City living: Best cars for the urban jungle

They say variety is the spice of life, and that’s especially true of cars.

One of the best things about the car world is its depth, the kind of depth that allows machines as varied as a Ferrari 458 Italia and a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon to share space on an auto show floor.

While it’s great to see a car do everything, it’s also impressive to see one excel at one specific task or thrive in a specific environment.

The Jeep may be built for Outer Mongolia, and the Ferrari may be built for Nick Mason’s garage, but many people don’t drive in either of those places. They drive in cities.

The archetypal city car is a small hatchback with a tiny engine and a low price. There are many fine automobiles that fit this mold, but that doesn’t mean a Nissan Versa Note is the only reasonable choice for urban drivers.

Here are five cars that will help you navigate the urban jungle, while keeping you entertained.

BMW i3

BMW says its goal for the i3 was to build the ultimate city car, and it appears to have done a very thorough job.

The car’s unusual tall, one-box shape yields decent interior space despite a small overall footprint. 

That interior is also fairly upscale, although instead of the traditional leather and wood trim, buyers will find recycled wood and kenaf – a material made from recycled plant matter.

Despite a lightweight chassis made of aluminum and carbon fiber-reinforced plastic, the performance from the electric motor – producing 170 horsepower and 184 pound-feet of torque – probably won’t win over M3 drivers.

However, the i3’s instant torque and aggressive regenerative braking make for very efficient driving in city traffic. There’s enough power to get the i3 to the next light in a hurry, and regeneration recaps as much energy as possible if that light turns red.

Should you decide to leave the city, BMW also offers a version with a 650-cc twin range-extending gasoline engine. It can also arrange a loaner car.

Chevrolet Spark EV

Chevy’s sole all-electric car makes a persuasive case for battery power, because while the regular Spark is nothing to write home about, the EV is decently entertaining.

That all comes down to the electric motor, which – in addition to keeping urban air clean – adds a bit of fun to this econo-pod.

It may only have 140 hp, but the electric Spark’s 400 lb-ft of torque is a lot of fun in stop-and-go traffic.

While it’s not the coolest-looking car around, visibility is excellent and the compact proportions make parallel parking fairly stress-free. 

There’s even room in the back for a week’s worth of groceries, or most of an adult human.

Kia Soul

The Honda Element and Scion xB may have invented the box-car niche, but the Kia Soul does it best.

These types of cars look cool, but are also pretty handy for city-dwellers because of their compact size, relatively capacious interiors, and crossover-like seating positions.

However, the Soul is cooler-looking than the Scion, and works better as an actual car than the Nissan Cube.

The 1.6-liter (130 hp, 118 lb-ft) and 2.0-liter (164 hp, 151 lb-ft) four-cylinder engines provide adequate performance; the Soul relies on its styling to stand out from the crowd.

Overall, the Soul a good all-rounder for people who never know what they’ll be using their car for next.

Plus, think of all the possible “you got Soul” pun opportunities.

MINI Cooper

The latest 2014 MINI Cooper Hardtop may be bigger than ever, but it’s still the obvious choice when it comes to fun city cars.

Start with the styling, which looks fashionable just over 10 years after BMW launched the neo-MINI. 

It’s wrapped around a chassis that’s still genuinely mini as well, preserving valuable real estate and enabling MINI’s signature “go-kart” handling.

The 2014 MINI Cooper will be offered with a new turbocharged 1.5-liter three-cylinder engine, producing 134 hp and 162 lb-ft. The Cooper S returns with a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-banger, with 189 hp and 207 lb-ft.

Both are good ways to turn a drive through Boston’s Big Dig into a stage of the Monte Carlo Rally.

Subaru WRX

Subaru’s WRX turbocharged performance sedan was designed for conquering rally stages, not boulevards. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be repurposed.

If you live in a city that experiences weather, all-wheel drive will come in handy, especially if your car gets buried in a snow bank by a plow truck.

As all-wheel drive cars go, the Subaru Impreza is a pretty good one. It’s reliable, regularly overachieves in crash tests, and is decently practical.

Add a 2.0-liter turbocharged boxer engine to that base of reasonableness, and you’ve got a winner. Whether you live in a barn or a studio apartment, 268 hp and 258 lb-ft is impressive.

The WRX is the car you’ll want to have when you’re not sitting in traffic, and it isn’t a penalty box when you are.

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