Comparison: Best-Selling Compact Sedans
Corolla, Civic, Focus…you know the names, but do you know the numbers? Last year, these three sold nearly 700,000 compact cars combined in the U.S., a staggering sum for a slowly recovering economy. This year, analysts expect sales for the entire segment to reach approximately 1.7 million, making it one of the most fiercely contested battlegrounds, and the ideal subject of our latest comparison test.
Since Japanese automakers defined this segment, we took their top-three-selling models (Toyota Corolla, the all-new ninth-generation Honda Civic, and Mazda3) and put them up against the top two from America (Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze) and Korea (Hyundai Elantra and Kia Forte). We also included Germany’s best-selling C-segment model, the Volkswagen Jetta.
Just what does it take to appeal to the masses in America?
Well, take a spin through the specs and note the many similarities. Each vehicle represents its brand’s attempt to crack the C-segment code, so there is little variance when it comes to basic dimensions and standard features. For this test, we wanted to compare nicely equipped volume-sellers in the low $20,000 range, but not all the manufacturers were able to fulfill our requests. All eight vehicles had four-cylinder engines, automatic transmissions, front drive, alloy wheels, and stability control, but there was more variance than we’d hoped for when it came to optional equipment. To help equalize these differences, we focused on the more practical attributes of each vehicle and balanced elements like value, efficiency, ride comfort, and styling against performance and driving pleasure.
In trying to be so many things to so many people, do some manufacturers lose their way? Indeed. So, with all respect due to Gang Starr, let’s see who is losing the race for mass appeal..
1st Place: HYUNDAI ELANTRA
When MC Guru (RIP) and DJ Premier came together in 1994 to produce “Mass Appeal,” the seminal, bass-backed discourse on the evils of trading authenticity for popularity (also known as selling out), they most certainly were not explaining how to build America’s best C-segment sedan.
Yet the song’s theme matches the Hyundai Elantra’s secret to success: Keepin’ it real. In this case, really stylish, authentically sophisticated, and content rich. Check it out: The Elantra achieved no distinction on our spec charts; it was not the fastest nor the lightest, not the cheapest nor best at the pump. Yet when it came time for our judges to discuss which vehicle should finish on top, the capable and charismatic Elantra was always in the mix without diesel-ringer rancor or anti-Civic animosity.
“Wow, Hyundai’s done a great job here. The Elantra’s styling is a welcome addition to the copy/paste mindset,” said Lago. Others found the atomic guppy styling modern and fresh, if busier than the staid Civic, leering Mazda3, and starched-collar Jetta. Inside, however, the Elantra was king. “I hate tan interiors, and I was still impressed with this. This cheap Hyundai is better inside than some Lexuses,” noted Febbo.
When it came to ride quality, Elantra marries the lightness of the Japanese sedans with the big-car comfort of Jetta and Cruze.”The Elantra’s ride is easily the most comfortable of the bunch: smooth, quiet, and well-controlled. If I had to drive one of these cars from San Francisco to Los Angeles, this would be my hands-down choice,” said Jurnecka.
Sure, there were complaints, primarily about an EPA-certified 29/40-mpg fuel economy number that we did not come close to replicating. Among the gas burners, the Elantra’s 25.9 mpg in mixed driving was solidly midpack. Our crew also wished for a bit more crispness in the handling dynamics and steering.
“Definitely not a sport sedan as there is more body roll than the others on turn-in. It grips pretty well and the chassis is composed, but you can tell it’s not meant for high-g cornering,” said Evans.
Also obvious is the breadth and value of the Elantra Limited’s standard equipment, which includes a power sunroof, Bluetooth connectivity, and heated front and rear leather seats-all for only a bit more than Civic money. (“Seriously? How many cars under $50K have those?” said Febbo.) This feature/value proposition not only helps elevate the quality of the driving experience, it raises Elantra to the top of the C-segment.
Lassa offered a 35,000-foot view: “Closest to the ideal of what a modern compact needs to be if Americans are really going to downsize their sedans. Compacts don’t need to look or feel cheap.”
And the Elantra certainly does not.
“Compared with every other car here, the Elantra feels grown-up and sophisticated,” concluded Jurnecka. It offers the most compelling compromise of styling, packaging, value, efficiency, and comfort, and demonstrates that you don’t have to sell your soul to have mass appeal.
ARE COMPACTS THE NEW MIDSIZE?
Since the Great Recession, General Motors and Ford have projected that U.S. market tastes would soon converge with Europe’s. With rising gas prices, C-segment compacts will become more popular than C/D-segment midsize cars. To fulfill their prophecy, Chevrolet and Ford finally are offering competitive compacts, not the cheap, disposable C-cars they’ve discounted for 50 years.
U.S. sales of our eight competitors, including previous versions, totaled 1,250,904 in 2010. Their makers sold 1,329,338 of their eight midsize counterparts, like Fusion and Camry. This has reversed for the first four months of 2011, with 504,460 of our eight compacts to 476,661 midsize counterparts, skewed by VW, which has sold just 217 of its outgoing Passats. VW Jetta, Mazda3, and Kia Forte have been outselling their larger brethren for years.
Still, vehicle size certainly matters to American families, and automakers are in heated competition to offer the first 40-mpg (highway) midsize car with a conventional gas engine.
Price is a growing factor, though. Middle-class income levels have stagnated since the Reagan years, and with car prices going up, these consumers will become more attracted to well-equipped $20,000 compacts. If the C-segment does pass the C/D-segment in U.S. sales, it will be the result of higher midsize sticker prices, not higher gas prices.
– Todd Lassa
Brief excerpts from the other vehicles in the story:
Corolla SE: landed in last place with a unanimous thud. All the handling of a French car but none of the charm.
Kia Forte EX: bargain interior composed of hard black plastic, tour-bus-quality upholstery and suspect ergonomics
Chevy Cruze LTZ RS: heaviest car in the test; worse power-to-weight ratio and worst fuel economy; thrashy; poorest rear-seat leg room.
Ford Focus Titanium: DCT dubbed �horrible�: and �half-baked;� clunky and rough; gimmicky.
VW Jetta TDI: called a �ringer� by not supplying the car Motor Trend asked for; priced at a hefty premium over all others; called �dumbed down� and �cheap.
Mazda3 Touring: �tired� and �unrefined.� Switchgear and surfaces scream �budget car.�
Honda Civic EX: info screen is cumbersome. Suspension jittery over bumps.