There are a lot of great cars on the market today. They go about the business of transporting people with surprising performance, impressive fuel economy, and historically high levels of refinement and creature comforts. But for the most part, you could wring every drop of personality out of them and there wouldn’t be enough to coat the bottom of the ashtray that the Fiat 500 doesn’t have.
Certainly any number of high-end sports and luxury cars have personality (some might say a snobbish one), but what we’re talking about here are cars could substitute for what the majority of people would otherwise buy.
Although the 500’s price of entry is now up to a little less than $17,000 including destination, that’s for a nicely outfitted car and not much more than you’d pay for a similarly equipped subcompact—that’s not nearly as endearing. The automatic transmission will add a stiff $1,250, but if you’re on the fence, the slick-shifting manual is the better choice. Also offered is a convertible version (it’s really more of a very large sunroof) that starts just over $20,000. Sure it’s small, but the 500 is great fun to drive and delivers most of the positive attributes of a typical subcompact competitor.
It’s the original “personality plus” minicar. Many days I open the garage door and am surprised by what’s sitting there; I just didn’t remember what I drove home. I have never opened the garage door and been surprised to see a Mini Cooper.
Unfortunately, the Mini’s price is not as mini as it used to be. The base model starts at $21,500 including destination, but like the Fiat 500, that’s for a nicely equipped car. Also like the Fiat, the automatic adds $1,250. And you may want to add a $750 16-inch wheel-and-tire upgrade to lose the rather blah-looking 15-inchers that come standard. After that, get out of there quick, because the list of (optional at extra cost) dress-up items is as long as your arm. Several other body styles are offered, including a convertible that starts at about $26,000, and the slightly larger Clubman that starts at a bit more than $22,000. There are compromises to the Cooper, to be sure (among them a useless back seat and sometimes jarringly stiff ride), but this is the closest thing to a go-kart you can legally drive on the street.
It’s easily argued that the New Beetle (which, in an odd turn, came before the Beetle) had more personality, but even Volkswagen admits it appealed more to the fairer sex. I attended the auto-show reveal and the press drive event for the redesigned Beetle that arrived for 2012, and if I had a dollar for every time I heard a company spokesperson utter the phrase “more masculine,” I’d be writing this missive from a chaise lounge in the Caymans. But regardless of gender appeal, the Beetle stands out in a parking lot and is a surprisingly livable car on a day-to-day basis. Granted, its $20,600 starting price puts it nearly $1,000 north of its (similarly sized but more practical) Golf sibling, but that’s not a horrendous price to pay for personality. Beetle Convertibles, which start at about $26,000, include retro ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s editions that are even more intriguing.
If nothing else, it’s the bargain of the bunch. The base model starts at just over $15,000, and it’s not a penalty box. Looks aside, I just like driving the Soul. You sit up high in a commanding driving position looking through tall windows. Controls fall readily to hand. The various measures of performance are about on par with the subcompact-class norm, but you have the option of carrying very non-subcompact cargo. Sure, it looks a little quirky, but that’s actually part of its appeal.
In our Consumer Guide drive reports, we rate a vehicle’s competency in various areas of performance and accommodations. In these regards, the Wrangler doesn’t fare very well. Too many compromises are made for its off-road prowess and open-top airiness, and we don’t give points for those.
But I do. And although I probably wouldn’t want to drive one far on a daily basis (or pay for the gas), there’s nothing that says “Let’s go out and play” like a Jeep Wrangler. And it really doesn’t matter what season it is. Pop the top in the summer, and it’s a wind-in-your-hair roller-coaster ride. In the winter, any fresh coating of snow (and a shift to rear-wheel drive) makes for fishtailing entertainment and donuts of an inedible kind. Shift into four-wheel drive, and that snow berm becomes just a squishy little speed bump. There’s a rugged, outdoorsy personality to it that may not appeal to every driver, but it is almost certainly recognized by everyone else.