Best small cars in Consumer Reports’ testing

Biggest scoring compact hatchbacks and sedans

Published: March 27, 2015 06:00 AM
Toyota Corolla

Big things can come in small packages, as proven by today’s feature-rich subcompact and compact cars. This sector of the automotive landscape—once reserved for budget models targeting first-time car buyers and rental fleets—has blossomed, with many models now offering comfort, convenience, and refinement that was unheard of a decade ago.

Today, numerous excellent small hatchbacks and sedans are well worth considering. Of course, some models should not make it onto your wish list. To accelerate your shopping process, we’ve picked the 10 best small cars based on Consumer Reports’ testing.

Each car here ranks among the best in class for road test performance, has average or better predicted reliability, and performs adequately if included in government or insurance-industry crash tests. Or simply put, these are the best new small cars on the market today and ones we strongly recommend. (Missing are some great cars we have no reliability data for yet, such as the redesigned Volkswagen Golf.)

Click through to read the complete road tests, and scan the reliability, owner cost, owner satisfaction, pricing, and other data. Or use our search tools to compile your own list based on the factors that matter most to you.

Jeff Bartlett

Consumer Reports Build & Buy

In addition to providing research and reviews, Consumer Reports offers subscribers access to the Build & Buy Car Buying Service at no additional cost. Through this service, a nationwide network of more than 9,000 participating dealers provides upfront pricing information and a certificate for guaranteed savings off MSRP (in most states). The pricing information and guaranteed savings include eligible incentives. Consumer Reports subscribers have saved an average of $2,919 off MSRP with the Build & Buy Car Buying Service.


Hyundai Elantra

Base MSRP price range: $18,800 - $22,600

The Elantra combines nimble and secure handling with a fairly comfortable ride. The 1.8-liter four-cylinder and six-speed automatic delivers solid performance and a very good 29 mpg overall. Some versions get a more powerful 2.0-liter four-cylinder. The car is well-equipped for the price, the controls and features are logically laid out, and rear-seat room is decent for the class. Our major gripe is the pronounced road and engine noise. The GT hatchback has more adventurous styling but suffers from a louder cabin, a stiff ride, and only 27 mpg. Currently, both the sedan and hatchback have potential savings of 20 percent off MSRP.

Read our complete Hyundai Elantra road test.

Photo: Bruce Benedict

Kia Forte

Base MSRP price range: $15,890 - $21,890

There's a lot to like in the Forte if you're in the market for a compact sedan. Unassuming in nature yet considerably more refined than previous Kia compact sedans, the Forte feels mature and solid, thanks to a quiet cabin and one of the most comfortable rides in its class. You also get generous interior room and a wide assortment of amenities. Our tested base LX sedan got 28-mpg overall with the smooth 1.8-liter four-cylinder and six-speed automatic. Handling is very secure but not particularly agile. All EX versions get a stronger 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and the SX coupe and hatch use a 1.6-liter turbo. The spacious interior is quiet for a compact car, and the controls are logically arranged. Part of the appeal for the Forte is that it offers features not usually found in the class, such as front/rear heated and ventilated seats. Predicted reliability is average, and owner satisfaction is better than average.

Read our complete Kia Forte road test.

Kia Rio

Base MSRP price range: $13,990 - $18,290

This corporate cousin of the Hyundai Accent is available as a sedan or hatchback. Power comes from a 138-hp, 1.6-liter four-cylinder mated to a six-speed automatic. Fuel economy of 29-mpg overall with our automatic-equipped hatchback and 30 for the sedan is pretty unimpressive for a subcompact. The Rio feels solid compared with some other subcompacts. Its stiff ride and noisy cabin are typical of the genre and can get annoying during long trips, but they aren't unbearable. Handling is a strong suit, with the car feeling responsive in corners. Higher-trim models offer such amenities as heated seats and a rear-view camera, but they can push up the price steeply. Reliability has been above average, but owner satisfaction ranks among lowest in the category.

Read our complete Kia Rio road test.

Kia Soul

Base MSRP price range: $15,190 - $35,700

The Soul brings more to the table than quirky styling. There's abundant interior space, with the chairlike seats and big windows providing an excellent view to the outside. Though fundamentally a budget hatchback, the Soul can be an SUV alternative, functionality-wise. The driving experience isn't special: The ride is stiff, and handling is sound but unexceptional. Power delivery from the 2.0-liter four-cylinder feels just adequate, and its 26-mpg overall is not outstanding. An extensive list of options includes heated seats, touch-screen navigation, and a backup camera. An electric version is available in California. First-year reliability of the redesign has been above average.

Read our complete Kia Soul road test.

Mazda3

Base MSRP price range: $16,945 - $26,595

Whether as a sedan or hatchback, the Mazda3 is really fun to drive and gets great fuel economy. It also offers a host of luxury features rarely matched by any other small car. At 33-mpg, the Mazda3 is the most fuel-efficient compact that isn't a hybrid or a diesel. High-tech features include a multimedia system with a large screen, but it can take a while to master. Also available are active safety features, such as a blind-spot monitoring system. On the downside, the car can be loud on the highway, and ride comfort is not stellar even for the class. In particular, the rear seat is fairly tight. The steering is linear and precise, and the three corners with enthusiasm, showing quick turn-in response and moderate body lean. First-year reliability of the redesign has been average or better.

Read our complete Mazda3 road test.

Photo: Nissan

Nissan Versa Note

Base MSRP price range: $14,180 - $17,960

The Versa Note offers amazing space and versatility for a little subcompact. It's also quieter and more relaxed to drive than most competitors. Its tall stance and wide doors make it easy to maneuver, park, and hop into and out of. The rear seat is really roomy, and the ride feels comfortable and relaxed. Handling is more responsive than the Versa sedan. Our main gripes are its awkward driving position, squishy front seats, and lack of interior storage. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) can magnify coarse engine noise when accelerating, but its 31-mpg overall is respectable. Changes for 2015 include standard Bluetooth, available heated seats, and new interior refinements. First-year reliability has been average.

Read our complete Nissan Versa Note road test.

Subaru Impreza

Base MSRP price range: $18,195 - $23,295

The Impreza’s interior packaging is outstanding, especially when you put friends (whom you want to remain your friends) in the back seat. Recent ­improvements have made it quieter inside. The ride is more comfortable than in some pricier cars. It drinks more fuel than its peers, but you’re getting all-wheel drive as a benefit. We don’t like the slackness and drone of most continuously variable transmissions, but with recent ­improvements Subaru has managed to mask those quirks. Subaru also has finally embraced the need for a contemporary infotainment system. The Impreza is among the pricier compact sedans, but it’s a strong value.  

Read our complete Subaru Impreza road test.

Toyota Corolla

Base MSRP price range: $16,950 - $22,955

The Toyota Corolla combines the practicality and frugal fuel economy that compact-sedan buyers want with more interior room, upgraded amenities, and a sorely needed shot of style. A continuously variable transmission (CVT) replaced the old four-speed automatic on all but base models. Fuel economy remains excellent at 32-mpg overall with the CVT and gets a significant boost to 43-mpg on the highway. And it's one of the best-riding compact sedans we've tested, absorbing bumps with only muted impacts. Inside, padded and stitched surfaces contrast with a number of drab, hard-plastic bits. Cabin amenities include standard Bluetooth connectivity, automatic climate control, and a touch-screen radio with simple controls. Handling is very secure but doesn’t challenge the best in the class. A sportier S version has a tauter suspension and is more responsive than our tested LE.

Read our complete Toyota Corolla road test.

Toyota Prius

Base MSRP price range: $24,200 - $34,905

At 44 mpg overall in our tests, no car gets better fuel economy than the Toyota Prius; only electric cars are more efficient. Despite the apparent complication of the hybrid system, all of the Prius' technology is well-proven. It ranks among the most reliable cars you can buy, and has one of the lowest costs of ownership. Not only is the hatchback body aerodynamic, aiding efficiency, it's also spacious for both people and cargo. Rear-seat space is on par with many midsized sedans, with plenty of luggage space to boot. Folding down the rear seats makes even more room. Ride comfort is merely OK and road noise is pronounced. There's nothing luxurious about the cheap-looking interior, either, and seat comfort is only average. Some controls, especially the shifter, take some getting used to, and the unique split back window reduces rear visibility. But those who enjoy maximizing fuel economy will find much joy behind the wheel.

Read our complete Toyota Prius road test.

Volkswagen Jetta TDI

Base MSRP price range: $16,215 - $31,670

A little bigger than most compact sedans, the Jetta is roomy, comfortable, and practical, with many available configurations. The new 1.8-liter turbo four-cylinder is smooth and flexible, and it returns an excellent 30-mpg. Skip the anemic base 2.0-liter engine. The GLI gets a strong turbo 2.0-liter, a more sophisticated suspension, better brakes, and a richer-feeling interior. The diesel's 34-mpg overall is very good, but it's upstaged by the 37-mpg we got from the smooth hybrid version. Its 1.4-liter turbo engine, electric motor, and seven-speed automated manual work seamlessly. Revisions to the steering and suspension have given the Jetta improved agility and a steady ride. Diesel versions are recommended, with average reliability and the highest overall test scores for the Jetta line; the 1.8T has well-below-average reliability.

Read our complete Volkswagen Jetta road test.

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