As with previous Challenges, the cars at the top were not too far apart, but some of the opinions of the judges were quite far apart. One sedan was the solid favorite for one of our judges, but it received the lowest score from our "real-life" judge, so opinions were clearly not unanimous. A reminder on who our judges were for this Challenge:
Here's how the score broke down: The experts' scores accounted for 75 percent of the total score; 15 percent came from the civilian car buyer's scores; and 10 percent was based on fuel economy.
What They Liked: Why did the Forte win? "It stands out," Geiger said, "in a good way. Its dynamic exterior styling gives it an edge among conservatively styled competitors." And that's not all. "The Forte vies with the Elantra in terms of many interior options and standard features at this price," Jackson said, and that sentiment was often echoed. "The interior is sporty yet simple, with nice materials and not overdesigned, Meier said. "The echoed curves in the dash and door panels are a nice touch." "The ride and handling are excellent," Bragman said, "second only to the Focus in driving fun and chassis sophistication. In fact, the Eco mode doesn't seem to affect drivability." The Forte's ride and handling mix was a winner for Robinson, who thought it was "better than most recent Kias." He also found the seats to be "some of the most comfortable" in the Challenge.
What They Didn't: "All its good looks were wasted outside," Geiger said, and Robinson agreed. 'The look of the interior is not nearly as nice as most cars here," he said. And, he added, "red radio display: I'm not a fan." "The price for that tight handling was some bump and hop on rough surfaces," Meier said. Noise was an issue for Bragman, who found that "the Forte has a lot of it on the highway and under hard acceleration." "Visibility is not the greatest," Jackson said, and Gluckman was concerned about the Forte not doing as well as other Challenge cars in recent crash tests.
The Verdict: "The Forte wins the Challenge for me with its good looks and mix of features," Jackson said, "and by being more understated than the Hyundai."
Price as tested: $19,100
Monthly Payment*: $392.88
What They Liked: The Elantra came into this Challenge with a title to defend: It won the $20,000 compact comparison two years ago. And Hyundai is on something of a roll with our "real-life" testers as well; this is the third Challenge in a row where that judge (or judges) has chosen the Hyundai as his/her personal favorite. It was ultimately Gluckman's first choice too, although for her it was a down-to-the-wire decision between the Elantra and the Forte; she gave the nod to the Hyundai because she found it "sportier": "I love it! It's sporty," she said, "and sporty is what I want." Given all that love from our real-world testers Hyundai might want us to give them a larger share of the voting weight. Sorry, Hyundai. The other judges liked it as well, of course; it missed the top spot by less than 20 points to its corporate cousin. "The Elantra has lovely interior design, great material quality, copious front seat room, Bragman said. "This is the luxury car of the group." "The electronics are A-1," Healey noted, "especially the ridiculously easy phone pairing." "There are plenty of places to store your stuff," Meier added. "It looks like it should be more expensive than it is," Jackson said. A boatload of features led to that observation: "The Elantra is loaded with convenience features like heated seats, remote start and satellite radio," Geiger said.
What They Didn't: The Elantra's ride and handling drew enough complaints that they may have kept the title just out of reach. "The Elantra's handling does not inspire confidence," Jackson said. Healey called the handling "soggy, tippy," and Geiger said that "the ride quality could use some work. It's on the firm side and can feel jittery over bumps." Bragman noted that "that swoopy exterior styling means compromised headroom for rear-seat passengers, which is the price you pay for form over function." Robinson added that "the hatchback style makes getting in the rear seat cumbersome."
The Verdict: "Hyundai knows how to appeal to shoppers looking to stretch a dollar," Geiger said. "Not only is it affordable, it also looks great, drives nicely and is loaded with features."
Price as tested: $19,870
Monthly Payment*: $408.71
What They Liked: "Honda's reputation for quality is well-deserved," Robinson said, and that was very much the feeling for most judges. It's like a utility infielder; the Civic plays all positions well, but isn't a superstar in any of them. "The ride is on the firm, more composed side," Jackson said, "and I like that." "I'd never call the Civic sporty," Geiger weighed in, "but it's near the top of my list in terms of handling." And "the interior is nicely executed, even among some of these standouts in the Challenge," Healey said. "It accelerates smoothly with crisp shifts," Meier noted. "The engine sounds smooth, not coarse, and the steering is responsive with a linear feel." With that engine came pretty good gas economy. "The Civic consistently returns numbers better than the EPA's," Geiger said. "It's very smooth; I can see why it's a popular car," Gluckman said. But ...
What They Didn't: "The dash is really funky!" Gluckman exclaimed. "It almost looks like an arcade game." That split dash wasn't the only drawback, the judges found. "Acceleration is great, but the brakes feel wooden and disappointing," Robinson said. "The 'econ' mode could easily be labeled with another four-letter word, 'slow,' " Bragman said. "The electronics setup can be complicated," Meier said. "Phone pairing took navigating three menus." Speaking of electronics, "the Civic's control panel suffers from a common Honda ailment," Geiger said, "button overload."
The Verdict: "The Civic does everything reasonably well, but it doesn't stand out in any one area," Bragman said. "Given the sophistication of some of the other cars, it feels a generation behind."
Price as tested: $19,755
Monthly Payment*: $406.35
What They Liked: The Sentra would take home the "bang for your buck" award — if we gave such a thing. "The interior amenities are the best in class, Bragman said. "The ability to get a nav system for less than $20,000 is impressive." "The interior is really pretty," Gluckman said, noting that the Sentra "seems more sumptuous than some others." "Be prepared to drive around your friends and all of their stuff. This car has loads of backseat head- and legroom," Geiger noted, "and an enormous trunk." "The air conditioning is notably powerful without much fan noise," Healey noted, but he was fascinated by a more arcane discovery: the "25 dentents to fine-tune the fan, not just the one to four as in most cars." Robinson said that "the understated style works well in this segment."
What They Didn't: The drone. Make no mistake: The Sentra's continuously variable automatic transmission makes noise, and lots of it. Five of seven judges used that very word to describe it. "Loud, loud, loud, even under moderate throttle," Bragman said. In addition, Robinson noted, "the seat fabric feels cheap and not durable at all." "Handling is a big problem," Geiger said. "The Sentra felt incredibly sloppy in corners." "There's inconsistent throttle/transmission response," Jackson said. "It wants to zoom away from a stop, but then it quickly loses power." "It rides a bit rougher than the others," Gluckman said, "and I don't like the Sport mode — it just makes more engine noise."
The Verdict: "The Sentra is an almost unbelievable upgrade from its predecessor, but it lacks the driving feel of the best in this Challenge," Healey said.
Price as tested: $19,945
Monthly Payment*: $410.26
What They Liked: The Corolla is the newest compact in this Challenge, and its new looks are very different from the last generation. "The exterior design looks better than any Corolla in recent memory," Robinson said. Bragman noted that the "Corolla's interior has gone from drab to fab. This is Toyota?" Jackson agreed. "The interior has a clean look with easy-to-use gauges." Healey liked how it made him feel: "You feel like somebody sitting there." But the changes were not all skin deep. "Toyota did a great job with the CVT," Geiger said. "It felt more natural and refined than the others. Power delivery was quicker, and it wasn't as unruly sounding as the Impreza and the Sentra." Her opinion was seconded by several judges. And that power wasn't a penalty at the pump. "Gas mileage touched 40 mpg during the mileage drive," Healey noted, "remarkable for the terrain and the variety of drivers."
What They Didn't: "It may look a lot sportier," Robinson said, "but it still feels and drives like a Corolla." And he didn't mean that as a compliment, bemoaning its "sluggish acceleration." "The handling tends toward sloppy, with heavy understeer," Healey said, and "there's just no way to make the CVT nice, though the Sport mode helps." "The Corolla's biggest offense is to the ears — noise pours in from everywhere," Geiger said. "Some details aren't done well," Bragman said, "such as Toyota's cheap display screens that are already impossibly dark and wash out completely when you're wearing sunglasses." "I don't know who at Toyota thought this dashboard was attractive," Gluckman added. Finally, "the rear seat offers the worst headroom of any car in the test," Jackson said.
The Verdict: "Gone are the old Corolla's boring looks," Geiger said, "but a polished exterior can't hide a pretty unpolished driving experience."
Price as tested: $19,863
Monthly Payment*: $408.57
What They Liked: "It feels like a very substantial car," Robinson said, "almost a midsize sedan." "It's the only one that has all-wheel drive, and that's a deal maker in some climates," Healey said. While it's an older model than many of its competitors, "the chassis felt solidly tied down," Meier said, "and its steering was firm and responsive." "There's phenomenal visibility in here, Gluckman said. "It feels like it's all glass." "The boxer engine is one of the more powerful in the test," Bragman said, "and it shows with a throaty growl and snappy off-the-line acceleration." And, Jackson noted, "the interior looks like it would be easy to clean up after life's little catastrophes."
What They Didn't: "2002 called and wants its audio display back," Geiger sniffed. "The all-wheel drive hurts mileage," Jackson pointed out, and Bragman added that all-wheel drive "may just be extra dead weight for the other half of the country" that doesn't need it. "No other car's styling in this test screams, 'I am an economy car!' like the Impreza does," Bragman noted. Gluckman thought it was a "throwback," and said that for her it was "very middle of the road. It's not inspiring." Robinson was bugged by its "slow and noisy drivetrain."
The Verdict: "It's not trendy," Meier said, "but it's a solid sedan with all-wheel drive under 20 grand that could be the best value for many shoppers."
Price as tested: $19,737
Monthly Payment*: $405.98
What They Liked: The Focus was very much a driver's car: Ride and handling were noted positively by several judges. "It felt light and responsive during high-speed maneuvers," Jackson said. "The ride and handling feel sophisticated," Bragman said, "and the steering is light and communicative." Judges also noted that the Ford was among the quietest cars in the test, an attribute not often found in this class. Other plusses? "The styling is just adventuresome enough," Healey said. "I like how the steering wheel felt in my hand," Jackson added.
What They Didn't: "The transmission feels odd," Gluckman noted. "I don't like the little 'surge' when it comes to a stop." She was not alone. "The automated manual felt like it just gave up when shuddering to a stop," Geiger said. "The modest engine and dual-clutch automatic make for annoying lag from a stop," Meier said. It wasn't just the powertrain though. "What minimal infotainment there was, was not the easiest to use," Robinson said. "The quality is questionable," Bragman said, "with a creaky console, misaligned foam at the base of the windshield and an unusually rough idle." And Jackson found that "the center console intrudes the most on my lower leg."
The Verdict: "I'm not sure how many people buy an absolute base car like this one," Robinson said, "but I feel sorry for them. Having said that, the Focus handles very well and has a great ride."
Price as tested: $18,200
Monthly Payment*: $374.36
Cars.com associate editor Robby DeGraff contributed to this report.
*Monthly payment assumes good credit, no money down, 60-month loan with 5 percent interest rate and 9 percent sales tax. Calculations were done using the Cars.com auto loan calculator.