Fastest compact car
Every New Compact Car Ranked from Worst to Best
The small-car segment is huge—let us help you separate the great ones from the also-rans.
While trucks, SUVs, and crossovers continue to set sales records and take top billing in marketing materials, it’s easy to overlook the essential goodness of the compact car. Reasonably sized, efficient, and often quite affordable, the compact has a righteous role. Thanks to tight competition and a surge in the availability of technology features, the traditional four-door-compact formula has become elastic, stretching to include everything from box-on-wheels wagons to sleek and sporty coupes. Whatever your needs, there’s probably a compact car that will fill them. Here, we’ve arranged how the current compact offerings rank against one another, from worst to best.
Last place is an onerous position for any car to find itself in when set against its competitors. Nissan’s Sentra earns its billing, however, with shortcomings that include sloppy handling, overly light steering effort, and brakes that fail to inspire confidence in the driver. By reputation, the Sentra is a reliable, affordable conveyance, but the plain interior and the haphazard ways in which its optional features are integrated relentlessly remind you that this is a car built on a budget for those on a budget.
Wait, you might be asking: How is the Mini Cooper ranked here among compact cars? Isn’t it small? Not anymore, it isn’t. The latest Cooper is significantly larger than Minis past, though it remains a niche player in the segment thanks to its relatively high price and style focus. The convertible variant represents an even narrower niche: That of a four-seat, small convertible. With Buick’s Cascada on its way out—as well as the Beetle convertible—the Mini Cooper Convertible soon will be quite lonely out there. Mini offers the droptop in two guises: Base and S. The former uses a 134-hp turbocharged three-cylinder engine, while the latter gets a 189-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four. A 228-hp John Cooper Works model tops off the line.
The Mini Cooper hardtop family encompasses both the two-door hardtop and the 4-Door hardtop, with both available in base and S guises. The two-door offers a 228-hp John Cooper Works option, as well. Every version’s specification match those of the Cooper convertible, including the entry-level 134-hp turbocharged three-cylinder engine and the S model’s 189-hp turbo four. As with the convertible, the Cooper Hardtop is pricey and small for the segment, with an overt focus on style and premium trimmings.
Easily the most well-rounded of the Mini family, the Clubman also happens to be among the least mini. Nevertheless, its more stretched appearance relative to the Cooper 4-Door model mentioned elsewhere in this rankings roundup gives it a small wagon vibe, while its rear barn doors give the cargo area a theatrical entrance. Like the other Cooper family members, the Clubman is available in 134-hp base form, 189-hp S guise, and range-topping 228-hp John Cooper Works trim (pictured here).
Heavy on value but light on thrills, Toyota’s Corolla sedan is finally being replaced next year by an all-new model related to the new-for-2019 Corolla hatchback. In the meantime, the outgoing model soldiers on with its aging 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine making just 132 horsepower—140(!) in the LE Eco model—and slightly oddball styling. A six-speed manual is available, as is a continuously variable automatic transmission, and every Corolla sedan ships with adaptive cruise control, lane-keeping assist, automatic high beams, and automated emergency braking as standard.
The distinctive Volkswagen Beetle, offered as a coupe or a convertible, is the rare car that is nearly as fun to drive as it is to look at. A 170-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine is standard, and customers can choose between a five-speed manual transmission and a six-speed automatic. The Beetle Dune gets the automatic standard, as well as an extra 0.2 inch of ground clearance and SUV-like body cladding. If road-burning is more your thing, the 210-hp turbocharged R-Line brings a sportier vibe. Get any of the Bugs while you can, however: For the second time in its history, the Volkswagen Beetle will fade from the U.S. market. The Beetle will be sold through the end of 2019, with no 2020 model year planned. A replacement could take the form of a full-electric, but details on that are forthcoming.
With snappy good looks and an impressive list of standard and available features, Kia’s Forte sedan (pictured) and Forte5 hatchback offer great value and few compromises. The base sedan has a 147-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual. A 164-hp 2.0-liter four represents the step-up engine, and a six-speed automatic transmission is available. For the hatch, Kia only installs the more powerful engine while making available a 201-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter engine with a seven-speed automatic or a six-speed manual.
Subaru’s Impreza sedan and hatchback are competent small cars, but with a 152-hp four-cylinder engine and either a five-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic, neither does much to excite enthusiast drivers. Standard all-wheel drive sets them apart in the compact segment, as does their available EyeSight camera-based active-safety features that include adaptive cruise control and automated emergency braking.
For the first time in ages, Toyota’s Corolla rises above its station as a dutiful appliance. For now, this praise is heaped solely on the hatchback model, though, soon, it will be joined by the redesigned sedan for 2020. The Corolla hatchback is visually interesting inside and out, with excellent interior materials, a fuel-efficient engine, and a smooth ride with satisfying steering. Our only complaints? That the Corolla’s stylish roofline cuts down on rear-seat and cargo space.
By now it has become nearly expected that each new generation of Hyundai products is better than the last. The Elantra sedan is no exception, with the newest model offering the best value yet. Stylish inside and out (more so for 2019, thanks to a snappy refresh), the roomy Elantra can be loaded with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, heated seats, a full complement of active-safety features, and more. A 147-hp four-cylinder engine is standard, while the fuel-efficient Eco trim gets a turbocharged 1.4-liter four and a seven-speed automatic transmission; in our testing, the Eco recorded 43 mpg on the highway.
Even though it shares its name with the Elantra sedan—excepting, of course, the “GT” tacked on at the end—the sweet-driving Hyundai Elantra GT is more than just the hatchback spin-off. The styling is slightly sharper, more European, and the powertrains are different from the sedan’s. A 161-hp 2.0-liter four is standard, and it can be mated to either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic; a 201-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter four is optional. Other standard equipment includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Unlike the Hyundai Elantra and Elantra GT, the Chevrolet Cruze sedan and hatchback are one in the same, albeit with unique tails. (Hence why both are grouped into a single entry here.) The Chevrolets also drive with a solid, big-car feel, with both delivering a comfortable, well-isolated ride and a quiet cabin at speed. A gasoline-fed turbocharged four-cylinder engine is standard, while a diesel is optional—the latter delivered an incredible 52 mpg in our testing. In an interesting twist, the Cruze is being canceled early in 2019, despite Chevrolet having just rolled out a facelifted version earlier this year.
Redesigned for 2019, the Jetta sedan once again realigns with Volkswagen’s global Golf hatchback—at least structurally. The two now share VW’s MQB modular architecture (for the past few years, the Jetta’s architecture has been distinct from the Golf’s), and the fully modern running gear and electronics represent the latest from VW’s arsenal. To wit, every Jetta is powered by a 147-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine paired to either a six-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed automatic. Full-LED exterior lighting and a state-of-the-art infotainment system are standard, and the Jetta feels upscale and refined in spite of its modest pricing.
Previously a wacky-shaped als-ran in the sport-compact world, the Veloster hatchback now has newfound driving verve, refinement, and a low price that makes it a relative bargain. Unlike its predecessor, the latest Veloster’s structure is stiff, its steering direct, and the suspension is well-tuned for handling at little expense to the ride quality. The 201-hp Turbo model elevates the breed, as does the ambitious, 275-hp Veloster N pictured here.
Few cars at any price point successfully combine style, dynamics, and value, let alone a compact car. The Mazda 3 does, and it does so beautifully. Buyers can choose between a sedan and a hatchback, and a slick six-speed manual transmission and a smooth 155-hp 2.0-liter four are standard. A six-speed automatic is optional, as is a 184-hp 2.5-liter engine. The steering is responsive, and the handling is excellent. If you thought Mazda couldn’t improve on the 3’s good looks and upscale interior, prepare for the upcoming fourth-generation model, which will go on sale for the 2019 model year with sexier looks, a more luxurious cabin, and an intriguing new engine technology.
Honda’s Civic lineup is vast, encompassing two-door coupe, four-door sedan, and four-door hatchback body styles; three engines ranging from a 2.0-liter four-cylinder to a turbocharged 1.5-liter four to a turbocharged 2.0-liter four; and regular, Sport, Si, and Type R grades. No matter which Civic you choose, the steering is precise, the chassis feels solid, and the suspension delivers sharp handling without a punishing ride. Admittedly, some of the Civic variants wear, ahem, expressive styling—we’re looking mostly at the flared and spoilered 306-hp Type R—but from behind the wheel, each one satisfies.
Much like the Honda Civic, Volkswagen’s Golf family encompasses many members. There is the regular Golf hatchback, plus the Golf Sportwagen; Alltrack, essentially a Sportwagen wearing more cladding and boasting more ground clearance; the sporty GTI; and the penultimate 288-hp, all-wheel-drive Golf R. All-wheel drive is standard on the Alltrack and optional on the Sportwagen, and every Golf is turbocharged. Common among all Golfs are an upscale interior with Audi-like materials, excellent driving manners, and a usefully large cargo hold. It’s little wonder the Golf has been a perennial occupant of our 10Best Cars list.