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.