Under 20/Over 35 Shootout: Results

Of all the Shootouts we've done so far, never have we had five cars that were so close in quality, drivetrains and features. This may have been the hardest group to judge that we've encountered in our comparison testing.

The judges 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; and Frani Udell and her son, Alec. The Udells comments on each car can be found in their story.

No. 5 2012 Ford Focus; 635 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Ford Focus)

The Focus has been redesigned for 2012, and many of our experts liked the new look. "Hot-looking," Healey said; "clearly a car for the enthusiast buyer," Hanley added. Still, like some other Ford sedans, the experts found the quarters cramped.

What they liked: "The Focus is nimble," Hanley said, and Wiesenfelder agreed: Its "at-the-limit handling is stellar." "Its handling composure and sharp steering put the others to shame," Mays concurred.

What they didn't: Unfortunately, the Focus was done in by a lack of space. "The snug confines are a major disadvantage versus the others," Wiesenfelder pointed out. Despite the great handling, not everyone was impressed with its acceleration. "The car delivers pokey acceleration and poor transmission response," Mays noted. For many, the stereo controls (borrowed from European models) were, at best, awkward. "Some features require too many pushes of the mysterious unlabeled controls," Wiesenfelder said, while Hanley said, "the stereo is an unfamiliar jumble of buttons." For Healey, one feature was "unforgivable: steel wheels with hideous fake alloy hubcaps," he said. "Others in this group do it much better."

Key Details

    • Price as-tested: $19,750 (highest price)
    • EPA mileage: 28/38 mpg city/highway, 31 combined
    • Features common to all: Power windows, locks and mirrors; antilock brakes, traction and stability control; air conditioning; USB audio input; keyless entry; cruise control; MPG trip computer; and automatic transmission
    • Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick
    • Bluetooth with voice commands and Bluetooth audio
    • Telescoping steering wheel
    • Satellite radio
No. 4 2011 Kia Forte; 650 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Kia Forte)

The Forte was the first of this group to be redesigned, but that may actually have hurt it in this comparison. Wiesenfelder said, "The Forte shows how a car that was reasonably competitive a couple of years ago can be reduced to merely decent against the more recent intros and redesigns." He was not alone in that thought.

What they liked: "Kia deserves praise for keeping a lot of small conveniences that others in this class have exiled," Mays said, "extending sun visors, lighted vanity mirrors, an overhead sunglasses holder and a rear center armrest with cupholders are all present." Several experts also praised the legroom and headroom in the second row.

What they didn't: "Nothing to get excited about in a group of cars that has managed, even at $20,000, to provide bits of visual and dynamic excitement," Healey said. "The Forte has the choppiest ride of the bunch," Wiesenfelder said, "and the interior quality seems a step behind the Hyundai's interior." Mays was struck by how the "automatic has a proclivity to kick down to low, engine-howling gears; the drivetrain needs some ironing out." "Its driving experience," Hanley said, "trails the competition."

Key Details

    • Price as-tested: $18,345 (second-lowest price)
    • EPA mileage: 26/36 mpg, 29 combined
    • Features common to all: Power windows, locks and mirrors; antilock brakes, traction and stability control; air conditioning; USB audio input; keyless entry; cruise control; MPG trip computer; and automatic transmission
    • IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Bluetooth with voice commands and Bluetooth audio
    • Moonroof (only model with moonroof)
    • Sunglasses holder
    • Satellite radio
    • 60/40-split folding rear seat
No. 3 2011 Chevrolet Cruze; 688 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze)

Introduced last year, the Cruze marks GM's move away from the dated, abused Chevrolet Cobalt into something more refined and definitely more efficient. "The Cruze has the competition beat where quietness is concerned," Hanley said, and indeed, all the reviewers remarked on what a polished car it is.

What they liked: "The interior quality is among the best that GM has to offer," Wiesenfelder said. The Cruze also has "well-placed, easily seen and used controls and gauges," Healey added. "No sci-fi, thank goodness." Part of the car's appeal is its potent power. "The Cruze has the most muscle here," Mays said, and Healey went further. "The delicious keeps-coming power builds as the turbo boost has its way." Even with that power, though, the ride continues to impress. "Encounter any truly wretched pavement," Mays said, "and the Cruze's suspension issues the sort of measured, high-quality responses that evoke a larger car." "If you're seeking a good all-around machine, with no low spots, the Cruze should satisfy," Healey said.

What they didn't: While Healey may not have found any low spots, the other experts certainly found a couple. For Mays, front and rear pillars made visibility worse than the competitors, while "the backseat reminds me of yesterday's compacts," he said. "It's too low to the ground, and legroom is tight." Though the Cruze can turn on the power, "accelerator lag is its Achilles' heel," Wiesenfelder said, "killing the driver's confidence."

Key Details

    • Price as-tested: $19,445 (second-highest price)
    • EPA mileage: 24/36 mpg, 28 combined
    • Features common to all: Power windows, locks and mirrors; antilock brakes, traction and stability control; air conditioning; USB audio input; keyless entry; cruise control; MPG trip computer; and automatic transmission
    • IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Bluetooth with voice commands
    • Telescoping steering wheel
    • Satellite radio
    • 60/40-split folding rear seat
No. 2 2012 Honda Civic; 744 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2012 Honda Civic)

The Civic has been a best-seller in this group for years, and Honda has just rolled out a redesigned version for the 2012 model year. How are its looks, as little changed as they are? Expert opinion ranged from "bland" (Hanley) to "indifference" (Mays) to "interesting but conservative" (Healey). However, every reviewer found the Civic's seats to be the most comfortable in the competition.

What they liked:
"The cut-down center stack in front opens significant space for the driver's and passenger's legs and knees," Healey raved. Mays loved the Civic's "excellent sightlines," while Wiesenfelder declared that the "Civic's backseat is the most usable in this test." Also scoring well with the reviewers: acceleration, ergonomics and controls. "The Civic's automatic is among the group's most responsive," Mays said. It also didn't hurt that the Civic ran away with the Shootout's mileage challenge.

What they didn't: "Obvious cost-cutting appears at perhaps the least opportune time in the car's long history," Wiesenfelder said, and Mays agreed: "Many areas are a bit crappier than they used to be." For Healey, it was more about the ride quality, or lack thereof: "Sadly, road noise is terrible; suspension clunk and tire rumble ruin the experience," he said. "Gets tiresome pretty quickly."

Key Details

    • Price as-tested: $18,655 (third-highest price)
    • EPA mileage: 28/39 mpg, 32 combined
    • Features common to all: Power windows, locks and mirrors; antilock brakes, traction and stability control; air conditioning; USB audio input; keyless entry; cruise control; MPG trip computer; and automatic transmission
    • IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Telescoping steering wheel
    • Folding rear seats

And the winner is?

No. 1 2011 Hyundai Elantra; 813 points

(See the scorecard, Monroney sticker or research the 2011 Hyundai Elantra)

For the family and most of the reviewers, it was love at first sight for this hot-selling compact car. "The Elantra is a terrific-looking car," Wiesenfelder enthused, and he was not alone in that opinion. "The best-looking Hyundai yet," Mays chimed in. And Hanley opined that "the Elantra shows that you don't have to spend a lot to get exquisite design."

What they liked: "The cabin has a level of style that a few years ago would have been unthinkable in this class," Hanley continued. "It's a huge leap forward for Hyundai in the compact segment." "The interior lives up to exterior's promise of visual jazz," Healey said, "without being overdone." That interior "has the blessed simplicity of an older car without giving up the most important modern features," Wiesenfelder said. It's not all about looks, though; the Elantra "holds its own on twisting roads," Mays said, and it "feels responsive and gutsy," Wiesenfelder added.  It has a "good blend of attributes with a low 'stupid' factor," Healey noted.

What they didn't: Even though the Elantra won the competition, it isn't perfect. "The stereo settings are as intuitive as a tax form," Mays snorted. "The Elantra's swoopy design makes backseat passengers sacrifice some headroom," Healey and others noted, and Wiesenfelder thought "the engine sounds rough under heavier acceleration." Speaking of ride quality, Healey noted that "the rear suspension seems squirrelly on some surfaces and corners. Not dangerous," he said, "just unsettled and unrefined against the best in the group."

Key Details

    • Price as-tested: $17,760 (lowest price)
    • EPA mileage: 29/40 mpg, 33 combined
    • Features common to all: Power windows, locks and mirrors; antilock brakes, traction and stability control; air conditioning; USB audio input; keyless entry; cruise control; MPG trip computer; and automatic transmission Bluetooth with voice commands and Bluetooth audio
    • IIHS Top Safety Pick
    • Sunglasses holder
    • Telescoping steering wheel
    • Satellite radio
    • 60/40-split folding rear seat
© Cars.com 06/9/2011