Cars.comparison: Commuter Cars

Driving the right car during a long commute can ease even the worst gridlock, so we've gathered three fuel-efficient compact sedans to find out which one is the best travel companion.

 = Category winner
The Contenders
2010 Kia Forte EX2010 Mazda3 i Touring2009 Toyota Corolla XRS
Zoom Zoom Zoom
Price as tested
Gridlock cred
Chiseled lines add a bit of athleticism to the Forte's exterior. Overall, it's not a groundbreaking design, but it is attractive. The Mazda3's front bumper looks like an overblown devilish grin. Of the three, its design is the sportiest.Lower body extensions and 17-inch alloy wheels can't hide what this sport-oriented version of the Corolla is: a pedestrian-looking compact car.
Drivetrain performance
The Forte's 2.0-liter engine is peppy, but our test car's four-speed automatic wanted to reach fourth gear as soon as possible — and stay there. All told, it's competent but not energetic. Not surprisingly, our test car's 2.0-liter engine isn't as strong as the larger 2.5-liter four-cylinder offered in higher trim levels, but it moves the Mazda3 well enough. Kudos to the smooth-shifting five-speed automatic, which isn't afraid to kick down aggressively if you need to pass.When the Corolla XRS' automatic finds the right gear, the 2.4-liter engine moves the car smartly. Sadly, we found the XRS had the least responsive transmission. The XRS is quickest from a stop, but it doesn't feel noticeably stronger otherwise.
Gas mileage (city/highway, mpg)
The rating is the same with the four-speed automatic or manual transmission, but an optional five-speed automatic boosts gas mileage estimates to 27/36 mpg.
Choosing the manual transmission instead of our test car's five-speed automatic increases city fuel economy by 1 mpg.
The XRS trim level's larger four-cylinder puts it at a gas mileage disadvantage; the base 1.8-liter engine gets 27/35 mpg with an automatic transmission.
The Forte scoots through traffic, but the steering doesn't engage you the way the Mazda's does. The Mazda3's light-effort steering gives you a decent feel for the road. Of the three, it's the most fun to zip around in and the one we'd choose if our commute included winding country roads. Though not much heavier, the XRS feels the least nimble of the three. It resists body roll, but its weighty, cantankerous steering rarely inspires.
Ride smoothness
The Forte's firm suspension keeps body roll in check when cornering without punishing the occupants. If you carpool, the ride gets smoother when you add passengers. A tad firmer than the Forte, the Mazda3's suspension lets you feel the road, too. Unless the pavement you drive on is in incredibly rough shape, the ride won't wear you out.Toyota has notably firmed up the Corolla's suspension in the XRS trim, getting rid of what is one of the Corolla's strong points: a relaxed, comfortable ride.
Driver comfort
The optional leather bucket seats offer good comfort, but the tilt-only steering wheel was problematic for taller drivers who had to reach forward to grasp the wheel. The other cars have tilt/telescoping steering wheels.
Befitting its sporty outlook, the Mazda3's seats offer the most side bolstering to better keep you in place when cornering. The height-adjustable driver's seat tilts quite a bit forward when you raise it, limiting thigh support.
The Corolla's optional leather seats give the interior a rich leather smell, but the stiff ride means comfort will be fleeting.
MP3 connectivity
With its standard MP3 jack and USB port, the Forte gives you more ways to connect a portable music player than the other two, and it does so at no extra charge. We like that. The Mazda3's standard MP3 jack is in the center console storage bin, making it easy to keep your MP3 player and telltale cords out of sight. The standard MP3 input in the Corolla is on the center control panel below the air-conditioning knobs. There's a small depression in the wall of the center storage bin, so you can run a cable from the jack to a hidden iPod.
Backseat usefulness
The Forte's backseat offers decent space for adults and tolerable legroom. You won't feel bad putting your carpooling co-workers back there.Tricky legwork is required to get in and out of the Mazda3's backseat gracefully. Once you're in, it's a cozy fit, with legroom and headroom on par with the snug Corolla.Like the Mazda3, the Corolla's backseat is just adequate. Taller co-workers will want to call "Shotgun." Kudos to Toyota for a flat rear floor, which won't crowd foot room like in the others.
Overall value
Even the low-priced base version of the Forte comes well equipped with entertainment and safety features, meaning that you can get much of what we like about this midlevel EX model for less money. The 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty is compelling. The Mazda3 has a higher starting price than the Forte, but when you compare the models we have here — with their similar as-tested prices — the Mazda3 feels like the more premium of the two. Our loaded-up Corolla XRS costs more than a Camry SE, with options like leather seats and a six-CD changer. As tested, it cost about $4,000 more than the other two, but it didn't feel as nice as either. What's the Corolla's redeeming quality? Solid reliability.
Editors' choice
Though less dynamic than the Mazda3, the Forte strikes back with roominess, value and the best ride quality. It also has a backseat your cohorts won't balk at and an iPod-friendly stereo — all the things to make the commute more enjoyable. Nimble and high-rent, the Mazda3 reminds us — on a smaller scale — of the Nissan Maxima that lost December's family-hauler faceoff. It's compelling, but it loses points for its firm ride and smallish cabin. The regular Corolla isn't much of a driver's car, but it might be the class-leading ultimate commuter because it's comfortable, easy to drive and fuel efficient. Alas, the sport-tuned XRS feels like a tuner experiment gone wrong.
© 1/4/10
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