Gas prices are stagnating, which means that we're watching car trends reverse yet again. Big, thirsty trucks and SUVs are expanding in size and in appetite. If there's anything to be learned from the recent era of downsizing, though, it's that most people don't really need big cars. There are plenty of ways a larger vehicle might make life a little easier, but when fuel was expensive and optimizing mileage was the way to go, many car buyers learned to get by with a little less. Small cars still offer benefits. Compacts (even the more upscale models) are usually lower-priced than bigger versions. Besides that, they're easier to park, they're often more fun to drive, and, hey, even if prices at the pump stay low, gas will never be free. Here are 10 of Autobytel's favorite small American cars.
10 American Compact Cars
10) 2016 Buick Verano
Buick's working hard to revitalize the brand's image, and the 2016 Verano is a smart step in the right direction. This small sedan envelops five passengers in a cabin that exemplifies entry-level luxury. Buick worked hard to keep the Verano's price affordable, so it's not quite ready to compete against true compact luxury models, but the interior is undoubtedly classy, comfortable, and quiet, and shows off the car's quality construction and generous equipment menu. The base Verano comes with a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 180 horsepower and 171 lb-ft of torque, paired to a six-speed automatic transmission. Base fuel economy rates at 21 mpg in city driving and 32 mpg on the highway. The Verano Turbo boasts 250 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque from its 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder unit, with either a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual transmission, making this one of our favorite 10 American compact cars.
Photo Credit: General Motors
9) 2016 Cadillac ATS
As the entry model to the Cadillac brand, the 2016 ATS is one of the more affordable luxury models among our 10 American compact cars available this year, as well as one of the more understated such options on the market. The 2016 ATS is available both as a five-passenger sedan and a four-passenger coupe, and both versions offer plenty of benefits. Standard equipment is generous, and available safety features include adaptive cruise control, a blind spot monitoring system, and rear cross traffic alert. The lineup of available engines includes a 202-horsepower 2.5-liter four-cylinder (the base engine in the sedan), a 272-horsepower turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder (the base engine in the coupe), and a 335-horsepower 3.6-liter V-6. An eight-speed automatic transmission comes standard, but the turbo four offers an optional six-speed manual. Rear-wheel drive is standard in the 2016 Cadillac ATS, and all-wheel drive is optional.
Photo Credit: Chevrolet Media
8) 2016 Chevrolet Cruze
The 2016 Chevrolet Cruze, an efficient and stylish small sedan, helps the brand stay strong in a particularly competitive segment, and is one of the most value-oriented of our 10 American compact cars. The Cruze offers a choice of two engines that, oddly enough, produce the same 138 horsepower. The difference is that the optional engine, a turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder, provides more torque and better fuel economy than the base 1.8-liter four-cylinder unit. In fact, the upgraded version of the Cruze returns up to 42 mpg in highway driving, while the base model gets up to 38 under the same conditions. A six-speed automatic and a six-speed manual transmission are both on offer. The 2016 Chevy Cruze seats five in its comfy cabin, has solid handling, stores plenty of gear in the large trunk, and offers high-end equipment, such as available 4G LTE connectivity via GM's OnStar telecommunications system.
Photo Credit: Chevrolet Media
7) 2016 Chevrolet Spark
The Chevrolet Spark, another small car that's helping revitalize the brand's entry-level lineup, is redesigned for 2016, featuring improvements such as more power, better fuel economy, and more standard safety equipment. This American compact car is a four-passenger subcompact hatchback that's aimed at young buyers and urban dwellers who need efficiency on a budget. This year's redesign includes a new drivetrain, a 1.4-liter four-cylinder unit that comes with either a five-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic transmission. The manual is a little less expensive, and fuel economy is nearly the same for both. Potential buyers shouldn't be thrown off by the Spark's modest 98 ponies; this number isn't impressive on paper, but power is sufficient to fulfill the Spark's promises of affordable and efficient transportation. The 2016 Chevrolet Spark includes standard equipment such as rear parking sensors, a rearview camera, and GM's OnStar system.
6) 2016 Chevrolet Volt
The Chevrolet Volt was already a good example of an American compact car, and for 2016, the Volt's gotten even better. Redesigned for this year, the Chevy Volt finally enjoys a better acceptance and understanding of the realities of living with an electric car. (While the Volt is really a plug-in hybrid and not a fully electric car, it's designed to encourage people to use its electric range as much as possible.) Chevy's used the time well, making some critical updates to the Volt. First and foremost, the compact sedan has a lower price of entry than the previous model. The Volt now offers five seats, whereas the first generation limited seating to four. And a full electric charge provides the 2016 Chevy Volt with up to 53 miles of travel, or fuel mileage of up to 43 mpg city and 42 mpg highway while using engine power.
5) 2016 Chrysler 200
To be fair, the 2016 Chrysler 200 might straddle the line between small and midsize, but this affordable sedan represents the qualities sought out in an American compact car. The Chrysler 200 offers entry-level luxury accommodations for five passengers (although the backseat might be a tight squeeze for adults). The Chrysler 200 is offered in four trim levels and with the choice of two drivetrains. The base model comes powered by a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine that produces 184 horsepower and 173 lb-ft of torque. The optional 3.6-liter V-6 makes 295 horsepower and 262 lb-ft of torque, and comes with standard all-wheel drive (which is optional on the base model). Both engines are paired to a nine-speed automatic transmission. The 2016 Chrysler 200 keeps standard equipment to a minimum, which helps keeps the price accessible, but the options list is extensive.
Photo Credit: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles
4) 2016 Dodge Dart
The 2016 Dodge Dart is an affordable five-passenger compact sedan that a takes cues from the brand’s higher-priced and higher-performance models, even if the Dart doesn’t dare encroach on their territory. This American compact car actually has European architecture, by way of corporate partner FIAT, which may help explain why its handling is sportier than its looks would betray. Three engine options are available in the 2016 Dodge Dart. For the best combination of driving dynamics and efficiency, check out the turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder option, paired to either a six-speed manual or a six-speed automatic transmission. This setup produces 160 horsepower, which is the same output as the base model’s 2.0-liter four-cylinder, but the turbo significantly helps boost fuel economy, resulting in EPA ratings of 28 mpg city, 41 mpg highway.
Photo Credit: FIAT
3) 2016 FIAT 500
Yes, it's unmistakably Italian in origin, design, and heritage. But after FIAT's merger with Chrysler in late 2014, we're happy to count this newly American compact car among our own. The FIAT 500, a four-seat, three-door hatchback (or convertible, if you prefer) focuses as much on style as substance. It's available in several cutely-named trim levels and in a bunch of high-contrast color combinations, with a modern interior design. The 500's fun to drive, too, thanks to its two available 1.4-liter four-cylinder engines. The base makes 101 horsepower and returns good fuel economy; the optional turbocharged version produces 135 horsepower and gets about average fuel economy. Transmission options are a five-speed manual and a six-speed automatic. While the base 2016 FIAT 500 is fine for city driving, the turbo version is recommended for buyers who regularly drive longer distances at highway speeds.
Photo Credit: Ford
2) 2016 Ford Fiesta
The 2016 Ford Fiesta, a sporty American subcompact car, offers buyers the choice of a sedan or a hatchback, both of which seat five passengers. It’s widely considered to be one of the most stylish vehicles in the subcompact class, with athletic good looks that are actually backed up by its power and handling. The base model makes 120 horsepower from its 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine; paired to a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission, the entry-level Fiesta is adequate enough to serve most buyers’ needs. The Fiesta SE gets 123 horsepower from its turbocharged 1.0-liter three-cylinder, and the range-topping Fiesta ST yields 197 horsepower from its turbo 1.6-liter four-cylinder. For an affordable subcompact, the 2016 Ford Fiesta sure knows how to please a crowd.
Photo Credit: Ford
1) 2016 Ford Focus
A step up from the Fiesta, the 2016 Ford Focus is a compact car that also comes in hatch and sedan body styles, both of which offer seating for five. The Focus is one of the most popular models in its class, offering comfort, utility, and power at an attractive price point. The base Focus features 160 horsepower from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that comes paired to a six-speed automated manual or five-speed manual transmission. Stepping up to the performance-oriented Focus ST offers a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 252 horsepower, and a six-speed manual. The Ford Focus RS brings standard all-wheel drive along with a turbocharged 2.3-liter four-cylinder engine that puts down 350 ponies; this option’s new for the 2016 model year.