And surprisingly well-equipped.
High fuel prices and a slow economy are making such cars hot but also raising sales prices. So Cars.com and USA TODAY pitted compact sedans meeting strict price and mileage requirements in our latest head-to-head Shootout to help you pick a winner for your garage before car prices get even higher.
The Under 20/Over 35 Shootout judged five cars priced at less than $20,000, before shipping, and rated at more than 35 miles per gallon on the highway.
And that began swimmingly. The low-price, high-mileage compacts increasingly impressed family judge Frani Udell, a working mom from Northbrook, Ill., who hasn't been car shopping lately.
Her regular ride is a 2008 Toyota Highlander crossover SUV, and she was self-conscious about how impressed she was with the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, a brand and model she said she'd have dismissed out-of-hand before she got this close look. In fact, she'd have written off all five before this chance to see, sit and pilot.
Then, uh-oh: "There's no room for my gun."
Udell is a private investigator who says she goes for "the hard cases — the rapes, murders — that take me into, you wouldn't believe the neighborhoods where I have to go."
So, she says, she keeps a 9mm Beretta pistol at her waist and a smaller Glock in an ankle holster. After a hard day at work, it's not her earrings she wants to toss into a car cubby.
"You don't want to drive around with it exposed," she said, gesturing dismissively at the generally small consoles and storage areas of the five cars.
In addition to lending unexpected credibility to the term "shootout," Udell's concern shows that no matter how thoughtful car designers are, there's always something they couldn't anticipate. The smaller and less expensive the car, the more likely that becomes, because of space and budget constraints.
Making good low-price car a feat
Creating a roomy, satisfying, full-featured car that's also priced low and rates high for fuel economy is a feat of engineering. A bigger challenge, in fact, than turning out a good luxury car.
Which makes the latest-generation compact cars all the more impressive, says Udell.
Jack Nerad, executive market analyst at pricing site kbb.com, agrees: "A state-of-the-art compact today is pretty roomy, and if loaded, it's got a lot of stuff: automatic temperature control, navi system, keyless entry, leather."
In addition to the Shootout's price and mileage thresholds, the vehicles also had to hold five people more or less comfortably so the cars could serve as family cars or only cars, not just commuter cars or college buggies.
The requirements pared the field to five front-wheel-drive, four-door compacts: 2011 Elantra, 2011 Kia Forte, 2012 Honda Civic, 2012 Ford Focus, 2011 Chevrolet Cruze.
Udell, 51, and her son, Alec, 19, were the family recruited to add real-world perspective. Their scores, those of the auto reviewers, a real-world fuel-economy test and a technology test were combined to rank the five cars.
Elantra best in close Shootout
Elantra was the overall winner, but it was the closest Shootout to date. All five had strong points and could be a good choice, depending on priorities.
Forte was remodeled in 2009 for the 2010 model year, so the 2011 tested had the oldest design of the five. Cruze was introduced in September as a 2011. Elantra arrived in December, also as a 2011. Focus and Civic were launched this year as 2012s.
Automakers chose their own mix of trim and equipment within the price cap for their Shootout entrants. All five had four-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions. All were mainstream models, not the special fuel-efficiency models offered by some.
•Toyota Corolla. Priced low enough, but no Corolla model is rated more than 35 mpg on the highway.
•Volkswagen's redesigned Jetta. Low-enough price but misses the mileage cut by several miles per gallon. A diesel model tops 40 mpg on the highway, but its price is above the limit.
One big question for the testing was how close the cars' real-world gas mileage would come to their government ratings. We used a 161-mile route to find out, from downtown Chicago through the western suburbs and onto rural highways.
Civic had the best mileage, its trip computer showing 36.8 mpg, even though it is the entrant with a five-speed automatic transmission. The others have six-speeds, generally considered better for mileage. Honda said when it launched the new Civic that transmission tuning is more important than how many separate speeds it has. The Shootout appears to confirm that.
Hyundai Elantra's 40 mpg highway rating is the highest of the five, but it came in second on the mileage run, at 34.5 mpg on the trip computer.
All topped 30 mpg, Kia Forte scoring last at 30.6 mpg.
While none was a sybarite's dream, all were well-equipped enough to prevent what Nerad calls the "penalty box syndrome" that used to be an unwanted feature of barren small cars.
Everyday cars, premium features
If you haven't shopped for a compact lately, you might be surprised at how feature inflation has loaded even these everyday models with goodies mainly found on premium cars only a few years ago.
Typical on the test cars were Bluetooth connectivity for phones; power windows, locks and mirrors; climate control; trip computers; and cruise control, steering-wheel audio controls and iPod hookups. Three had alloy wheels at our price. One had a sunroof.
And for not much more than our $20,000 limit, you could have these even more lavishly equipped. For example, for about $22,000 the Elantra would also have leather upholstery, heated front and rear seats, a backup camera, a sunroof, satellite radio and special alloy wheels.
On the other hand, you could drop $25,000 to $30,000 on some compacts if dazzled by the options list.
"They want the features, the content, whether it's a Fiesta all the way up to the F-150," Ford Motor CEO Alan Mulally said in April about how Ford made a $2.6 billion first-quarter profit, even though it sold more small cars that typically have lower margins.
"On the Fiesta, one of the most popular options is heated leather seats. That's on a Fiesta," he said. Fiesta is Ford's $14,000-up subcompact, one size down from the Shootout's Focus.
As-tested, sticker prices for our Shootout combatants ranged from $17,760 for the Elantra to $19,560 for the Focus. That makes them great bargains compared with the average sticker price for all new vehicles in May of $31,883, according to TrueCar.com.
But their transaction prices — what people are paying — are rising. The combined average transaction price — including all options, discounts, rebates and shipping, but not taxes and license fees — for Elantras, Civics, Fortes, Focuses and Cruzes that dealers sold in May was $19,843, up about $1,500 just since September, the first month that all five shootout cars were available.
Cruze's average transaction price has been tops for the five, never less than $20,000 since its September launch and closer to $21,000 every month through May, TrueCar.com data show.
Average transaction prices for the other four cars represented in the Shootout jumped in April, as fuel prices vaulted toward a May peak, and the redone Focus and Civic arrived at dealers. Average for all five in May: $20,015, up from $18,484 in September.
For comparison, the average transaction price in May for all new vehicles of all sizes and types was a record $29,912, according to TrueCar.com.
Small-car appeal just economy?
Since the start of 2010, compacts have generated an average 15.9% of all new vehicle sales (or about 2 million compacts), ranging from 13.8% in October when fuel prices averaged $2.80 a gallon to 18% in March, as fuel rocketed toward an early-May peak of $3.97, according to government data.
Compacts' appeal "gains momentum when fuel prices go up and loses momentum when prices go down. It's so darn predictable," Nerad says.
Under that rise and fall, however, is what TrueCar.com veteran industry analyst Jesse Toprak believes is a steadily growing interest in small cars "not because of money-saving reasons, but because they are fashionable."
Says Toprak, "The biggest change in small cars the past five years: People actually choose small cars because they like the design, and small cars come with all the amenities (buyers had) in their larger vehicles, so the transition is easier."
How about Bluetooth and music integration?
Given their increasing importance to buyers, we did a specific test of Bluetooth connectivity and portable music player integration using an iPhone 4, a third-generation iPod Nano, a 160-gigabyte iPod Classic and a USB flash drive with MP3 and MP4 files. Each car started with 100 points and lost them for shortcomings.
The finish, scores and our comments:
1. Kia Forte: One of the most user-friendly iPod and Bluetooth integrations. Easy to connect an iPhone using Bluetooth and to stream audio, as well as to control an iPod on a wired connection. System similar to Elantra's, but knob instead of buttons made scrolling large library much easier. Minus 10, scrolling ease. Score: 90.
2. Hyundai Elantra: Hurt by difficult scrolling for large library. If you want to hear Weezer, there's no quick-scroll to W. Minus 20, scrolling ease. Score: 80.
3. Chevrolet Cruze: Best interface for scrolling. After first cycling through the songs, dash screen displayed a letter that let you quickly scroll the alphabet for a song. But Cruze was only car with Bluetooth that didn't allow streaming audio. Initially pairing iPhone 4 required digging into menus. Minus 10 each, limited display, ease of use, no streaming. Score: 70.
4. (tie) Honda Civic LX: Rapidly indexed iPod Classic's 9,000 songs. Got quickly familiar with new i-MID system's steering-wheel controller and dash screen. Most advanced shuffle features. Only car that played the MP4 file (all played MP3). Score suffered for lack of Bluetooth (you must step up to EX trim for it). Minus 20, no Bluetooth; 10 each, scrolling ease, limited display. Score: 60.
5. (tie) Ford Focus: Sync system looked good on paper; then we started to use it. Within five minutes, we were digging for help in the owner's manual. Owners will learn its quirks and get comfortable pairing, but that won't fix the fact that it takes multiple menus and searching to do what others do with the push of a button. Minus 20 for ease of use; 10 each, scrolling ease, limited display. Score: 60.
- Call: 1-888-267-5511
- Click: www.CourtesyChev.com
- Visit: 1233 E. Camelback Road, Phoenix, AZ 85014