Fortunately, the auto world's definition of cool has conformed to economic reality in recent years.
NEW YORK (MainStreet) -- The definition of "cool" changes with age and time, but generations of affected, superficial attempts at social climbing have all led to the same conclusion: Cool costs.
Did Marlon Brando's Wild One, James Dean's Rebel Without A Cause or Tura Satana's Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! get baby boomers' hormones jumping in the '50s and '60s? Well, leather, motorcycles and fast cars all came with a price tag. Did giant chrome rims and bottomless bottles of Cristal in turn-of-the-millennia hip-hop videos make a generation want to buy out every bar they entered? An entire financial crisis tells us that's a bad enough idea when you're spending paper, never mind maxing out plastic.
The same costly maxims applied to the car world as well. Monaco-worthy sports cars and military-grade SUVs turn heads on the street, but can turn bank accounts and lines of credit into rubble if a car buyer's finances can't support their costly facade. Fortunately, the auto world's definition of cool has conformed to economic reality in recent years. Sure, carmakers are still trying to push the occasional muscle car, but when Camaro and Mustang engines are being streamlined to get more than 30 miles per gallon of gas and carmakers are loading more of their premier tech toys into colorful subcompacts, the threshold of cool shifts a bit.
Auto pricing site Kelley Blue Book took note of this changing tide and came up with a handful of cars that let the owners feel cool while spending less than $18,000. That won't get buyers a status-saturated hood ornament or significant horsepower under the hood, but it'll get them enough features and fun to elicit some envy from their debt-laden fellow drivers:
10. 2012 Volkswagen Jetta
The Volkswagen Jetta a cool car? Should we get our chunky shoes out of the attic and tie flannels around our waists again? Donna Martin graduated almost two full decades ago, but her car made the leap from Beverly Hills 90210 nostalgia to CW 90210 efficiency and reliability. Its nearly 30 combined miles per gallon, 200-horsepower engine, keyless access, push-button start, 15.5 cubic feet of trunk space, heated front seats, three feet of rear legroom, tech-laden steering wheel and touchscreen entertainment and information console with Bluetooth, HD Radio, navigation and MP3 player hookups makes for a much more cushy ride than the gang at West Beverly ever got. With stability control, anti-lock brakes and a crash response system that unlocks the doors, cuts power to the fuel pump and throws on the hazard lights, it's a much safer ride to the Peach Pit as well.
9. 2012 Scion IQ
This car is small, but since when hasn't that been a cool thing? Baby boomers drove the Volkswagen Beetle into American cultural iconography while Gen Xers took the Mini Cooper from a punch line in an Austin Powers movie to a pint-sized powerhouse that made every trip to the convenience store a chase scene from The Italian Job. Toyota's(:TM) Scion IQ is Smart small without that car's big price tag. Sure, you're packed into 74 cubic feet of passenger space and have only 3.5 cubic feet in the trunk when the rear seats are up, but that combined 36.5 miles per gallon, seven-color palate, Pioneer audio system with Bluetooth and HD Radio and myriad safety features make this microcompact more cozy than cramped.
8. 2012 Kia Soul
What's so cool about driving around in a box that looks almost exactly like the Nissan Cube, the Scion xB or the recently departed Honda Element? Not a thing, which is why Kia gave the Soul an overdue overhaul in 2012 that streamlined its front and rear body, kicked its output up to 138 horsepower and improved its efficiency to a combined 31 miles per gallon. The nine-color palate, mix-and-match accent plates and audio and sunroof upgrades still remain, but it's the Soul's versatile 60/40 rear seating and 23.7 cubic feet of cargo space (53.4 with the rear seats down) that makes it an ideal surf shack, bike shuttle or city shopping companion.
7. 2012 Honda(:HMC) Fit
One of the small cars that kicked off the subcompact renaissance, the colorful and convenient Fit was hard to find last year when the earthquake and tsunami in Japan stymied supplies. The Fit's standard keyless entry, cruise control and CD player with iPod/USB jack are enticing, but modular seating, under-seat storage, 57.3 cubic feet of cargo room, 10 cupholders and combined mileage that exceeds 30 miles per gallon bring some cool perks to that little price tag.
6. 2012 Ford(:F) Fiesta
How do you get Americans back into a subcompact? Affordable tech toys and lots of them. The Fiesta's Bluetooth and digital media player compatibility through Microsoft's(:MSFT) SYNC system, bevy of available apps and 29 miles per gallon city and 40 highway are chipping away at category leaders including the Nissan Versa and Honda Fit. Looks count, too, which is why the Fiesta's bug-like design, broad palette of nine colors and available playthings such as a power moonroof, heated leather-trimmed seats and capless fuel intake have been just as essential to its success as its more practical side.
5. 2012 Chevrolet Sonic
There was no way General Motors(:GM) was going to let Ford play with all the cool subcompact toys by itself. The relatively new Sonic's comfortable ride, smooth steering, 31 cubic feet of cargo space and combined mileage of nearly 30 miles per gallon are the Sonic's key perks, but drivers get a lot of toys for the money. The base LS model includes a tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, a 60/40-split rear seat, a trip computer, OnStar emergency system and a four-speaker AM/FM stereo with an auxiliary audio jack. The LT upgrade throws in six-speaker audio, heated mirrors, remote starter, full power accessories and a Connectivity Plus package of cruise control, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, an iPod/USB audio interface and steering-wheel-mounted audio controls.
4. 2012 Mazda 3
The Mazda3 has all the fun of a feature-filled subcompact with a bit more kick. A 2.5-liter engine gives this little hatch 167 horsepower, which basically dusts most vehicles in its class. As for options, it joins the Fit and Versa in offering an engine-immobilizing anti-theft device, along with eight cupholders, six-speaker CD/MP3 player and front and side airbags. The options range from upgrades as simple as foglights, a rear spoiler and dual exhausts to automatic xenon headlights, heated mirrors, dual-zone climate control, heated front seats, leather upholstery and a power driver's seat with driver memory functions. Tacked-on tech toys include sunroofs and Bose 10-speaker sound systems with a six-CD changer, keyless ignition and entry, satellite radio, iPod interface and a navigation system with steering wheel controls.
3. 2012 Fiat 500
The cinquecento is giving the remaining misogynists at Chrysler a quick tutorial in what qualifies as "cool" during the 21st century. 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 cupholders, cruise control, power windows and 38 miles-per-gallon highway mileage are a whole lot cooler to the post-bailout buyer base than gas-guzzling reincarnations of Dodge Charger and Challenger muscle cars. Unless testosterone becomes the biofuel of the future, expect more of Chrysler's lineup to take its cues from corporate parent Fiat and its zippy little 500.
2. 2012 Hyundai Veloster
Aimed toward the same drivers who loved the Mini's deceptive quickness, the Veloster's a light little speedster whose 1.6-liter engine and 138 horsepower are more than adequate for its needs. Unlike the Mini, however, the Veloster's sleek styling evokes more of a sports car than a retro subcompact. Hyundai's had a bit of trouble keeping them in stock recently, as evidenced by customers shelling out beyond the MSRP. Given the frugal nature of today's car buyer, the Veloster's popularity is likely based more on its combined 34 miles per gallon and 10-year warranty than its alloy wheels, touchscreen entertainment system or Blue Link telematics and roadside assistance.
1. 2013 Dodge Dart
The last time most Americans saw a Dodge Dart, it was in the final stages of its devolution from chromed-out, tail-finned '60s dream boat to a browned-out, ugly compact that had its V8 muscle reduced to a costly option. After nearly 36 years of dormancy, the Dart is being revived with an Italian makeover. The folks at Fiat stretched out an Alfa Romeo and shrugged off the big-box muscle for four-cylinder 2.0- and 2.4-liter engines and 160 horsepower. Since "cool" is largely about artifice anyway, Dodge has tricked out the Dart's options with 12 available exterior colors, 14 interior color combinations, three types of wheels, rear LED lighting and dual exhaust. It'll look race-ready, but its combined 31 miles per gallon of efficiency and 13 cubic feet of cargo space in the trunk are more suited for weekend traffic than the track.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Boston.
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