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
Strengths: Well built. Well rounded. World class.
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)|
|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
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)|
|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
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)|
|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
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)|
|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
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)|
|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
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)|
|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
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)|
|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|
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.