We’ve reached the fourth day of Automobile Magazine’s 2014 Compact Sedan Comparison, and it hasn’t been easy.
As we explained on Day 1, if you can’t build a great car for $200,000, probably you should just quit trying. It’s actually much harder to build a good $20,000 car with a spacious cabin, everyday comfort and convenience, and thrifty performance without forcing people to turn their wallets inside out to find the last dollar.
These days, the average compact sedan must be as roomy as a Honda Accord from the last decade, deliver an array of features that any high-style Bentley would be happy to offer, and let you sail past the gas pumps besides. We’ve gathered eight of the best compact sedans on the market, and we’re sorting them out by driving all of them at the same time on the same roads. We’ve made our notes, organized our facts, and argued about the results. We hope to find the best compact sedan in America as a result.
On Day 4, we give you some of the arguing, as we present here the notes from the discussion that ensued as we went about choosing the finalists for Day 5.
On Day 2, we started the tournament with these match-ups:
On Day 3, the tournament continued with these results:
As the tournament continues, the competition involves less driving and a lot more arguing, as the comments below indicate. It’s not just about whether these compact sedans excel — because they all do — but instead it’s about finding the right combination of virtues that meets our expectations.
As the tournament continues, here are the Final Four match-ups:
2014 Kia Forte Vs. 2014 Mazda 3
2014 Kia Forte EX
- “I want to mention something that is not this car’s ‘forte,’ ” jokes associate editor David Zenlea, “but I can’t think of one off of the top of my head. Maybe this is a good mark for the Kia.”
- “How about its steering?” responds another editor. “Three modes that adjust steering effort? Basically Kia is admitting that it has no idea what’s best for the buyer.”
- The Forte, the cheapest car of the bunch, has standard power-folding mirrors, automatic headlights, LED running lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, satellite radio, and a rearview camera. Oh, and a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. And it needs all of those things to keep buyers from being scared off by the Korean badge on the hood.
- Drive the Kia Forte if you eat protein bars for two of your three square meals, wear Ray-Ban Wayfarer sunglasses wherever you go, and listen to one of those EDM songs (or is it just one long song?).
- “The previous Forte was abysmal to drive, uncomfortable, and felt like it might fall apart at any given moment,” says associate web editor Jake Holmes. “This one, I never noticed the ride, and that’s a really good thing.”
- The infotainment system is simple to operate and looks modern.
- You get the feeling that Kia is really trying. Some of the Forte works, some of it doesn’t, but you can see the effort behind it. Note the sliding covers over the USB ports in center console. We’ve seen that only in a small batch of other cars. It’s a sign that the Koreans are minding the details.
2014 Mazda 3i Touring
- “I’m not sure the Mazda 3 has a better interior than the Kia Forte, but it feels more expensive,” says West Coast editor Michael Jordan. “You’d only expect to see climate control knobs this nice in a $40,000 car.”
- The styling is striking—the front end’s big, wide, gaping mouth is very dramatic, which is novel for this segment—but the Mazda needs to focus a bit more on better forward and rearward visibility.
- Associate editor Greg Migliore notes that the Mazda 3 weighs less than 2900 pounds, which is a reminder that Mazda “does it their way.” Deputy editor Joe DeMatio responds, “Can you sing that?”
- The 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is quiet and smooth yet spins up quickly, and what’s best is that it gets more than 40 mpg on the highway.
- Drive the Mazda 3 if you eat at Chipotle every week, wear shirts from Blipshift, and already listen to all of the bands scheduled for the music festivals this summer.
- Why is there a touchscreen when there’s also a command knob for the infotainment system on the on the center console? Because the software for the control knob sucks: it’s not possible to perform simple tasks like spinning the knob to change the song selection. We hope Mazda sorts this system faster than BMW did with iDrive.
- This is a compact car you get into and feel like you’ve been there before. It’s a balanced and sensible package for an enthusiast.
Winner: 2014 Mazda 3i Touring.
The Kia Forte is much improved, but it still can’t beat the formidable Mazda 3. The Mazda 3 moves into the final round.
2013 Honda Civic vs. 2014 Volkswagen Jetta
2013 Honda Civic
- Zenlea says, “If a non-car person asked me what to buy, I’d say the Civic. I’d always say the Civic. It would never give them any problems. It’s easy to drive, it’s efficient, and it’s easy to see out of. That’s what most people want.”
- Holmes chimes in: “Driving the Civic is like having oatmeal every day for breakfast. You’re not really happy you’re having oatmeal every day, but you’re not really upset about it, either.”
- The split dashboard is still the weakest point of this car. It absolutely needs to change, and we can’t imagine why it hasn’t already.
- It seems that Honda is using the same cloth for its seats that it used in the early 1990s. “But the seat under that cloth is fantastic,” says DeMatio.
- Drive the Honda Civic if you eat kale, wear gently used Toms, and listen to that new artist that no one’s heard of yet (and probably never will).
- If you post a Civic for sale on Craigslist, you will sell it in eight minutes. People will be banging on your front door, cash in hand. Even if it’s based on twenty-year-old logic, it shows that people still perceive the Civic to be king of the compact segment.
- The Civic shows that once you get it right, stick with it and people will keep coming back.
2014 Volkswagen Jetta
- “I’m blown away by how good this car is,” says DeMatio.
- “This turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder is much better than the five-cylinder engine,” adds Zenlea.
- That said, the Jetta’s lingering reputation for indifferent reliability makes us a bit worried that the new engine is being made in Mexico at an assembly plant that was just a dirt field a year ago.
- Drive the Volkswagen Jetta if you eat granola, wear jeans that are snug but don’t reveal too much, and listen to NPR (rock is alright sometimes, but never too loud).
- The Jetta requires a buyer who recognizes that there are decades of German automotive engineering behind the badge. This sounds like a cliché, but the German-engineered refinement of the Jetta puts it in a different class of sophistication than all of the other cars in this comparison.
- Volkswagen’s leatherette is better than some leather.
- “For me, this whole exercise comes down to the Volkswagen Jetta and the Mazda 3,” says deputy editor DeMatio.
Winner: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE
The Honda Civic doesn’t feel as modern as the Volkswagen Jetta, and the Jetta moves into the final round.
Check back tomorrow for Day 5 of Automobile Magazine’s 2014 Compact Sedan Comparison Review as the 2014 Mazda 3 faces the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta to determine the best compact sedan in America.