NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- How did some of the tiniest cars on the road become "cool"?
Each year, the folks at auto pricing Web site Kelley Blue Book rank the Top 10 "coolest cars under $18,000," and each year there seems to be more emphasis on the compact and subcompact categories. That isn't incredibly surprising, considering that small cars are just about the only non-SUVs anyone seems to want to buy right now.
Through April, sales of SUVs and crossovers are up 13.3%, according to MotorIntelligence.com. Crossover SUVs lead all vehicles with more than 1.3 million sold, or roughly 200,000 more than the venerable midsize sedan, but small cars are carving out a big niche of their own.
Small-car sales are up 3.3%, with the more than 1 million compact and subcompact cars sold through April nearly doubling the sales of noncrossover SUVs (539,000).
This isn't exactly a recent development, either. Ten years ago, automakers sold 2.35 million compact cars in the U.S. and a paltry 277,000 subcompacts, according to auto pricing Web site Edmunds.com. They made up 13.9% and 1.6% of the market, respectively, and were engulfed by SUVs and fuel that cost $2.31 per gallon.
In postrecession 2012, with the average price of a gallon of gas hitting $3.63, compact sales grew modestly to 2.4 million while subcompact sales soared to 736,000. By that time, however, compact cars made up 16% of the market while subcompacts more than tripled their share to 5.1%.
"In the past decade, the growth in the number of available models for the subcompact car segment has significantly impacted their market share," Edmunds representative Allie Zamaria said. "In the past couple of years, the influx of popular new alternatives such as compact crossover SUVs has contributed the to slight market share decline of smaller cars, along with lower fuel prices and a recovering economy. The compact car segment has been the second-best-selling in the industry since 2010, following midsize cars."
While their portion of the auto market dropped from more than 21% to about 19.5% today, their sales have increased steadily as automakers crammed more amenities into little, fuel-efficient packages. While "cool" is a bit subjective, KBB and Edmunds pointed us toward compact and subcompact vehicles that not only go easy on the gas, but take the pain out of the sticker price as well:
10. 2015 Fiat 500
Starting price: $16,100
Fiat Chrysler's (FCAU) cinquecento is a tiny car trying to roll back decades of muscle-bound Chrysler automaking and marketing. The 500 measures a scant 140 inches long and 64 inches wide, gives parallel parkers a 30.6-inch turning radius for squeezing into tight spots and finds room for 10 cubic feet of trunk space -- nearly double that of the Mini. The retractable, pool-cover-style sunroof, power outlets, five cup holders, cruise control, power windows and 38 miles-per-gallon highway mileage are a whole lot cooler to the postbailout buyer base than gas-guzzling reincarnations of Dodge Charger and Challenger muscle cars. Maybe that's why the whole line is taking its cues from the 500 while Dodge and Chrysler's missteps fade into automotive history.
9. 2015 Honda Civic
Starting price: $18,490
Honda's (HMC) Civic has a combined 35 miles per gallon and nearly 40 miles per gallon on the highway. It seats five with a surprising amount of space left over, is coated in airbags and has a new display that shows fuel efficiency, music info and photos. The utilitarian small sedan also tends to hold up well over the years, making it a gem for used-car buyers.
8. Chevrolet Sonic
Starting price: $14,245
The Sonic, from GM's (GM) Chevrolet division, has a comfortable ride, smooth steering, up to 47.7 cubic feet of cargo space and nearly 40 miles per gallon of highway mileage in the turbo version. Available Wi-Fi, 7-inch touchscreen, Siri Eyes-Free voice control, navigation, rearview cameras, collision alert and OnStar information and assistance just make it a little more enticing to get into this little car.
7. 2015 Mazda3
Starting price: $16,945
The Mazda3 makes this KBB list on a regular basis thanks to a striking amount of power in an extremely small space. A 2-liter engine gives this little hatch 155 horsepower, which basically dusts most vehicles in its class while still putting up nearly 36 miles per gallon of fuel efficiency. Meanwhile, even this vehicle's lesser trims come with standard Bluetooth, six-speaker audio and the Mazda Connect system with 7-inch full color touchscreen, multifunction Commander control, voice command, HD Radio, Pandora (P) radio, auto text and voice reply and E911 emergency notification. The 12 cubic feet of trunk space isn't great, but it works out just fine if you travel light.
6. 2015 Volkswagen Golf
Starting price: $17,995
There are a whole lot of options staring you down when you pick up a Golf. Do you stick with the combined 31 miles per gallon of the standard model, or upgrade to a turbodiesel for about $5,000 more and bump that mileage up to 37 per gallon? Do you stick with the standard package with touchscreen entertainment and apps or go with the xenon headlights, Fender audio system, panoramic sunroof and touchscreen navigation? Either option gets you a combined 53 cubic feet of cargo space in a surprisingly spacious hatchback. At this price, it's tough to lose.
5. Mini Cooper
Starting price: $20,700
Small cars were once underpowered, cramped and inherently bad vehicles fit only for game show giveaways. As films such as 2002's Austin Powers: Goldmember and 2003's The Italian Job showed U.S. audiences, however, a modernized take on the classic British Mini could not only be fuel-efficient, but fun and fast at the same time.
The Mini's toys, including Mini Connected entertainment center featuring a 6.5-inch high-definition display, Apple (AAPL)-designed Bluetooth interface and app for smartphone and iTunes connectivity and optional GPS, all make this remarkably zippy 121-horsepower subcompact a fun ride. The SiriusXM (SIRI) satellite radio, Pandora and HD radio just provide the soundtrack.
4. 2015 Kia Forte Koup
Starting price: $18,590
The Forte Koup is more impressive than it looks. In Edmunds testing, the most powerful engine available -- a 201-horsepower turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder -- hit 60 mph in just seven seconds, which is ridiculous for an economical compact coupe. Meanwhile, the interior is cushy, the controls are easy to use and the materials aren't skimpy. When Kia offers a vehicle such as the Forte with standard MP3 and SirusXM in the audio system, audio control and Bluetooth wireless in the steering wheel, a fuel-efficiency monitor, combined 29 mpg fuel efficiency, more than 13 cubic feet of cargo room and a 10 year, 100,000-mile warranty at this price, you give it some serious thought.
3. 2015 Ford Fiesta
Starting price: $13,965
Don't call it an econobox. Ford's (F) Fiesta is slightly sexier in its hatchback version, but it still has Bluetooth and digital media player compatibility through Microsoft's (MSFT) SYNC system, navigation capability, tons of available apps and 31 to 36 miles per gallon combined, depending on the model. Playthings including a power moonroof, heated leather-trimmed seats and capless fuel intake are extra, but that starting price puts them all within reach.
2. 2015 Honda Fit
Starting price: $15,650
One of the subcompacts that started the class' renaissance, the colorful and convenient Fit got by on a whole lot of flexibility and user friendliness. This year, it gets a complete revamp that makes it an incredibly worthy tailgate vehicle despite its size.
Cargo space shrinks from 57.3 cubic feet with the seats down to 52.7, but the seats get a little more modular, to the point that the front passenger seat folds back to serve as a footrest for a passenger in the back who wants to sleep for this leg of the trip. Blind-spot cameras, a multiangle rearview camera, touchscreen audio system, Bluetooth connectivity, an app suite, leather-trimmed and heated seats, a moonroof and satellite navigation all make for a pleasant, comfortable ride for driver and passenger.
1. 2015 Hyundai Accent
Starting price: $14,745
Ask someone with gray hair about Hyundai subcompacts and they'll likely tell you about the Hyundai Excel that they either won on Hollywood Squares or delivered pizzas in until the universal joints sounded like baseball cards jammed in the spokes of a bicycle. Just like all of those aforementioned references, that image of the stripped-down economy-priced Excel is incredibly dated. This still isn't an incredibly fun car to drive, but it gets roughly 31 miles per gallon combined, is covered by that lengthy Hyundai/Kia warranty and has nearly 14 cubic feet of trunk space as a sedan and a whopping 21 cubic feet as a hatchback. The technology is limited to satellite radio and USB ports, but maybe you can use that money you're saving to upgrade to something a bit nicer.