Best compact cars

More power and room make these a good choice for buyers

Published: March 05, 2014 11:00 AM

Today’s compacts are not the underpowered, wheezing econoboxes of yesteryear. The best provide enough room for four adults to travel in relative comfort. Most have plenty of power to get around town and cruise highways while also helping stretch your fuel dollars. Some are fun to drive, ride nicely, offer the latest connectivity, and have desirable options like heated leather seats, a sunroof, and automatic climate control. And you can often choose between a sedan and a hatchback.

Drawbacks: If you start checking off options, you can quickly crest $24,000. That’s midsized-sedan territory, where some larger, more comfortable cars roam without any real penalty in fuel economy

Best overall

Our Top Pick for compact cars, the Impreza offers standard all-wheel drive in a choice of sedan and hatchback body styles. Moreover, it gets relatively thrifty fuel economy for an all-wheel-drive car. Inside you’ll find a large backseat with ample room for adults. Once underway the car has a ride that’s absorbent and controlled. Handling is nimble, with responsive and linear steering. Reliability has also been very good. The Impreza can be noisy, especially because its continuously variable transmission often allows the engine to hold engine revs high. In addition, the audio system has only rudimentary connectivity.
 

Price as tested: $21,345-$22,345
Overall mpg:
27 (sedan), 26 (hatchback)

The Elantra provides a lot for just under $20,000, including a roomy interior, nimble handling, a fairly comfortable ride, and good reliability. Bluetooth and iPod connectivity are both standard. Upper trim levels get heated leather seats, automatic climate control, a touch-screen navigation system, and a backup camera. The standard 1.8-liter engine offers very good performance and fuel economy, and the six-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly. For 2014, the GT hatchback and new Sport version get a more powerful 2.0-liter engine with direct fuel injection for better gas mileage. The GT didn’t do as well as the sedan in our testing, mainly because of its stiff ride and tight rear seat. A two-door coupe version is also available.


Price as tested: $19,410
Overall mpg: 29 mpg

 

Long the champion of real-world gas mileage, the Prius is no one-trick pony. It’s roomy, with a large backseat and good cargo space under its hatchback. It rides reasonably well and has secure handling. Hybrids are known for boosting city mileage, but the Prius also gets an excellent 55 mpg on the highway. With outstanding reliability and low depreciation, it also has the lowest five-year owner cost in its class. But driving a Prius is more practical than fun. Interior materials feel cheap, and its engine can sound strained when passing or climbing hills at highway speeds. A plug-in version can go about 10 miles on electric power, getting the equivalent of 67 mpg. After that, it reverts to regular hybrid operation, returning 43 mpg overall.

If you want a fuel-efficient car that’s fun to drive and doesn’t compromise practicality, look no further than the Mazda3. Available as a sedan or hatchback, it has agile handling, a polished powertrain, and an array of available features. It also gets the best fuel economy of any car in its class that isn’t a hybrid or diesel-powered. The Mazda3 is one of the few small cars you can really dress up. Top-trim versions get full Bluetooth connectivity with smart-phone apps, heated leather seats, blind-spot detection, forward-collision and lane-departure warning systems, and rear cross-traffic alert. Unfortunately the rear seat is tight, the ride is a bit stiff, and the car is loud. We expect reliability to be very good.

Models to avoid

Scion’s update to the “sporty” tC missed the target, with its lack of driving enjoyment, hard ride, and unimpressive performance.

The Lancer, redesigned six years ago, is showing its age with an underpowered engine, a noisy interior, and a low-rent cabin.

The Dart isn’t particularly fuel efficient, and the turbo engine is unrefined. It is also more expensive than most competitors.

2014 Autos Spotlight

Visit our Autos Spotlight special section to find all of our new and updated articles, plus see the latest Best & worst new cars, Best & worst used cars, Used car reliability, and New car Ratings & road tests.


From 2014: Top Picks, Who makes the best cars, and Extended warranties.


Editor's Note:

This article also appeared in the April 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.


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