Welcome to Day 2 of Automobile Magazine’s 2014 Compact Sedan Comparison Review, our test of the affordable, multipurpose small sedans that are ubiquitous on American roads.
As we noted in our Day 1 introduction, we gathered eight four-door compact sedans and drove all of them at the same time on the same roads. We made our notes and organized our facts. And then we argued about the results.
The way we see it, these are the best compact sedans in America right now. We tried to ensure that our test vehicles represent a useful level of features — nicely equipped, as they say — yet don’t cost too much. Given the practical realities of acquiring so many test vehicles at the same time, they aren’t all priced exactly the same, but we did our best.
The assembled group includes: the Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Kia Forte, Mazda 3, Toyota Corolla, and Volkswagen Jetta. To make our comparisons as direct as possible, we organized a scheme where we matched the vehicles in brackets, like you would see in an athletic tournament (think March Madness). The losers will be knocked out one by one until the winner presents itself.
Today, on Day 2, we present an accounting of four vehicles, and two contenders will be eliminated. Tomorrow, on Day 3, we do the same, matching four vehicles and reducing the field to two. On Day 4, we’ll present excerpts from the test notebooks on our final four contestants and will select our two finalists. On Friday, Day 5, the two finalists will go head to head and we will declare the winner.
We start the tournament with these match-ups:
2013 Dodge Dart vs. 2014 Mazda 3
2013 Dodge Dart GT Limited
PRICE AS TESTED: $25,520
The Dodge Dart GT was easily the most polarizing car in our field of compact competitors. People liked it; people hated it. The Dart was controversy on wheels, and we had a field day obsessing over what it all means. At the end of the day — quite literally, since we drove these cars from Egg McMuffin time into the early evening — we reached the conclusion that the Dart misses the mark in the compact-sedan segment.
Early in our deliberations, deputy editor Joe DeMatio called this car “the antithesis of the Honda Civic,” spelling trouble for the front-wheel-drive Dodge. We’ve long held the belief that compact cars should measure on the small side and have airy interiors with good visibility. That’s not the Dart, which has thick A-pillars and overstuffed seats, and it seems like there’s less room inside than its impressive 97.2 cubic feet of passenger volume and 42.2 inches of rear-seat legroom promise. Just a few years ago, this Dodge could have passed as a mid-size sedan, but now road test editor Christopher Nelson says, “I don’t think it fits and plays in this segment very well.”
Lots of stuff to like
There are still a lot of things about the Dodge Dart GT that we like quite a bit. Even the most vocal critics praised the brash, curvaceous styling. We also rated the Dart as one of the better values in the compact segment, since you get a lot of features for your dollar. Our Limited model came standard with LED-type ambient interior lighting, an 8.4-inch touchscreen interface for its entertainment and connectivity electronics, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel. It had plenty of options, too, including seats upholstered in nappa leather, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, satellite radio, a sport suspension, 18-inch wheels, and black-chrome headlight bezels. Even the most fanatic supporters of minimalist compacts had to admit that the Dart is one of the nicest-equipped cars in this comparison.
In selecting the Dart GT model, we got a car with Dodge’s conventional six-speed automatic transmission instead of the clumsy-shifting dual-clutch automatic. Most of us liked the Dart’s powertrain. When you lay into the throttle, the peppy Tigershark four-cylinder comes to life with a growl; none of the other cars make much more than a grunt or a rasp when prodded. Associate editor David Zenlea noted that this engine is easily the best-sounding powerplant among our eight compact sedans.
Meanwhile, all of our options and upgrades did add up. The as-tested price of this 2013 Dodge Dart GT is $25,520, which is steep for many compact-car customers. Sticker shock could be a problem for the Dodge. Associate web editor Jake Holmes notes, “Pretty often there’s a Jeep showroom right next to the Dodge dealership. You can get two different Jeeps for the same price as this Dart GT, and they’re crossovers with all-wheel drive.”
One small step for quality
As DeMatio points out, the Dart is an easy car to overlook simply because it’s been so long since anything from Chrysler proved very competitive in this class. The Dodge Neon and Dodge Caliber both represented good ideas — one a small car with personality that really set the stage for the Volkswagen New Beetle, the other a miniaturized crossover utility vehicle — but both underachieved in the marketplace. “A whole generation has never been exposed to a decent small car from the Pentastar,” DeMatio says.
The Dart promises to change all that. While it’s not our favorite compact, it’s much better than simply decent and, most significant, it is the first vehicle that really leverages the full strength of the Fiat-Chrysler alliance. The Dart combines a Fiat four-cylinder engine, an Alfa Romeo package, and Dodge’s smart, muscular styling. It is assembled in Illinois (although only 57 percent of the parts are actually from the United States and Canada).
All this makes the Dodge Dart a truly international car designed and built with expertise from around the world. The Dart is not that far from becoming an impact player, and we expect Fiat and Chrysler to leave no stone unturned in their vast industrial empire to make this compact sedan better.
2014 Mazda 3 i Touring
PRICE AS TESTED: $23,235
The 2014 Mazda 3 wins style points in our comparison test, but it gets nicked for its lack of attention to detail. While most of our staff like the Mazda’s looks, chassis, and powertrain, several issues arose as we delved into the intricacies of the all-new front-wheel-drive compact from Mazda.
The devil is in the details, as the saying goes, and we found several little devils lurking in the Mazda 3. While we were keen on the rotary controller for the electronic screen on the dashboard, it was confusing to actually operate and scroll through the various infotainment screens. “I like the knob, but the software is not that simple,” associate web editor Jake Holmes lamented.
We also found plenty of little “yes, but…” annoyances. Deputy editor Joe DeMatio quibbled with the shift lever, which had an unusual manual mode. “Hate the up for downshift, down for upshift,” he said. Meanwhile, Molly Jean, senior editor of JeanKnowsCars.com, took issue with the driver’s seat, saying that “it seemed cheap and wasn’t that comfortable.”
Quit whining and drive
As car enthusiasts, our heads are turned by shapely sheetmetal. The 3 borrows its well-tailored look from its larger sibling, the Mazda 6. The gentle curves enclose some 96.3 cubic feet of passenger volume. Molly Jean, our fashion expert, said the 3 was the “best-looking car in the bunch.” Road test editor Christopher Nelson called its front end “striking” and “dramatic.”
Aesthetics aside, the Mazda 3 is an excellent expression of the brand’s familiar, satisfying, and sporting DNA. The new chassis with a long, 106.3-inch wheelbase is tight and handles well through corners. The electric-assist steering responds properly and even athletically, and the car as a whole has an eagerness others in this segment can’t match. Equally important is an overall improvement in ride quality; this car feels supple and composed on the road, like a fine European sedan.
40 mpg is the new standard
Our test car had a 155-hp, Skyactiv 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. DeMatio noted the seamless power delivery, and West Coast editor Michael Jordan was impressed with the quietness. Neither comes at a cost to efficiency. The EPA rates the Mazda 3 with this powertrain at 30 mpg in the city and 41 mpg on the highway, which reminds us that 40 highway mpg is now the standard of measure in the compact sedan class.
As it turns out, the 2014 Mazda 3 sets a new standard in more than just sportiness and fuel economy. As much as we were occasionally vexed by some of the details, we appreciate how the 3 incorporates an array of comfort and convenience features, not to mention the sort of active-safety technology not often found at this end of the price scale.
As Nelson says, “When I got into it, I felt as if I had been here before. The steering is nicely weighted, the seats hold me well, and the car has a lively personality, even though it’s a lot more refined than ever before. This is a really balanced package for a car enthusiast. The Mazda 3 is the most fun car to drive.”
If that’s your priority for a selecting a compact sedan, then don’t sweat the details.
Winner: 2014 Mazda 3
2014 Ford Focus vs. 2014 Kia Forte
2014 Ford Focus SE
PRICE AS TESTED: $23,940
How quickly things change. We named the Ford Focus one of our 2013 Automobile Magazine All-Stars, but as soon as we laid eyes on this 2014 Ford Focus SE, the barrage of complaints began. In fact, laying eyes on the car was the catalyst for annoyance.
Despite the clean geometry of its shape, we aren’t very excited by this plainly trimmed, three-box sedan. The most interesting elements of this car are a spoiler on the trunk and 17-inch cast-aluminum wheels, and even these are part of an optional appearance package. For us, the Focus hatchback looks considerably sharper and even offers more cargo room, although we acknowledge that a large part of the marketplace is still stuck in the ’70s and thinks a hatchback configuration is about as tasty as Marmite.
Nor did the Focus cabin win much applause, as it is far more cramped than the front-wheel-drive sedan’s exterior dimensions suggest — kind of like the Tardis, only in reverse. The dash’s featureless expanse of hard plastic is too high for drivers to see the Focus’s hood; the tall beltline will preclude small children from playing I Spy; and the back seat offers 38.0 inches of legroom, which feels more appropriate for a Ford Fiesta.
Wait, didn’t Ford invent connectivity in small cars?
Focus’s complex infotainment system was the object of much criticism. Editors likened the smattering of tiny plastic switches on the center stack to an old Motorola Razr flip phone, and that’s not meant to be a compliment. Above the maze of buttons, a tiny color screen squeezes so much information into so few pixels that we squinted to read it. “Ford has hung its hat on in-car connectivity, and you get this mess?” deputy editor Joe DeMatio wondered aloud.
Upgrading to MyFord Touch replaces those tiny buttons with a larger color screen, but we’re not big fans of the Ford’s touch-type interface, either. Our Focus test car also lacked a backup camera and push-button start despite being the third most expensive of the eight cars in this test.
Getting it together on the road
Communicative steering and a taut chassis swing things back in the Ford’s favor. The Focus is one of the most enjoyable of these cars to drive on twisty rural roads, as the chassis clings to the pavement through the bends with a handling balance that is decidedly European.
This precision doesn’t come at the expense of ride comfort, as the Focus suspension smothers most road imperfections before they reach the cabin. The effort level required by the steering and brakes is on the firmer side, yet there’s lots of feedback to the driver, which makes the Focus more interesting to drive than most of its rivals. Some shoppers might be put off by the sporty bent, but we find it refreshing in a sea of anodyne compacts.
A 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 160 hp smoothly with a plain but not unpleasant sound. Compared with earlier versions of the Ford Focus, the six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission in our 2014 tester shifted with significantly more smoothness and responsiveness, without hunting, lurching, or hesitation. While we nonconformists still prefer the Focus’s excellent five-speed manual transmission, the improved dual clutch is no longer a deal breaker. This Focus SE’s powertrain is EPA rated at 28 mpg city/40 mpg highway.
The 2014 Ford Focus is not a bad car and is still one of the best-driving entries in its class, but its struggles here demonstrate just how quickly this segment has advanced. Since the Focus launched, rival compacts have debuted simpler in-car technology, roomier cabins, and crisper sheetmetal. What was worthy of an All-Star nod just over a year ago is already starting to feel past its prime.
– Jake Holmes
PRICE AS TESTED: $20,315
Things have changed for Korean cars. We would have hesitated to recommend the original Kia Forte, as its brittle ride, thrashing engines, and plain-jane cabin made it an also-ran compared with the refined Japanese and American entries in this segment. Imagine our delight to find that continual improvement has produced a truly competitive compact sedan in the 2014 Kia Forte.
The 2014 Forte (you can also buy a Forte5 hatchback and a Forte Koup two-door) is totally new, with fresher looks inside and out, new engine choices, and, best of all, proper suspension tuning. The last part proves to be the most important step forward, as the 2014 Kia Forte acquits itself well on all road surfaces. Gone are the harsh impacts that the old Forte produced over cracked pavement. At the same time, the new car is considerably better to hustle around a corner. The taut suspension is responsive, and while the car isn’t exactly eager, it settles into bends without wallowing. “This car has resilient, well-damped ride motions,” says West Coast editor Michael Jordan. “It’s a huge leap forward from the old Forte.”
We were less impressed by the electric-assist power steering, which offers no less than three different levels of effort, not one of which truly appeals. The Forte’s steering is too vague and doesn’t offer a realistic sense that the leather-wrapped wheel is actually pivoting the 16-inch alloys. “I don’t think they quite have the steering that measures up to the rest of the car,” says associate editor David Zenlea.
When it comes from Korea, you expect lots of style
From behind the wheel of the 2014 Kia Forte, the view is pleasant thanks to a modest architecture of curves and a selection of plastic materials that implies quality rather than dollar-conscious value. The touchscreen that dominates the center stack has intuitive software for operating the radio or Bluetooth phone, while the small trip computer provides lots of information in a simple format. The cabin is fairly spacious with 96.2 cubic feet of passenger volume, but there’s only 35.9 inches of rear-seat legroom, which is even less than the Focus. However, the Forte’s trunk capacity is 14.9 cubic feet, compared with the 13.2 cubic feet in the bustle behind the Focus, so we suppose some trade-offs are involved here.
The Forte doesn’t feature much in the way of flashy trim, yet it’s looks pretty good when you walk up to it in a parking lot. The swept-back headlights and “tiger nose” grille set the stage for a sedan that is modern and distinctive. LED running lights help the Forte stand out on crowded highways, and this reminds us that such jewelry was restricted to Audis not too long ago. The lone negative is the chrome trim around the windows and on the door handles, which looks cheap and distracts from the Forte’s otherwise smart appearances.
Power meant for cruising rather than play
There’s a 173-hp 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder engine under the hood of the Forte EX. A six-speed automatic transmission is your mandatory companion as well. The car proves plenty quick when the powertrain is provoked, but mostly the engine is demur and tractable in everyday driving.
That said, the fuel economy of the Forte EX lags behind the segment leaders, coming in 24 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway. These figures would have made any compact sedan blush with pride just five years ago, but that is no longer the case. The cheaper Forte LX has a 148-hp 1.8-liter engine that makes 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway, but we think the extra 1 mpg doesn’t justify giving up 25 hp and several pieces of standard equipment.
As it turns out, the 2014 Kia Forte EX gives you all this for $20,315, making it the lowest-priced car in this test. Standard equipment includes LED running lights, automatic headlights, power-folding mirrors, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, a touchscreen interface for the audio system, satellite radio, and Bluetooth. On top of this, buyers get a segment-leading 10-year/100,000-mile warranty to help assuage outdated fears that Kia builds only disposable, bargain-basement cars.
We’re here to tell you those fears are misguided. The 2014 Kia Forte is a well-rounded, world-class compact sedan that is good enough to compete with the segment leaders. It’s so good, in fact, that we prefer it to the 2014 Ford Focus.
– Jake Holmes