What's the Best Compact Sedan of 2017?

170301_CompactSedan_ES_GroupShot_01.jpg 2017 Compact Car Challenge | photo by Evan Sears

CARS.COM — If you think the compact sedan class is full of stale, humdrum economy sedans, it’s time to bring you up to speed. Many model-year 2017 compacts offer heaps of style and technology for less than you think. While these sedans may not be the current hot ticket like small SUVs, there’s still a lot to like in this class, such as the latest crash avoidance technology, smartphone integration and even all-wheel drive if you look in the right place.  

The 2017 Compact Sedan Challenge
Results | Safety Features

Each sedan we tested had to cost less than $23,000 with destination fee, have an EPA combined rating of 31 mpg with an automatic transmission and offer more than 91 cubic feet of interior volume. Contenders were the 2017 Chevrolet Cruze, 2017 Honda Civic, 2017 Hyundai Elantra, 2017 Kia Forte, 2017 Mazda3, 2017 Subaru Impreza, 2017 Toyota Corolla and 2017 Volkswagen Jetta. 

Our judges for this Challenge were:

  • Mike Hanley, senior editor
  • Kelsey Mays, senior editor
  • Fred Meier, Washington, D.C., bureau chief
  • Two in-market shoppers: Mary and J.D. Moore; Mary, 24, is a content creation specialist, and J.D., 24, is a digital marketing specialist. Mary drives a Pontiac Vibe and J.D. drives a 2009 Mazda3.  

You can see how we conducted testing below the results. Here’s how the sedans finished:

8 2017 Chevrolet Cruze ($22,465), 571 points

The verdict: “The Cruze puts fuel efficiency at the forefront, but it comes at the expense of the driving experience and passenger comfort,” Hanley said.

17Chevrolet_Cruze_SO_ES_06.jpg 2017 Chevrolet Cruze | photo by Evan Sears

What They Liked

Acceleration: Punchy acceleration doesn’t come at the cost of fuel economy in this Chevrolet. “The Cruze’s turbocharged four-cylinder is a strong, refined engine,” Hanley said. Mays added, “The Cruze’s turbocharged four-cylinder combines satisfying off-the-line grunt with highway efficiency, returning a best-in-group 38.4 mpg over our mileage loop.”

Roominess: “A low center console and impressive driver’s-seat adjustment range makes the Cruze a solid choice for larger shoppers,” Mays said. Meier agreed: “The low, well-designed console offers extra spaces for your stuff and still leaves more room for your knees.”

Technology: “The touchscreen multimedia system is easy to use, has quick graphics and includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone connectivity,” Hanley said. 

Handling: “The Cruze shows good handling and a good ride can coexist,” Meier said. The Cruze didn’t ride as roughly as the Mazda3 and scored comparable to the Civic in the handling category.  

What They Didn’t

Auto stop-start: While idling, auto stop-start’s main purpose is to temporarily shut off the engine to save fuel and restart when the brake is released; the Cruze’s system had some annoyances. “The air conditioning dropped off uncomfortably at long lights on a hot Texas day thanks to stop-start you can’t turn off,” Meier said. The Cruze has Eco and Comfort climate modes to ease the aggressiveness of the auto stop-start, but neither satisfied judges’ comfort demands.

Value: “Despite its as-tested price landing right around the group average, our Cruze lacked the creature comforts and crash avoidance features many competitors had,” Mays said. “It’s good, but there’s nothing extra special or over the top,” he added. The lack of crash avoidance features hurt the Cruze’s overall score as it missed out on up to 100 points others took advantage of, and instead scored zero.

Visibility: “Thick pillars and a steeply raked windshield hurt visibility to the front corners,” Meier said.

What You Get | Research the 2017 Chevrolet Cruze | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

7 2017 Mazda3 ($22,670), 585 points

The verdict: “Good interior quality and sporty dynamics can’t make up for the fact that the Mazda3’s cabin is considerably smaller than the competition’s,” Hanley said.

17Mazda_Mazda3_SO_ES_04.jpg 2017 Mazda3 | photo by Evan Sears

What They Liked

Driving experience: Surprising no one were the Mazda3’s spirited road manners. “True to form, the Mazda3 is fun to drive. Steering feedback is excellent, and you can slide the tail around a little in corners — a feat that’s nearly impossible for much of this group,” Mays said. Mary echoed Mays’ evaluation: “I feel like we’re in a sports car.”

Luxurious interior: Driving entertainment isn’t all the Mazda3 offers. “High-grade materials make the cabin feel nicer than the compact car norm,” said Hanley. Mays agreed, “Our Mazda3’s as-tested price fell right around the group average, but its upscale features — including heated vinyl seats that could pass for real leather — made it a legitimate luxury vehicle imposter.”

Seating comfort: “The bolstered front bucket seats go really well with the Mazda3’s sporty personality and hold you snugly in place,” Hanley said. 

What They Didn’t

Small cabin: Fun to drive should be far up on your list because the Mazda3 underdelivers in other, more practical areas. “The smallish backseat isn’t very comfortable for adult passengers,” Hanley said. Meier added, “The tight backseat makes this almost a 2+2 and a niche model compared to the larger compact competition.”

Multimedia system: Mary did not love the screen above the dash. “It looks like an afterthought,” she said. Meier wasn’t too hot on the screen, either. “The old-school media display has fallen behind in color and resolution. And it lacks the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to add capability,” he said. (Those are coming, however.)

Fuel economy: “Despite the Mazda3’s bevy of fuel-efficient technology, we observed just 31.5 mpg in our mileage drive, nearly 7 mpg worse than the best-in-test Cruze,” Mays said. 

Interior noise: “The price of excellent handling shouldn’t be a tiring ride and noisy interior, but it is here,” Meier said. The Mazda’s score in the noise category (wind and road noise) was lowest of the group. 

What You Get | Research the 2017 Mazda3 | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

6 2017 Hyundai Elantra ($21,360), 589 points

The verdict: “The Elantra is not the flashiest design here, but the unexpected extras and value for the price will please a lot of compact sedan shoppers,” Meier said.

17Hyundai_Elantra_SO_ES_06.jpg 2017 Hyundai Elantra | photo by Evan Sears

What They Liked 

Features for the money: “Despite having the group’s lowest as-tested price, our Elantra packed big-ticket comforts like dual-zone climate control, keyless access, heated seats and a moonroof, with Hyundai’s mammoth warranty to boot. This is value, defined,” Mays said. Meier agreed: “The Elantra’s Value Edition has an array of surprise-and-delight features for the price, from dual-zone automatic climate control to a power driver’s seat to lighted door handles.” What the Elantra lacked, however, hurt its scoring: The Elantra lost valuable points for not having crash avoidance technologies that competitors included at similar prices. 

Multimedia system: The Elantra’s multimedia system bested the others with its useful volume and tuning dials as well as its easy smartphone usability. “The media system has a colorful and sharp touchscreen, and it’s fast to respond,” Meier said. Mays added, “The multimedia system is first-rate, with intuitive physical controls and must-have features like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.” 

Cabin size: “The straightforward cabin has no surprises, with a roomy driver’s seat and ample storage space throughout,” Mays said. 

What They Didn’t

Interior quality: “Cabin materials scream low budget,” Mays said. “Hyundai needs to spruce up a lot of touch points, install a proper woven headliner and nix all the dull silver trim.” Hanley added, “A lack of soft-touch surfaces in key spots, like the upper part of the doors, diminishes the cabin’s refinement.”

Seating comfort: While overall roominess is respectable, comfort issues plagued judges in the front and backseat. “Despite all its power adjustments, the driver’s seat is uncomfortable; you feel like you’re sitting on it, not in it. And the backseat is a double whammy — both low to the floor and short on headroom,” Mays said. Hanley added, “A low rear-seat cushion compromises backseat comfort.”

Driving experience: Driving the Elantra failed to move the needle for many judges, and overall driving scores were lukewarm. “Throw the Elantra around, and it cedes piles of understeer, with low-grip Nexen tires and vague initial steering response,” Mays said. Meier added, “The Elantra’s ride and quietness are much improved, but middle-of-the-pack handling and a lack of steering feel don’t inspire spirited driving.”

What You Get | Research the 2017 Hyundai Elantra | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

5 2017 Toyota Corolla ($22,865), 594 points

The verdict: “The Corolla seems to be resting on reputation, not hustling to keep up with rapidly improving rivals in features and drivability, but kudos for making safety tech standard,” Meier said.

17Toyota_Corolla_SO_ES_06.jpg 2017 Toyota Corolla | photo by Evan Sears

What They Liked

Standard safety features: While the Corolla wasn’t the only car to have a suite of crash avoidance features, it was the only one to include them standard. “Toyota deserves big credit for giving every Corolla — and most of its other cars — a bevy of crash avoidance technology you seldom find standard among non-luxury brands,” Mays said. Meier added, “The Corolla is a leader with a standard full suite of electronic safety systems. It should shame rivals who force you to pay more or get a higher trim.”

Seat roominess, comfort: “The backseat is roomy and the seat height offers good thigh support for adult passengers,” Hanley said. The front seats impressed, too. “The cloth and vinyl front seats offer good support for a long drive,” Meier said.

Free maintenance: “Hyundai and Kia have their warranties, but the Corolla and Cruze have two years’ free maintenance. In a value-conscious class, that’s a differentiator,” Mays said.

What They Didn’t

Car-seat fitment: “Despite having room for adults, the Corolla’s backseat wasn’t up to snuff for young children: Limited front-seat clearance and buried Latch anchors hurt its scores in our car-seat evaluations,” Mays said.

Driving experience: The Corolla racks up points on the practicality side, but it wasn’t the shining example of a nice-to-drive sedan. “The driving experience is uninspired, with a humdrum engine, mushy handling and a drone-prone continuously variable automatic transmission,” Mays said. J.D. wouldn’t have picked this car for his commute: “If I’m going through construction on Interstate 35, this is not the car I’d want to be riding in.”

No Apple CarPlay or Android Auto: The Corolla’s tactile controls for volume and tuning weren’t enough to overcome a few missing features. “The lack of Apple CarPlay or Android Auto really sticks out in these budget-friendly cars that lack the fancier navigation and media systems,” Meier said. 

What You Get | Research the 2017 Toyota Corolla | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

4 2017 Volkswagen Jetta ($22,815), 645 points

The verdict: “The Jetta makes up for its shortcomings with a lot of practicality and drivability. It’s a solid choice overall,” Mays said.

17Volkswagen_Jetta_SO_ES_05.jpg 2017 Volkswagen Jetta SE | photo by Evan Sears

What They Liked

Peppiness: Don’t let the diminutive 1.4-liter engine size fool you. “The turbocharged Jetta’s best-in-group 184 pounds-feet of torque makes for gratifying power in all those situations where compacts come up short: hilly roads, highway passing, driving with passengers, you name it. Where others struggle, the VW prevails,” Mays said. Meier added, “The Jetta’s 1.4 turbo is strong and willing, with surprising low-end torque for its size.” 

Cargo space: It was clear the Jetta’s size was a step above the rest after poking around the cargo area. “The well-designed trunk has a lid that pops all the way up, and it offers more space via both a pass-through and a split, folding backseat,” Meier said. Mays noted, “The Jetta’s 15.7-cubic-foot trunk handily beats its rivals, in some cases considerably. It’s also the only car whose split, folding rear seat also has a center pass-through.”

Handling: Perhaps most surprising was how the Jetta mastered winding back roads. “The Jetta feels planted on the road and the steering is crisp,” Meier said. He continued, “The Mazda3 should be watching its back for handling props.”

Paint: The White Silver Metallic paint was way outside the box for a compact car and impressed Mary. “The paint color is pretty cool. It’s white when you’re far away, and when you’re closer, it’s kind of blue. It’s an upscale feature.”

What They Didn’t

Tires: “For all its handling potential, our Jetta was foiled by its efficiency-oriented Bridgestone Ecopia tires. Throw the car around, and they have all the traction of skateboard wheels,” Mays said. 

Interior quality: “With large swaths of hard plastic on the doors and dashboard, the interior is quite spartan,” Hanley said. 

Transmission: For all the engine’s gutsiness, a wonky transmission tried to spoil the fun. “The six-speed automatic was a positive, but it could be surprisingly rough and unrefined on downshifts,” Meier said. Hanley added, “The automatic transmission occasionally makes abrupt shifts.”

What You Get | Research the 2017 Volkswagen Jetta | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

3 2017 Subaru Impreza ($22,519), 653 points

The verdict: “The Impreza’s strengths go beyond its AWD, but a poky drivetrain and lack of safety tech on our test car blunted some appeal,” Mays said.

17Subaru_Impreza_SO_ES_FamilyPortrait_01.jpg 2017 Subaru Impreza | photo by Evan Sears

What They Liked

Child-seat fitment: Each car in our test was fitted with child-safety seats and assigned a score based on ease of installation. “The Impreza passed our Car Seat Check with flying colors, which is hardly a given in this class,” Mays affirmed.  

Visibility: Visibility varied greatly between the sedans, and the Impreza was in a class of its own with the highest visibility score. “The front roof pillars don’t block your view when cornering like they do in other cars in this comparison,” Hanley said. J.D. added, “I’m amazed with the sightlines.”

All-wheel drive: Perhaps a bigger differentiator even than visibility is the Impreza’s standard AWD drive. “You get the AWD security for this price. For that matter, try to find it at any price in other compact sedans,” Meier said. 

Comfort: “The new Impreza really has upped its game with a much quieter interior and smoother ride,” Meier said. The quiet ride didn’t go unnoticed by J.D., who said, “You can get in the Subaru and basically have total silence.” Being a frequent on-road traveler, he added, “I would love to take a road trip in this car.”

What They Didn’t

Highway stability: “The Impreza doesn’t feel settled at highway speeds. I was constantly making minor steering corrections to stay on course,” Hanley said. 

Fitment: “Our test car showed some obvious quality lapses in panel fit,” Meier said, referring to exterior body panels that didn’t quite align, including the trunk lid and front bumper. 

Sluggishness: “The AWD is a big differentiator, but it makes the Impreza the heaviest car in the group, a reality its drivetrain struggles to overcome. It takes patience to pass slower traffic, and often you are the slower traffic,” Mays said. 

What You Get | Research the 2017 Subaru Impreza | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

2 2017 Kia Forte ($21,540), 674 points

The verdict: “A well-rounded cabin and some high-tech features make the Forte a compelling option, but skip the sport-tuned suspension,” Mays said.

17Kia_Forte_SO_ES_07.jpg 2017 Kia Forte | photo by Evan Sears

What They Liked

Safety features: “Our Forte aced the safety category with its bevy of optional active safety assists, including a rare lane centering steering system,” Mays said. This was the first time in-market shopper Mary used the lane keep aids: “One of the features I never thought about was the lane assist. This would probably help me. It was making little corrections for me. It feels a little weird, but now that I’ve used it, it’s kind of nice.”

Luxury touches: The Forte pairs its suite of advanced safety features with unexpected features for the class. “Two useful features — a hands-free trunk and power-folding side mirrors — distinguished our test car. You often have to go a class or two higher to find them,” Mays said. 

Roominess: “Tall drivers will love the Forte’s spacious interior; its low console allows you to spread out.” Mays said.

Driver-centric layout: “The stylish dash, angled display and leather-wrapped steering wheel offer the most driver-centric layout in the Challenge,” Meier said.

What They Didn’t

Ride quality: The as-tested Forte S trim level comes with a ride-destroying sport suspension that lowered the car’s ride quality scores. “Our car’s optional sport-tuned suspension thwacked away at potholes with a degree of harshness the others filter out,” Mays said, adding, “It’s still livable, but it borders on too uncomfortable.” Meier agreed: “This model’s sport-tuned suspension delivers a busy, bumpy ride without giving you real payoff in handling prowess.”

Overactive safety feature: “You can feel the lane keeping system working against your hands — even when you’re well between lane markings,” Hanley said.

Front-seat comfort: In addition to the ride quality hurting comfort, Meier added, “The front seats are thinly padded and lack much side bolstering. Not my pick for a long drive.”

What You Get | Research the 2017 Kia Forte | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

1 2017 Honda Civic ($22,975), 724 points

The verdict: “The Civic looks and feels almost a size class above the field in this Challenge,” Meier said, “and impressive attention to details and quality makes it feel more expensive, too.”

17Honda_Civic_SO_ES_05.jpg 2017 Honda Civic | photo by Evan Sears

What They Liked

Fun to drive: “The Civic feels planted in corners, urging you to go faster where other compact cars beg you to back off,” Hanley said. The judges agreed that even the CVT, usually a suck on fun, didn’t hamper the experience. “CVTs are a bitter pill, but Honda makes them easiest to swallow. Toe the gas, and the Civic’s unit snaps to higher revs with the swiftness of a traditional automatic kicking down one or two gears. It feels downright conventional,” Mays said.

Storage: The judges appreciated the minivanlike storage between the front seats. “The clever console has hidden lower space with power and connectivity for devices with a pass-through to an upper tray. And you can configure the big console bin as needed for cups and gear, or even, we found, to hide a medium-size purse,” said Meier.

Interior quality: Quality and style separated the Civic’s interior from the rest. “The colorful and flashy digital instrument cluster — the only one here — is an upscale touch,” Meier said. “The ivory and black interior had an upscale look and quality feel for the class.”

Value: Value plus equipment proved a winning combination to J.D. The Civic’s bevy of safety and convenience features for the price impressed him. “If you told your friends you dropped $23,000 on this car, they’d think you got an amazing deal,” he said.

What They Didn’t

Media controls: The Civic’s multimedia system got one of the lowest scores not because of what it lacked on the inside, like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but from what was missing on the outside. “In higher trims, Honda ditches volume and tuning knobs for touch-sensitive panels — an ‘advancement’ so vexing it makes me recommend the lower trims that still have physical controls,” Mays said.  

Overactive safety warning: The included safety features weren’t without their annoyances, per Hanley: “The forward collision warning system regularly issues unnecessary warnings when slowing to a stop.” 

Roominess: “Some drivers may want more seating range. I like to sit high, and I needed to slide almost all the way back to accommodate my 6-foot frame,” Mays said. 

What You Get | Research the 2017 Honda Civic | Search Inventory | Car Seat Check | Photo Gallery

How the Competitors Fared in Each Category

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How We Tested

Our weeklong test took place 20 miles northwest of Austin, Texas, in Lakeway, which had us on highways and back roads filled with curves and elevation changes. The judges drove each car on the same loop for back-to-back impressions, and we took all eight sedans on a 169-mile fuel economy loop to evaluate real-world fuel mileage. An in-market couple — both compact car owners — joined us to help evaluate the sedans, and their scores contributed to determining the overall winner.

Another facet of the test included awarding points to the cars if they came equipped as-tested with crash avoidance technologies including forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, blind spot warning, lane departure warning, lane departure steering and lane centering steering. Here’s how each car scored: 

 | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan  | graphic by Paul Dolan

The scoring broke down this way:

  • 69 percent from the judges’ scoring
  • 11 percent from our shoppers
  • 10 percent from the mileage drive
  • 10 percent from crash avoidance safety features



Challenge_compact_cat_mpg.jpg graphic by Paul Dolan


Photo of Joe Bruzek
Managing Editor Joe Bruzek’s 22 years of automotive experience doesn’t count the lifelong obsession that started as a kid admiring his dad’s 1964 Chevrolet Corvette — and continues to this day. Joe’s been an automotive journalist with for 16 years, writing shopper-focused car reviews, news and research content. As Managing Editor, one of his favorite areas of focus is helping shoppers understand electric cars and how to determine whether going electric is right for them. In his free time, Joe maintains a love-hate relationship with his 1998 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that he wishes would fix itself. LinkedIn: Email Joe Bruzek

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