Image: Toyota Prius are seen on display at a dealership in Pasadena
Mario Anzuoni  /  Reuters
Before buying a small car such as a Toyota Prius, think about what you'll use it for and if it will hold what you're hauling.
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updated 1/26/2012 12:22:08 PM ET 2012-01-26T17:22:08

Small cars aren’t econoboxes any more. Some have premium prestige, and prices. But there are a few things to keep in mind before you let Jennifer Lopez sway you into buying a Fiat 500.

I speak from experience. In 2008, I traded my Lexus RX for a Toyota Prius. I wrote about my shift in The Prius Diary for The New York Times. In the years since, I’ve been happy — most of the time.

Owning a small car was especially ideal this past year when I lived in Chicago, where Priuses, Minis and other smaller vehicles seem to own the city’s streets. Now that I’m back in Michigan, it’s still a pleasure to spend just $20 every few weeks on a tank of gas.

Forbes.com: Safest small cars for under $20,000

However, I occasionally miss my Lexus, especially last month, when I moved and could have used the hauling space.

Here are four things for fellow prospective small car buyers to consider.

Will smaller fit the way you live? There are lots of reasons why people buy big vehicles, one being that they have lots to fit into them — kids, dogs, sporting equipment, business supplies. Are you still shuttling students around, or have they gone off to school? Have you given up skiing for yoga or Pilates? If your lifestyle can handle a smaller vehicle, that’s a first step.

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Likewise, if you’re considering a plug-in, a conventional hybrid or an electric car, they have different characteristics than a traditional car. For one thing, you don’t floor the pedal and get a gas-engine response. For another, mechanics don’t know them as well as they do vehicles with internal combustion engines. Will you take the time to read up on maintenance? Are you willing to adjust the way you drive?

Where will you drive it? How much highway driving are you doing, versus runs around town? Hybrids, especially, get better mileage on city streets.

Do you have a long commute? No matter the gas savings, small can seem confining if you’re constantly on the road. On the other hand, if you are just making short trips, you may find it a relief to dart around in something nimble.

Forbes.com: Cars that can run for over 200,000 miles

What’s the parking situation where you live and work? One of the most common reasons people downsize is that they’re shrinking their family fleets.

Some are moving from suburb to city, where they will be parking on the street, or may have a single garage space. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how much easier it is to park a smaller vehicle than a full-sized SUV. (Especially if you have a backup camera, like the one on my Prius.)

But here’s something else. If you are only going to own one vehicle, do you want it to be small? Would you be better off with something bigger if you are going to be running to farmer’s markets, antique stores and tailgating?

Forbes.com: The best cars for the buck

Are you budget minded — or comfort minded? Sure, the square subcompacts of the 1980s were short on luxury. But smaller vehicles now are available with many of the same features as bigger ones, like navigation systems, heated seats and top-notch sound systems. Cars like the BMW 1-series and the perennially popular Mini lineup can stand up well against their bigger siblings.

But unless you buy entry level models, small cars are not turning out to be bargains. “They downsize, but they buy the loaded up versions,” Jesse Toprak, vice president of industry trends for TrueCar.com, says of small car buyers. He notes the average Chevrolet Cruze is selling for $3,000 more than its predecessor, the Chevrolet Cobalt. The Cruze is even topping the price of the Honda Civic, which was long considered one of the pricier compacts.

So, keep all this in mind as you have that “should I go smaller?” conversation this winter.

Forbes.com: Worst car flops of 2011

© 2012 Forbes.com

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