Cool Compacts

Fiat 500 • $16,500
Mpg: 30 city/38 highway • 0-to-60 mph: 10.8 seconds
Cargo space: 30 cu. ft.

Just like BMW when it launched the MINI Cooper 10 years ago, Fiat is getting raves for designing its own cutesy minicar — the 500. Yet Fiat hasn’t sold cars on U.S. shores for more than 25 years and the 500 is really a make-or-break car for Chrysler (which Fiat salvaged from bankruptcy in 2009).

So there’s lots of pressure on this retro compact to succeed. It helps that the 500 is sturdy, comfortable and — despite the petite 101-hp engine — a blast to drive. There’s more cargo room than in a MINI Cooper, which costs $5,000 more. And the 500’s cabin is nerdy-chic, full of glossy hard plastic, chrome accents and quirky gauges.

The Fiat offers a choice of colors and accessories—including pearlescent paint, roof racks and a huge panoramic sunroof.

Ford Focus • $17,000
Mpg: 26 city/36 highway • 0-to-60 mph: 7.6 seconds
Cargo space: 13.2 cu. ft. (sedan),
23.8 cu. ft. (hatchback)

With all the attention on Ford’s hot new Fiesta, there’s been little, um, focus on the Focus. And no wonder: After 11 years, the styling was as stale as hip huggers and shoulder pads.

But now the Focus gets a complete redo, with curvy sheet metal that echoes the Volvo S40 and Chevy Cruze — two of the sleekest compacts on the road. Handling is taut and firm, especially around corners, and braking is superb. Inside the techie cabin, there’s keyless entry/ignition, a rearview camera and five-way touch-pads on the steering wheel for stereo and info displays.

Eco-geeks will love how the car’s seats, carpeting and sound insulation are made from used denim. And an electric version hits showrooms this fall.

MINI Cooper Countryman • $22,000
Mpg: 28 city/35 highway • 0-to-60 mph: 7.6 seconds
Cargo space: 41 cu. ft.

MINI dubs the Countryman a wagon, but it’s really a kickin’ crossover. The design is ruggedly hip and the handling is just as nimble as other MINIs.

The four-door Countryman is longer, wider and taller than a regular two-door MINI Cooper, so there’s gobs of passenger and cargo room. Both rear bucket seats recline and slide.

Choice of two trim levels — but opt for the more powerful 181-hp turbo, which includes all-wheel drive.

Lots of (very pricey) options: heated seats/mirrors, dual-pane sunroof, sport-tuned suspension, rear parking sensors, Bluetooth, smartphone integration and more. Biggest downside: a too-noisy cabin.

Haulers

While compacts cars are definitely popular right now, gay and lesbian drivers looking for bigger fare to haul family, friends or clients will like the latest offerings from Subaru, Jag and Land Rover.

BMW 650i Series • $91,000
Mpg: 15 city/22 highway

BMW is a master magician. While this 6 Series redo looks leaner and lighter, it’s actually longer, wider and heavier. The result is more cabin and cargo room, as well as better handling and traction.

While the Camaro CC has more horsepower, the BMW’s twin-turbo V8 packs more punch: 0 to 60 in a blistering 4.8 seconds. Plenty of high-tech marvels, including side cameras in the front fenders to help you see around corners. And a backup camera cleverly combines images from cameras in each side-view-mirror to give you a birds-eye panorama of the car from above.

Subaru Legacy Outback • $23,500
Mpg: 19 city/27 highway • 0-to-60 mph: 9.4 second

Outbacks have always been a rainbow-sticker fave, and this redo is no exception. There’s literally more for gays and lesbians to love now, with the longer, wider, and taller frame and all that passenger room and cargo space. Unfortunately, the larger size means handling isn’t as spry as before.

Still, crash-test scores are primo and the rear seats recline — a nice touch. There are six trim levels, and all-wheel drive, hill-hold assist and stability control are standard across the board. Options include heated side mirrors, Harman Kardon stereo, rear privacy glass, windwhield wiper de-icer and iPod interface.

Land Rover Range Rover Sport • $60,000
Mpg: 13 city/18 highway • 0-to-60 mph: 7.3 seconds
Cargo space: 33.8 cu ft.

What better vehicle for the Queen — any queen — than a Land Rover? The Range Rover Sport model is the most nimble of them all. It’s also the most aerodynamic, which isn’t easy, considering the boxy motif of Land Rovers overall. And the Sport’s relatively low ground clearance makes it easy to climb aboard, though most drivers like to impress passengers with the showy suspension-lowering feature.

Plenty of bells and whistle inside: rear-parking sensors, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless ignition and boffo 14-speaker surround-sound stereo.

Electric Alternatives

Where are all the electric vehicles? That’s what auto aficionados are wondering as gas prices rise and SUVs line up like packed sardines on used-car lots.
The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf just plugged into showrooms last December, but got some positive jolts this year when both won top awards at the Detroit and New York auto shows.

Chevy Volt • $41,000
Mpg: 95 city/90 highway
Range: 340 miles before recharging or adding gas • 0-to-60 mph: 9.2 seconds

Most hybrids use two power plants in tandem: an electric motor for low speeds, a gas engine for higher speeds. But with the Volt, the lithium-ion battery pack powers the electric motor by itself for 40 miles; after that, the gas engine kicks in and generates electricity to the motor for another 300 miles.

There are no power front seats — like most hybrids. And because there is no rear bench seat, it’s fairly tight for rear passengers. But the cabin is high-tech chic: the cascading center console has cool iPod-like touch sensors. A large LCD screen has a battery meter that changes to a gas gauge once the battery is depleted. And a smartphone app lets owners check tire pressure, activate remote start to heat/cool the cabin and set charging times to take advantage of off-peak power rates.

Nissan Leaf • $33,000
Range: 100 miles before recharging
0-to-60 mph: 7 seconds

Similar yet different. That’s the best way to compare the Nissan Leaf with the Volt. Unlike the Volt — a hybrid — the Leaf is a pure electric. Both still face stiff competition from a slew of high-mileage, traditional gas-engine cars hitting the market — though tax credits help level the playing field.

Along with similar smartphone-integrated apps, the Volt and Leaf have the same warranties: eight years, 100,000 miles on all electric components. And they have the same recharging time: four to eight hours.

So what makes the Leaf so special? It may not have the Volt’s range but it’s made from 95 percent recycled materials. It has an optional solar panel to run accessories such as the radio. And styling is nerdy but cool. As for ride and handling, the Leaf is surprisingly spry. Best of all, the price — with or without tax rebates — makes this the most affordable EV out there.

 

Top photo: The newly released FIAT 500 (publicity photo)

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