Compact sedans have never offered more for your money. Once purchased primarily for their low price, high fuel efficiency and ease of operation, compacts served to inexpensively transport an individual or small family from Point A to Point B. Economy usually took priority over excitement, and buyers' aspirations often took a back seat to budget realities. Thankfully that's all changed.
Today's compact sedans retain the core competencies that made them successful, but now boast much more in terms of ride quality, creature comforts, safety, technology, and even design. There's also more -- and better -- competition than ever. For decades the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic were kings of the segment, but in more recent years their respective thrones have been challenged by some princely upstarts.
This is all positive news if you're in the market for a new compact sedan. The hard part comes down to choosing between a good sedan and a great one, or more importantly, the one that best suits your tastes and needs. And that's where this comparison comes into play. We drove six of the most popular compact sedans -- a Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, and Toyota Corolla -- hundreds of miles over two days down the California coast to the San Diego area and back to Orange County to flesh out their differences.
As we traveled over freeways, highways, rural roads and amid city traffic, we tested each car's attributes, for better or worse. Our editors spent another couple of days with the cars standing still, measuring real-world trunk space, assessing seat comfort, poking at controls, and testing how their tech and infotainment systems worked. The result is this, our 2014 Compact-Sedan Comparison Test. While all of these 5-passenger compact sedans feature 4-cylinder engines with similar power output, and most were priced within roughly $1,550 of each other, distinct personalities surfaced for each. Which one is a match for yours? Here is a summary of each vehicle (in alphabetical order and with the as-tested price for our particular test model), with links to how each fares against the others.
When the latest-generation Ford Focus debuted for the 2012 model year, it stood out for its looks and fun driving manners. The Focus is still stylish and nimble, but its overall sparkle has dimmed amid stiffer competition.
After decades of honing, the Honda Civic remains one of the smartest choices among compact sedans. Efficient, easy to drive and loaded with features that mostly hit the mark, the Civic was also the lowest-priced among our test group.
Though technically newer than its rivals by its model year (Kia tends to release its models early), the 2015 Forte costs the same as the 2014 model and brings slightly improved fuel economy to boot. The most-expensive sedan among our group, the Kia also boasts the most features and horsepower.
Easily winning the title of Most Athletic, the all-new-for-2014 Mazda3 also charms with its fuel efficiency, winning design and slick infotainment system. A perennial resident of our 10 Coolest Cars Under $18,000 list, the latest Mazda3 is better than ever.
The Sentra may not have the visual pop or driving pizzazz of others, but when it comes to roominess, value and comfort, Nissan's entry stands tall. You may just think of it as a smaller version of Nissan's acclaimed Altima.
Toyota's bestseller received a makeover for 2014, and the 11th-generation Corolla now brings a heavy dose of style to the party. Remaining are its efficient powertrain, roomy interior and easy operation.
More to Consider
We pitted six of the most popular compact sedans against each other for this evaluation, but there are half a dozen others also vying for your attention. Check out our 2014 Compact Car Buyer's Guide to see whether another sedan such as the Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Subaru Impreza, Dodge Dart, Volkswagen Jetta, or Mitsubishi Lancer is the one that belongs in your driveway.