Drive Smart with a Premium Small Car

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Physician's Money Digest, September15 2004, Volume 11, Issue 17

The arrival of premium small cars is just intime to counter rising gas prices. Premiumsmall cars are a new breed of vehicles, thelikes of which you've probably never seenbefore. Traditionally, small cars have been noisy,cheap, inexpensive, and lacking in luxury options, butthat is no longer the case.

Small Takeover

Pocket rockets continue to exist, like Volkswagen'sR32 and Subaru's WRX, which both give outrageousperformance but lack premium features. BMW's MiniCooper has put the concept of a premium small car onthe map. Within a year, you will also see the new Smartcar. Smart was founded in Europe in the mid-1990s as atiny car division of Swatch and Mercedes-Benz. Nowunder the guidance of Daimler-Chrysler, smart cars(www.smart.com) will be rolling into the United States.

The original Smart car, now dubbed the fortwo, hasalready passed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's(www.nhtsa.gov) approval, and EnvironmentalProtection Agency testing is soon to be completed.It may soon be sold independently through ZapWorld.com and local dealers. The Smart fortwo is a two-door,rear-wheel-drive, 4-cylinder, 6-speed urban car.

Smart itself will not be bringing in the fortwo orothers from the line anytime soon. However, it is bringingin a premium small Smart utility vehicle, called theformore, in 2006. The formore will be built in Juiz deFora, Brazil, with four-wheel drive and a choice of agasoline or diesel engine. There are no photographsavailable of this vehicle yet.

Premium small cars, on average, are about 175 inchesor shorter, offer great economy, robust engineeringwith strong performance, and almost every option availablein a top-of-the-line BMW. Most notably, Smart hasplanned hallmark features like stability control, side curtainairbags, and an exceptionally strong safety cage.Also expect a high level of active and passive safety features.We've driven a number of these cars in urban andsuburban situations. They are fun to drive and quite nimble.Finding street parking in Manhattan is easy—almost.

Big on Safety

For premium small cars to sell well, safety needs tobe number one. In the 1990s, automakers beganexperimenting with unique alloys and metal mergingtechnology other than welding to produce superiorchassis. When shopping for a premium small car, lookfor features like micron air filtration, MP3 players,remote control key fobs, leather interiors, a tilt andtelescoping steering wheel, and telematics like OnStar.For a premium small car to be successful, it has toreturn great space versatility and performance.Performance can fall into two categories: sporty andhigh fuel economy. A Smart achieves well over 60miles per gallon. And this is no hybrid.

Toyota does not have a premium small car yet, butMazda does, and the Mazda 3 is a good example. It's theleast expensive car available with a navigation systemand a host of premium features. The new Volvo S40 is alittle smaller than the Mazda 3, but gives back evenmore premium features. If you want a quieter, safer car,order the laminated side windows with your S40.

While all premium cars now come with a traditionalmanual transmission, some type of automatic isalways available. For now, make a loaded MiniCooper your standard. From xenon lights in the frontto a special rare fog light, this is now the most premiumof the premium small cars.

Soon you will be able to test-drive the Audi A3 andthe BMW 1 Series. As gas prices continue their inevitableclimb upward, we'll see more and more sophisticatedpremium small cars. If you want to help yourself and theenvironment—without sacrificing safety and luxury—these cars are smart choices.

Jean Swenson and Ashly Knapp are independent research reporters

and the founders of AutoAdvisor.com.