Car Buying Articles

The New Luxury of Compact Cars

Low Base Price, Potential for High-End Features

  • Mazda 3

    Mazda 3

    The Mazda 3 offers many luxury features for its price range. | June 23, 2010

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With tougher fuel economy regulations fast approaching, the stripped-out econobox may soon become a thing of the past. As the trend shifts toward downsizing and automakers are under more pressure to improve fuel economy averages, more upscale technology is appearing in compact vehicles. If you are willing to pay, you can now obtain luxury-car features in compact cars.

Options that were once exclusive to luxury vehicles are starting to make their way to the more affordable end of the market. This creates new potential for automakers, since the profit margins are typically slim on compact vehicles. By offering numerous upscale options, an automaker's margin improves and it allows consumers to get more high-end features in a relatively inexpensive package. Here are five examples of compact cars with varying high-end features. Depending on your needs, the price can go thousands above the base.

Affordable Luxury

For example, the 2010 Mazda 3 sedan starts at $15,345 (iSV model). According to sales data, the average transaction price for Mazda 3s sold in May was $19,642, which means that people are either adding options or choosing a higher trim.

Opting for the Grand Touring model with an automatic transmission (a $7,100 difference) will get you features like heated leather seats, bi-xenon headlights and dual-zone climate control. Add on the other typically equipped options (moonroof, Bose audio, navigation and push-button start) and this brings the total MSRP to $25,785 including destination fee — an increase of $9,690 over the base model. Sound expensive? Perhaps to some, but now you have a car that can match features with many entry-level luxury vehicles — for thousands less.

Must-Have Gadgets

The 2010 Toyota Prius is another compact car with high-end options. The base model Prius II starts at $22,800, but the price can soar past $36,000 if you want a loaded Prius V. The Prius has always been a showcase for high-end technology, and the third-generation model is no exception.

As part of a package that includes navigation, a solar-powered roof can be ordered with a ventilation system that activates the air-conditioner in warm weather and cools the vehicle before you enter it. The Advanced Technology package adds adaptive cruise control, a pre-collision warning system and automated self-parking. To put this in perspective, these features are commonly seen on luxury vehicles such as the BMW 5 Series, which starts at $44,500. The solar roof, however, is a feature unique to the Prius.

From Frugal to Fantastic

The Subaru Impreza sedan and hatchback offer one of the widest ranges in price and options. The base price on a 2010 Impreza 2.5i is $17,495. If you step up to the Premium trim level and add a moonroof and navigation, you're now up to $23,190, including destination.

The Impreza also has a high-performance model called the STI that starts at $34,995. Though Edmunds data shows that the average Impreza sells for $21,136, it is helpful to know that the options are out there — depending on what you're into and how deep your pockets go.

Engine Assortment

Sometimes the choice of engine is an option in and of itself. The 2010 Honda Civic is a perennial member of the top-selling vehicle list and is no slouch when it comes to variety either. Other engine options on the Civic are the Civic Hybrid ($23,800), the performance-oriented Civic Si ($22,225) and even a natural gas Civic GX ($25,340).

Honda tends to be conservative with its options, preferring to bundle the features in its trim levels. A fully loaded Civic EX-L (with a standard gasoline engine) can be had with leather, heated seats and mirrors, Bluetooth connectivity, a voice-activated navigation system and an iPod interface. The EX-L with navigation has an MSRP of $23,805.

Have It Your Way

The Mini Cooper's base price starts out at a relatively low $18,800, but this is merely a blank canvas for the potential Mini owner. As our model review says, "The options list is anything but mini. There are several packages available, but their content is mostly available à la carte. Major optional features include a dual-pane sunroof, automatic climate control, heated seats, keyless ignition/entry, a 10-speaker Harman Kardon surround-sound stereo, Bluetooth and an iPod interface. Other options include different wheels, parking sensors, cloth or leather upholstery, different trim colors and materials, a navigation system, satellite radio and HD Radio."

The average transaction price of a Mini Cooper in May was $25,366. This is about $5,800 over the base MSRP, including destination. But a buyer looking for a fully loaded and personalized Mini can very quickly add more than $9,000 in options.

The Next Wave: Small and Stylish

We're already seeing a shift in buying choices as baby boomers change their lifestyle. The next tier of compact cars with premium features is starting to make its way to the luxury end of the market. The Audi A3 is the current example, while the Lexus CT 200h could be a sign of things to come.

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