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Comparison review: Eleven compact sedans (rankings)

Report card: Ranking the 2014 Honda Civic EX
Report card: Ranking the 2014 Honda Civic EX
Brady Holt

Back-to-back test drives of eleven compact sedans has produced an overall ranking order running from slow and noisy Nissan Sentra to the polished, fuel-efficient Honda Civic. But that overall ranking doesn't capture the nuances of different automobiles and different buyers' tastes.

See the summaries and rankings of these eleven sedans for particular sets of attributes below, and click through the slideshow for car-by-car "report card" summaries of those rankings.

Unlike the "ratings" article, these rankings factor in all aspects of a car, simply changing how different attributes are weighted in determining a car's score -- that is to say, driving dynamics aren't the top priority in the "bargain hunter" category, but aren't ignored.

More from this comparison:
Rating the large sedans: How do the cars compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance and fuel economy?
Introduction to this comparison
Click on the linked vehicle names for full detailed reviews and photo galleries.

Pleasant commuter car:
Which compact sedan is the least painful way to experience rush hour? This category focuses mainly on comfort, interior quality and cabin amenities, along with value, safety and fuel efficiency – but less on rear-seat space and sporty handling.

11. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: C+
The Sentra's high fuel efficiency makes it a tempting car to put a lot of miles on, but if you're spending a lot of time on the road, you'll be happier doing so in a car with a less disagreeable engine.

10. 2014 Ford Focus SE: C+
Comfortable and fuel-efficient, the Focus also boasts engaging driving dynamics and high-value pricing. But stop-and-go driving leads to frustration from the clunky transmission; the car also doesn't have the interior space or ambiance of many competitors.

9. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: B-
The Impreza has comfortable seats and a smooth ride, but its interior is basic and lacks the best up-to-date technology – especially for the price. Class-leading outward visibility is a plus in traffic, though, and class-exclusive all-wheel-drive helps you get home during messy weather.

8. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: B
The Jetta feels like a bigger car than the compact norm, both in its solid driving dynamics and its spacious interior – and its midsize-grade gas mileage. It also has drab interior décor and a high price.

7. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: B
Budget pricing, excellent fuel economy and competitive comfort levels make the Corolla a strong choice for someone who doesn't mind unimpressive handling and some creaky interior trim.

6. 2015 Kia Forte LX: B
The slick, comfortable and economical Forte still lacks the composed driving dynamics of the best competitors, and crash-test results of the 2014 are class-trailing.

5. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: B
Though it's powerful, agile, comfortable, and equipped with outstanding in-cabin technology, the Dart will find itself off some commuters' lists for class-trailing gas mileage – offset somewhat by a competitive purchase price.

4. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B
The generally competitive Cruze's biggest weak point is a tight rear seat; it otherwise offers comfortable, solid driving dynamics at a competitive price. Beware, though, that some will find the front seats lumpy, which would be an unwelcome addition to the daily slog.

3. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: B+
The Elantra is a simple, comfortable, affordable small sedan – slightly bumpy ride aside – that gets you where you want to go in decent comfort but without much enthusiasm.

2. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: B+
Ride and noise levels are nothing special, and you have to pay out the nose by small-car standards to get today's tech features, but the Mazda3's zesty handling helps the Mazda stand apart from the competition for anyone who's willing to pay a bit extra for some fun in their commuter car. Class-leading gas mileage is another bonus.

1. 2014 Honda Civic EX: A
The Civic is a little pricey but is otherwise a strong compact car overall – comfortable, solidly built, safe, fuel-efficient, and even a little fun.

Affordable family car:
Which compact sedan can let you downsize from a larger vehicle? This category prioritizes passenger and trunk space, safety ratings, and ride comfort and quietness, with less of a focus on price, fuel economy, sportiness, and luxurious trimmings.

11. 2014 Ford Focus SE: D
The Focus has its strengths, but room to carry a family isn't one of them. Easy-to-please folks may fit, but they'll fit more comfortably in any competitor.

10. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: D+
Families could easily be tempted by the Mazda3's class-leading crash-test scores and gas mileage, but its relatively tight rear seat and trunk hurt its practicality.

9. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: B-
Affordable, fuel efficient, and impressively roomy, the Sentra is a tempting family-car choice. Beware of its mediocre crash-test scores and unpleasantly droning engine, though.

8. 2015 Kia Forte LX: B-
Though it's generally competitive, the Forte doesn't stand out from a strong class for safety, interior volume or value.

7. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B
The Cruze isn't especially roomy and one crash test score could stand to improve, but it's otherwise a pleasant and affordable small car.

6. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: B
Like the Cruze, the Dart isn't terribly roomy but it's nice to drive, solidly built and affordably priced – a competitive car if your family fits. Between the two, the Dart has better seats, safety scores and handling; the Cruze is more fuel-efficient and has a roomier trunk.

5. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: B+
Roomy, affordable, and fuel-efficient, the Corolla's main knock as a family car is one middling crash test score. Many drivers would also likely appreciate some competitors' larger trunks and more engaging driving dynamics.

4. 2014 Honda Civic EX: B+
A relatively tight trunk and relatively high price are knocks against what's otherwise a safe, comfortable and particularly pleasant sedan.

3. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: A-
With a spacious interior and smooth, quiet ride, the Jetta feels like the midsize sedan of the compact class. Sadly, price and fuel economy aren't that far off the midsize mark either, and a few safety scores could be better.

2. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: A-
The Impreza is nothing fancy and the trunk is small, but a roomy cabin, outstanding safety scores, standard all-wheel-drive, and pleasant driving dynamics make it a good functional family vehicle. Note that the cabin trim is anything but fancy and it's not inexpensive.

1. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: A-
Some more rear seat room and a smoother ride, but the Elantra is the best overall small car to handle a family – less because it's outstanding in a particular way than because it performs at least decently even in areas where key challengers slipped up.

Driving enthusiast's pick:
Which compact sedan is the most fun to drive? This category prioritizes handling and acceleration above all else, while also factoring in cars' other qualities.

11. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: F
The Sentra has its strong points – value and utility – but there's nothing to appeal to someone who values driving enjoyment.

10. 2015 Kia Forte LX: D+
Though it's pleasant puttering around slowly, the Forte has poor steering response and feel for a small car that saps fun from its driving dynamics.

9. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: D+
The Corolla doesn't feel as clumsy or lethargic or the Sentra and its steering is a little better than the Forte's, but there are plenty of better choices for the driving enthusiast.

8. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: C+
The Elantra isn't sporty, but if you're willing to settle for that, it's at least a solid overall car and not unpleasant to drive.

7. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: B
The Impreza has direct steering, responsive handling and decent pep, plus standard all-wheel-drive, but many car enthusiasts will be disappointed by the dated interior at a fairly high price.

6. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B
While it's still not a sports sedan, the Cruze has a natural and confident handling response that distinguishes it from the lesser competition. It's overall competitive in the class but not outstanding.

5. 2014 Honda Civic EX: B
The Civic has decent pep and responsive steering and handling. This combines with outstanding safety and fuel efficiency and a roomy, pleasant interior. But the car is still expensive and not quite sporty.

4. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: B+
Punchy acceleration and confident handling make the Jetta nice to drive, though this relatively large compact car doesn't corner as eagerly as a few competitors. It's also quite expensive for the class, but by car the roomiest of the class's decently sporty cars.

3. 2014 Ford Focus SE: B+
The Focus has sportier handling than most competitors and it's a better value than other fun small cars. A lack of interior space and downscale interior quality does count against it, though, and the steering could be sharper.

2. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: A-
You give up some fuel efficiency and interior room, but the Dart can impress the driving enthusiast with direct, responsive handling and a powerful engine.

1. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: A
The Mazda3 is expensive and not very roomy, but make the sacrifice if you can – this is above and away the most fun-to-drive economy car. Class-leading gas mileage will also help you recoup some of the price.

Bargain hunter's choice:
Which economy sedan leads for economy? This category prioritizes price and fuel-efficiency, with a secondary focus on the practicality of a spacious interior, followed by cars' other qualities.

11. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: C
Class-leading fuel efficiency may catch the eye of someone seeking economy, but Mazda charges a significant premium for the 3's sporty handling.

10. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: C+
The Jetta gives you a lot of interior room for this class – but ups the price accordingly. It's no bargain, especially when you factor in the relatively low fuel economy.

9. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: C+
The Impreza is a sensible, safe, and practical small sedan, but standard all-wheel-drive keeps its price above bargain levels.

8. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: B-
The Dart is more of a premium choice in this class than a budget one, despite competitive pricing. But while it does that successfully, fuel economy is the lowest in this class. It also doesn't have all that much interior room.

7. 2015 Kia Forte LX: B-
Decently affordable, decently fuel-efficient, decently comfortable – but not really outstanding, especially if you focus more on the bottom line than the Forte's biggest strength of a relatively solid feel.

6. 2014 Honda Civic EX: B
The Civic is pleasant, safe and fuel-efficient – but a little costly. If you can forgo a few features, though, the LX model is priced more competitively with the competition.

5. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B
The Cruze stands out in few ways – including price – but it's all-around competitive and not a bad deal.

4. 2014 Ford Focus SE: B
With the lowest price in the comparison coupled with good gas mileage, the Focus is a strong bargain. But be aware that you can't get some features until you load the car up and that the interior doesn't have much space.

3. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: B
The Sentra stacks up really well on paper as a budget car – price, gas mileage and interior room are all outstanding for the class. As long as you're prepared to sacrifice acceleration, engine quietness, handling agility, and some crash-test scores, it's a serviceable basic car.

2. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: A-
Well-priced, fuel efficient and generally pleasant, the Corolla is a solid budget choice. It's not much fun to drive and doesn't feel fancy inside, but it gets the job done at the right price.

1. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: A
The Elantra is slightly more expensive than the Corolla and doesn't have as much rear-seat room, but it offsets that with better crash-test performance, a larger trunk, and more agile handling. Both are solid basic transportation.

Price is no object:
Excluding the cost of buying and fueling the cars, which compact sedan is the best overall?

11. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: D
It's roomy and fuel-efficient, but if you're willing to spend more, avoid the Sentra's wheezy engine, soggy handling, and mediocre safety ratings.

10. 2014 Ford Focus SE: C
It offers more fun for the money than the competition, but you can get more from some competitors. The Focus also doesn't give you great interior space or quality.

9. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: C
The Corolla is generally pleasant but nothing special, and without any driving excitement and few premium qualities. If its low price isn't a very compelling argument, you can get a nicer economy car.

8. 2015 Kia Forte LX: C
The Forte feels pretty slick at times and has a decently roomy interior, but unnatural steering messes with the driving dynamics and crash test results of the 2014 model were worse than the competition.

7. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B-
A solid feel to its driving dynamics is the most notable attribute of the otherwise competitive Cruze, though the car has somewhat lumpy front seats, not a ton of rear-seat room and some spotty interior build quality.

6. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: B
The Elantra beats the Corolla and Forte's safety ratings, but it offers similar traits – there's decent comfort and interior space, but the driving experience just isn't very lively.

5. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: B+
Agile and comfortable, the Dart does nearly everything well except for mediocre rear seat room and poor fuel economy.

4. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: B+
The Impreza is nothing fancy, but it's safe, solid, comfortable and practical. You just have to be willing to pay quite a bit for a car with interior trim that's a generation behind today's small cars.

3. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: A-
The interior is a little austere and some safety scores could be better, but the Jetta drives nicely and has a hugely spacious interior – a solid combination.

2. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: A
The pricey Mazda3 offers outstanding driving dynamics and fuel economy. It's hurt by a tight interior, though.

1. 2014 Honda Civic EX: A
The Civic does pretty much everything quite well and some things very well. If you're willing to spend a bit more for that, and would rather have the Civic's interior room than the Mazda3's handling, it's a great choice.

Which car is the best, all things considered? (Not a numerical computation based on other scores.)

11. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: C+
The Sentra tempts you with a huge interior, a low price and excellent gas mileage, but it lacks the refinement, agility or safety ratings of the better small cars.

10. 2015 Kia Forte LX: C+
Aside from gooey steering, the Forte does most things pretty well. But with relatively few standout qualities and without Kia's typically bargain-basement price, it's tough to recommend it over the competition – especially given uncertainty about its crash-test scores.

9. 2014 Ford Focus SE: B-
Sporty yet affordable, the bargain-priced Focus is worth a long look if you want sharp handling without breaking the bank. But otherwise, you're settling for the least interior room in the class and mediocre cabin quality for relatively modest savings over roomier competitors.

8. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B
It has a solid feel and it's competitive overall, making the Cruze a better small car than its eighth-place finish might suggest. But in a tough field, it doesn't do enough to demonstrably elevate itself above strong competitors.

7. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: B
The Impreza's interior is anything but fancy, but the car is safe, roomy, and quite pleasant to drive. It's just not much of a bargain for the level of luxury your get.

6. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: B
With bargain pricing, a roomy interior and good gas mileage, the Corolla is a straightforward economy car. If handling response interests you, though, look elsewhere; some key competitors also have better crash-test scores and nicer interiors.

5. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: B
With a spacious interior and smooth, quiet ride, the Jetta feels like the midsize sedan of the compact class. Sadly, price and fuel economy aren't that far off the midsize mark either. Crash-test scores and cabin décor could also stand to improve.

4. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: B+
If you want a fun-to-drive small car that doesn't feel cheap, the Dart delivers with agile handling, a powerful engine, a well-built interior, and a generally solid feel. Be prepared to pay up at the pump, though, and the rear seat is tight.

3. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: B+
Though rarely outstanding and certainly never exciting, the Elantra is consistently competent at a reasonable – if not amazing – price.

2. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: A-
The sports sedan of the class, the Mazda3 offers exceptional handling that makes it more fun than the competition. Class-leading fuel economy and safety are other pluses. But high prices and a tight interior cut into its appeal.

1. 2014 Honda Civic EX: A-
While there's no single area in which it leads the class, the Civic does most things quite well and some things exceptionally well – enough to justify a relatively high price.

More from this comparison:
Rating the compact sedans: How do the cars compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance and fuel economy?
Introduction to this comparison
Click on the linked vehicle names for full detailed reviews and photo galleries.

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