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In Search Of "The Best City Car"


123Contests are fun, especially if you win! So let's play "contest" here. This "race" is for the Best City Car, a vehicle that does everything as well as possible in a specified environment for the lowest cost.

But wait, in what city? For this venue, let's go to San Francisco, California, as the test bed; quite the social and cultural change from here in rural, conservative Middle Tennessee. It's such a cool place that after a couple of trips out there, you almost want to buy some Tony Bennett records.

Public transportation in the Bay Area is outstanding, ranging from cable cars and electric streetcars to BART and other MUNI systems, as well as an all-hybrid taxi fleet. All in all, this jewel of a metropolis is doing a brilliant balancing act, being both a car-friendly and an eco-conscious city.

It's also the second-most congested city in America and our 13th largest, so living here with a vehicle presents many special challenges. Street cleaning requires frequent vehicle shuffling. Parking spaces are at a premium; you're lucky if your residence offers any parking space at all.

041So let's break down the contest requirements into four categories: First, the Best City Car has to be easy to park and, more important, to unpark. Shown here is a typical day on the curb of any street in the city by the bay, where the local ordinances require you to turn your wheels toward the curb. Vehicles are known to break free from their brakes and try to wander off on their own down the steep hills.

Second, it must haul people in at least some semblance of comfort. This eliminates all 2- (And 3-) door cars, as getting in and out of the back seat of a small car is almost impossible for any human being over the age of five.

Third, it has to haul more than just the evening's groceries. Maybe your significant other found that perfect piece of mantle art for the loft. Or the pup needs to go to obedience class. Either way, the needs of larger cargo dictate just one body style... the European-loved, American-loathed hatchback/wagon design.

122And finally, it has to be just unlikeable enough to earn the "Appliance" rating, but not despicable enough to be totally despised. Personally, I couldn't donate a beloved vehicle to the streets of San Francisco to be bashed, scratched, bumped, and scraped. The locals here even have a saying in acceptance of the looming damage: "Why do you think they call them bumpers?"

Every scratch would normally bother me, so what about a nearly unlovable vehicle where minor damage would just be considered normal wear and tear. This scuffed bumper is about normal, and all four corners of the car would probably look like this eventually. Then there's the inevitable wheel curb rash.

So before our winner is presented, here's a few notable contestants in this, ahem, contest. Again, they are all winners in their own rights, but here they finished in less than First Place for whatever reason(s).

064First off, in this challenge, I just may have found the "Greenest" car in America (In more ways than one). Presenting the Zapcar, an all-electric vehicle that goes 40 miles per hour for a distance of 25 miles and costs 3 cents a mile... they say. Its batteries are not included in the purchase, and I am not making that up.

But hold your horses. Despite its name and looks, it's actually not a car at all... it wears California motorcycle plates. Add the questionable handling of single-front-wheeled 3-wheel vehicles, and the Zapcar is regretably removed from the list of contenders.

In all fairness, this picture was taken in Ukiah, California, but the car, um... bike, um... vehicle, would look right at home in San Francisco.


Here are some other Best City Car possibilities:


Let's start with some style. But this CR-Z is too nice to see marked up. Next.



Someone with some insight drives this Honda as well. But no back doors.



As much as larger vehicles are needed in any town, it would be an absolute terror to drive and park one in San Francisco. My hat is off to whoever operates this behemoth.



Some "Smart" people drive and park these here. But no back seat, so... buh-bye.



This sharp MGB-GT could work... if it had back doors.


This is the first and only Chevy Volt I've seen in the wild (Sept., 2011). So they do exist!



This Honda would fit right in. But it didn't win.



Actually, this may be a great around-town people mover. For one. Great parking, eh?



The City Car Share program uses Prii and others as an alternative to owning a car.



The Nissan Leaf almost won... except that I sort of like it.



Speed, with style. So what's it doing here? Ya gotta dream, that's why.



Hint: We're getting close to the winner here... awfully close!



An original FIAT 500. Close, but no quadraporte.


And the winner is...

Yaris front

Congratulations are in order here to the Toyota Yaris SE 5-Door. This car is actually 3.8 inches shorter than a new Miata, (153.5 vs. 157.3) so it should be even easier to park than that roadster. It has four five doors, it's small, and that includes a hatch. And the androgenous styling is completely forgetable and unemotional.

Yaris rear

The SE comes standard with fog lights (San Francisco has lots of fog), power everything, a decent radio, A/C, and a 5-speed. But the hills here would kill a clutch early on, so about $800 more for an automatic might be a good investment. And a Yaris in Toyota's "Absolutely Red" might be wise, to be as visible as possible in that fog. The car comes loaded; the only option I can find other than dealer add-ons is cruise control.

Yaris inside 2

As far as driver space is concerned, let's compare the SE to a Chevy HHR. Why an HHR? Because my bud Dave has one as a company car, he put 50,000 miles on it in exactly one year, and we had an HHR right there in the basement garage to compare these specs to. He's also about six feet tall.

This Toyota has exactly the same front legroom as the HHR, 0.3 inch less headroom (39.3 vs. 39.6), and 0.1 inch less hip room (50 vs. 50.1). That's pretty darn close, so a six-footer or taller should be OK in there. But the rest of the inside of the Yaris is, well... about as grey and dreary as this fog we keep talking about.

A new base model 3-Door Yaris L starts at $14,115, and a top of the line automatic 5-Door SE is $18,256 with floor mats, wheel locks, and a cargo net. But I can't find a sunroof on the options list. One would not want to miss seeing some of the lights go down in the city while driving around; maybe there's an aftermarket one.

So the Yaris gets the nod as today's Best City Car. It's small, hauls the folks, totes the loads, it's relatively cheap, and it's only slightly lovable. So that means it does everything well in this "contest" and more.

And that kind of makes ya hate to hate it.

--That Car Guy (Chuck)


Thanks to the people I've met in San Francisco for inspiring this post. Each trip there has been a pleasure and a learning experience. This image was taken near the corners of Columbus and Pacific Avenues, which astute Car Lust readers will recognize from a movie scene shot on this corner just in front of the reddish-colored car.

Image Credits: It actually took two trips to the West Coast to gather photos of all these beauties. The top image was taken at Twin Peaks, where both the American and British Top Gear shows have filmed (The curve in the foreground is where Tanner's Mercedes broke down).

The Yaris images are from Toyota's Yaris site.


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Lt. Frank Bullit didn't have a problem driving his Mustang around town...but black Chargers better stay out of his way.

How about a Prius c? It's basically a Yaris Hybrid.

Speaking of Fiat 500, there's going to be a Fiat 500L with 5 doors. Competes with MINI Countryman. I suppose both are too big for this contest?

Zap at one time claimed that the Zapcar can go 40 miles on a charge, but the only way that happens is if you put it on a trailer and tow it for 30 of those miles. TTAC's test drive review ( is, as they describe it, "somewhat worse than scathing."

My solution to this question when we as writers of Car Lust kicked it around was a Ford Escort Wagon. It meets all the criteria, costs less than the Yaris, and if it gets stolen, well, its an Escort, just how attached would you be?

See, you missed the meta-solution.

Which is don't live in that hellhole in the first place.

Sorry, I've lived in SF for 15 years, and public transportation here is AWFUL. Especially the buses. And you can never hail a cab.

Parked on the street for five years. San Franciscans have no respect for private property -- my ride was dented, scratched, and broken into regularly. But hey, "property is theft."

Sadly, I married a local girl, so I'm stuck. At least we own a home now, with a driveway and private garage.

As for the best city car, this town loves MINI Coopers and Honda Fits. Solid choices. The Yaris isn't bad, either.

Me, I drive a 2005 Mustang, just to cheese off the greenies. :-)

Saturn S-series. If they work, they'll last a long time. And the 3 door coupe is a fine grocery getter that's actually decent to get people out of the back seat.

My suggestion is a used Mitsubishi Mirage sedan. I had one from 2002 to 2010 and over 200k miles on it with no major problems. It eeked out high 30's mpg on the highway and mid to high 20's in the city. It is has non-descript , almost completely forgetable styling. My Mirage has traveled across the country , into Canada, forged through a blizzard, parked unmolested in the DC area, and commuted reliably in Northern Va traffic. It also seats four comfortably and are an absolute bargain in the used market

What about the Ford Focus? Would that count? as a "city car"

If I lived in the city, I would never own anything aside from a Scooter and a bicycle. However, having been a bay area. San Jo sprawl guy fo r32 year before a near free free live now in Portland...

I drove to SF for clubs and good times in my Chevrolet Sprint Turbo. It was perfect. Jammed up the hills, lots of torque and I would not have cried has a scratch happened or someone bumped the bumper as they left a parking spot.

THAT is key. No one should ***ever**** own any car they would care of it gets dings, dents, scratches. You own or reg drive in SF, it is a given.

My top choices are cars just on the edge of no longer in their holding value range, efficient (gas is very expensive there), small so you can parallel park, and will stand up to abuse, and around or up to well under 3 grand.

Toyota Echo
Geo Metro
Chevrolet Sprint Turbo
Suzuki Swift and Swift GT
Subaru Justy
Daihatsu Charade
Ford Festiva
Nissan Sentra SE-R
Late 90's Ford Escort (one of the many 2-4 door sedans, GT, or wagon... based on best use)

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