This is Day 3 of Automobile Magazine’s 2014 Compact Sedan Comparison Review, a comparison test that is meant to help you find an affordable, compact, multipurpose sedan that you’d be happy to drive to work, to the pick-up zone at school, or to the big-box store for a weekend errand.
As we noted in our Day 1 introduction, we put together eight of the best compact sedans and drove them at the same time on the same roads. We made our notes and organized our facts. Then we argued about the results.
The way we see it, these are the best compact sedans in America right now. We’ve 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 cars we’re testing are 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 wherein we matched the vehicles in brackets, just as you would see in an athletic tournament (think March Madness). The losers will be knocked out one by one until the winner presents itself.
As we did yesterday on Day 2 of this comparison, we will present an accounting of four vehicles, and two contenders will be eliminated. Tomorrow, on Day 4, we’ll present excerpts from our test notebook on the final four and will select our two finalists. On Friday, for Day 5, the two finalists will go head to head, and we will declare a winner.
2014 Chevrolet Cruze vs. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta
2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT
PRICE AS TESTED: $23,940
When the Chevrolet Cruze first appeared as a 2009 model, it knocked us out. Compared with the small, coarse sedans that Chevrolet had produced dating back to the Cavalier (and even the Vega of the 1970s before that), this car seemed like a miracle of international breeding, combining the best of a European chassis, a Korean drivetrain, and American styling, not to mention American development and manufacture. But, tough luck, the Ford Focus stole the spotlight.
Nevertheless, the Cruze has turned things around for Chevrolet in the compact sedan segment, and the appearance of the 2014 Cruze diesel shows how serious General Motors is about this small car. We have liked the Cruze in general because it handles so well (really), delivers such good fuel economy (really), and makes so many features available for so little money (really).
Compared with the other sedans in our comparison, the 2014 Cruze 1LT aspires to be a large car, not a small one. It wants to be refined and sophisticated, a Chevy that has been to charm school.
More than you expect
When you put the 2014 Chevrolet Cruze next to the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta, there’s more to it than you might expect. There’s more to the styling, that’s for sure, although we’d argue that Chevy’s corporate twin-grille look makes it seem as if there are about three grilles too many. More surprising is the sheer size of the Cruze. It measures 181.0 inches in overall length on a wheelbase of 105.7 inches and has a total passenger volume is 95 cubic feet. Front-seat passengers get most of the benefit, with 42.3 inches of legroom; rear-seat passengers get 35.4. (Probably this is the right proportion, since kids will be the ones to occupy the back seat most often.)
The interior presentation is pretty stylish in terms of architecture, but the execution depends on the model that you pick. This particular test car didn’t make us feel particularly charmed, and we picked it apart as a result. The short bottom cushions of the front seats made us feel as if we were in a small car, not a large one. The array of electronic features and connectivity options was pretty good, but most of us couldn’t get along with the Chevrolet MyLink interface, as the lack of haptic feedback made the system feel unresponsive and clumsy, no matter how quickly the electrons raced around.
Less than the big car we were promised
As compact sedans go, the Cruze actually feels sporty rather than big, and its lively responses and balance in the corners set it apart from most of the competition. If you set the Focus as a standard, the Cruze’s suspension calibration helps it feel better isolated from cracked pavement even as it delivers a reassuring balance of grip from the front and rear tires in the corners.
For all this, however, we didn’t get the big car benefits that we hoped for from this $23,540 Cruze 1LT. We could hear the road too well even through the flaccid tires, and the ride never delivered the gracefulness that we to find in any car, large or small. The 138-hp, turbocharged 1.4-liter engine felt coarse at anything other than cruising speed, perhaps because the slow-shifting, six-speed automatic transmission seemed to conspire against performance. The powertrain seems meant for freeway cruising, where the engine’s 148 lb-ft of torque proves adequate. This powertrain is EPA rated at 26 mpg city/38 mpg highway.
The 2014 Chevrolet Cruze didn’t make any enemies during our drive to Kalamazoo and home again, but neither did it make any friends.
2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE
PRICE AS TESTED: $23,985
When the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta came ashore from Germany, it promised both more and less. Its stretched exterior dimensions promised more interior passenger space than the Jetta of the previous generation, and a stripped-down complement of features and trim (plus the promise of U.S.-based manufacture in Tennessee), meant a lower price. Sadly, we felt that lowering the bottom line resulted in less car, as the Jetta no longer drove with the European spirit that had formerly made it stand out from its competitors.
But three years along, the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta seems like a different proposition. The new 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder makes this car feel far more powerful than you might expect from 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. It is mated to a six-speed automatic transmission and delivers an EPA-rated 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway. (Oddly enough, this is better fuel economy than you can get from the 115-hp, normally aspirated, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine.)
Ach, it looks so German
Compared with some of the smaller, snappy-looking sedans in our test group, the 2014 Jetta comes across as big and square-rigged, more like the mid-size VW Passat than an affordable compact sedan. When the bodywork is stripped of its adornment, this is not such a good thing, as the Jetta looks like something that you might find at a taxi stand in Frankfurt. Fortunately, Volkswagen of America has backed off some of visual austerity (or maybe we’re just getting used to it) in this $23,985 Volkswagen Jetta SE (with connectivity and sunroof).
On the other hand, there are some advantages to looking like a taxi, because the VW Jetta feels very spacious when you’re behind the wheel. Partly this is because the passengers are packaged fairly upright, as the car’s overall height of 57.2 inches suggests. Partly this is because rear-seat passengers have 38.1 inches of legroom. And partly this is because the car is pretty big, offering 94.1 cubic feet of interior passenger volume.
But then when you look at the largely unadorned dashboard, you’re right back there in taxi-land. That said, VW has made some strides in its array of features for electronic connectivity, and indeed the connector for the MDI cable has at long last made its way from the glovebox to the center console.
And it drives German, too
Now that the former five-cylinder engine has been replaced by the turbocharged four-cylinder, the drivetrain feels smoother than before, and the Jetta cruises effortlessly on the highway. Strangely, the engine feels like a diesel, because the six-speed automatic has been programmed to shift smoothly (although slowly) to ride the wave of torque at low rpm. It even sounds a bit like a diesel, thanks to a resonator box behind the dash that enhances engine sounds from this otherwise very quiet car.
The Jetta rides and handles like a big car. A wheelbase of 104.4 inches delivers reassuring straightline stability, and the long-travel suspension smoothly strokes up and down over the bumps in the road. There’s plenty of body roll in the corners, yet there’s never a loss in composure. Oddly enough, the multi-link independent suspension helps the car respond to steering inputs with more liveliness, and you don’t mind the new electric-assist steering system at all.
When it comes to compact sedans, there are small, sporty ones and big, comfortable ones, even though this is frequently a matter of tuning rather than simply the car’s physical dimensions. The 2014 Volkswagen Jetta is a big, comfortable one, and we prefer the way it goes about its business compared with the Chevrolet Cruze LT1, which has similar aspirations.
– Michael Jordan
Winner: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta
2013 Honda Civic vs. 2014 Toyota Corolla
2013 Honda Civic EX
PRICE AS TESTED: $21,605
Everyone knows about the Honda Civic. When you’re behind the wheel, the view seems familiar, since Honda has carefully formatted the driving position to make the car as easy and natural to drive as possible. You know that you’ll get where you’re going with great fuel economy along the way. This is what makes the Civic the segment’s bestselling car year after year, including 2013. Recommend a Civic to someone and there’s never a question about it; they just give you a thumbs-up and set off for the nearest Honda dealer.
Such trustworthiness has its downside, though. When Honda tries to change the Civic, people resist. After the introduction of the current-generation Civic for 2012, a kind of scandal brewed when Honda enthusiasts worried that the car’s presentation had been compromised in the name of a cheaper price. Honda responded quickly, and the 2013 Civic sedan incorporated not only nicer interior trim but also acoustically insulated glass for the windshield and front windows, higher quality dampers, and a chassis reinforced to withstand new federal standards for crashworthiness. Enthusiasts were satisfied.
Déjà vu all over again
For better or worse, climbing into the Civic is like traveling back in time. Honda’s design maxim has long been “Man Maximum, Machine Minimum.” So it’s no surprise that the Civic sedan feels roomier than any other car in this comparison, even though its interior passenger volume of 94.6 cubic feet is much the same as its rivals. It’s remarkably easy to see the road from the driver’s seat, which is quite an accomplishment in an era of demanding crash standards that create thick roof pillars and thick doors. Thanks to a perfectly flat floor, even an adult who forgets to call shotgun and is exiled to the back seat can ride in relative comfort.
All this good design comes with hardly a lick of style, though. Even after the 2013 interior makeover, the plastic surfaces still look a lot like, well, plastic. The driver’s seat is one of the most comfortable in the test but wears cheap-looking fabric that, according to one of us “screams 1993.” Most important, the era of the Apple iPhone seems to have passed by the Civic, whose digital instrument panel appears to have been inspired by an Atari video-game console of the 1980s. None of us could get comfortable with the two-tier display, which always seems to obscure the speedometer readout behind the rim of the steering wheel, no matter how tall or short you might be.
Transcendental meditation at 65 mph
The Civic remains one of the easiest cars to drive in the compact class, but it has lost much of the zippiness that import tuners loved in the 1980s and ’90s. The 143-hp 1.8-liter four-cylinder sings smoothly at any rpm. The 2013 Civic we drove still had a five-speed automatic, but it doesn’t matter—the Civic cruises quietly on the highway and achieves 32 mpg, combined. (The 2014 Civic now uses a CVT, which improves to 33 mpg combined).
The steering is sharp and quick for effortless around-town maneuvering, but it doesn’t offer much feedback. The ride from the Civic with its 105.1-inch wheelbase is surprisingly supple for a Honda, yet this isn’t a lively car — we sometimes found ourselves zoning out behind the wheel. Still, we’re mature enough to realize most of the people who buy compact cars are not enthusiasts. The $21,605 Honda Civic EX is perfect for most of them, as it has been for decades. As West Coast editor Michael Jordan says, “This car still expresses all the Honda values – simplicity, reliability, fuel economy.” He’s so old that he remembers when the Civic was invented, so probably he should know.
– David Zenlea
2014 Toyota Corolla S Plus
PRICE AS TESTED: $22,870
Akio Toyoda, the CEO of Toyota Motor Company, has talked a lot about making mainstream cars more exciting and youthful. Sounds great to us, since we’re the crowd that believes in “No Boring Cars.”
The 2014 Corolla promises newness, including a new look inside and out, a roomier passenger package, a more fuel-efficient powertrain, and a livelier personality with some fizz. At the same time, the Corolla is also a car with traditional values – QDR, or quality, durability and reliability. This is the eleventh generation of this nameplate, and it celebrates more than 40 million Corollas sold since 1966. Some 1.1 million versions of the Corolla are built around the world every year, including in a new U.S. assembly plant in Tupelo, Mississippi.
Altogether, this business of making compact sedans reminds us of the cola wars; the repackaging of a familiar formula for a new generation. But whereas Honda has distilled the Civic to its essence, like Coca-Cola in a classic glass bottle, the 2014 Toyota Corolla tastes a bit like a can of New Coke.
Déjà vu all over again, but not in a good way
The first word that comes to mind in describing the new 2014 Corolla is “confused.” The exterior design has lots of overdone details, but the basics are bland. Meanwhile, the interior design architecture is a mess of randomly intersecting, cheap-looking plastics. “The door panels have, like, fifty different lines,” observed associate web editor Jake Holmes.
Still, there are some nice elements in the interior, notably in Corolla models with the more expensive trim, such as our test car. One of us raved about the flat, horizontal instrument panel, and a few editors liked the yellow stitching on the seats. Nevertheless, these elements don’t coalesce into an attractive whole, and the Corolla looks conspicuously old, not new. “How did all this get past the final design committee?” wondered deputy editor Joe DeMatio.
Really, they meant well
Fortunately, somewhere under all of this is a pretty good small car, now with a wheelbase stretched to 106.3 inches to afford an impressive 97.5 cubic feet of passenger volume, including 41.4 inches of rear-seat legroom. The backseat is roomy and easy to climb into. Slim A-pillars provide excellent forward visibility.
The engineers probably intended excitement. The CVT has been electronically calibrated to do a good impression of a seven-speed automatic, and this Corolla S Plus even has shift paddles on the steering wheel. But there’s only so much the transmission can do with the 1.8-liter four-cylinder’s anemic 132 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque. As the noisy protests from the CVT make clear every time you get serious about acceleration, the mission here is fuel efficiency, not fizz. At least the Corolla S Plus delivers efficiency with 29 mpg city/39 mpg highway.
Entry-level versions of the Corolla don’t aspire to much, but this $22,870 Corolla S Plus adds rear disc brakes and 17-inch wheels, so it’s trying. Sadly, the combination of a torsion-beam rear suspension and 45-series tires noticeably compromises comfort, the suspension calibration feels floppy, and the electric-assist steering requires lots of attention to keep the car from wandering. Asking the engine to work hard just seems wrong, even with just 2865 pounds to pull. “I don’t get the sense that I’m in control of the car,” said Jake Holmes. “It’s all over the road,” added road test editor Christopher Nelson.
Time has caught up with the Toyota Corolla. The others cars in this comparison are no longer pushovers that can offer only tasteless generic-brand flavor. These days, everyone has got fizz. The Toyota Corolla takes a half-hearted stab at repackaging its familiar formula and fails to deliver.