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Comparison review: Eleven compact sedans (ratings)

Report card: Rating the 2014 Honda Civic EX
Report card: Rating 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 ratings of these eleven sedans for particular sets of attributes below, and click through the slideshow for car-by-car "report card" summaries of those ratings.

Unlike the "rankings" article, these ratings isolate individual aspects of a car (except for "overall") -- that is to say, for instance, that a car's rating in the "price" category states simply what it costs, not whether it represents a good value for the money, all things considered.

More from this comparison:
Ranking the large sedans: How do these cars stack up for different types of buyers, such as those who prefer performance or who prefer value?
Introduction to this comparison
Click on the linked vehicle names for full detailed reviews and photo galleries.

Comfort/luxury:
A smooth and quiet ride; a comfortable and high-quality interior; and other qualities that make a car pleasant to be in.

11. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: B-
There are no true losers in this category, as even the last-place Impreza is neither badly built nor uncomfortable. It has very well-shaped front seats trimmed in high-quality cloth, but the rest of the car's interior is downscale and dated, and ride quality is so-so – making it feel a little too basic.

10. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: B-
The Sentra boasts a smooth ride and a comfortable cabin. But the droning engine betrays it as an economy car.

9. 2014 Ford Focus SE: B-
Sophisticated ride and handling help make the Focus feel upscale to drive. However, the fussy and sometimes cramped interior is a mixed bag for quality, and only high-end models offer fancy infotainment tech.

8. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: B
The Corolla has a stylish interior, comfortable seats and a smooth ride. It doesn't track as confidently on the highway as the best competitors, though, and some interior bits don't feel especially sturdy.

7. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: B
The Elantra has comfortable seats, a solidly constructed interior, and decent noise levels. It's not fancy, though, and the ride quality could be better.

6. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B+
The solidy built Cruze has a big-car feel that will lend confidence to drivers wary of something this small. Lumpy front seats and aging cabin décor detract from the overall experience, though.

5. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: B+
The Mazda3 doesn't have a coddling or hushed ride, the greatest in-cabin technology, or big cushy seats. But it feels expensive overall – comfortable, tight, and solid despite a few cheap pieces of cabin trim and some excess noise on the highway.

4. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: A-
Like the Chevrolet Cruze, the Jetta feels like a larger, more substantial car than most competitors, and it has more comfortable front seats. The interior is plain and uses some cheap materials, though.

3. 2014 Honda Civic EX: A-
The Civic is comfortable to sit in and to drive, and the cabin is respectably finished. Some excess noise diminishes a premium ambiance.

2. 2015 Kia Forte LX: A-
There's a thoroughly slick feel to the Forte in its driving dynamics and its cabin that makes everything feel like it's always under control and working as it should, at least if you don't accelerate too hard. The interior could look fancier and the ride could be smoother, but the overall level of polish is still impressive at this price, and the front seats are especially comfortable.

1. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: A
The Dart stops short of feeling like a luxury car, but it offers most of the qualities of the Jetta with better seats, a far more sophisticated infotainment system, and better feel to the steering and brakes. It would need a quieter ride and a fancier interior to stand apart more from the competition, but it feels less like an economy car than the others.

Driving experience:
The connection between the car and the driver – mainly handling and acceleration, and other notes from behind the wheel.

11. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: D+
The comfort-tuned Sentra is out of place when it's not driven very gently. Neither the groaning engine nor the soggy suspension can give it much driving pleasure. This was the result of a clear focus on ride quality and fuel efficiency over sportiness, so shop accordingly.

10. 2015 Kia Forte LX: D+
The Forte's steering rack is quickly muddled outside of gentle driving – the response is slow, vague, and numb. Handling is at least better than the Sentra's once you can figure out what the car is doing.

9. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: C
Driving enthusiasts will seek quicker acceleration and sharper, more natural-feeling steering, but the Corolla does feel better than the Forte and Sentra.

8. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: B-
Mechanically related to the Forte, the Elantra shows off the potential that car could enjoy with better steering – this Hyundai remains far from brilliant, but unlike the lower-ranked cars it's not close to downright objectionable.

7. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B+
The Cruze has a peppy turbocharged engine and agile, natural handling, though it lacks the sportiness of some competitors.

6. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: B+
It doesn't have sports sedan reflexes or a surplus of power, but the Impreza is an agile and reasonably fun small car.

5. 2014 Honda Civic EX: B+
The Civic feels more substantial than the Impreza, but otherwise it's similarly pleasant and fun to drive without being overtly sporty.

4. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: B+
The Jetta drives with confidence – it handles well, feels substantial, and has a punchy turbocharged engine. A livelier steering response would help give it further appeal to a driving enthusiast.

3. 2014 Ford Focus SE: A-
A peppy engine and responsive handling make the Focus fun to drive, if not as zesty as a few competitors.

2. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: A-
The Dart has a powerful engine and responsive handling that make it one of the sportier small cars.

1. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: A+
It's quite not as quick as the Dart, but the Mazda3 comes close while also bringing brilliant steering and handling that's unmatched in this class.

Practicality:
How much stuff and how many people can fit inside, and how is the car's general ease of use?

11. 2014 Ford Focus SE: C-
Only the driver and the cargo have much room in the Focus. The rear seat lacks leg space and is tricky to wriggle in and out of, and even the front passenger has a crowded footwell.

10. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: C
The Mazda3 has more passenger room than the Focus, but it's still tighter than most competitors. The trunk is also on the small side.

9. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B-
Rear legroom is far from generous, but the Cruze can squeeze in two adults in the rear and has a roomy trunk.

8. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: B-
The Dart has a roomier rear seat than the Cruze but a smaller trunk. It's overall competitive for this class but nothing special.

7. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: B
The Elantra's large trunk is nice, but the rear seat would need more headroom to fit adults comfortably. It has more legroom, though, than the Dart.

6. 2015 Kia Forte LX: B
The Forte, mechanically related to the Elantra, offers slightly more passenger and trunk space than the Hyundai. But it's not as useful as the best small cars.

5. 2014 Honda Civic EX: B+
Though the Civic could use a larger trunk and a bit more rear headroom, it's otherwise spacious. A flat rear floor is useful as well.

4. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: A-
Except for rear seat headroom, the Corolla is spacious and practical for passengers and cargo.

3. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: A-
The Impreza has a very spacious cabin but a relatively small trunk.

2. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: A+
In everything but three-abreast rear seating, the Jetta might as well be a midsize sedan for passenger and cargo accommodations.

1. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: A+
The very roomy Sentra has a slightly smaller trunk than the Jetta but can better accommodate a center-rear passenger.

Safety ratings:
How do the cars perform in Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash tests? (Note: The Kia Forte is the lowest-performing 2014-model compact sedan in crash tests. Promised upgrades for 2015 haven't yet been evaluated.)

10. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: C
All new cars are quite safe, and even the last-place Sentra earned four out of five stars overall from NHTSA, and all but one Insurance IIHS score was the top rating of Good. But it earned the lowest rating of Poor in the IIHS small-overlap offset test, and most competitors earn five stars from NHTSA.

9. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: B-
The Jetta earned an overall five-star NHTSA rating but the second-lowest rating of four, Marginal, in the IIHS small-overlap test, and a four-star rating on the frontal test.

8. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: B
The Corolla earned a five-star overall rating from NHTSA, including five stars in both the frontal and side crash tests. It was still just Marginal in the IIHS test, though.

7. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B
The Cruze earned nearly identical ratings to the Corolla but did slightly better in the IIHS small-overlap test, but was still Marginal overall.

6. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: B+
The Elantra earned a four-star rating in the NHTSA frontal crash test, but it was five stars overall and the second-highest rating of Acceptable in the IIHS small-overlap test.

5. 2014 Ford Focus SE: B+
The Focus earned nearly identical IIHS and NHTSA ratings to the Elantra, but did slightly better in the NHTSA tests.

4. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: A-
The Dart earned a five-star rating from NHTSA and was Acceptable in the IIHS test.

3. 2014 Honda Civic EX: A
The Civic earned a five-star overall rating from NHTSA and was rated Good in the IIHS small-overlap test, but its NHTSA frontal score was just four stars.

2. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: A
Like the Civic, the Impreza has a Good IIHS rating and a top NHTSA overall score (albeit a four-star frontal rating), but the Impreza is the only car in the class with a five-star rollover resistance rating.

1. 2014 Mazda3 i Premium: A+
The Mazda3 earned top scores from both the IIHS and NHTSA, an outstanding performance.

Fuel economy:
What are the cars' EPA fuel economy ratings?

11. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: C
The Dart has poor fuel economy for a compact car – EPA ratings of 23 miles per gallon in the city and 35 on the highway, and 27 mpg in mixed driving.

10. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: B-
The Jetta has EPA ratings of 25 mpg in the city, 36 mpg on the highway and 29 mpg in mixed driving, a big step up from the Dart (and over the 2013 Jetta) but it remains unimpressive for a modern small car.

9. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: B
The Impreza is rated for 27 mpg in the city, 36 mpg on the highway, and 30 mpg in mixed driving.

8. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B
The Cruze has a 30-mpg overall rating, with ratings of 26 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway.

7. 2014 Ford Focus SE: B+
The Focus is rated for 27 mpg in the city, 37 mpg on the highway, and 31 mpg overall.

6. 2015 Kia Forte LX: B+
After a 2-mpg jump for 2015, the Forte now has class-competitive fuel economy ratings of 26 mpg in the city, 39 mpg on the highway, and 31 mpg overall.

5. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: A-
The Elantra is rated for 32 mpg in mixed driving – 28 miles per gallon in the city and 38 mpg on the highway.

4. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: A-
The Corolla is also rated for 32 mpg in mixed driving but beats the Elantra's city rating by 1 mpg.

2. (tie) 2014 Honda Civic EX, 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: A
The Civic and Sentra are rated for 30 mpg in the city, 39 mpg on the highway, and 33 mpg in mixed driving.

1. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: A+
The Mazda3's fuel economy is nearly at the level of some competing diesel cars, with ratings of 30 mpg in the city, 41 mpg on the highway, and 34 mpg overall.

Price:
The estimated transaction prices of roughly comparably equipped vehicles that include (when possible) an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen.

11. 2014 Mazda3 i Touring: C
Expect to pay $20,438 out the door for a nicely equipped Mazda3, albeit one without an infotainment screen, as that comes only as part of a $1,600 navigation package.

10. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE: C
The Jetta is a little costlier than the Mazda3 with an estimated transaction price of $20,607, but it comes with an infotainment screen at that price.

9. 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium: C+
The Impreza's out-the-door price is $19,750 when most closely equipped to the others in this comparison, but it comes without an infotainment screen at that price – as on the Mazda3, it's only part of a costlier navigation package for $2,300 extra.

8. 2014 Honda Civic EX: C+
Honda only gives you alloy wheels and a spiffy infotainment screen on the mid-level EX model, which also includes the comparison's only sunroof along with some other higher-end features. Expect to spend $20,439 out the door, about $2,000 more than the next-cheapest LX model (which is better-equipped than most base models).

7. 2014 Dodge Dart SXT: B+
The Dart has an estimated out-the-door price of $18,818 comparably equipped to the competition.

6. 2015 Kia Forte LX: B+
Expect to spend about $18,607 for a Forte with the same features as the other cars in this comparison.

7. 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT: B+
The Cruze is slightly less expensive than a comparably equipped Forte – an estimated $18,607 out the door.

4. 2014 Nissan Sentra SV: B+
Expect to pay about $18,305 for a decently equipped Sentra, albeit one without a rearview camera or high-end infotainment options.

3. 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE: A-
The estimated transaction price for an Elantra comparably equipped to other cars in this comparison is $18,245.

2. 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus: A
The Corolla is a strong bargain at about $17,795 out the door when comparably equipped to the other cars in this comparison.

1. 2014 Ford Focus SE: A
The Focus is the least expensive car in this comparison, with an estimated transaction price of $17,124, but you can only get touchscreen infotainment bundled with thousands of dollars of other features.

Overall:
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 roomy and comfortable 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:
Ranking the compact sedans: How do these cars stack up for different types of buyers, such as those who prefer performance or who prefer value?
Introduction to this comparison
Click on the linked vehicle names for full detailed reviews and photo galleries.