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:
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.
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.
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.
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.