Compact Car Buyer's Guide

By Editors on July 31, 2015 1:48 PM

Today's compact cars might not be quite as roomy, quiet or comfortable as their midsize counterparts, but the fit, finish and features are increasingly comparable. And even if they'll always be smaller by definition, compact cars continue to get roomier, quieter and more comfortable, making them increasingly intriguing alternatives to many larger and pricier options. It's hard to make a smarter car purchase than to go with an efficient, affordable small car.

Explore all 12 of your options right here -- listed in order of sales through the first half of 2015 -- and keep reading below to see what's new, what's next, and to find out who's winning all the awards.

Toyota Corolla

Toyota's famously affordable, reliable compact sedan now has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Starts at $17,785

Explore Corolla

Honda Civic

Honda's venerable compact car has been completely redesigned for 2016, and now it almost outclasses the class. Starts at $19,475

Explore Civic

Hyundai Elantra

The sculpted Elantra adds a heavy dose of style to the familiar value equation. Starts at $18,075

Explore Elantra

Chevrolet Cruze

It isn't the roomiest compact car you can buy, but it's definitely one of the quietest and most comfortable. Starts at $16,995

Explore Cruze

Ford Focus

There are roomier and more affordable compact cars, but few are as sporty or as stylish as the European-rooted Focus. Starts at $17,995

Explore Focus

Nissan Sentra

The Sentra's roomy, refined interior and smooth styling qualify it as one of the segment's grown-ups. Starts at $17,305

Explore Sentra

Volkswagen Jetta

The segment's only European entry manages to be both more fun and more refined than most other compact cars. Starts at $17,035

Explore Jetta


The fun and stylish Mazda3 has earned a spot on our list of 10 Coolest Cars Under $18,000 for 12 years in a row. Starts at $17,765

Explore Mazda3

Dodge Dart

Sporty looks, a rich interior and one of our favorite infotainment systems. Starts at $17,690

Explore Dart

Subaru Impreza

Standard all-wheel drive remains the Impreza's key competitive advantage. Starts at $18,990

Explore Impreza

Kia Forte

It looks sportIer than it drives, but the Forte boasts European-like interior styling and offers loads of cool tech. Starts at $16,715

Explore Forte

Mitsubishi Lancer

The oldest entry in the group, we still love that grille and the impressive warranty. Starts at $18,210

Explore Lancer

What's New

The 2016 model year is bringing us totally new versions of the Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra, plus a new Honda Civic that already claimed our biggest award of the year, the Kelley Blue Book Overall Best Buy Award of 2016. The Nissan Sentra won't be all-new for 2016, but receives a number of enhancements. 

10 Best 

The compact car segment is well-represented on our most recent lists of 10 Coolest Cars Under $18,00010 Coolest Cars Under $25,000 and 10 Best Sedans Under $25,000.

Compact Comparison

For this year's compact car comparison test we put 400 miles on each of seven small cars to confirm past conclusions and solidify some new ones.

The Specialists

The Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer are the only cars in this group to offer all-wheel drive, the Jetta is the only one offered with a hybrid powertrain, and only the Focus is offered as a (much pricier) all-electric car.

Actual Price

Most compact cars start under $18,000, but most buyers upgrade to an automatic transmission and other popular equipment, making the average price paid for a compact car right about $20,000. The average price paid for a midsize sedan, for reference, is closer to $25,000.

This Year's Winners

The redesigned 2016 Honda Civic isn't just our Small Car Best Buy of 2016, its impressive redesigned earned it this year's Overall Best Buy Award. The Toyota Corolla is the category's most recent 5-Year Cost to Own Award winner, and the Subaru Impreza took home our most recent Best Resale Value Award in the compact car category.