Cars

The 2013-2014 small car showdown

CROWDED CONTEST: With 2.8 million small cars sold already in 2013 and more than 10 entrants in the segment, the small car market is a high stakes competition.
CROWDED CONTEST: With 2.8 million small cars sold already in 2013 and more than 10 entrants in the segment, the small car market is a high stakes competition.Credit: George Kennedy

In comparing new cars, we try to leave no stone unturned. But when it comes to the compact car segment, it is difficult to measure every metric of the 10-plus vehicles involved. That is fine, because small car shopping is no longer a matter of making concessions in the name of a low base price. There is now a vehicle for everyone at a reasonable MSRP. It’s just a matter of what the driver wants.

There was a time when the small car really was the bane of the daily driving experience. A low price and high fuel economy were the only positive attributes to compacts of bygone decades. Buying one meant accepting the Spartan interiors, lackluster styling, anemic engines, and questionable reliability and safety.

No more, as the new small cars are stylish, fuel efficient, and, perhaps most surprisingly, actually fun to drive. According to Karl Brauer, senior director of insights at KBB.com, 150,000 compact cars have been sold in September alone, and we are on pace to sell 2 million small cars by the end of 2013. With all the cars on offer, a red-hot competition has broken out in the compact car market. From the Americas, you have the Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, and Ford Focus. From Japan, there are the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Mazda3, and Nissan Sentra. Toss in the Kia Forte and Hyundai Elantra from Korea and the German Volkswagen Jetta and you have a very crowded field.

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What’s on the Inside Matters

You might think that we’d start with exterior, but the cabin is the place where you will spend your commute to and from work. Exterior design prowess is a meager thing if not bolstered by an equally superb interior. It should be as comforting and accommodating as Sunday brunch.

When it comes to interior visual appeal, both the Dodge Dart and Nissan Sentra are most welcoming. Some competitors try too hard to work too many design cues—too many buttons and knobs—into the design. The Dart’s curvaceous interior provides a simple, easy to use layout, without being anywhere near Spartan. Meanwhile, the Sentra has cues from larger Nissan models that are artfully crafted onto a smaller layout.

Tech Features

Neither form nor function should take the lead in a car’s interior. The two must live in unison. Our increased dependency on smartphones has created buyer demand for cars that bring new types of features and functionality to the compact car interior.

Access to music on your smartphone is becoming an ever-increasing demand from buyers. Each of these vehicles offers a unique form of connectivity that will make the commute fly by. For connecting to your music, Chevrolet MyLink, found in the Cruze, Ford Sync, and the Focus, are terrific systems for incorporating your mobile device into the car. That includes your smartphone’s library as well as apps like Pandora and Yelp.

Some systems are better than others, and the Bluetooth control of music in the Kia Forte as of late has been troublesome, though this may be tied to the recent iOS update.

Where the Forte does excel is translating complex navigation voice controls into directions. Rather than deal with separate voice control menus for city, street, and house number, you can say an entire address as a sentence, and the navigation will understand and set it as the destination. Dodge’s Uconnect system has also proven quite capable of this, while Ford’s SYNC can be somewhat buggy and gets held up trying to process complex commands.

Engines and Efficiency

It was once thought that in order to return superlative fuel economy numbers, automakers needed to build a vehicle that was unsafely bare-bones, and saddled with an engine hardly fit for a go-kart. With developments such as variable valve timing, direct injection, and more advanced transmissions, compact cars are now capable of respectable acceleration and those much-needed fuel economy numbers.

The Dart offers three engines, the base 2.0L inline-4, 2.4L inline-4, and turbocharged 1.4L I-4. Both the 2-liter and 1.4 liter make a middling 160 horsepower, and only the more expensive 1.4L engine achieves the advertised 41 mpg highway.

The Forte and Elantra feature a 148-horsepower 1.8-liter inline-4, but of the Korean duo, only the Forte offers a 173 horsepower 2.0-liter powerplant. The 1.8-liter delivers fuel economy of 25/37 while the 2.0-liter achieves 24/36.

The Focus features a 2.0-liter inline-4 making 160 horsepower and returning 27/37 mpg.

The mean horsepower offered seems to sit around 160-170, but the trough of the power offerings has to be the Civic and Corolla. The Civic’s 1.8-liter inline-4 makes 148 horsepower and only with the HF trim does the Civic achieve the promoted 41 mph highway. The HF costs $1,600 over the base Civic. The rest of the Civic lineup returns 28/39 mpg.

As for the Corolla, its 1.8-liter I4 makes an anemic 132 horsepower and returns 29/38. One must select the Corolla LE ECO to get the stated 42 mpg highway, going $1,900 over the base L model. Don’t think the Corolla and Civic are the only culprits—just about every entrant requires selecting a special economy trim to get the advertised fuel economy. The added price seldom adds up to the minimal fuel saved over a year.

This all may seem like alphanumeric soup, but the bottom line is that every car here will return in the upper 30s on the highway, and even break that number if you shell out a little extra for the eco models. If you want more power, though, the Mazda3 is available with a 2.5-liter inline-4 making 184 horsepower and returning 39 mph highway.

If you are looking for alternative powertrains, the Jetta and Chevy Cruze are offered with diesel engines, returning 43 mpg and 46 mpg, respectively. There are also hybrid versions of the Civic and Jetta, while Ford offers an all-electric version of the Focus.

Value

On value, the Kia Forte (base MSRP $15,900) and Hyundai Elantra ($16,965) are both terrific buys, offering features like Bluetooth connectivity and satellite radio as standard features. The Ford Focus starts at a frugal $16,605, and features SYNC with Bluetooth streaming audio from your smartphone, but the price goes up quickly. For $17,270, the Cruze is a tough sell, considering it’s older than the competition, with styling that betrays its age.

Convoluted Conclusions

What it comes down to is what the buyer wants. If it’s style, well, that’s a matter of the eye of the beholder; 38 mpg highway is about the norm, unless you’d like to spend extra for just over 40 mpg. Acceleration will not be thrilling, unless you spend extra, and only the Dart, Focus, and Mazda3 offer racier models to fulfill that need.

Be it performance, fuel economy, style, value, or something as obscure as how many Cornish game hens fit in the back with the seats folded, every buyer’s needs are different. Your unique needs may mean one compact car is more ideal for you than your neighbor’s. Tweet or email us your needs and we just might be able to sift through the fray and suggest the compact car that is right for you.

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