Under 20/Over 35 Shootout: Overview

With gas prices hitting new highs in the U.S. this spring and the economy rebounding but still not robust, there's no better time to look at small cars that get great mileage but won't break the bank. Our goal here was to test cars that cost less than $20,000 and get more than 35 mpg. To test them, we wanted a family with a teen driver and a parent older than 35 who commutes a fair distance weekly, because these cars are aimed at first-time drivers and commuters. Talk about synchronicity.

How We Chose The Cars

We joined with USA Today and looked for compact cars that could seat a family of five and cost less than $20,000 (with an automatic transmission, but without the destination charge) but get better than 35 mpg on the highway. We went with automatics because, by and large, that's what shoppers prefer.

Given the parameters we had, only five models currently on sale made the grade: the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze, the 2012 Ford Focus, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, the 2012 Honda Civic and the 2011 Kia Forte. There are other models that get more than 35 mpg and cost less than $20,000, but they either did not seat five or already had a larger corporate sibling on this list. Most of the cars were loaned to us by the automaker involved, but we had to resort to renting the Civic from a broker when Honda could not supply a fleet version that met our requirements. Because the new Civic is so new, Honda did not have a version that met our specs in the Chicago press fleet.

The Testing

We put each sedan through three days of testing. On the first day, we went on a 161-mile mileage drive to see which sedan got the best mileage in real-world testing.

On the second, we had our experts drive all the cars over the same course back-to-back to see how they fared over the same surfaces and conditions.

Finally, we had our family examine each car on the third day. They drove each car over the same route, with the mom driving half of the leg and her teen son driving the other half, to find out what real consumers thought about each car.

The testing was done in early May in the northwest suburbs of Chicago.

The Judges

Judging the Under 20/Over 35 Shootout were:

  • Joe Wiesenfelder, senior editor for Cars.com
  • Kelsey Mays, editor for Cars.com
  • Mike Hanley, editor for Cars.com
  • James Healey, reporter for USA Today
  • Frani Udell and her son, Alec, a high-school junior. Frani's car racks up lots of miles every week because of her job.

The Scoring

The experts' opinions make up 40 percent of the final score; the Udell family, 20 percent; gas mileage is another 20 percent; MP3 compatibility is worth 10 percent; and the overall value score assigned by both experts and the family is worth the final 10 percent.  A perfect score for any car would be 1,000 points.

Check out the entire package of content to see which sedan came out on top.

© Cars.com 06/9/2011