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Here’s What to Look for in Your Next Economy Car

If low operating costs are a top priority with your next vehicle purchase, our Kelley Blue Book experts have some helpful advice on buying your next economy car.



High on the list of reasons to buy a new or used 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 small car takes a bit of research to find one that’s just right for you. Here’s Kelley Blue Book Canada’s list of things to consider in the small car shopping process.

Fuel Economy

While fuel prices have moderated somewhat recently, a significant driver of small car sales is efficiency. Gas prices may not remain low forever.

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

Although their availability in new cars is now limited to larger vehicles, diesel engines offer plenty of torque, fuel economy and range if you are looking for a used small car. They will typically be found on compact class and higher cars and usually at a premium over conventional gas engines. Also, diesels need additives (urea-based fluids) to meet emission standards, an additional expense and maintenance item.

Another option is either a gasoline-electric hybrid, plug-in electric hybrid, or battery electric vehicles (EVs). All of these types of electrified vehicles deliver great acceleration along with high efficiency. The downside is that typically hybrids and EVs are more expensive to purchase. Federal and provincial purchase incentives on plug-ins and EVs may take some of the sting out of the higher prices. Additionally, EVs are suitable for city dwellers or those with short commutes. Typically, the range of pure electrics in this class of vehicles is still in the 120 to 300-kilometre range between charges.


Transmission Choice

Most small cars come with traditional 5-, 6- or now more commonly, 8- or 9-speed automatic transmissions. The broader range of ratios deliver better fuel economy thanks to the overdrive top gears. Also, for traditionalists who like to shift for themselves, some manual transmission models are still available, but not as common as they once were. In another trend, many small vehicles are relying on continuously variable transmissions (CVTs). 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 high revolutions per minute (RPMs) in steady-state cruising. 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 passengers but in pretty cramped quarters. If you’re single, married, or have two small children, most sub-compacts should meet your needs. A new emerging class of vehicles, the sub-compact SUV, offers a bit more room than the traditional sedan or hatchback based on the same underpinnings. Plus, this new class of vehicles provides the additional benefit of a higher ride height, better visibility, and more cargo space behind the second row. The other option is to move up a class to a compact-sized vehicle.



The other side of vehicle size is safety. As car size increases, the more mass you have 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 vehicles instead of sub-compacts. You can also check the U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) website to see what a vehicle’s crashworthiness is under its 5-star program. There are additional tests that go beyond current safety standards, like the IIHS’ small overlap crash test.

Other safety features to look for in a new or used small car 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 sub-compact and compact models, which again will impact the final price you pay.


Surprise and Delight Features

Good things do come in small packages. Keep your eye out for surprise and delight features. Key features to look for include keyless entry/start, heated seats, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto 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 the car's final price.


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