Guide to Finding the Best Small Car to Buy

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tiny car in a parking lot with other vehicles

Small cars are trendy. Subcompact and smaller cars were once utilitarian; now they’re attractive and sporty, with dozens of stylish options. If you’re thinking about finding the best small car to buy, here are five things to consider.

Things to Think About When You’re Buying a Small Car

What Are Common Small Car Trade-Offs?

Small cars can be a great way to save on both gas and auto insurance, but you’ll definitely be making some sacrifices. They aren’t ideal for families, except perhaps as commuting vehicles. Getting groceries and toting kids around can get incredibly difficult in a very small car. If you are a homeowner, home repair and design projects may require the use of a rental vehicle if that’s your only vehicle. 

That being said, small cars are ideal for city-dwellers who need great fuel economy, maneuverability, and would like to benefit from a car that doesn’t require an empty city block for a parking space. Suburbanites can benefit as well if they plan on using their vehicle to commute. They stand to save a significant amount on gas instead of driving the family SUV or minivan to work every day.

How Small Do You Really Want to Go?

The smallest road-legal auto (we’re not counting Shriners’ parade cars) widely available in the United States is the Smart Fortwo. This micro car measures 8.8 feet long and just over 5 feet wide, making it easy to zip into the smallest parking space. But true to its name, the Fortwo can carry two people — that’s it. If you need more space, look at small hatchbacks such as the Fiat 500 or the Honda Fit. 

The Fit includes a rear Magic Seat which flips up to accommodate tall or awkwardly shaped cargo.

What’s Your Car-Buying Budget?

Tiny cars don’t always have tiny price tags. The Mini Cooper, beloved for its eye-catching style and BMW engineering, starts at close to $23,000 for the base model, while the Fiat 500X starts at around $28,000. 

Opting for a new version will obviously run up the price, while choosing a used vehicle will give you more bank for your buck financially. 

Do You Want to Customize Your Small Car?

People who love micro cars often have a distinctive sense of style, and for that reason manufacturers have made them infinitely customizable. 

The Fiat 500, for instance, comes in every color from lemon yellow to bright blue to espresso. The Smart Fortwo offers mix-and-match body panels, custom-designed wraps and fun decals. And the Mini Cooper comes with optional chrome details, racing stripes, Union Jack mirrors and dozens of other playful details.

You can customize your small car in other ways, too. If you’re buying a new vehicle, you can often choose from multiple trim levels, body styles, and upholstery options. You can also enhance your car with safety and entertainment features, even making it into a luxury vehicle if you’re willing to invest enough. 

How Green Do You Want Your Small Car to Be?

man charging fuel efficient small car

All tiny cars get decent gas mileage, but some are more eco-friendly than others. 

For instance, the gas-powered Smart Fortwo gets 34 mpg city/38 mpg highway. The electric Smart, however, boasts 122 city/93 highway mpg. Here’s a quick rundown of some tiny cars’ gas mileage (which may vary by model and trim). Manufacturers are also rolling out electric versions of many of these cars.

Honda Fit 33 city/40 highway
Chevrolet Spark 30 city/38 highway 
Fiat 500 Pop 28 city/33 highway
Mini Cooper 29 city/38 highway
Nissan Versa 27 city/35 highway
Ford Fiesta 27 city/37 highway 

Do You Love to Drive?

As cute as small cars are, some offer a driving experience that can best be described as basic. If you’re looking for a small car that has some get-up-and-go, the Fiat Sport and Turbo and the Mini Cooper are good — though pricey — options. 

While the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta have also been praised by some critics as being fun to drive.

9 Additional Considerations When Finding the Best Small Car to Buy

There’s a lot to consider when buying a small car, especially if you’re used to driving a standard size or large vehicle. As you start exploring different small cars, be sure to think about the following factors. 

Seating

If you often drive your family or friends around, then you’ll want to pay close attention to the seating available in a smaller vehicle. A body style like a coupe may feature just two seats, and if there are back seats available, accessing them can be a challenge. 

Cargo Space

Cargo space can also be a challenge when you have a small car, but many newer small vehicles are designed to create extra space to bring things along on your drive. Think about what you typically travel with, whether that’s luggage, a dog, or other items. It’s a good idea to compare the current cargo space of your current vehicle to the space available in any vehicle that you’re considering. 

Handling

Small cars tend to be easy to handle, especially when it comes to making tight turns or parking. These vehicles offer the advantage of being able to fit into small spaces and garages, making them ideal for urban areas and long commutes.

When you test drive a smaller car, focus on how well it handles. If you’re stepping down from a larger vehicle, you may be surprised by how easy it is to maneuver a smaller car. You may want to insist on a vehicle with power steering, which can make it more comfortable to drive. 

Safety and Technology

When it comes to safety on the road, smaller vehicles are at a disadvantage if you are ever in an accident with a larger  vehicle that sits higher off the ground. However, manufacturers are aware of this and are designing small cars to be increasingly safer. 

Look for safety features like side impact airbags, collision detection systems, and more. 

Keep in mind that the presence of safety features in a car can help you to save money on your car insurance. Lane departure warnings and collision prevention systems can help you avoid a car accident, reducing your risk when you’re on the road. 

Insurance companies are often willing to offer discounts for this safety equipment, which could help to save you money on your monthly payments. 

Drive Wheels

Most small cars will feature two-wheel drive or all-wheel drive. You’re less likely to find four-wheel drive in these cars. If you live in an area with significant snowfall, or if you often go off-roading, then investing in four-wheel drive is a wise choice, but if not, the drive options for a small car should be sufficient. You will need to consider your driving habits and environment to decide which setup is best for your needs. 

Towing

Small vehicles are capable of towing, but they have limited towing capacities and it’s important to be aware of these limitations. 

You may be able to tow a small U-Haul trailer or even a light boat or utility trailer, but it will really depend on your vehicle. 

If you plan to use your vehicle to tow, then start by calculating the weight of your trailer loaded to determine what towing capacity your vehicle will need to have. It’s also important to consider factors like the tongue weight of the trailer, as well as its braking system. If you buy a trailer with electric brakes, then you may need to install a brake box in your car, since smaller cars don’t tend to include them. 

Additionally, if you ever need to have your car towed, a smaller vehicle tends to be easy to tow. They can fit completely on tow trucks and they are also lighter and easier to transport. Since many small cars also have two-wheel drive, they are less complicated to tow than all-wheel drive vehicles. 

Fuel Cost

Smaller cars tend to get better fuel economy than larger vehicles, which can save you money every time you fuel up. As you consider different vehicles, pay attention to their gas mileage, especially if you have a long commute or tend to spend a lot of time on the road. 

If you want even more gas savings, you can look for a small hybrid or electric vehicle. As an added bonus, there are more and more incentives and rebates available for electric vehicles which can help to make them more affordable. 

Learn More: Electric Vehicles

Transmission

If you’re planning to purchase a small car, the vehicle will likely have an automatic transmission. Automatic transmissions are easy to use and don’t require any special training, but they don’t give you much control over your fuel use. 

You’re more likely to find a standard aka manual transmission in a small sports car. If you don’t already know how to drive a standard, then you will need to learn, and it requires a little practice. Many drivers find that driving a standard gives them more control, and you can strategically drive a standard to save gas for improved fuel economy. 

Comfort

Small cars can be very comfortable, but it’s important to find the vehicle that’s right for you. If you’re tall, finding a comfortable small car can be particularly challenging, but it’s not impossible.

The best way to determine which car is most comfortable for you is to sit in and drive different ones. Pay attention to how well you can step down into and out of the vehicle, and look at features like headroom and legroom. 

You may also want to look for certain features that can enhance your comfort. These include options like leather seats, heated seats, and more. The ability to customize the seat’s lumbar support is a popular feature and can also enhance your comfort. 

Tips for Finding the Best Small Car for Your Needs

woman at dealership to buy a small car

Whether you’re looking for a new or used car, it’s important to find a vehicle that’s right for you. 

Start Your Search Online

You can use a local dealership’s website to search their availability inventory, and most dealership sites allow you to limit your search to vehicles in your price range to save time.  

Take a Test Drive

Once you find a vehicle that you’re interested in, contact the car dealership to schedule a test drive. During the test drive, focus on factors like visibility, comfort, and how the vehicle drives. If you’re testing a used vehicle, it’s also important to pay attention to factors like whether the wheel wobbles as your drive, whether the vehicle drives straight, and if the brake pedal feels soft or squishy, If you notice any of these issues, you can ask the dealership if they would be willing to make those repairs before you buy the car. 

Negotiate With the Dealership

Depending on the dealership and the vehicle that you’re interested in, you may be able to negotiate the price a bit. If you plan to take out an auto loan to pay for your vehicle, try to put a large down payment on the car. The larger your down payment, the less you will pay in interest over the life of your loan. Putting down a large down payment might also mean that you don’t need to purchase gap insurance, which can save you additional money. 

Get Auto Insurance

As an added bonus, since many smaller cars also have smaller price points, you may be able to save on insurance for this reason. Once you’ve found the car that you plan on buying, you can start shopping around for car insurance quotes

Compare.com makes that process easy. With our auto insurance comparison tool, you just need to fill out a single quote request form, which takes about five minutes. Then, you’ll receive personalized quotes from top car insurance companies, so you can find the best rate without sacrificing quality coverage.Compare.com users save an average of $720 per year on their car insurance, and they also save time on the process of finding a new insurance policy. 


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FAQs About Finding the Best Small Car to Buy

What is the most reliable small vehicle? 

According to Driver Power’s list of the 20 most reliable small cars for 2022, the Hyundai Kona Mk1 is the best option, with a reliability score of 95.71%. The Kia XCeed MK2 follows closely behind with a score of 95.56%, while the MINI Hatchback F55/F56/F57 is the third best choice with a score of 95.48%. 

Which small car is the best value for your money? 

The Kelley Blue Book ranked the best compact cars of 2022. The 2022 Honda Civic topped the list, and with a starting price of just $23,645, it combines quality and value. 

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