You know, there was a time when the term ‘‘sub-compact car’’ stood for cheap, boring transportation. But today the best small cars, with their high-revving engines and big car features, are enjoyable to drive, yet still extremely affordable to own. And this week we compare four of these impressive entry level models, all with a base price of under $13,000. So, which one is the best one for your wallet?

Not an easy call, since all four of our front-wheel drive sub-compact contenders are solid little performers on the road that won’t inflate the budget.

First in line, the just introduced 2004 Suzuki Forenza. Built in Korea by Daewoo, Forenza is the latest addition to American Suzuki’s fast-growing lineup of family cars, slotted just below the sportier Aerio. Crisp lines make up the European-penned, Pininfarina-styled 4-door sedan, with a large 6-side window greenhouse providing excellent visibility.

Forenza’s power comes from a 2.0-liter, twin-cam, 16-valve 4-cylinder engine. It makes 119 horsepower and 126 pound-feet of torque, the most in our test. A 5-speed manual transmission is standard. Mated to the optional 4-speed automatic, our Forenza hit 60 in a reasonable for its class 10.7 seconds. But we would describe overall performance as peppy. Handling is quite nimble and even with typical front-drive understeer, the Forenza is fun to kick around the cones. The standard 15-inch all-season tires grip well.

The interior is very roomy. At 107.5 cubic feet it is the largest in our test, and it has a long list of standard features. All models, S, LX, and our EX, include air, power locks and windows, a cassette/CD player, and radio controls on the steering wheel. Our EX even has leather upholstery. A split-fold rear bench seat is standard, while trunk space offers up a big 12.4 cubic feet. But as the largest car in our group, it was also the thirstiest. Expect 26 miles per gallon in daily driving.

Forenza base prices begin at $12,999 for the S, and reach to $15,499 for the EX. The highest of our group.

Next up, the 2004 Toyota Echo. Restyled last year, Echo was Toyota’s attempt to woo young buyers before Scion came along. Echo put Toyota’s top quality image on a trendy and usable shape. Riding on a 93.3-inch wheelbase, the Echo is the shortest of our lot. But with lots of glass it looks taller than the others.

Echo’s power is a 1.5 liter, twin-cam 16-valve four. Output is 108 horsepower and 105 pound feet of torque, typical for its class. Our track results included 0-60 runs in a brisk 9.2 seconds with the standard 5-speed manual. Power and launch feel stronger than expected. A 4-speed automatic is available. Handling is secure, if not stellar. But Echo’s soft suspension with 14 or 15-inch wheels did the best job of ironing out road bumps and ruts.

And though small on the outside, the Echo’s interior will surprise you. It feels roomy and chic with a high driver’s seat and European-flavor dash. The base Echo is, however, lightly equipped, and even power steering, air conditioning, and a CD have to be added. A split folding rear seat is also optional, but a 13.6 cubic foot trunk is standard and our test’s biggest.

Echo easily wins this foursome’s fight in fuel economy. Our test results were an impressive 38.0 miles per gallon for the manual.

Offered in two and four door models, Echo starts at a low $10,760, but will rise to around $12,000 once you add a few necessary options.

Our next candidate, the 2004 Chevrolet Aveo, is the first of a new generation of small cars for GM’s domestic brands, and like the Suzuki Forenza, is made by Daewoo.

This spunky and budget friendly import comes as a 4-door sedan or our 5-door hatchback, and owes its simple but most attractive appearance to Italdesign. Only slightly larger than the Echo, Aveo’s 97.6 inch wheelbase doesn’t compress its appeal.

Aveo power comes by way of a 1.6 liter twin-cam 16-valve 4. It’s a class typical powertrain with 105 horsepower and 107 pound-feet of torque, and 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmissions. Our Aveo automatic took an also typical 10.4 seconds to dash from 0-60. Noise and vibration, however, were less than expected.

Even with 14-inch tires, handling on the track proved a bit gritty. But on the road the Aveo was a joy. Soft springs provided exceptional ride quality and a surprisingly quiet drive. Inside, the 5-passenger interior is uncluttered and European efficient. Much like the Echo, the Aveo offers lots of headroom and a comfortable driver’s helm.

A Special Value Model includes power steering but lacks air conditioning. Base trim adds air, while the top LS has power locks, windows, and a CD/MP3 stereo. In the rear, the standard 60/40 split folding seat expands the small 7.1 cubic foot cargo floor to a wagon-like 42 cubic feet.

Fuel economy is reasonable. We managed a good 30 on a mixed driving loop.

As to value, the Aveo hatchback and sedan start at $9,995 for the Special Value Model, and top out at a reasonable $12,585 for a well equipped LS.

Our last sub-compact contender is the now familiar Hyundai Accent. Restyled in 2003, the Accent includes Hyundai’s 100,000 mile powertrain warranty, the best protection among sub-compacts. Available as a two-door hatchback or our four-door sedan, the Accent’s styling is uncomplicated and practical.

Accent packs a 1.6-liter, twin-cam, 16-valve in-line-4. Output is 104 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque. More or less equal to Echo and Aveo. And with our GL’s 5-speed manual - a 4-speed automatic is optional - track times read 0-60 in 9.3 seconds. That’s right there with the Echo. Ride quality is good, but not class best, as is handling. Label it adequate and safe, but not much fun. The Accent’s small tires, 13-inch on all but the GT, contribute to its limited grip. Overall, though, everyday day driving is quite acceptable.

As is the interior. The Accent has a comfy driver’s seat, and a well planned instrument panel. But you have to order an option package for the mid-level GL to get power windows and a decent stereo. The standard folding rear seat leads to an 11.8 cubic foot trunk, smaller than both Echo and Forenza.

EPA estimates are fine. Our test loop yielded 35 miles per gallon for the 5-speed, slightly less than the manual Echo.

And while base prices range from $10,539 to $12,739 before options, it’s Hyundai’s exceptional warranties that just might be the biggest selling point.

As to safety, all four are available with anti-lock brakes, but only the Accent offers side impact airbags and they’re standard.

So, is there a winner here for you? Well, overall we’re most smitten with the Chevrolet Aveo for commuting enjoyment. But it’s hard to argue with how much car you get for the money with the Hyundai Accent. For pure size it’s the Suzuki Forenza, and for quality, the Toyota Echo has an unbeatable reputation.

It’s so long to those boring econo-boxes of our past as we gladly endure the daily commute with any of our fab-4, and sing their frugal praises mile after mile.


  • 2004 Chevrolet Aveo:
  • 2004 Hyundai Accent:
  • 2004 Suzuki Forenza:
  • 2004 Toyota Echo: