Small is in, especially when it comes to cars. Between concerns over gas mileage and the environment and the general trend toward downsizing, trimmer cars are enjoying a new status.

    Case in point is the Scion xD, a registered trademark of Toyota, which has a five-door configuration with a tall roof that offers an incredible amount of room for its 154.7-inch length. The xD offers a curvier, more attractive five-door design compared to the refrigerator-box design of the xB.

    Inside, there’s plenty of front seat room. A basic dashboard with a single gauge displays speed and the tachometer. Seating position is relatively high, which offers a good view of the road and surrounding vehicles. The steering wheel manually tilts but does not telescope and includes controls for cruise and radio. Power windows, door locks and mirrors accompany standard air conditioning. 

    Rear seat room is adequate, with generous head room, but leg room is largely dependent on the position of the front seat. Oddly, the rear headrests slide down into the rear seat and extend out from it when lowered, hitting you in the top of the back, so the headrests must be raised to sit comfortably. However, they are out of the line of vision when down. The rear cargo area expands greatly with the rear seats folded.

    The 1.8 liter, 16 valve, 4-cylinder engine pumps out 128 horsepower to the front wheels via a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic. Power is adequate for a small car, and even with the automatic, stomping on the gas pedal makes it get up and go. Gas mileage is 26 city, 32 highway. Steering is nice and tight; handling is pretty good without sacrificing ride quality. Brakes are front disc, rear drum with ABS and work well enough. Vehicle stability control is an option.

    A number of performance upgrades are available, including a sport muffler, performance air filter, lowering springs, a rear sway bar and performance shocks and struts. According to Eric Bayer, Scion sales manager at Lou Fusz Scion, “The xD combines affordability, practicality and economy in a fun-to-drive package.” The xD starts at $15,300 enticing for such a practical, well built car.

    Another attractive, small, five-door car option is the Pontiac Vibe. Like the Scion, the Vibe offers a lot of space in a relatively short 171.1-inch long vehicle. The Vibe is attractively styled with a traditional Pontiac dual-grill front end flowing upward to a forward-sloping, diagonal C-pillar and sloped rear hatch window. Pretty sporty looking.

    Large round gauges for the speedometer and tach are easy to read. The leather-wrapped tilt and telescoping steering wheel contains cruise control and audio controls. Front seats are comfortable and moderately bolstered but covered in a utilitarian fabric, except for the bolsters, which are vinyl or leather. A center armrest also provides storage.

        Rear seat room is good, and the high roofline offers plenty of headroom, even with the available sunroof, but leg room is somewhat dependent on the generosity of the front seat passengers. The rear cargo area is pretty large, although the slope of the rear window cuts into its height.  Cargo capacity is greatly increased by folding the rear seat. The front passenger seat also folds to accommodate really long objects.

    Two engines are available in the Vibe: a 1.8 liter 132 horsepower 4-cylinder and a 2.4 liter 158 horsepower 4-cylinder. Both come with either 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic with the 1.8 liter and 5-speed automatic with the 2.4 liter. The 5-speed automatic offers a clutch-less manual mode. With the 2.4 liter engine, gas mileage is 21 city, 29 highway. Vehicle stability and traction control are standard. Brakes are four wheel disc with ABS but seem a bit mushy. Acceleration and handling are both good, making the Vibe a fun car to drive, although the automatic transmission sometimes seemed to be hunting for the right gear. The manual would give more control and would make the Vibe even sportier to drive. There’s just a hint of torque steer on hard acceleration.

    Jim Kindred, sales manager at Lou Fusz Pontiac, boasts, “The Vibe offers excellent fuel economy and interior volume in a small car that fully utilizes the space within it.” Prices range from about $18,000 to $23,000.

Robert Paster is also an attorney in private practice, concentrating in estate planning and probate. See">