The Small Car 6-Pack

Roy Ritchie

Bud Light is a means to an end. You don't drink watered-down, fizzed-up yellow beer for the taste. You drink it to get drunk. If you're cheap, if you're playing beer pong, or if you've planned far enough in advance to know that you'll be vomiting before the night is over, that's when you drink Bud Light.

Compact cars were once the light beers of the car world -- a means to an end. They sold on passionless attributes like price, gas mileage, and reliability and made fine little appliances for getting to and from work. People gobbled them up, not because they were exciting or pleasing to drive, but simply because they fit the bill.

Thankfully, demanding customers and accommodating automakers are creating new standards for small cars. Catering to downsizers and tech-savvy youngsters, the industry now offers a batch of compact cars that are better equipped, better looking, and better to drive. These new contenders aren't just improved in an incremental, cars-are-always-getting-better kind of way. They're leaving stodgy reputations behind and challenging the stalwarts.

The industry's newfound respect for the small car means that the competition is tighter than ever before. The standouts from the last generation of compacts have largely been standing still while the also-rans have made monumental improvements. Even better, it seems that automakers have recognized that building a competitive car means much more than benchmarking Toyota and Honda. The result is a set of cars with fresh competence, unique character, and palpable emotion.

In search of the best small car in America, we rounded up the hungry newcomers -- the Chevrolet Cruze, the Ford Focus, and the Hyundai Elantra -- and the old standbys -- the Honda Civic, the Mazda 3, and the Toyota Corolla -- for a six-way shoot-out. We had planned to include Volks-wagen's new Jetta in this comparison as well, but the car that showed up -- a diesel with a six-speed manual -- was a ringer. Since we know that a gas-fed Jetta with an automatic transmission is not a ringer, you can rest assured that the VW's absence didn't affect the front-of-the-pack results of this test.

Better cars don't come cheap. Although you can buy into the compact segment for less than $17,000, every one of our test cars cost more than $20,000, topping out at $24,205 for the Honda Civic EX-L. Those extra dollars buy better equipment, as the segment now offers near-universal availability of leather upholstery, heated seats, navigation, and Bluetooth. More than that, though, we've calibrated our expectations to demand more in the compact driving experience. The best small cars deliver a composed ride, an enthusiastic engine, a dynamic chassis, and an interior worth spending time in.

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The Elantra should have been ranked ahead of the Civic as it offers more features, a superior warranty and styling, better mileage and is much cheaper than the Civic (ie. a superior value which is the main criteria for buyers in this class). Honda fell short on the redesigned Civic and hopefully Civic sales will drop and force Honda to make major improvements in the Civic rather than just tweak its design.
why isn't the forte used in comparisons. example hyundia elantra touring has 131 torq and 138hp with a 4sp auto. while the kia forte 5dr sx has a 168 torq and 173hp with a 6sp auto. the new elantra has a 6sp auto but only a 131 torq and a 148 hp and once again the kia forte sx 6 sp auto and a 168 torq and a 173 hp. in this class of cars the kia forte sx is up there. i test drove a number of these vehicles and choose the kia forte sx 5dr auto as i needed the storage at times?
I want to thank automobilemag for a great review. The third paragraph says it all. I had picked the Elantra as the winner for me personally and it seems all of you have come to the same conclusion on its pros and cons. I don't need a back seat and it will probably never see a road trip (I have other vehicles for that). It gets the best mileage for my daily commute to work and still provided the creature comforts to make the drive more bearable. Won't see much city driving either so ride quality is only a concern on the highway (we have some of the best roads in the country here in Texas). I assume the lack of weight is the greatest contributor to stability in the wind and after driving most of them(I have not driven an economy car in years), I was impressed with most of the cars in your review on that point. Once again, the best review of this segment I have seen so far. Well done! I think I will go have a Lambic to celebrate.

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