve this level of efficiency.

The Golf TDI's fuel economy, combined with the fact that the Golf range is an economy car favorite among experts, makes it the best choice for getting high mileage. Autoblog.com finds that the Golf TDI "has more than enough power for any sort of driving scenario," and it goes as far as to say that the car is "worlds better to drive than your run-of-the mill Prius or Civic Hybrid." Edmunds.com's overview of the 2011 Golf notes that it "feels positively upscale" in terms of features, craftsmanship and the driving experience, regardless of the specific version chosen. The main drawback is the relatively steep base price for an economy car at more than $20,000. Currently, there are no government tax credits for the Volkswagen Golf TDI.

Other excellent choices for models with the best fuel economy include the very similar 2011 Volkswagen Jetta TDI (Base MSRP: $22,095 to $22,995), the 2011 Hyundai Elantra (Base MSRP: $14,830 to $19,980), the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze  (Base MSRP: $16,275 to $22,225) and the 2012 Ford Focus (Base MSRP: $16,270 to $22,765). All of these models can achieve 40 mpg or more on the highway as rated by the EPA either in their base model form or with special efficiency-optimizing trim packages. If maximum fuel economy is of utmost importance, check out our reviews of the newest hybrid cars, which include the Toyota Prius (*Est. $22,000 to $24,270), the most fuel-efficient car overall based on EPA rankings

2011 Nissan Versa is a good car at a rock-bottom price

Are you on a tight budget and only need a car to get you from point A to point B? The 2011 Nissan Versa (Base MSRP: $9,990 to $17,190) is one of the lowest-priced cars available in the United States. The entry-level Versa 1.6 Base sedan has a 1.6-liter, 107-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and lacks such features as air conditioning, a stereo or power windows. The step-up engine is a 122-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder available in either sedan or five-door hatchback form, which gets 28 mpg city and 34 mpg highway when hitched to a continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT). Also, all trim levels come equipped with rear drum brakes, which are cheaper and considered less effective than disc brakes.

The Versa is small on the outside but surprisingly roomy inside. It boasts more rear legroom than a midsize Honda Accord, and the hatchback version can haul 50 cubic feet of cargo with the back seats folded down. Its crash-test scores aren't as exemplary as the pricier 2011 Honda Civic (Base MSRP: $15,605 to $25,490), but the Versa's scores in all government and independent crash tests are better than any other ultra-cheap car. Be aware that the cheapest 1.6 Base model is not available with stability or traction control.

Some reviewers criticize the Versa's stodgy styling but call it high-value basic transportation with plenty of utility, especially in the hatchback configuration. Editors at ConsumerGuide.com name it a best buy, saying about the identical 2010 model that the "Versa is priced like a subcompact, but its blend of room, comfort and refinement are an easy match for any number of more-expensive compact cars." Standard safety features include six airbags and front-seat active head restraints, but antilock brakes are a $250 option on the entry-level sedan (they're standard on higher trims). The Versa hatchback's rear seat folds, but it doesn't go completely flat as it does in the more expensive Honda Fit (Base MSRP: $15,100 to $16,860) and some other close rivals. Although the Honda Fit costs more, it also proves far more reliable than the Versa in a major consumer survey, and experts unanimously prefer the Fit overall.

Subcompact cars dominate the rest of this price class. They're cheap and stingy with fuel, but testers say they can feel cramped and underpowered. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says little cars like these don't fare well in crashes against larger midsize cars. The 2011 Smart ForTwo (Base MSRP: $12,490 to $17,690) remains the tiniest new car in America, though consensus among reviewers is that there are many better choices. The base-model 2011 Hyundai Accent (Base MSRP: $9,985 to $15,345) is the cheapest car currently available in the U.S., but like the Smart ForTwo, reviewers don't find much to like about it. The Accent shares its basic underlying architecture with its cousin, the 2011 Kia Rio (Base MSRP: $12,295 to $16,395). Both the Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio will be all new for 2012, and experts expect them to be greatly improved over the current models. Finally, the 2011 Toyota Yaris (Base MSRP: $12,995 to $13,715) is a slightly more expensive option that earns a couple of recommendations for being fuel-efficient and reliable.

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