Frugal Compacts Add Up with Basic Options

The compact car segment is no new place to find low base prices and a good deal on a new car. After having three major players in our hands over the past few weeks, including the 2009 Toyota Corolla, 2008 Honda Civic and 2008 Ford Focus sedans, we were scraping together specs and options to evaluate the competition. When we started to compare the cars, something surprised us. Mostly optional features that we think are necessary for a comfortable and safe daily driver — automatic transmission, air conditioning, power windows, cruise control, keyless entry, power locks, antilock brakes, side airbags and a CD player — have a funny way of changing each car’s relative value.

Besides the Corolla, Civic and Focus, we compared the Mitsubishi Lancer, Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cobalt, Nissan Sentra and Mazda3, all in sedan form. To our surprise, cars once thought to be clear value leaders didn’t necessarily hold up when all the cars were equally equipped with the aforementioned features.

OK, so it’s not a startling revelation, but when optioned with our requirements some of the compacts retailed far past their tantalizing entry-level price. Fortunately, as a testament to automakers’ growing commitment to safety, just about every one of these compacts (except the Mazda3) comes with standard side-impact airbags or side curtain airbags, and the majority with both.

W/O Equipment, base MSRP — Prices do not include destination charges

  • Hyundai Elantra: $13,625 (GLS)
  • Mazda3: $13,895 (i Sport)
  • Mitsubishi Lancer: $13,990 (DE)   
  • Chevrolet Cobalt: $14,225 (LS)
  • Ford Focus: $14,775 (S)
  • Honda Civic: $15,010 (DX)
  • Toyota Corolla (’09): $15,250 (Base)
  • Nissan Sentra: $16,040 (2.0)

W/ Equipment Prices do not include destination charges

  • Mitsubishi Lancer: $16,090 (2.0 ES)
  • Hyundai Elantra: $16,375 (2.0 GLS w/Popular Equipment Package)
  • Chevrolet Cobalt: $16,535 (2.2 1LT w/cruise control, ABS)
  • Toyota Corolla (’09): $16,895 (1.8 LE w/keyless entry)
  • Ford Focus: $17,000 (2.0 SE w/cruise control, ABS)
  • Nissan Sentra: $17,070 (2.0 S)
  • Mazda3: $17,495 (2.0 i Touring Value)
  • Honda Civic: $17,760 (1.8 LX)

Sitting on top as the value leader for our comparison is the Mitsubishi Lancer in ES trim. Surprised? So were we — it’s a recently redesigned model, also a favorable car. To top it off, there’s also a $1,000 cash back incentive available in our area on the Lancer. The best incentive comes with the Focus with $2,000 cash back on 2008 models. Most incentives vary by region so make sure to head over to the incentives page for what’s available in your area.

What we want to know from you is this: Would you forgo these features for a less-expensive entry-level price, or are these options truly a necessity for a comfortable daily driver?

Toyota Corolla Car Buying

Road Test Editor Joe Bruzek covers’s short-and long-term fleet of test cars and drives a 1998 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am.  Email Joe