Skin Deep Beauty
Until recently, function led form with inexpensive cars; thankfully, that is no longer the case for most of the segment. Not for all, however: the Honda Civic was variously described by our editors as "bland," "conservative," and "downright boring." Sessions claimed that the Honda was "straight from Planet Strange with its odd proportions and disappointing details," while associate web editor Ben Timmins faulted Honda "for not pushing the envelope in terms of the design."
Surprisingly, bland was a word also tossed around regarding the Dart. While the front and rear fascias were stylish and aggressive - the Rallye-spec blacked-out grille looked menacing in rearview mirrors and the LED taillights were a premium touch on a sub-$25,000 car - the rest of the exterior was an anonymous jelly-bean shape. Despite having reflectors that mimic the larger Dodge Charger's alluring "racetrack" full-width LED taillights, only the top-spec Dart R/T receives a similar treatment; all other models have C-shaped LED units only - a real styling let down.
Mazda also offers LED taillights, but only on its loaded Mazda 3 Grand Touring. Our mid-level Touring model was still sharp, dressed in cheery sky blue metallic paint. The 2012 update softened the 3's Cheshire cat grin, but the front visage still has a gaping smile of a grille that may not appeal to everyone. The rest of the car is athletic looking with swollen front fenders and a sharp crease bisecting the door handles and rising from the front doors to the taillights. It's a sporty design free of overwrought detailing.
The eye catcher of the group was the Elantra. Hyundai's Fluidic Sculpture design language translates well to the 178.3-inch-long sedan, its flowing lines deemed "sexy and sensuous" by Nelson and "far from boring with all its surface excitement" according to Sessions. The front end has one of the best executions of the brand's hexagonal grille and the rear is simple but interesting thanks to the wraparound taillights. That said, all of our editors agreed that the Elantra's design may be sexy and innovative now, but could look as dated as a flip phone in five years -- that consensus kept the Hyundai from winning in the exterior design department.
Both timeless and daring at the same time is Ford's Focus. "The Focus is one sharp little character that manages to look beautiful and aggressive at the same time," opined Sessions. "I'm not sure the Darth Vader chin will stand the test of time, but it's contemporary as hell." Like the interior, the exterior is very Euro-chic with large wraparound taillights, creased bodylines, and a steeply raked windshield. We feel that the Focus' design is mature and will age well as the years go by; it looks like a package designed by a single, very experienced team.
Advantage: Ford Focus SEL
Getting From A to B
No matter how much it costs, how stylish the interior or how good it looks, the main use of a car is to drive. But we weren't looking for the ultimate driver's car here, instead we sought the best all-around consumer compact.
When our testing started, we expected the Elantra to rank highly here -- at first, the ride was comfortable and the Elantra felt like an ideal commuter car. The more time we spent with the Hyundai, though, the more its wallowy ride on the highway, its poorly controlled body motions in the twisties, and harsh impacts on broken roads worked against it. Sessions also noted that "the steering lacks feel and is rather numb." Everyone came away unimpressed with the Elantra's dynamics.
The best driver's car here is the Ford Focus, hands down. The 2.0-liter I-4 is powerful - its 160 hp is tied with the Dart as the most powerful - and the chassis is rock-solid, which inspires confidence behind the wheel. "The supple ride quality, precise steering, and responsive brake pedal feel are all very good for a car of this class," said DeMatio. Thanks to the spot-on steering, the Focus was a breeze to wheel around town and easy to place in the middle of a highway lane, no matter how narrow or badly patched. The Ford's biggest demerit came from the company's new PowerShift dual-clutch automatic. Around town, the PowerShift is clunky and hesitant between shifts, and often hunts for the right gear at low speeds. Once on the highway (and in sixth gear), it's fine but overdrive gives little passing power. Thankfully, downshifts at speed are smooth and unobtrusive.
The Dart was a close second in the race for best driver's car. Selecting the turbocharged engine paid off - the forced-induction unit was the most fun to wind up and felt the most powerful thanks to its 184 lb-ft of torque avaliable at a low 2500 rpm. But find yourself below that 2500-rpm threshold and the Dodge bogs down, its heaviest-in-test weight of 3191 lbs very apparent. The six-speed manual has long throws but great clutch feel; however, we couldn't help but wonder if the upcoming dual-clutch automatic would keep the turbo spooled better than we did. Will the Chrysler-engineered transmission be as slick as Volkswagen's much-lauded DSG or as much-maligned as Ford's PowerShift? More than anything, the Dart felt like the quirky car of the bunch, its inner Alfa Romeo coming out - we agreed that it almost was like an older Saab 9-3 or Audi A4 1.8T thanks to its slow-spooling turbo and larger size.
Also occasionally short of breath was the 155-hp Mazda. Its power rating placed it mid-pack, but any kind of passing left us wanting more oomph. Otherwise, the direct-injected 2.0-liter Skyactiv four-cylinder felt peppy around town and had enough power for getting up to speed on the highway. "Acceleration off the line is good without being abrupt," said DeMatio. "Transmission shift mapping is also nicely done, and the tap-shift is quick to respond," pointed out Sessions. The 3's steering was also second-best to the Ford's, nicely weighted and direct -- however, the suspension caused some head bounce over the pothole-strewn roads of downtown Detroit.
The Honda Civic was the Goldilocks of our group -- neither too stiffly sprung to turn off commuters, nor too soft to spurn enthusiasts. "I actually changed lanes on our way into Detroit to get on worse roads to test the Civic. Not only did it pass with flying colors, but the Honda has brilliant ride and handling paired to a responsive and creamy powertrain," raved Timmins. "Somewhere a Hyundai engineer is scratching his head trying to figure out how to make a car ride this well." The Civic also had very good steering. It communicated just the right amount of feel from the front tires and the wheel itself was the best size and shape with its small diameter and thick rim. The transmission was down a cog compared to the rest (five instead of six), but was still smooth and unobtrusive, which is "exactly what most Americans expect from an automatic," DeMatio pointed out. The Civic wasn't perfect, however: Honda's quest for cost savings sacrificed sound deadening, and the steering, while communicative, felt too boosted to be as good as the Ford's or Mazda's.
Advantage: Honda Civic EX