With gas prices still pretty steep and downsizing a national trend, a smaller car makes a lot of sense if you don’t have a specific need for a larger one.
Of course, the first car that pops to mind when speaking of small cars is the Mini. However, the original model was too small for many people’s needs. In response, Mini has introduced a new model that the retains traditional Mini style, but adds rear doors and room for people with legs in the back. Called the Countryman, it has a touch of SUV thrown in, with a higher ride height and available all-wheel-drive.
Up front, the Countryman will be familiar to anyone who has driven a modern Mini, with moderately bolstered heated seats, a tachometer behind the steering wheel and a huge speedometer in the middle of the dash. Below the large speedometer is a BMW-esque sound system and buttons for the automatic climate control. Window controls are on the center console instead of the doors. A large-opening moonroof can increase ventilation, while letting in enough light to prevent any feelings of claustrophobia.
The big news about the interior, however, is the back seat, which is much more easily accessible through separate rear doors, and has enough leg, head and shoulder room for two average-sized adults to actually be comfortable.
The best thing about the original Mini was the way it handled. It truly felt and drove like a go-kart. Due to its higher ride height, greater weight and softer suspension, the same cannot be said for the Countryman. The added weight means that acceleration, even with the turbo engine, is not as brisk as in the smaller Minis. That said, the Countryman can do a number of things other Minis can’t, like offer all-wheel-drive and mild off-road capability.
Engines choices are the same, with a base 121 horsepower, four-cylinder, 1.6 liter engine that gets 27 mpg city, 35 highway with the six-speed manual transmission and a turbo-charged version of the same engine that gives you 181 horses and 26 city, 32 highway. The countryman also offers a 6-speed automatic, but mileage and the fun factor are slightly decreased with it.
Matt McMillan of Mini of St. Louis, sums it up. “The Mini Countryman offers room for four adults, with four doors and available four-wheel drive, all in a great-looking package.”
The basic Mini Countryman will set you back about $23,000, with the turbo going for around $27,000, and the turbo all-wheel-drive, $28,500.
Another interesting new small car is the Nissan Cube. With its distinctive styling, the Cube sets itself apart from the crowd with its looks, and further distinguishes itself as a well-built, roomy, economical small car.
The most striking feature of the Cube is its polarizing asymmetrical rear. You either love it or hate it. I love it. So many of today’s cars look so similar, it’s refreshing to see Nissan offer something really different. The rear also opens to the side, not up, which means you don’t have to reach up to pull it down—a convenience sure to be appreciated by the height impaired.
The Cube backs up its looks with a very functional and entertaining vehicle. Its high roof creates a huge panoramic windshield for superb visibility. The extraordinary roof height means there’s plenty of headroom throughout the cabin and extra room for cargo in back.
Cabin amenities include automatic climate control, tilt steering wheel, steering wheel audio controls, four doors for easy access, and a vertical hatchback that maximizes interior space.
The Cube’s 1.8 liter, four-cylinder engine pumps out 122 horsepower, which makes for decent acceleration. Power is directed to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual or CVT (continuously variable) automatic transmission. Mileage is good at 27 city, 31 highway. Front brakes are disc, but rear ones are drum, though four-wheel ABS is standard. The power steering is overboosted, diminishing road feel, though the fairly tight suspension makes for decent handling and a comfortable ride.
Mike O’Shea of Bommarito Nissan, boasts of the Cube, “It has the largest interior and the most head, leg and shoulder room of any car in its class. It’s fun to drive with good power.” Prices start around $15,500, go to about $17,000 for the midlevel 1.8S, and can climb to $23,000-plus for a top-of-the-line model.
Robert Paster (robertpaster.com) also is an attorney in private practice, concentrating in estate planning and probate.