Though many Americans prefer SUVs, the obstinate coronavirus pandemic has put the squeeze on finances, and as we spelled out recently, simply opting for the sedan body style is a great way for shoppers to save a thousand dollars or more on a brand-new vehicle. So we gathered three of the most relevant compact sedans for an abbreviated Cars.com Challenge: the top-selling 2020 Honda Civic, which won a broader contest in 2017 and was refreshed for 2019, and two models redesigned for the 2020 model year, the Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla. Given the growing number of subcompacts that have been and will be discontinued in our market, like the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit, our compact test subjects are more important than ever. In this socially distanced evaluation, the authors rated the contestants in 17 objective and subjective categories.
Here are the specific trim levels and the cars’ final overall rankings:
1. 2020 Honda Civic Touring
2. 2020 Nissan Sentra SV
3. 2020 Toyota Corolla XSE
If you’re the type of shopper who doesn’t sweat the details and wants to take the ranking above and act on it, we can’t really argue, but we’ll point out that our results apply specifically to the vehicles we tested as equipped and priced — not the entire model line. For example, our Civic and Corolla were top trim levels and both had the more powerful of two available engines, while the Sentra SV is the middle of three trims Nissan offers (albeit a well-optioned example of such). Careful shoppers will view our likes and dislikes below for each car and decide what matters most to them.
There were also many similarities. Each car had a four-cylinder engine, continuously variable automatic transmission and front-wheel drive. All three come standard with backup cameras, automatic high-beam headlights and forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking designed to operate at both high and low speeds and to detect pedestrians, as well as with basic driver-assistance tech, such as adaptive cruise control.
All judging categories could earn a maximum of 20 points except driver-assist technology, which is limited to 10 points, and value, which allows a maximum of 40 points. Scoring was pretty tight overall, and not all categories were conclusive. Most notably, Cars.com’s position is that the trunks of these three cars aren’t a determining factor, as reflected in the equal cargo scores. We’ve long reported that manufacturer-supplied cargo specifications are suspect, partly because of the standards and methods — heck, you can’t even compare a trunk directly to a hatchback — so we’ve developed our own means of measuring cargo spaces and determined that the three trunks, when used as normal owners use them, are within 0.6 cubic foot of each other, all close to 20 cubic feet despite wider differences in published manufacturer specs.
The key is to check out the strongest and weakest aspects of the models, laid out below in descending order of importance to their ranking, and find out what’s most important to you using the following graphic showing the various wins and losses at a glance.