Small cars are now a far cry from '70s-era econoboxes which offered little more than a radio. By Mark Solheim, Senior Editor October 31, 2006 A couple of years ago, the subcompact seemed all but extinct in the U.S. Models left over from the oil crisis of the 1970s -- namely, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla -- had been expanded and loaded with bigger-car options. But Japan's Big Three carmakers saw an opportunity and have invaded the U.S. market this year with little cars that are already a hit overseas: the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris. RELATED LINKS Toyota Yaris: A Car of Compromises Dodge's New Compact Has Bite Who Needs Gas Engines? Subcompacts now are a far cry from '70s-era econoboxes, which offered little more than a radio and two-speed wipers. For about $14,000 or less, you can get a solid, roomy vehicle -- with decent power, air conditioning (and a defroster that works), intermittent wipers and fold-down rear seats -- that gets up to 40 miles per gallon on the highway. An automatic transmission is $700 to $1,000 extra. A good Fit Of the new Japanese offerings, I like the Honda Fit best. Its $14,445 starting price is the highest of the three, but it's the most fully loaded. For example, power locks and mirrors, anti-lock brakes and head-protection airbags are standard equipment. The interior is elegantly basic, not cheap. Plus you get a spacious cargo area (21 cubic feet with the rear seats up, versus 18 for the Versa and 9 for the two-door Yaris hatchback) and rear seats that fold down in a 60-40 split. The rear-seat bottoms also swing up like theater seats, so you can load a tall item. The center console has lots of compartments and three cupholders. Advertisement The Fit is 157 inches long -- the second-longest of the three and a foot longer than the tiny Mini. The 1.5-liter engine delivers only 109 horsepower, but Honda's engine-engineering prowess helps the Fit go from zero to 60 miles per hour in 8.7 seconds, giving it a slight edge over the Versa and Yaris. Handling is nimble and sporty, and the manual shifter feels solid and accurate. Fuel economy is 33 mpg city and 38 highway. Bare-bones Yaris There are really two Yarises: the 150-inch-long, two-door liftback ($11,630) and the more upscale, 169-inch-long four-door sedan ($14,005). Both have a 1.5-liter, 106-hp engine and get best-in-class fuel economy (34 mpg city and 40 highway). And both have been hot sellers since they debuted last spring. The hatchback is as close to an econobox as any in the group. The interior feels chintzy, with velour-ish seats and rickety cupholders. It lacks basic amenities, such as an AM/FM/CD stereo. To get a sound system, you'll need to order the $1,290 power package, which also includes power windows and door locks, anti-lock brakes and split rear seats. Add head-protection airbags ($650) and you're within $900 of the Fit. On the plus side, with the hatchback's 60-40 split rear seat, you can slide one or both halves forward about 6 inches and fold both flat. The sedan has a 14-cubic-foot trunk and 2 inches more legroom than the hatchback for front- and rear-seat passengers. Advertisement Roomy Versa Nissan's Versa ($13,100) is a good choice if you want to please your passengers. It's about a foot longer than the Fit, which translates into more back-seat legroom and a longer wheelbase for a smoother ride. The 1.8-liter engine produces 122 hp, and the six-speed manual transmission makes the most of the extra power. Fuel economy is the lowest of the lot but still a respectable 30 mpg city and 34 highway. The center console is less user-friendly than that of the Fit and the interior is less appealing. Options to make them comparable raise the price another $1,000. Got a question? Ask Mark at kiplinger.com/drivetime, or write to him at 1729 H Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20006.