Only a few years ago, Asian automakers ruled the compact car market with such established models as the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra and Toyota Corolla. But in recent years a surge of high-quality, attractive, well-priced American compacts has emerged, changing the face of the segment and giving buyers more choices.
We’ve listed some of our favorites among this new generation of American compact cars for shoppers who may not have considered a domestic vehicle before.
The largest of Chevrolet‘s compacts is a sedan called the Cruze, which is a direct rival to the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. In addition to offering an interior that’s highly improved compared to its predecessor, the Chevrolet Cobalt, the Cruze boasts a class-leading 42 mpg with its available Eco package. The sedan also includes a reasonable base price of around $17,000, and a long list of available features fit for a luxury car, such as remote engine starting, keyless access, automatic climate control and 18-inch alloy wheels.
The stylish new Sonic replaced Chevrolet’s Korean-built Aveo subcompact for the 2012 model year. Offered in 5-door hatchback or 4-door sedan body styles, the Sonic returns up to 40 mpg with its available 138-horsepower 1.4-liter turbocharged engine. It’s also newly available with the automaker’s MyLink infotainment system, which allows drivers to sync their mobile phones and access apps like Pandora Internet radio. Most importantly, though, we like the Sonic’s pricing: Even at its base price of around $14,000 for an LS model, the Sonic offers several luxurious features–such as automatic headlights and GM’s OnStar telematics system–as standard equipment. Drivers who upgrade to the mid-level LT or upscale LTZ trims will find even more luxury goodies, but they’re still unlikely to crack $20,000.
With a starting price of under $13,000, the Chevrolet Spark is the least expensive vehicle currently offered by General Motors. It’s also the smallest Chevrolet ever sold in the United States, measuring just 144.7 inches long–only three feet longer than a Smart Fortwo. Despite its diminutive size, the Spark has four full doors and seating for five people, though we wouldn’t recommend taking a long trip with the hatchback filled to capacity. That’s mainly due to comfort but also because the Spark is motivated by a tiny 84-hp 4-cylinder that isn’t well suited to long trips on the highway. Nonetheless, the Spark makes sense for city-dwelling drivers with short commutes, especially since it returns a whopping 32 mpg in city driving with its standard 5-speed manual transmission.
Dodge‘s latest compact sedan replaces its Caliber hatchback for 2013 and offers something for just about everyone. Hypermilers will like the Dart Aero, which returns an EPA-rated 41 mpg on the highway thanks to several aerodynamic modifications. For drivers interested in a sporty ride, the Dart R/T touts alloy wheels, a rear spoiler and a 2.4-liter engine that produces a healthy 184 hp. Shoppers simply interested in a good compact car will find one in the Dart also thanks to reasonable pricing (which starts under $17,000), considerable standard features, luxurious options and a host of safety features that includes curtain side airbags, front knee airbags and 4-wheel anti-lock disc brakes.
Ford‘s smallest car made a splash in the sleepy subcompact segment when it debuted for the 2010 model year. In addition to offering bold exterior styling and some unique colors, the Fiesta carried its stylish appearance inside, offering an exciting interior that was divergent from the bland cabins in most rivals. The Fiesta also brought a long list of new technology to the compact car segment, including Ford’s SYNC infotainment system, push-button starting, Intelligent Access keyless entry and MyKey, a feature that lets drivers program vehicle settings based on which key is used. The Fiesta also achieves up to 40 mpg thanks to an efficient 120-hp 4-cylinder engine and Ford’s advanced dual-clutch automatic transmission.
The latest Ford Focus is handsome, practical and fuel efficient–and a major improvement over its predecessor. Available in sedan or 5-door hatchback body styles, the Focus boasts a stylish interior and a robust 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine that produces 160 hp and can achieve up to 40 mpg. We’re especially taken with the Focus’ available high-tech gadgets, which include Ford’s SYNC infotainment system, a dual-clutch automatic transmission for quick shifts and improved fuel economy, and even an Active Park Assist system that can parallel park the compact car automatically.
What it means to you: Although it was hard to justify choosing American compact cars several years ago, we heartily recommend any of the latest models listed above.