Like microbreweries, Lady Gaga hits and bad Ryan Reynolds movies, compact sedans are an inevitable part of the American consumer landscape. It is a given that at some time in our lives, each of us will drive a relatively affordable - starting at or below $17,000 and reaching up to the $24,000 mark - four-door like the four new cars we review in this comparison test. College car, commuter car, second car, empty nester car, rental car. Whatever the purpose, a small, fuel-efficient, utilitarian four-door is exactly right at some time in everyone's life.

START: Fourth Place

The four compact sedans in this test -- a 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, 2012 Ford Focus, 2012 Honda Civic, and 2011 Hyundai Elantra - each represent a fresh-foot forward for their manufacturers.

The 2011 Chevy Cruze is a new face in this field, with many advocates pointing to it as the weather vane for the coming era in American cars. Recent sales and strong consumer interest in the Cruze despite on-again/off-again economic forecasts point to a healthy wind blowing in.

New for 2012, the Ford Focus is a "world car" with European sensibilities trying to find a home in America. Riding on a new platform, running with new engines and staring at itself in the mirror with new sheet metal, the 2012 Focus is a more substantial small sedan than the car it replaces.

Also new this year, the 2012 Honda Civic bears a lot of responsibility as the next generation of a wildly popular car. With every player in the compact-sedan segment getting stronger overall, Honda had to decide: Do we take a risk, or do we stand firm with a proven formula? The 2012 Honda Civic stands firm.

The most anticipated major redesign among small-car fans and auto-show enthusiasts belongs to the 2011 Hyundai Elantra. After what seemed like permanent also-ran status, Hyundai scored back-to-back styling and value wins with its new Genesis and Sonata four-doors, but what about the small sedan that needed to be a numbers car for the Korean carmaker?

And thus our stage is set: Can the new kids from Detroit - the all-new 2011 Chevy Cruze and 2012 Ford Focus - and a principled, compact upstart from Korea - the all-new 2011 Hyundai Elantra - dislodge the fully redesigned 2012 Honda Civic from its perch in the hearts and minds of American drivers? Take a seat at your desk, pop the top off some Redhook Ale and read on to learn. If for no other reason than to avoid seeing "The Change-Up."

START: Fourth Place

Fourth Place: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LTZ
Third Place: 2012 Ford Focus SEL
The Winners, Part One: 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited
The Winners, Part Two: 2012 Honda Civic EX-L Navi

See a side-by-side specs comparison of all four cars in our test.

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