It used to be that “subcompact” denoted a cheap, stripped-to-the-basics econobox whose only attraction was price—and maybe fuel economy. That kind of subcompact is almost extinct. Today’s subcompact cars now come standard with a host of features that weren’t even offered in the segment ten years ago, accompanied in some cases by surprising levels of refinement and available amenities.
Though the added comfort and convenience features mean these cars are a bit more expensive than they used to be, they are still the most affordable new vehicles on the road. The lowest priced subcompact—the manual-transmission Chevrolet Spark—starts at under $14,000, and the rest start in the $15,000–$16,000 range.
Though the low-buck vehicles in the subcompact class typically aren’t the first to receive cutting edge technology features, a number of important safety features have trickled down to this segment in recent years. As required by law, rearview backup cameras are now standard in virtually all vehicles as of 2018, and antiskid systems have been mandated since 2012. The cars in this class also include front-side airbags and curtain-side airbags (also important safety features), and sophisticated forward collision warning systems—some with automatic emergency braking—are becoming more commonplace as well.
HIGHLIGHTS FOR 2021
We note above that cheap, stripped-to-the-basics subcompact cars are almost extinct. It now appears that the subcompact car class in general is headed toward extinction. This segment has been seriously waning in popularity as buyers shift toward subcompact crossover SUVs, which has caused many manufacturers to shift their focus accordingly. The Ford Fiesta and Toyota Prius C were discontinued for the 2020 model year. For 2021, four out of the previous eight entrants in the class—50 percent of the segment—are dropped. The Chevrolet Sonic, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris sedan, and Toyota Yaris Hatchback are all discontinued this year, at least in the U.S. market. A redesigned, fourth-generation Honda Fit is available in various global markets, but Honda has elected to not bring that new model to our shores, focusing instead on the Honda HR-V subcompact SUV.
The Chevrolet Spark isn’t likely to survive much longer either. Chevrolet is also concentrating on subcompact SUVs, with its existing Chevrolet Trax and the new-for-2021 Trailblazer. In the place of the cancelled Toyota Yaris models (which were actually restyled, rebadged versions of the Mazda 2—another subcompact car that isn’t sold in the U.S.), Toyota offers its car-like C-HR subcompact crossover, and will likely introduce a new small crossover named Corolla Cross in the near future. For 2021, the surviving members of the subcompact car class don’t see any major changes. The Chevrolet Spark and Hyundai Accent are both carried over with no significant updates. The Mitsubishi Mirage gets a styling refresh with a bolder front-end look, plus an updated infotainment system with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto capability and available lane-departure warning, automatic high-beam headlights, and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. The Kia Rio is expected to receive a mild styling refresh and an updated interior with new infotainment-system features.
MODELS THAT OFFER SOMETHING UNUSUAL
Not surprisingly, given its four-member roster and focus on penny-pinching pricing, the subcompact car class is a homogenous segment. The Chevrolet Spark comes only as a 4-door hatchback, and the Hyundai Accent comes solely as a 4-door sedan. The Kia Rio and Mitsubishi Mirage both offer the choice of a 4-door hatchback or 4-door sedan (the Mirage’s sedan body style is named Mirage G4).
Good fuel economy is expected in this class, but bargain prices are also expected. Since the extra cost of sophisticated hybrid powertrains pushes up the bottom-line price significantly, there are no hybrid subcompact cars available. All have small engines with modest power ratings—decidedly so, in the case of the Mitsubishi Mirage (which has a 78-hp 1.2-liter 3-cylinder) and Chevrolet Spark (which has a 98-hp 1.4-liter 4-cylinder). The Hyundai Accent and Kia Rio do a bit better; they both have a 120-hp 1.6-liter 4-cylinder.