If you’re a car guy or gal, you’ll recall a period starting about 1998 to well…now, when the first automotive sign that you’d arrivedÂ in D.I.N.K. life was to lease a premium compact sedan. The field was invented by the BMW 3, followed by the Mercedes C, Audi A4, and with relative late-comers from Lexus (IS), Infiniti (G), Acura (TSX), Volvo (S60)…and so on. Other automotive trends have come and gone, but none have been so competitive and traceable as the $30k to $40k sedan slot.
Recently, though, that arena has experienced an earthquake. The formerly standard 6-cylinder engines are replaced by turbocharged 4s in line with new efficiency requirements. Fewer consumers are demanding manual transmissions, instead favoring 7-speed double-clutch automatics that blend the best of both worlds. And prices have crept. $35k is the new $30k, and $50k is the new $40k. Base prices aren’t egregiously bumped…but more features and options mean a “fully-loaded” 4-cylinder sedan can blow past a half a Benjamin.
All this is happening concurrent with national trends like a growing desire for walkable neighborhoods, increased interest in transportation options, and an entire generation of newly minted adults (millenials) who don’t feel the same way about driving as their parents did. It just isn’t a priority…in fact it’s often a hassle. Add in expensive maintenance and upkeep costs and it’s looking plain silly to pay for car you could rent from zipcar for a long weekend.
To address both the changing attitudes of the buying public, and fill the under-$35k void left by the grown up Mean Girls, marques have gradually introduced premium compact vehicles. These are niche models, usually with limited configurations and options and alt-fuel engines. And so far, they are more popular in urban areas where small vehicle size is an advantage for parking and fuel-sipping engines are cool.
Some of the early entrants in this fledgling segment:
- Audi A3; been around for quite some time (2006), but only recently refreshed with LED daytime running lights and the option of the diesel TDI engine in lieu of the turbo 4. It’s only available as a 5-door hatch, but it’s keen Audi looks and still-nice interior make it a good option if you want a solid driving experience in a small package, with an ultra-efficient engine.
- BMW 1-series (128, 135); introduced to the US market in 2008, the BMW 1 is a true throwback for the brand. Compact 2-door coupe and convertible, both with standard 6-cylinder engines, both available with myriad premium options like Navigation and a heated steering wheel…and most importantly a 6-speed manual shift! Recently facelifted for 2012.
- Lexus CT200h; Lexus’ premium Prius. The CT is a hybrid 5-door hatch with, like all in this category, premium options at a lower entry price. Not the fastest or most engaging to drive, but probably more handy around town than an IS and likely to save on operating costs. Interior quality is questionable, however.
- Volvo C30; made famous in Twilight by the attractive vampire. The C30 is a premium 3-door hatch with a standard turbo 5-cylinder engine taken from the C70 and S40. Typical Volvo fare…safe, clean design, and competent driving dynamics. Not sure if the C30 has life into the future or if it will suffer the same fate as the V50.