2014 Compact Sedan Comparison Review - Day 5

Welcome to Day 5 of the Automobile Magazine Compact Sedan Comparison Review.

When you look at the cars that Americans drive, you see an awful lot of compact sedans. There is always talk about large, snappy sedans, but simple, small sedans deliver the real-world utility that real people need. That's why the list of the top-ten bestselling cars in the United States includes the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla every year, not the Bentley Flying Spur. Sales of compact sedans are especially strong these days because they are more spacious, more luxuriously trimmed, dramatically safer, and far more fuel-efficient than ever before, even while pricing has hardly increased.

Over the past week, we've compared eight of the best compact sedans plying U.S. highways today. We've driven all of them at the same time on the same roads, we've made our notes and organized our facts, and we've argued about the results. And now we've sorted them out and separated the best from the rest.

These compact sedans are the Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Kia Forte, Mazda 3, Toyota Corolla, and Volkswagen Jetta.

You can read about the mission we set for ourselves on Day 1, then a driving report for each on either Day 2 or Day 3, in which we selected our semi-finalists. The tournament got tougher on Day 4 as we argued about the merits of the four cars that made it that far. And now at last, on Day 5, we present the final match between the 2014 Mazda 3 and the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta.

Today the process involves less driving and a more arguing. It's not just about which compact sedans excel in this category -- because they all do. Instead, it's about finding the right car with the right combination of features and driving enjoyment -- the car that meets our personal expectations. After all, this is Automobile Magazine.

Mazda 3 vs. Volkswagen Jetta

2014 Mazda 3i Touring

The Mazda 3 presents a lively, sporting personality that sets it apart from its competition, and this all-new version also now offers a more spacious cabin, a calm, supple ride on the highway, and impressive fuel economy. Just as important, it is available with a range of active safety features that you might expect only from more expensive sedans.

The Building Blocks

Completely redesigned for 2014, the Mazda 3 features conventional technology employed in an unconventional way. A package with lots of high-strength steel has been stretched over a wheelbase of 106.3 inches, and the sedan measures 180.3 inches in overall length, is 70.7 inches wide, and stands 57.3 inches high. The car incorporates an independent rear suspension, an important contributor to a calm and comfortable ride on the highway.

There's 96.3 cubic feet of passenger volume within, including 42.2 inches of front seat legroom and 35.8 inches of rear-seat legroom. You can pack 12.4 cubic feet of cargo into the trunk, and all trim levels except for the base model feature a 60/40-split folding rear seat to expand cargo capacity.

This front-wheel-drive Mazda 3i is powered by a 2.0-liter inline-four engine that makes 155 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque. A six-speed automatic transmission helps the 2848-pound Mazda 3i Touring get 30 mpg city/41 mpg highway/34 mpg combined.

What We Said

The 2014 Mazda 3 lives up to the "zoom zoom" corporate brand identity in the way it delivers the opportunity for thrills on the long way to lunch across the back roads of Michigan. We had some reservations about the 2.0-liter engine because it has to work harder to deliver its power than the 2.5-liter engine available in higher trim levels of the car. However, the 2.0-liter four is pretty delightful, perhaps because the quick-shifting automatic transmission helped energize it. Plus, its 41 mpg rating is very impressive. Great steering -- a consequence of clever steering geometry to compensate for the relatively uncommunicative electric-assist steering linkage -- is another of the Mazda 3's positive attributes.

On top of all this, the Mazda 3 delivers a surprisingly comfortable ride. A new, more supple suspension calibration plays a factor here, and the cabin is surprisingly quiet thanks to improved acoustic insulation and a very quiet engine. The Mazda 3 also feels more spacious than its dimensions might suggest. The rear-seat legroom seems unimpressive when you look at it on paper, yet no one complained about it.

When you look the 2014 Mazda 3's list of convenience features, you realize that compact sedans now can be equipped with the same things as mid-size sedans. The small, dash-mounted display screen with a rotary knob on the center console is a nice feature (even though we complained about the software logic), and the system has the ability to adapt to the evolution of apps, much like the connectivity systems in a few the other cars in this test. We were even more impressed by the range of active-safety features with which this car can be equipped, including blind-spot monitoring, forward obstruction warning with city-speed brake intervention, lane-departure warning, radar-operated cruise control, and even automatic high-beam control.

2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE (with connectivity and sunroof)

Although the entry-level model was emphasized when the current-generation Jetta was introduced as a 2011 model, the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE reminds us that the refinement of the mid-size VW Passat sedan can be had in a smaller size at a more affordable price. Moreover, the turbocharged four-cylinder engine delivers excellent power without sacrificing much fuel efficiency.

The Building Blocks

The 2014 Jetta might have been designed to be an affordable American-style car, but it seems very European in the company of these other compact sedans. It sits on a wheelbase of 104.4 inches, and it is 182.2 inches in overall length, 70.0 inches wide, and 57.2 inches high. For 2014, every Jetta model now features independent rear suspension, which improves the ride quality on the highway.

Much like all the sedans in this comparison, the Jetta is surprisingly spacious, affording 94.1 cubic feet of passenger volume with 41.2 inches of front legroom and 38.1 inches of rear legroom. The large trunk has 15.5 cubic feet of capacity, and a 60/40-split folding rear seat increases utility.

This front-wheel-drive Jetta SE is powered by a turbocharged 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 170 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque. With its automatic transmission, the SE achieves 25 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 mpg combined.

What We Said

We've been driving this generation of the Volkswagen Jetta for some time now, so we were surprised that the slightly revised 2014 car seems so much improved. Along with the Chevrolet Cruze and, to some extent, the Dodge Dart, the Jetta delivers a large-car experience. It's as if this Jetta has captured the spirit of the mid-size Volkswagen Passat in a slightly smaller bottle. It surges along the road effortlessly, whether driving on back roads or the freeway. And the highway ride always proves supple, although the body rolls and pitches slightly because the suspension calibration is soft.

It's possible that we were seduced by the power of VW's E888 turbocharged engine, as it delivers 180 lb-ft of torque -- more than enough to keep this 3071-pound car sailing along pretty effortlessly. It kind of sounds like a diesel as it rasps for a second when you accelerate, and it performs a bit like a diesel as well because the smooth but slow-shifting transmission keeps the rpms low to enhance fuel economy. The EPA mileage doesn't come close to that achieved by other powertrains in this comparison, but we told ourselves that it isn't much worse, either.

The refinement of the 2014 Volkswagen Jetta SE appeals to us. There is something about the action of the switches on the dash, the poise of the car as it responds to steering inputs, and the unique flexibility of the engine's power band that strikes us. We also like sitting a little more upright, and the seats themselves are first rate. We might joke about this car's resemblance to a taxi, but sometimes a mix of comfort and utility is just what you want in a compact sedan.

Winner: 2014 Mazda 3

More car, fewer compromises

Whether we're driving a $200,000 luxury sedan or a $20,000 compact car, we can't help but hope to magically find ourselves behind the wheel of a BMW 3 Series. We're totally in the Goldilocks mode, looking for something that drives sporty but not too much so. It has to be compact but not small. It has to be affordable but not cheap. It's not only a miracle that the 2014 Mazda 3 delivers the BMW-style personality that we prefer but also a revelation that any compact sedan meets this lofty standard at all.

We've always enjoyed the lively personality of the Mazda 3, and apparently a lot of other people do as well, since it is Mazda's best-selling car. The big surprise comes in the grown-up way that the Mazda 3 now goes about its business. The car feels poised on its supple suspension, and while there's still some road noise, the cabin is quiet. More important, the seats are comfortable and the there are lots of entertainment and connectivity options. A cabin surrounded with high-strength steel and a package equipped with the latest developments in active safety made us feel safe. In fact, each of the cars in this comparison seemed far more like a mid-size sedan than the crummy compact sedans of the past that we can't help but remember.

What we've learned

Times are still tough these days, and while more people are in the market for a new car, no one wants to spend more than they have to. As a result, a car that has a price tag in the neighborhood of $20,000 has special appeal. Like most of you, we're accustomed to thinking about the compromises we'll have to make at this price point. You know, breathless little engines, interior designs seemingly meant for being hosed out on the driveway, and the general style and comfort of a Cozy Coupe from Little Tikes.

The big news here is the way in which all of these cars offer spaciousness and sophistication, along with powertrains that make 40-mpg fuel economy a likely experience. We have simple, practical, everyday cars like the Honda Civic, Kia Forte, and Toyota Corolla that deliver friction-free daily utility. We have comfortable cars like the Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, and Volkswagen Jetta that deliver quiet composure on the freeway like a large car. And we have spirited cars like the Ford Focus and Mazda 3 that help you enjoy the drive wherever you go.

There was a time when "compact sedan" was just a politically correct way to say "cheap sedan." Such cars were thought to be only slightly better than something from the rental car counter. Today, the 2014 Mazda 3 proves that modern compact sedans incorporate nearly all the performance and features of mid-size cars, and it makes you wonder if larger sedans are really necessary for most people, especially as sport-utilities take over their role in everyday life.

It's much harder to build a great car for $20,000 that it is to build a great one for $200,000. The funny thing is, you might actually get a better car for real life when you spend $20,000 instead of $200,000.

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