The compact sedan segment is like the Goldilocks of the car world. This is where price meets value, where bang meets buck, where everything is "just right." These aren't the econo-boxes of yesteryear; these cars offer an wide array of features that in years past were found only in cars ten times their price.
In a segment once dominated by the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, new entries from all three American automakers are now just as enticing. The Ford Focus is the go-to choice for drivers seeking the latest in in-car technology, also bringing advanced turbocharged EcoBoost engine options for both driving thrills and fuel sipping.
In addition, these small cars are safe--all feature front, front seat-mounted side and side curtain airbags in addition to anti-lock brakes, traction control, stability control and brake assistance.
This "just right" balance of features, value and economy explain why this is such a popular class. For around $4,000 or $5,000 less than a comparably equipped midsize, a youthful and fun compact sedan could be all the car you'll ever need.
There must be a reason why Focus is consistently the auto testers’ favorite compact. Actually, there’s more than one reason. The styling is dramatic and purposeful, with a bold, athletic stance. The interior is well-organized and made using quality materials. The seats are both soft and supportive. Even the base trim level is impressively well equipped. And on the road, Focus has a confidence-inspiring blend of zip and poise. Power comes from a 160-horsepower, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine with 5-speed manual or 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. Some competitors roll out the door at a lower price, but we think Focus is the best value in its class.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 26 city/36 highway (S).
It’s been so long since domestic brands built credible small cars that shoppers may overlook the little Chevy. That would be a shame. Cruze is a “world car” sold in Asia and Europe, with U.S. buyers getting the benefits of a world-caliber chassis. It shows in the car’s planted feeling and well-controlled body motions, though the low-rolling-resistance tires will squeal at the cornering limit. The cabin is roomy and features upmarket architecture and materials. Power comes from a 138-horsepower 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine with 6-speed manual transmission, or a 1.4-liter turbocharged engine that puts out the same 138 horses but with an extra 25 pound-feet of torque.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 28 city/42 highway/33 combined mpg (Eco with 1.4-liter engine and manual transmission).
hough it didn’t pass through Ellis Island, the 2013 Dodge Dart is a naturalized citizen. Underneath, it has the bones of an Alfa Romeo Gulietta, a happy result of the Italian company Fiat (Alfa Romeo’s parent) owning Chrysler. This mixed marriage has produced a car that is agile and fun to drive, has great fuel economy (especially with the Aero trim) and offers good value. However, it does lack the refinement of class leaders like Honda. Dart is offered with a bewildering array of five trim levels incorporating three 4-cylinder engines (1.8-liter turbo, 2.0- or 2.4-liter) and three transmissions (one manual and two automatics), so use care when selecting and ordering.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 28 city/41 highway/32 combined mpg (Aero).
Hyundai is the Korean company that could, storming beaches once owned exclusively by Honda and Toyota. Elantra is a case in point. Now available in sedan, coupe and hatchback bodies, Elantra serves up a satisfying mix of generous interior room, show-stopping design and class-leading warranty protection. If that’s not enough, it also has great fuel economy ratings and balanced handling, even if it’s not up to Focus standards. However, some interior materials could be better, a long-time Hyundai knock. The only engine is a 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder, joined to either an average 6-speed manual or an excellent 6-speed automatic transmission.
EPA-rated fuel economy: 28 city/38 highway/32 combined mpg (sedans).
Leave it to Volkswagen to buck the trend. Other manufacturers are moving toward “world cars” using a “design once, sell everywhere” model. Meanwhile, VW is moving toward dedicated U.S. designs, including the Jetta. The upshot is the U.S. Jetta is larger than its Euro namesake but most trims use cheaper interior materials. There’s a huge range of Jetta offerings, including sedans and wagons powered by gas, hybrid or diesel engines spread amongst eight trim levels. With that large a range, feature levels and driving satisfaction vary from basic to exquisite. The GLI trim stands out as a great value, with a willing powertrain and driving dynamics that mimic upscale brands.
EPA-rated fuel economy: Up to 24 city/34 highway/28 combined mpg (2.0-liter with manual transmission).