When my thirsty SUV maxed out the gas pump at $80 recently, it triggered nostalgic pangs for the super-thrifty subcompact cars of my youth. 

While we aren’t likely to see 50-mpg gasoline-powered autos like Honda’s 1980s-era CRX again anytime soon (the equipment needed to meet current safety regulations makes contemporary cars too heavy to achieve those sorts of numbers), fuel-efficient subcompacts are making a comeback. With auto manufacturers scurrying to meet the 35 mpg CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) regulations by 2016, and the public craving less pain at the pump, small cars are suddenly making sense again.

“Smaller vehicles should get more market share, and I think it’s a combination of increased demand for higher efficiency and the greater roominess and substantially higher quality in the segment,” said Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor at Cars.com. “Optional features once unheard of in an economy class are now available.” 

In North America, the term “subcompact” usually refers to cars larger than a microcar (like a Smart fortwo) but smaller than a compact (like a Honda Civic). The Environmental Protection Agency classifies a subcompact as a passenger car (as opposed to a sports car or an SUV) with between 85 and 99 cubic feet of interior volume. Though the segment grew popular in the U.S. during the 1970s because of the 1973 OPEC crisis and an increase in imports of small European and Japanese cars, historically speaking, subcompacts have been largely an overseas phenomenon.

“Smaller vehicles are more popular overseas out of necessity,” Wiesenfelder said. “Fuel prices are dramatically higher there even if you compare the best of times in those markets against our current prices, which we see as outrageously high. If fuel prices weren’t so low in the U.S., our vehicles never would have grown as large as they have, though the size of our great land also plays a part. We travel long distances here and size tends to equal comfort.”

There’s an array of subcompacts available to American drivers, including the Chevrolet Sonic (formerly the Aveo), Fiat 500, Honda Fit, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Mazda2, Nissan Versa, Scion xD and Toyota Yaris. Even the longtime European subcompact stalwart Ford Fiesta was belatedly re-launched here last year (it’s been a big seller overseas since 1976).

There’s an argument that a regular gasoline-fueled subcompact could be almost as green as a hybrid car. For example, the Ford Fiesta’s 38 mpg tops the not-much-larger Ford Fusion Hybrid’s 36. But that’s on the highway, and most full hybrids achieve better gas mileage in the city where, at lower speeds, their electric motors are more often engaged. Around town, the Fusion Hybrid achieves 41 mpg — more than 40% better than the Fiesta. 

Yet in terms of real-world impact on the environment, subcompact cars could, as a segment, have a more significant effect than hybrids simply because, at present, they’re much more affordable and therefore sell in greater numbers. “More than 10 years into the hybrid phenomenon, they still make up only 2% to 3% of the U.S. market, and half of those are Priuses,” Wiesenfelder said.

And while they might offer fewer miles per gallon than hybrids, subcompacts offer more variety. Indeed, there’s an increasingly diverse selection of stateside subcompacts to choose from of late. 

“I’d start with the Honda Fit, which is a little more expensive, but it’s remarkably roomy and high in quality,” Wiesenfelder said. “The Toyota Yaris is a small car with a surprisingly accommodating back seat and good ride quality. Both have exhibited exceptional reliability. The Ford Fiesta is impressive and offers lots of options we’ve never seen in a subcompact before, though it’s a bit snug on the inside and the acceleration is modest. (It’s too new to have reliability data.)”

Although the price of hybrids may impact subcompact sales, the future of the subcompact segment overwhelmingly comes back to the price of gas. “Nothing will spur subcompact sales like sustained high fuel prices do,” Wiesenfelder concluded. “We’ve seen it before, and we’re starting to see it again. Ambitious fuel-economy regulations also play a part, because automakers need to offset the sales of thirstier models with appealing small cars. In the past they’ve been willing to accept minimal profit or even to take a loss on each small car sold for this reason.”

Paul Rogers, Brand Publishing Writer