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Fuel-Sipper Faceoff: 2009 Compact Sedan Comparison

By KBB.com Editors on March 25, 2009 3:55 PM
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In May of 2008, the Honda Civic was the best-selling vehicle in the country. In June, the Toyota Corolla took top honors. The significance? Every single month for more than 16 years prior to that, the most popular vehicle was a pickup truck. The economy might have broken down in 2008, but small cars experienced a relative boom.

The beauty of the 21st-century small car is that the benefits often outweigh the compromises. Affordability has always been the main reason people buy small cars, but now more people are thinking small for the fuel economy and emissions advantages. Buyers that might otherwise go for something larger and pricier are discovering that today's small cars are comfortable, refined and amenity-laden enough that actual tradeoffs are few.

Still, every category has its standouts, so we rounded up a selection of the most popular compact sedans to see which would rise to the top. Each of the cars in our comparison test featured an automatic transmission (matched with a four-cylinder engine, of course) and highway fuel economy of at least 30 mpg as estimated by the EPA. In the end, six drivers had subjected seven cars to more than 1,500 miles worth of poking and prodding. Separately, we performed instrumented testing to quantify the cars' relative abilities to accelerate, stop, corner and cruise.

After we'd driven the cars and tallied the scores, we had a definitive winner. But the best small car in our test isn't necessarily the best small car for you. Read the results and tell us which one you'd put at the top of your shopping list. For a more in-depth look at each, watch the video.

First Place: 2009 Honda Civic

2009 Honda Civic 2009 Honda Civic Rear 2009 Honda Civic Interior

Strengths: Well built. Well rounded. World class.
Shortcomings: Few
Synopsis: If all the drivers of the world had to decide on one car...

We interrupt this comparison test to re-confirm some old news: The Honda Civic is a great car. Its reputation as reliable and economical transportation is so strong that it's easy to overlook just how well it does everything else, as we realized during our most recent time behind the wheel of the freshened, fourth-year Civic. Its shape is interesting but not particularly polarizing. Its interior manages to be innovative, attractive and simple at once. The engine combines adequate power with exceptional fuel economy. The backseat and trunk both qualify as accommodating. Everything the Civic does, it does well. If you're looking for performance, you can do better. If you want the softest ride, the Civic can be beat. If you're like most shoppers in the segment, however, you're looking for balance. If you're like us, you'll have a hard time finding fault with the 2009 Honda Civic.

2009 Honda Civic Test Rankings (Overall Editors' Rating: 84.1)
SubjectiveInstrumented
Exterior: 1st (tie) On-ramp Acceleration (0-to-60 mph): 5th
Interior: 1st Passing Acceleration (50-to-70 mph): 4th
Driving Dynamics: 2nd Braking from 60 mph: 5th
Value: 2nd Evasive Lane Change: 5th
Safety: 1st (tie) Cornering Limits: 3rd (tie)
Crash Test Ratings: 1st (tie) Interior noise at idle: 4th
Interior noise at 30 mph: 1st (tie)
Interior noise at 60 mph: 1st

Second Place: 2009 Mazda MAZDA3

2009 Mazda MAZDA3 2009 Mazda MAZDA3 Rear 2009 Mazda MAZDA3 Interior

Strengths: Fun. Attractive. Fun.
Shortcomings: A small car on the small side
Synopsis: Did we mention it's fun?

The MAZDA3 might have come up number two on our score sheets, but it's the small sedan most of the KBB editors would buy for themselves. Compared with the rest of the cars in this test -- and the entire segment -- the MAZDA3's fun factor is off the charts. That it looks so good inside and out is, by comparison, just icing on the cake. Our lesser-powered 'i' model was only fourth-fastest in our zero-to-60 mph tests, but it finished a decisive first in cornering and braking. Where were the weak spots? The trunk and rear seating area were among the tightest in the test, and its crash test ratings weren't at the top of the chart. So maybe the MAZDA3 isn't the first choice for families. For fun-seekers, though, it's the obvious choice.

Note: The second-generation, 2010 MAZDA3 wasn't yet available for back-to-back testing at the time of this comparison, but we've driven the new model and are confident it would have scored even higher.

2009 Mazda MAZDA3 Test Rankings (Overall Editors' Rating: 80.9)
SubjectiveInstrumented
Exterior: 1st (tie) On-ramp Acceleration (0-to-60 mph): 4th
Interior: 3rd Passing Acceleration (50-to-70 mph): 2nd
Driving Dynamics: 1st Braking from 60 mph: 1st
Value: 3rd (tie) Evasive Lane Change: 1st
Safety: 1st (tie) Cornering Limits: 1st
Crash Test Ratings: 7th Interior noise at idle: 1st (tie)
Interior noise at 30 mph: 5th
Interior noise at 60 mph: 4th (tie)

Third Place: 2009 Toyota Corolla

2009 Toyota Corolla 2009 Toyota Corolla Rear 2009 Toyota Corolla Interior

Strengths: Roomy and refined
Shortcomings: Nothing to get excited about
Synopsis: Feels like a small Camry

Behold the electroluminescent gauge cluster and attractive faux wood trim from the Corolla's comfortable driver's seat and it'd be easy to believe you were sitting in a larger, pricier sedan. By foregoing look-at-me styling or progressive interior design, the latest Corolla maintains its reputation as the confidently conservative grown-up of the group. As such, it did prove a more willing and capable driving partner than most of us expected. So how did one of the category's gold standards finish third? By playing it safe. The Corolla finished tops in value, but middle-of-the-pack in categories like performance, styling and even safety. Playing it safe, however, is exactly how the Corolla became -- and continues to be -- one of the best-selling vehicles in the country.

2009 Toyota Corolla Test Rankings (Overall Editors' Rating: 78.9)
SubjectiveInstrumented
Exterior: 3rd On-ramp Acceleration (0-to-60 mph): 3rd
Interior: 2nd Passing Acceleration (50-to-70 mph): 5th
Driving Dynamics: 4th Braking from 60 mph: 3rd
Value: 1st Evasive Lane Change: 7th
Safety: 4th Cornering Limits: 2nd
Crash Test Ratings: 4th Interior noise at idle: N/A
Interior noise at 30 mph: N/A
Interior noise at 60 mph: N/A

Fourth Place: 2008 Hyundai Elantra

2008 Hyundai Elantra 2008 Hyundai Elantra Rear 2008 Hyundai Elantra Interior

Strengths: Attractive interior, high feature-per-dollar ratio
Shortcomings: Driving dynamics, resale value
Synopsis: Better than its resale values would indicate

Anyone who thinks Hyundai still competes on price alone would be enlightened by a drive in the Elantra. Highlights include an attractive, roomy interior, excellent crash test scores and a long list of standard safety features. In our instrumented testing the Elantra excelled in braking and highway noise levels, but proved slowest to 60 miles per hour and demonstrated the least cornering grip. Sticker price is another Elantra strong suit, although lagging resale values can offset that advantage. As marketplace perception slowly (but surely) catches up with product reality, the Elantra will continue to gain in appeal.

2008 Hyundai Elantra Test Rankings (Overall Editors' Rating: 71.0)
SubjectiveInstrumented
Exterior: 4th (tie) On-ramp Acceleration (0-to-60 mph): 7th
Interior: 4th Passing Acceleration (50-to-70 mph): 3rd
Driving Dynamics: 7th Braking from 60 mph: 2nd
Value: 3rd (tie) Evasive Lane Change: 4th
Safety: 1st (tie) Cornering Limits: 7th
Crash Test Ratings: 3rd Interior noise at idle: 5th
Interior noise at 30 mph: 3rd (tie)
Interior noise at 60 mph: 2nd

Fifth Place: 2009 Nissan Sentra

2009 Nissan Sentra 2009 Nissan Sentra Rear 2009 Nissan Sentra Interior

Strengths: Responsive transmission, eager handling
Shortcomings: Uninspired interior, so-so value
Synopsis: Needs stronger strong points

The Nissan Sentra is supposed to be one of the sportiest small cars out there. And while its instrumented test numbers weren't great -- aside from the second-fastest run to 60 miles per hour -- several editors did indeed praise the Sentra's overall handling and the seamlessness of its continuously variable transmission. Inside, front- and rear-seat roominess and comfort were highlights of an interior that was regarded as middling overall. The Sentra's crash test ratings are strong, but it lost points for not offering, at any price, electronic stability or traction control (we like the idea of avoiding the accident in the first place). Overall value was another weak point, relegating the Sentra to a more disappointing finish than some testers expected going into it.

2009 Nissan Sentra Test Rankings (Overall Editors' Rating: 69.8)
SubjectiveInstrumented
Exterior: 4th (tie) On-ramp Acceleration (0-to-60 mph): 2nd
Interior: 5th Passing Acceleration (50-to-70 mph): 7th
Driving Dynamics: 3rd Braking from 60 mph: 6th
Value: 7th Evasive Lane Change: 2nd (tie)
Safety: 7th Cornering Limits: 3rd (tie)
Crash Test Ratings: 1st (tie) Interior noise at idle: 3rd
Interior noise at 30 mph: 1st (tie)
Interior noise at 60 mph: 6th

Sixth Place: 2009 Ford Focus

2009 Ford Focus 2009 Ford Focus Rear 2009 Ford Focus Interior

Strengths: Euro driving feel, comfortable front seats, SYNC
Shortcomings: Exterior styling
Synopsis: There's beauty beneath that skin

If we had a category for the most surprising vehicle in the test, the 2009 Ford Focus would have won it going away. None of the testers wrote home about the car's exterior styling, but the SYNC infotainment system is the best bit of high-tech in the category, its front seats are comfortable, and the controls and instruments are straightforward. Similarly, the Focus was among the slowest in our acceleration tests, but its handling characteristics and overall feel were refreshingly European-like. The Focus also finished above average in the value category. The fact that a car we found so pleasantly surprising finished sixth of seven demonstrates just how strong the category has become. Shoppers in the category now have the luxury of choosing the right small car amongst many good small cars.

2009 Ford Focus Test Rankings (Overall Editors' Rating: 68.7)
SubjectiveInstrumented
Exterior: 7th On-ramp Acceleration (0-to-60 mph): 6th
Interior: 6th Passing Acceleration (50-to-70 mph): 6th
Driving Dynamics: 5th Braking from 60 mph: 4th
Value: 3rd (tie) Evasive Lane Change: 2nd (tie)
Safety: 5th (tie) Cornering Limits: 5th
Crash Test Ratings: 4th (tie) Interior noise at idle: 6th
Interior noise at 30 mph: 6th
Interior noise at 60 mph: 4th (tie)

Seventh Place: 2009 Chevy Cobalt

2009 Chevy Cobalt 2009 Chevy Cobalt Rear 2009 Chevy Cobalt Interior

Strengths: Eager engine, good fuel economy
Shortcomings: Second-rate accommodations
Synopsis: A solid car hidden beneath outmoded styling and appointments

The Chevy Cobalt is the most competitive small car General Motors has ever built. In a sign of just how far GM's four-cylinder engines have come, some testers felt the Cobalt's engine was the best of the bunch. Indeed, the Cobalt was the fastest in both our on-ramp and highway passing acceleration tests. Most found the sheetmetal inoffensive but unexciting, but the interior was generally regarded as having been surpassed by the competition (the Cobalt is one of the oldest vehicles in the comparison). Rear-seat and cargo accommodations were unremarkable, and the Cobalt's lone safety highlight is its exclusive availability of OnStar. On the value front, the Cobalt's low purchase price is mitigated by its below-par resale value.

2009 Chevy Cobalt Test Rankings (Overall Editors' Rating: 66.4)
SubjectiveInstrumented
Exterior: 6th On-ramp Acceleration (0-to-60 mph): 1st
Interior: 7th Passing Acceleration (50-to-70 mph): 1st
Driving Dynamics: 6th Braking from 60 mph: 7th
Value: 3rd (tie) Evasive Lane Change: 6th
Safety: 5th (tie) Cornering Limits: 6th
Crash Test Ratings: 4th (tie) Interior noise at idle: 1st (tie)
Interior noise at 30 mph: 3rd (tie)
Interior noise at 60 mph: 3rd

Wrapping Up

So, that's how the scoreboard read when the whistle blew. What are your thoughts? Should the "old" MAZDA3 really rate higher than the latest iteration of the time-tested Toyota Corolla? Did the Ford Focus get dinged too much for its styling deficiencies? Might the VW Jetta have taken the title if it met our highway fuel economy cutoff of 30 mpg (auto-equipped models miss by 1 mpg)? Feel free to share your thoughts or ask your questions in the comments section below.  

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