Twenty is the new plenty

2008, Honda, Fit

What a time to be shopping for a new car. Unless that is, your old behemoth is costing you an arm and a leg, in which case: What better time to be cutting your losses before your trade-in value shrivels to the dimensions of a sun-dried raisin.

Time was when $20,000 served as a reasonable threshold for separating barely tolerable budget cars from real, adult cars; but no longer. For folks with worthless trade-ins, $20,000 isn't a benchmark but a budget. And since fuel economy is now a crucial issue (what took us so long, America!), no self-respecting commuter would now dare contemplate settling for anything less than 20 mpg in the city. What follows, then, is a round-up of three twenty-somethings that manage to combine fuel-efficiency with space-efficiency for a target price of $20-grand or less. And the punch-line is: very little lifestyle adjustment is necessary not only to justify significant downsizing but also to achieve that forehead-slapping realization that we shoulda done this years ago, America!

If you've never played the game of schadenfreude, now might be a good time to start. Despite cratering sales figures from most of the major automakers, Honda is booking gains like nobody 'sbusiness. Are Honda execs and dealers taking schadenfreudean delight in their rivals 'collective misery? Of course not (wink, wink).

But what gives these rivals fits is the way Honda manages to deliver just the right car at just the right time, and the Fit is a case in point. Heres' a tiny but spunky, affordable but classy, fuel-efficient but entertaining commuter car that hits the sweet-spot of consumers' desires of the moment. In its larger, four-door hatchback configuration, the Fit costs only $15,270 with a 5-speed manual transmission ($16,070 with a five-speed automatic). Fuel economy is outstanding at 28 mpg/city, 34 mpg/highway.

And heres' the kicker: the Fit seats five, and its cargo hold manages to accommodate anywhere from 21 to 42 cubic feet, depending on what seats are in use. Moreover, the flip-up bottoms of the "Magic Seat" in the rear let users stow muddy, greasy outdoor gear without putting upholstery in harm's way.

Yes, the Fit is small. Thats' the point. But its' versatile and economical to use. It's also fun to drive, with laser-like steering and one of the best manual trannies on the road. It parks almost anywhere, and hauls more people and stuff than its appearance lets on. In short, it fits into the newly responsible lifestyle most of us should have adopted long before now anyway.

Apparently Nissan would like to make its customers feel that downsizing and economizing is a roguish thing to do, when really it's just a matter of simple common sense. Be that as it may, the new Rogue crossover provides an option for buyers in need of cargo space at the expense of seating room, with reasonable fuel efficiency to match.

The Rogue is based upon Nissan's lackluster Sentra econocar; but the similarity ends there. It's a genuine five-seater, but the rear seat isn't particularly comfy for three on account of minimal cushioning and fixed seatbacks. By way of compensation, however, cargo space is excellent with a range of 29 to 58 cubic feet.

Four-wheel independent suspension and disk brakes are quite welcome for the Rogue S model priced at $20,300 (as-tested). They don't exactly translate into sporty handling, however. Powertrain performance, too, is an acquired taste, if it can be acquired at all, that is. Output is decent at 170 horsepower, and mileage is satisfactory at 22 mpg/city, 27 mpg/highway. But the darned transmission (a CVT or continuously variable transmission) is a buzz-killer. In theory, it's an elegant efficiency solution; and in practice, it works as advertised. But aesthetically (in that vital seat-of-the-pants department) the Rogue's CVT feels like a continually slipping clutch. For some traditionalists who like their gears to shift in discrete steps, enduring a CVT re-education process may just be asking too much.

But that's a Rogue for you, defiant of customary norms. For the Gen-New drivers who can't tell a shift from a shucks in the first place, Nissan's new crossover probably represents the continuously variable paradigm of the future.

If you're curious to know what a paradigm looks like when it grows up, Pontiac's Vibe GT is your answer. The fraternal twin of Toyota's Matrix, this Pontiac variant was distinctly off-beat, even odd when it first appeared a few years ago. Thanks to a total make-over for 2009, though, and with a major assist from global oil and credit markets, Pontiac's Vibe makes sense like never before.

Larger than Honda's Fit, the Vibe is nevertheless a four-door hatchback in a super-compact package. If it was quirky once, its exterior is positively racy now; and the 2.4-liter inline-four in the GT model does its best to sustain a sporty reputation. Output is 158 horsepower, and with the standard five-speed manual transmission, mileage is a respectable 21 mpg/city, 28 mpg/highway. Price, as-tested, is $20,595, although a puny-powered base-model Vibe is also available starting at $15,310.

Despite its 18-inch wheels, spoilers and ground-effects bodywork, the extrovert Vibe GT never quite rivals the Honda Fit's fun-factor. It's more plodding through corners, and its transmission is rubbery and less precise. But with cargo space that ranges from 20 to 49 cubic feet, the Vibe is arguably better equipped to handle more permutations of people and their stuff.

In our brave new world of inverted expectations from our vehicles, perhaps the best that can be said about Pontiac's Vibe is that it has moved from the periphery of General Motors' product offerings to the vital center. Affordability, economy and efficiency now give GM a good vibe after all.

Subcompact sedan; 4-door, 5-pass.; 1.5-liter SOHC inline-4 w/ vvt; FWD, 5-sp. manual; 109 hp/105 ft.-lbs.; 28 mpg/city, 34 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 21-42 cu. ft.; as-tested price, w/ front ind./rear torsion-bar suspension & disc/drum ABS brakes, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio, HVAC, 15-in. wheels, front/front-side/head airbags: $15,270

Compact crossover; 4-door, 5-pass.; 2.5-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt; FWD, CVT transmission; 170 hp/175 ft.-lbs.; 22 mpg/city, 27 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 29-58 cu. ft.; as-tested price, w/ 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio, HVAC, 16-in. wheels, front/front-side/head airbags: $20,300

Subcompact sedan; 4-door, 5-pass.; 2.4-liter DOHC inline-4 w/ vvt; FWD, 5-sp. manual; 158 hp/162 ft.-lbs.; 21 mpg/city, 28 mpg/hwy w/ regular; cargo: 20-49 cu. ft.; as-tested price, w/ 4-wheel ind. suspension & ABS disc brakes, AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio, XM Radio & OnStar, HVAC, 18-in. wheels, front/front-side/head airbags: $20,595

By Marc Stengel

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Images of the 2008, Honda Fit

2008 Honda Fit
2008 Honda Fit
2008 Nissan Rogue
2008 Nissan Rogue
2009 Pontiac Vibe
2009 Pontiac Vibe