Cars.comparison: Fun, Efficient Hatchbacks

So you want it all: a car that gets good fuel economy and is fun to drive. Fortunately for you, the two aren't mutually exclusive. Each car in this comparison takes a different path — the new Honda CR-Z is a hybrid, the Mini Cooper a conventional gas-powered car and the VW Golf TDI a diesel — but all are headed to the land of fuel-sipping fun. Find out which one is our Editors' choice.

= Category winner
The Contenders
2011 Honda CR-Z2010 Mini Cooper2010 Volkswagen Golf TDI
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Base MSRP

$20,760

$18,800

$22,155

Price as tested

$23,310

$25,000

$27,490 ($26,640 with $850 tax credit available through 2010)

Curb appeal

The CR-Z looks like the lovechild of the original Insight hybrid and the CR-X sport hatch. The rear-quarter design is daring, but the shape kills visibility with a huge blind spot. The split rear window is annoying to look through, too.

The Cooper somehow manages to look great after all these years even though it received only minor styling changes. Like a little puppy, it's just so darn cute you can't help but like it.

By far the most reserved, the two-door Golf's styling is clean and efficient. It's handsome in a quiet sort of way, never calling attention to itself but holding your eye once you do spy it.

Fuel economy(mpg city/hwy/combined)

31/37/34
We love the CR-Z's six-speed manual transmission, but choosing the optional CVT automatic improves gas mileage to 35/39 mpg. It also runs on regular gas, which is cheaper than the Cooper's premium and the Golf's diesel.

28/37/32
The Cooper's six-speed-manual estimates are impressive for a conventional gas car, but the engine's premium-fuel requirement saps some of the savings. Automatic models get 25/33 mpg.

30/42/34
The diesel Golf's optional DSG dual-clutch automatic returns slightly better fuel economy than the standard six-speed manual, which is rated at 30/41 mpg.

Get up and go

The Sport mode transforms the CR-Z from a sedate hybrid to an entertaining one. The gas/electric drivetrain is much more responsive in Sport, and it's complemented by that precise six-speed manual. This car ranks as the most fun we've had in a hybrid.

The Cooper's 118-hp four-cylinder helps the Mini move out strongly from a stop, but it runs out of steam at higher speeds, and it's a little buzzy. Even though the engine doesn't make loads of power, torque steer is present. The manual transmission's longer throws can't match the CR-Z's slick stick.

The Golf's turbo-diesel engine wallops you with torque, and it doesn't let up when accelerating from 50 to 70 mph. The available DSG automatic knocks off quick upshifts, but it's unacceptably jerky at slow speeds.

Handling

Sharp steering, impressive balance and good highway stability are CR-Z highlights. It did more than we expected, but there's still a fair amount of body roll that puts a limit on playtime.

Nimble and lively, the Cooper darts where you point it. That can make the car feel a little twitchy at highway speeds, but the Cooper wins because it has an uncanny ability to turn ho-hum, everyday driving into a thrilling event.

The Golf is a small hatchback, but compared to the CR-Z and Cooper, it feels stout, and it pushes when driven hard. It's not as quick to change direction as the other two, either. It's still fun, but in a grown-up kind of way.

Roominess
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The CR-Z's lower driving position reflects the car's stance, and headroom suffers, too. The side bolsters are relatively pronounced, and there's good space between you and your lone passenger. Unfortunately, your only other company will be a few grocery bags: The CR-Z doesn't have a backseat.
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For a small car, the Cooper is space efficient. Comfy front bucket seats have a large range of travel, especially rearward. Front headroom is remarkable. Getting to the backseat and the seat itself are a contortionist's dream but a nightmare for most everyone else.
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We like the Golf TDI's front bucket seats for their firm cushioning, which delivers good support, and its bolsters that aren't too restrictive. The backseat is incredibly large, with room for even tall adults to get comfortable
Cabin styling, quality

The futuristic, driver-centric cockpit arranges A/C controls and other controls around the instrument panel, putting most systems within easy reach for the driver. There are numerous kinds of trim, but Honda does a better job making them work together here than in the Fit, and the glass-like buttons look great. The expensive navigation system's graphics, on the other hand, look as dated as the graphics on the first Game Boy.

The Cooper's cabin seems like something that may have come from Willy Wonka's workshop. It's eccentric to a fault, and fault lies with the A/C and audio controls, which are a pain to use. Overall fit-and-finish is very inconsistent, with some good, tight panel gaps and others so large you can see what's behind the trim piece. Mini fans might love its quirks, but there are too many for us.

Like Grandma's house, the Golf's cabin feels comfortable and familiar. It may not have the flash of the CR-Z or Cooper, but the VW's interior is functional and features rich materials with consistent finishes. Numerous details like an adjustable front center armrest work in the Golf's favor, too. There's no question it's the most vanilla, but it won't go out of style anytime soon.

Space for stuff

You have to clear a tall lip when loading cargo in the CR-Z. There's 25.1 cubic feet of cargo room behind the seats — not bad for a small car like this.

There's just 5.7 cubic feet behind the rear seats. Those seats fold, giving you a maximum 24 cubic feet. However, folding the backseat creates a big ledge in the cargo floor. The liftgate opens high, so you're less likely to hit your head.

Nice and square, the Golf's cargo area measures 12.4 cubic feet. Fold the backseat down, and you have an impressive 46. The VW's liftgate opens higher than the others', too.

Overall value

The base CR-Z comes well-equipped for $19,200, and its optional CVT runs just $650. Standard equipment is comparable to the others, but Honda is ineligible for any more federal hybrid tax credits to bring down the CR-Z's price further. Start an email petition, and maybe Congress will renew 'em … for the 2018 model year.

The Cooper's $18,800 base price is the lowest in the group, and the car comes nicely equipped for that. Reliability on the Cooper is getting (relatively) better, and it comes with three years of free maintenance. Avoid Mini's umpteen options packages and cosmetic accessories, and you can get a lot of car for less than $20,000.

The TDI starts at $21,305 after an $850 federal diesel-vehicle tax credit (available through Dec. 31). It's comparably equipped with the others, but the extra cash is a hard pill to swallow. Like the Mini, it comes with three years' free maintenance.

Editors' choice

The CR-Z is proof positive that driving a hybrid doesn't mean years of Prius Purgatory. The driving fun comes at some cost, though: The CR-Z's limited utility is expected for something this size, but for a hybrid, its gas mileage falls below expectations.

The top value pick for this group, the Cooper has a tiny engine that runs out of steam where the others steam ahead. While its handling still commands respect and its styling still makes us grin, for the substance you get in the TDI, the Cooper's charm wears a bit thin.

Refined and reserved, the TDI feels like the most car here. Cabin quality, passing power and roominess abound. It's not the trendiest pick, but it's the one we'd take at day's end. 

© Cars.com 10/4/2010
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