$16,000 Subcompact Shootout: Overview

The field for the comparison included both hatchbacks and sedans.

There has been an explosion of new and redesigned cars in the subcompact category in the past couple of years, so we're putting to the test seven of them that can be had for less than $16,000, seat four, have four doors and an automatic transmission, and get 35 mpg on the highway or better, according to EPA ratings.

We set the price after checking J.D. Power and Associates on the average transaction price for cars in this segment. Incentives aside, that number is $16,300, J.D. Power says. We rounded that price and came up with this field:

Here's What You Get for $16,000.

Most of the cars come from the automakers' Southern California fleet (we conducted the Shootout in Arcadia, Calif., about 13 miles northeast of Los Angeles, near Pasadena). Ford and Toyota did not have models that matched our specs, so we secured new models off dealer lots with the help of a car broker. Representatives of all automakers except Nissan were on hand when our guest couple tested the cars.

The experts in the Shootout were:

  • Kelsey Mays, industry analyst for Cars.com
  • Jennifer Newman, family editor for Cars.com
  • Joe Wiesenfelder, Cars.com executive editor
  • James R. Healey, automotive writer for USA Today
  • Brian Robinson, producer for "MotorWeek" on PBS.

The couple in our test was Erik Rose and Robyn Gerry-Rose, who recently transplanted to Southern California from the Chicago area.

What were we looking for in these cars? Here's a breakdown of our criteria:

Static (35 percent of the score)

First impressions: Can you see yourself driving this car? What do you think of its styling? Does it stand out from the crowd or blend in? How does the car's interior seem? High-class or thrown together?

Front-seat comfort and adjustability:
How comfortable is the driver's seat? Does it adjust far enough forward and back, or up and down? Does the steering wheel adjust to your desired position? How are the headroom and legroom? Do the center console, doors or dash encroach on knee space?

Ergonomics and controls:
Are the controls legible and easy to use? Do the instruments and center display show intuitive info? Are the controls easy to reach?

Cargo space: How much cargo room is there? Is the second row easy to fold down? Is the cargo floor easily reachable, or is it too high or low? Some of these cars are hatchbacks; some will be sedans. Rate them relative to the whole field (hatchbacks and sedans).

Stereo usability: How easy is it to connect an iPod, iPhone or other MP3 player? How easy is it to change songs while on the road? This assesses connectivity and ease of use, not stereo or sound quality. (This was a quantitative score, not a qualitative, so the scores in this category are uniformly assigned).

Driving (35 percent)

Acceleration and braking: Is there enough power from a stop? Does the transmission shift smoothly and kick down fast enough? How is passing power at city and highway speeds? How confident are the brakes?

Handling and steering: Does the car feel planted in corners? Does it lean excessively? Is it fun to drive on curvy roads? Is the steering sharp or soupy? Does the wheel stay comfortably in a straight line on the highway, or does the car wander in its lane and need a lot of corrections?

Ride quality: Is the ride smooth or rough? Is the suspension too loud or choppy when you hit a bump? Does the car feel floaty over broken pavement, or is there a good sense of control? Would you take this car on a road trip?

Road and engine noise: Does the engine sound good? Is it too loud when passing? How easy is it to hold a conversation at highway speeds? Is there a lot of road or wind noise?

Visibility: How easy is it to see cars in the adjacent lane and behind you? Do the window pillars swallow up big chunks of space? Are the center and outside mirrors large enough? If you lower the rear head restraints all the way, do they intrude on your sightlines?

Value (20 percent)

Look at the price of the car. What's your overall impression of value? Does this car offer exceptional features, quality, style or driving enjoyment for the money? Does this car feel like a richer car than the rest of the class, or like yesterday's econobox?

Gas Mileage (10 percent)

Over a 200-mile driving loop, the subcompact with the highest observed mileage gets a perfect score of 100. The remaining scores are a percentage of the highest mileage. For example, if the car with the highest observed mileage got 40 mpg and the second-highest car got 30 mpg, the former would score 100 points and the latter would score 75 points.

Based on all that, and three extensive days of driving and testing, we arrived at our winner. Check out our full coverage below:

The $16,000 Subcompact Shootout

© Cars.com 03/16/2012