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Comparison review: Eleven compact sedans -- the best and the worst

How does the redesigned 2014 Toyota Corolla compare to its competitors?
How does the redesigned 2014 Toyota Corolla compare to its competitors? Brady Holt

There's a lot to love in a good compact car.

With lower prices, better fuel economy, and easier maneuverability than a midsize sedan, today's best compacts – the best-selling Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, and their competitors – also couple unexpected substance with the expected level of value. Even south of $20,000, you can expect fairly high levels of comfort, quality, safety, driving fun, and premium features.

The best compact sedans pull this off, at any rate. Back-to-back test drives of eleven such vehicles – nearly every vehicle in the market segment – helped reveal which is which. The different models were each designed with particular tradeoffs that will fit some buyers better than others – style versus interior space, ride versus handling, luxury versus value, and others. Some of these cars, too, have flaws that keep them from achieving even the balance they intended to strike.

This comparison relies on test drives and analyses of price, safety and fuel economy of the eleven compact sedans to pick winners and losers for different types of customers, and to rank them from top to bottom overall.

There has been significant changeover in this class since this reviewer compared ten compact sedans three years ago. Chrysler re-entered the segment with the Dodge Dart. The Kia Forte, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, and Toyota Corolla have been fully redesigned. The Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Volkswagen Jetta have been updated. Working to hold their own against the newer competitors are the Ford Focus, often ranked the world's best-selling car; and the Chevrolet Cruze, 2011's defending champion.

Chosen for this comparison were cars equipped with an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen, or the nearest equivalent. So equipped, the cars' estimated transaction prices ranged from $17,000 to $21,000 – no pittance, but still a price point that delivers a lot of car for the money.

The only current 2014-model compact sedan excluded was the Mitsubishi Lancer, a slow-selling vehicle that has barely changed since it placed last in this reviewer's comparison five years ago; also left our are models sold only as hatchbacks, including the Scion tC and Volkswagen Golf.

Scroll down for quick summary reviews of the eleven compact sedans, or use the links below to learn more:

More from this comparison:
- Rating the eleven compact sedans: How do they compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
- Ranking the eleven compact sedans: How do they stack up for different types of buyers?
- Full reviews of the: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT, 2014 Dodge Dart SXT, 2014 Ford Focus SE, 2014 Honda Civic EX, 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE, 2015 Kia Forte LX, 2014 Mazda3 i Touring, 2014 Nissan Sentra SV, 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium, 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus, and 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE.

See also:
- All Cars Examiner reviews
- Comparison review: Ten midsize sedans
- Comparison review: Nine compact crossover SUVs
- Comparison review: Ten large sedans
- Comparison review: Ten 2011 compact sedans

1st place: 2014 Honda Civic EX
1st place: 2014 Honda Civic EX Brady Holt

1st place: 2014 Honda Civic EX

Key strengths:
- Roomy cabin.
- Pleasant ride and handling.
- Excellent safety ratings.

Key weaknesses:
- Relatively high price if you want certain features.
- Fussy ergonomics for the controls and displays.
- Small trunk.

Overall:
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.

Overall grade: A-

Full review of the 2014 Honda Civic EX
More photos of the 2014 Honda Civic EX

2nd place: 2014 Mazda3 i Touring
2nd place: 2014 Mazda3 i Touring Brady Holt

2nd place: 2014 Mazda3 i Touring

Key strengths:
- Agile, fun handling.
- Class-leading fuel economy.
- Class-leading safety ratings.

Key weaknesses:
- High price for a compact car. 
- Small rear seat and trunk.
- Less than luxury-grade refinement.

Overall:
The sports sedan of the class, the Mazda3 offers exceptional handling that makes it more fun than the competition. But high prices and a tight interior cut into its broader appeal. 

Overall grade: A-

Full review of the 2014 Mazda3 i Touring
More photos of the 2014 Mazda3 i Touring

3rd place: 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE
3rd place: 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE Brady Holt

3rd place: 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE

Key strengths:
- Affordable prices.
- Long warranty.
- General competence.

Key weaknesses:
- Not as fun to drive as some competitors.
- Not as luxurious as come competitors.
- Lacks advanced infotainment system except on loaded model.

Overall:
Though rarely outstanding and certainly never exciting, the Elantra is consistently competent at a reasonable – if not amazing – price.

Overall grade: B+

Full review of the 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE
More photos of the 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE

4th place: 2014 Dodge Dart SXT
4th place: 2014 Dodge Dart SXT Brady Holt

4th place: 2014 Dodge Dart SXT

Key strengths:
- Powerful engine and agile handling.
- Comfortable, high-quality interior.
- Competitive price tag.

Key weaknesses:
- Worst-in-class gas mileage.
- Rear seat not especially roomy.

Overall:
If you want a fun-to-drive small car that doesn't feel cheap, the Dart delivers with agile handling, a powerful engine a generally solid feel. Be prepared to pay up at the pump, though.

Overall grade: B+

Full review of the 2014 Dodge Dart SXT
More photos of the 2014 Dodge Dart SXT

5th place: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE
5th place: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE Brady Holt

5th place: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE

Key strengths:
- Roomy interior.
- Good ride and handling.
- Peppy acceleration.

Key weaknesses:
- High price.
- Mediocre fuel economy.
- Mediocre crash test ratings. 

Overall:
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.

Overall grade: B

Full review of the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE
More photos of the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE

6th Place: 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus
6th Place: 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus Brady Holt

6th Place: 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus

Key strengths:
- Bargain pricing.
- Roomy interior.
- Good gas mileage. 

Key weaknesses:
- Mediocre handling.
- Noisy ride.
- Some cheap interior bits.  

Overall:
With high levels of value and practicality, the Corolla is a solid straightforward economy car. But for a little more money, you can get higher levels of driving dynamics, interior quality, and safety.

Overall grade: B

Full review of the 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus
More photos of the 2014 Toyota Corolla LE Plus

7th Place: 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium
7th Place: 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium Brady Holt

7th Place: 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium

Key strengths:
- Roomy interior.
- Excellent crash-test scores.
- Standard all-wheel-drive.  

Key weaknesses:
- Relatively high price.
- Downscale, dated interior.
- Smallest trunk in the class.

Overall:
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.

Overall grade: B

Full review of the 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium
More photos of the 2014 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Premium

8th place: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT
8th place: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT Brady Holt

8th place: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT

Key strengths:
- Composed ride and handling.
- Reasonable pricing.
- Competitive overall.

Key weaknesses:
- Mediocre rear seat room.
- Mediocre IIHS crash test score.
- Some cheap interior trim.

Overall:
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.

Overall grade: B

Full review of the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT
More photos of the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT

9th place: 2014 Ford Focus SE
9th place: 2014 Ford Focus SE Brady Holt

9th place: 2014 Ford Focus SE

Key strengths:
- Agile handling.
- Bargain pricing.
- Competitive crash-test scores.

Key weaknesses:
- Cramped interior with poor panel fit.
- Clunky transmission.
- Upgraded infotainment offered only on high-end models.

Overall:
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.

Overall grade: B-

Full review of the 2014 Ford Focus SE
More photos of the 2014 Ford Focus SE

10th place: 2015 Kia Forte LX
10th place: 2015 Kia Forte LX Brady Holt

10th place: 2015 Kia Forte LX

Key strengths:
- Generally solid feel.
- Comfortable front seats.
- Advanced infotainment system. 

Key weaknesses:
- Poor steering response and feel.
- Lingering crash-test questions after poor 2014 performance.
- Mediocre rear visibility.

Overall:
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.

Overall grade: C+

Full review of the 2015 Kia Forte LX
More photos of the 2015 Kia Forte LX

11th place: 2014 Nissan Sentra SV
11th place: 2014 Nissan Sentra SV Brady Holt

11th place: 2014 Nissan Sentra SV

Key strengths:
- Roomy interior.
- Low price.
- Great gas mileage.

Key weaknesses:
- Weak crash-test scores.
- Noisy, slow engine.
- Clumsy handling.

Overall:
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.

Overall grade: C+

Full review of the 2014 Nissan Sentra SV
More photos of the 2014 Nissan Sentra SV