DRIVEN: 2012/2013 Compact Sedan Comparison

August 30, 2012
Five Car Comparo Parked Front View
The majority of the compact-sedan class has been heavily revised or totally redesigned in the past two years, and Dodge has just rolled out its Alfa Romeo-based Dart, the latest entry in a hotly contested segment. Will the Dart be able to topple the best of the bunch from the top spot?
Five Car Comparo Parked Rear View
The 2013 Dart is more than just a new model -- it is Dodge's first competitive small-car offering since the Neon was killed off in 2005. Most notably, it is the first Dodge byproduct of the Chrysler-Fiat merger. Modified versions of the same platform and powertrain found in Alfa Romeo's Giulietta hatchback hide beneath the Dart's slick sheetmetal.
Last year, we rounded up the top six compact sedans and we came away impressed by the high style, advanced technology, and fun-yet-frugal engines offered in the segment. To see how the Dart compares, we've pitted it against the top four contenders from last year's test: the Ford Focus, the Honda Civic, the Hyundai Elantra, and the Mazda 3. Last time, the Toyota Corolla and the Chevrolet Cruze finished in last place and second-to-last (respectively), so we opted to leave them out of this comparison.
We wanted to look at what most consumers will be buying, so we avoided top-trim models in favor of automatic-equipped, mid-grade sedans. There were two exceptions: Ford did not have a sedan available for our testing so we used a hatchback instead (however, almost half of Focuses sold this year were hatchbacks, so we let it slide). We wanted to test the Dart's new MultiAir 1.4-liter turbo-four, but Chrysler had just begun production of its new dual-clutch automatic, so a six-speed manual had to suffice for our test. In this very competitive group, does the 2013 Dodge Dart Rallye have what it takes to beat the 2012 Ford Focus SEL, the 2012 Honda Civic EX, the 2013 Hyundai Elantra GLS, and the 2012 Mazda 3i Touring?

Dollars and Sense

For many buyers in this segment, it's all a numbers game. Our most expensive car - the Ford Focus - rang in at $25,420 with destination. However, that includes $3325 worth of options. Forego the finicky MyFord Touch and navigation systems, the flashy 17-inch polished aluminum wheels, and the premium red candy metallic paint, and the Focus would cost an easier-to-swallow $22,565 and still include goodies such as heated seats and Ford's Sync voice-activation system with Bluetooth. Sadly, even those deletions still place the Focus higher than all but the Dart.
All of our cars came equipped with Bluetooth, but only the Focus and the Dart came with navigation. Dodge's crisp 8.4-inch touch screen also includes a backup camera -- the only one offered in the segment. The high level of equipment gave the Dart the second-most-expensive price here: $23,360 with destination. One of the big reasons was the MultiAir engine, a $1300 option. Our Rallye-trim car also came standard with projector-beam headlights (only available elsewhere from Mazda). The Mazda and the Honda Civic were mid-pack price-wise, running a reasonable $21,695 and $21,455 including destination charges, respectively.
At an as-tested price of just $19,350 (including destination), the Hyundai Elantra is a whopping $6070 below the most-expensive Focus. While it may not be the most tech-laden of the bunch, our Elantra GLS with the Preferred Package included things such as heated seats, Bluetooth, and fog lights. Hyundai also offers the best warranty of the cars here, at 10 years or 100,000 miles, which helps to keep costs down over the lifetime of the car. Buyers willing to splurge on a fully loaded Elantra Limited will shell out just $24,070.
Advantage: Hyundai Elantra GLS
2013 Hyundai Elantra GLS Front Left View

The Inside Story

"The level of amenities and comfort here were unimaginable in the compact-sedan segment only a few years ago," stated deputy editor Joe DeMatio. Even in the blandly styled Civic, it's clear that plenty of man-hours were spent determining the placement and action of every button, knob, and switch in the cabin. While the Civic may have some of the best ergonomics, its drab beige palette, oddly grained plastics, and too-dark displays left us wanting more.
Hyundai was one of the first to spice up the segment with the Elantra and its swoopy, violin shaped center stack and fashionable-yet-simple concentric climate controls. While the Koreans have done an admirable job of graining plastics, some of the surfaces still look and feel cheap. The Elantra does benefit from the largest trunk in the group, at 14.8 cubic feet. Next would be the Focus sedan (not the hatch we tested) at 13.2 cubic feet, followed closely by the Dart's 13.1 cubic feet with an opening that is deep and wide. The other two cars fell below the Dart's size: the Civic at 12.5, and the 3 at 11.8. However, the Mazda's low lift-over height and deep, square shape belied its smallest-in-test measurement. (I found it easiest to enter, exit, and fit my slim 5'9" frame in the Mazda's trunk, as the pictures show.)
Decked out here with the optional MyFord Touch system complete with an eight-inch touch screen, the Focus' cabin oozed European sophistication. "It feels like a very high quality car," said DeMatio. It was also the only car in our comparison to come with automatic climate control, which is part of the $2530 201A equipment group. However, "every button is too small, even the digital ones on the touch screen," complained road test editor Chris Nelson. Foregoing the MyFord Touch system won't solve the problem either - without the touch screen, the Focus' center stack is sprayed with almost two dozen cell-phone-sized buttons that are no easier to operate than the slow and counter-intuitive MyFord Touch. "The dashboard is so overwhelming in every Focus I've driven," noted graphic designer Tom Hang. "There are just so many buttons and controls."
Stepping into the Mazda 3 from any of the other four cars was a breath of fresh air. The cabin is thoughtfully laid out with straightforward controls, and the look is attractive with a sweeping dashboard and modern, blue LED accent lighting. Everything is clear, legible, and within reach. Contributor Ron Sessions loved "the large gauge that indicates what gear you're in. It looks like it is right out of a Porsche." But the all-black interior was dour and dated to some eyes, and Mazda's too-small audio and trip computer screens won no fans.
While the Dodge's interior may not have been well liked among our editors, we found ourselves talking non-stop about the cabin's size. Our Dart was decked out in diesel gray cloth with "citrus" accents - a very bold combination of a drab gray hue and an eye-searing neon yellow. The Dodge was also, however, the largest car in our test and felt a class bigger when you were sitting in any of the seats, despite head- and legroom that actually fall mid-pack. The more time we spent in the car, the clearer it became that Chrysler's engineers made sure that every touch point was soft and that the controls were all quick to learn and easy to operate. As is the case in other Chrysler products, the oversized touch screen is sharp and lightning-fast in response. There were some complaints that the citrus accents could soil easily and that the gray gave the interior a rental-car-grade feel. Dodge also offers black/red and black/gray interior combinations that look much more upscale than our citrus-trimmed tester.
Advantage: Dodge Dart Rallye
2013 Dodge Dart Rallye Front Left View

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
2012 Ford Focus SEL Front Left View

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
2012 Honda Civic EX Front Left View

Your Mileage May Not Vary

Our contenders' EPA fuel economy ratings all fell within spitting distance of one another:
1. Hyundai Elantra GLS: 29/40 mpg city/highway
2. Mazda 3i Touring: 28/40 mpg
3. Honda Civic EX: 28/39 mpg
4. Dodge Dart Rallye: 27/39 mpg
5. Ford Focus SEL: 27/37 mpg
As we found during our First Drive - the Mazda 3 will achieve 40 mpg on the highway in the real world. Like the Elantra, the Mazda achieves 40 mpg without any special packages. However, the 2.0-liter Skyactiv I-4 is the only Mazda 3 engine that achieves the rating - the base 2.0-liter is good for just 33 mpg highway, while the larger 2.5 manages only 29 mpg. Hyundai offers just one engine for all Elantra sedans.
Both Honda and Ford offer high-mileage variants (the Civic HF and Focus SFE, respectively), but ask for extra coinage to gain efficiency. For the Honda, the HF costs $20,395 compared to the $19,595 Civic LX on which it's based (an $800 difference) and is rated at 41 mpg highway versus 39 mpg. For just $95, Ford will add the SFE package to a Focus SE sedan, gaining an additional three highway mpg (37 versus 40). Both Honda and Ford utilize aerodynamic tricks like different wheels, low rolling resistance tires, and active grille shutters to achieve the higher highway ratings.
Speaking of efficiency, the Dodge is not only the second-least car here, but it is also the only car in our test to recommend premium fuel. While it can be filled with regular, the automaker doesn't guarantee the full 160 hp and 184 lb-ft of power if regular is used, although Chrysler says fuel economy would be unaffected.
Advantage: Hyundai Elantra GLS
2012 Mazda 3i Touring Front Left View

The Winner

You can't go wrong with any of the five cars here. The Hyundai Elantra won two categories, the only car to do so, and is a perfectly competent small car. Said Timmins, "If you're looking at a Toyota Corolla because you think you have to, look at the Hyundai instead." But the fact that the Elantra is a better variant of a long-in-the-tooth car does not endear us to it over the others here, despite the Elantra’s bargain price and (by a hair) best-in-test EPA numbers. The Hyundai Elantra lands in fifth place.
Ford went out on a limb, trying a clean-sheet design and was willing to push the envelope. In some ways it worked, in others it didn't. The Focus was the most fun to drive of the five, but at the cost of fuel economy, cabin space, and a high price. Technology issues also prevented the Focus from a better finish - MyFord Touch's clunky and slow interface turned off even the technophiles in our group and the poorly calibrated transmission had us drawing straws for who would be stuck in traffic with the Ford. Thus the Focus landed in fourth place. In quite the opposite direction from the Ford, Honda opted to stick to its tried-and-true formula. Thanks to its slick transmission, smooth ride, and thoughtful ergonomics, the Honda Civic finds itself dead center with a third-place finish. However, a low-rent interior, boring design, and obvious cost-cutting keeps this veteran of the compact sedan segment from placing higher. In quite the opposite direction from the Ford, Honda opted to stick to its tried-and-true formula. Thanks to its slick transmission, smooth ride, and thoughtful ergonomics, the Honda Civic finds itself dead center with a third place finish. However, a low-rent interior, boring design, and obvious cost-cutting keeps this veteran of the compact sedan segment from placing higher.
None of the six editors agreed on how the second- through fifth-place cars would rank, but the victor was unanimous. Despite being the newest entry in the field, the Dodge Dart did not win. However, its second-place finish shows that the merger of Chrysler and Fiat has a lot of promise. Dodge has crafted a car that drives well, looks good, and has space to spare, but "you can't put a few funky touches on a car and expect everyone to like it," remarked Nelson. The turbocharged engine is peaky and a price that's on the high side kept the Dart from the top spot. The Dodge put up a good fight, but came up a little short.
"It's funny," noted Sessions, "the oldest car in the test feels like comfortable sneakers." In fact, all of our editors related the Mazda 3 to perfectly-worn-in shoes. One commented, "Getting into the Mazda, even for the first time, feels like you're at home. Everything is exactly as it should be." Our logbooks filled with comments like "I can't think of many negatives about the 3" (DeMatio) and "a great all-rounder that has everything you need and nothing you don't" (Timmins). What kept us from naming the Mazda as last year's winner was an unrefined five-speed automatic and poor fuel economy. Both issues are remedied by opting for the new Skyactiv powertrain.
Nelson hit the nail on the head: "I've got nothing to add to the pile of praise for this car. The 3 is so good. No matter what, the Mazda is always an enjoyable experience." It might not have won any individual categories, but with its combination of a reasonable price, a user-friendly and attractive interior, a stylish exterior design, fun-to-drive road manners, and excellent fuel economy, the Mazda 3 can’t be beat.

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