What's the Most Affordable Compact Sedan?

Car shoppers want a long list of features in a new car, even if that car is a compact sedan that starts around $16,000. That starting price usually doesn’t include what many consider “must-have” features — chief among them an automatic transmission.

We took 11 compact sedans and looked at their prices when equipped with the following features:

  • Automatic transmission
  • Cruise control
  • USB input
  • Remote entry
  • Tilt/telescoping steering wheel
  • Steering-wheel audio controls

It may seem like a simple search, but if you’re looking at a new Nissan Sentra, Dodge Dart or Volkswagen Jetta, you’ll need to know the specific trim level, options and option packages to ensure you won’t regret not having that one missing feature.

We took those as-equipped prices and then added five years of fuel costs to come up with the most affordable compact sedan on the market.

Having recently purchased our long-term Honda Civic that has all of these features in a base model, we thought it had a good shot of scoring well here. But the results were somewhat surprising, especially in terms of what car was No. 1.

Nissan’s redesigned 2013 Sentra comes out on top. It wasn’t easy to get all the options we wanted on the Sentra. First, you must choose the SV trim level and then the Driver’s Package; many competitors deliver them in a specific trim level without the need for options. Configured like this, the as-tested price was actually higher than the Toyota Corolla and Kia Forte. But it bested those two thanks to segment-leading fuel costs.

We originally ran these calculations before Nissan announced a price reduction on the Sentra and other models last week. It still came out on top before the announcement, but the gap widened from a mere $90 to $730 between the Sentra and the next most affordable car, the Forte.

Read the full review of the 2013 Nissan Sentra

Another surprise was the Subaru Impreza. It had all the equipment we were looking for except cruise control in the 2.0i base model. If you don’t need cruise, you’d save $1,400 by choosing the base model over the 2.0i Premium trim, and that lower price would have put it in sixth place between the Civic and Ford Focus. It also had surprisingly low fuel costs for an all-wheel-drive car.

The number that stands out is $20,000, and that’s the price car shoppers need to remember when shopping this class. There are five compact sedans that are both well-equipped and well-reviewed for less than that price.

If you’ve got your heart set on a car that costs more than $20,000, make sure there are valid reasons to pick it over the more affordable options.

The Impreza’s all-wheel drive is likely the biggest factor that would sway customers, but the as-equipped Dodge Dart has 17-inch alloy wheels and a six-speaker sound system that we think stands out in the class.

If value reigns supreme, it’s hard to pass up the Forte, Sentra or Elantra.

Editor’s note

  • Fuel ratings based on 45% highway, 55% city driving, 15,000 annual miles and a price of $3.61 a gallon. Via FuelEconomy.gov.
  • The Mitsubishi Lancer wasn’t included because it doesn’t offer a tilt/telescoping steering wheel on any trim level.
  • Chart revised on May 8 to reflect correct engine associated with Mazda3.

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