High on the list of reasons to buy a small car is affordability and fuel economy. And a vehicle's compact size is a benefit when it comes to parking and overall maneuverability. But getting the right one takes a bit of study to find the car that's right for you. Here's a list of things to consider in the shopping process.

Fuel economy

While fuel prices have moderated somewhat recently, a big driver of small car sales is efficiency. Gas prices may not remain low forever, as witnessed by California's experience which has seen the per gallon price climb back up over $4 in some areas.

When considering fuel economy, the flip side of that is power. Most small cars with the 40 mpg fuel economy numbers typically use small displacement non-turbocharged engines. They're great for delivering high fuel economy and make terrific city cars, but if you have any thoughts of freeway driving, you may want to consider a more powerful turbocharged version to make merging a little easier.

Diesels offer plenty of torque, fuel economy and range, but typically they will be found on compact class and higher cars and usually at a premium over conventional gas engines. In addition, diesels need additives (urea-based fluids) to meet emission standards, which is an additional expense and maintenance item.

Another option is either a hybrid or battery EV, which deliver great acceleration along with efficiency. The downside is that typically hybrids and EVs are more expensive, although recently incentives as well as tax breaks on EVs may take some of the sting out of the higher sticker prices. EVs can be good for city dwellers or those with short commutes, but typically the range of pure electrics in this class of vehicles is still in the 90 to 100 mile range between charges.

Also: The Class of 2016 -- New Cars Ready to Roll

Transmission choice

Most small cars come with traditional four-, five- or now more commonly, six-speed  automatic transmissions, although you can find manual gearboxes, if you are more of a do-it-yourselfer who prefers a more engaging driving experience. The wider range of gears typically results in better fuel economy thanks to the overdrive top gears. In another trend, many of these small vehicles are relying on continuously variable transmissions instead of traditional gearboxes. These CVTs are smooth in operation, but there is still a tendency for them to feel a bit elastic in acceleration or hold the engine at a high rpm in steady state cruising, a condition called " motorboating".  A test drive will quickly tell you which transmission is right for you.

Cabin comfort

Small cars, are, well, small. Most have seating for five, but in pretty cramped quarters. If you're single, married, or have two small children, most subcompacts should meet your needs, although a new emerging class of vehicles, the subcompact crossover SUV, like the Buick Encore, Chevy Trax, Honda HR-V and Mazda CX-3 offer a bit more room than the traditional sedan or hatchbacks based on the same underpinnings. Plus, this new class of vehicles offers the additional benefit of a higher ride height, better visibility and a bit more cargo space behind the second row. The other option is to move up a class to compact sized vehicle.

Safety

The other side of vehicle size is safety. As car size increases, the more mass you had around you, the safer you are. It's simple physics. Although many of today's cars are the safest ever, an extra margin is provided in compact class cars as opposed to subcompact. You can also check NHTSA and the IIHS websites to see what a vehicle's crash worthiness is under the federal 5-star program, as well as additional tests that go beyond current safety standards, like IIHS' small overlap crash test.

Other safety features to look for include backup cameras, blind spot and cross traffic alerts, lane departure warnings and adaptive cruise control. Keep in mind that some of these features are standard on larger cars, but more likely are extra cost options on subcompact and compact models, which again will impact the final price you pay.

Also: Kelley Blue Book Best Buy Awards of 2015

Surprise and delight features

Good things do come in small packages. Keep your eye out for surprise and delight features. Take the Honda Fit for example. Its Magic Seat configuration provides a surprising amount of cargo space and seating configurations. Other key features to look for include keyless entry/start, heated seats, Bluetooth connectivity, music apps like Pandora, satellite radio and navigation. Again, some features, like Bluetooth and USB ports are standard on many entry level cars, but other features, like navigation, are not and can add considerably to final price of the car.

More Compact SUV information...

Compact SUV Buyer's Guide

 

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