Compact sedans have been a common vehicular choice for college graduates, young parents, and empty nesters—and their popularity endures, despite the marketplace rise of crossover SUVs. For many, a compact-sedan purchase represents a first new-car buy; for others, it signifies downsizing from a bigger rig after the kids grow up.
However, buyers still want a lot, even from an affordable car. From style and technology to interior refinement and a comfortable ride, modern compact sedans must deliver in ways they couldn’t even a half-dozen years ago. Full digital instrument clusters? Wireless Apple CarPlay? Features like these not long ago only came on fancy luxury cars. “Compact” sedans have also grown larger and benefited from packaging upgrades and roomy cabins, along with providing more safety than ever before.
The segment has fewer players than it did a decade ago as some automakers have exited to focus on SUVs. But not everyone is out: The 2022 Honda Civic and 2021 Hyundai Elantra are all-new generations; the 2021 Nissan Sentra is entering its midlife; and the 2022 Volkswagen Jetta, 2022 Kia Forte, and 2022 Mazda 3 were refreshed recently.
Before we get into our showdown, a caveat: We’re missing two big players from the segment, as strained press fleets meant we couldn’t include the Toyota Corolla and Subaru Impreza in this comparison.
Still, this group is noteworthy, and we drove all six cars back to back to determine which is the best compact sedan you can buy today.
Most consumers want their cars to feature a comfortable cabin, modern technology, and enough USB ports and cupholders to keep all passengers occupied and/or comfortable. The Hyundai Elantra checks a lot of boxes with its Mercedes-like infotainment system and ample front and rear space. Its dual 10.3-inch screens—one for infotainment and the other for the digital instrument cluster—are top notch, and although there are hard plastics on the door panels, premium cloth and Mercedes-like speaker grilles make up for it.
Meet the Contenders
Sit inside the Mazda 3 AWD Turbo, and premium materials plus a good-looking cabin combine to make you feel like you’re in a luxury car. But there are some misses. The 8.8-inch infotainment screen atop the dashboard is difficult to control through its rotary knob, and cabin space is tight, especially for rear passengers. Second-row riders get no air vents, USB ports, or heated seats. Although we like the well-padded surfaces in the 3’s cabin, we wish everyone riding in it could be equally comfortable.
Move to the Nissan Sentra, and you discover much to like. All our judges agreed the Nissan had the most comfortable seats to go along with well-padded armrests, notable given the car’s price point. Our Sentra SR tester boasted an all-black interior with contrast stitching, jet-inspired air vents, and three USB ports (including one in the rear). However, despite its ample space for rear passengers and a deep trunk, we’re eager for the Sentra’s aging infotainment system to be replaced with a more modern and intuitive setup.
Meanwhile, the VW Jetta’s technology impressed us. Its 8.0-inch touchscreen is easy to use and comes with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, while the 10.3-inch Digital Cockpit Pro demonstrates how VW Group has trickled down technology once found only in Audis. But we wish the interior design and materials were nicer: Rear door panels feel hard and cheap, and a splash of color would deliver a better vibe to the black-on-black design.
Over in Hondaland, the Civic—besides getting a new design inside and out—received a much-needed technology update. Like the Jetta, the Civic Touring sports a full digital instrument cluster with nice graphics and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with wireless connectivity. We’re big fans of the perforated metal trim that extends across the dashboard connecting the air vents and we applaud Honda for making the Civic feel closer to the midsize Accord in terms of space. But although it was difficult to find foibles inside, we did have some issues with its slow infotainment system and CarPlay connectivity.
The Kia Forte GT claims the most features per dollar in this group, and some of them you can’t even find in a segment above. Heated and ventilated front seats? Check. A sporty-looking interior with red accents and aluminum pedals? Check. A 10.3-inch screen? You got it. The quality of the materials and attention to detail, however, aren’t as top notch as we’ve seen in other Kias. “The touchpoints look great but feel hard and cheap,” features editor Christian Seabaugh said. Still, the Forte even came with a USB port and air vents for rear-seat passengers.
How They Were Equipped, and Performance Numbers
We wanted to test each car here with its base engine; however, Mazda and Kia delivered examples featuring their most powerful mills. As a result, we ended up with a diverse mix of engines, from the 147-hp, 132-lb-ft Hyundai Elantra to the 227-hp, 310-lb-ft Mazda 3.
But that wasn’t bad news for the Elantra. Its 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder delivers decent shove for a compact sedan, though we’d like its CVT’s operation to feel smoother. “Consistently comfortable but not flopping about or lacking body control,” associate editor Duncan Brady said.
The Elantra reached 60 mph in 8.4 seconds, and although that’s short of extraordinary, it rewards the driver with a composed ride and quiet cabin. Its steering lacks sporty feedback, but the Elantra keeps comfort front and center.
The Sentra’s 9.7-second run to 60 mph made it the slowest car of the group, but this segment isn’t all about speed. “It has enough power for everyday driving,” Buyer’s Guide director Zach Gale said, “but the suspension on this SR model could isolate from bumps a little better.” With 149 hp and 146 lb-ft, the Sentra doesn’t feel as slow on the road as its dragstrip performance indicates. Step on the gas, and the initial power delivery feels strong, though the engine sounds like it’s crying for help with its CVT feeling stressed.
We’ve been impressed by the Honda Civic before, and we keep applauding the way it delivers. “Who knew basic economy transportation could be so fun?” Seabaugh said. The 1.5-liter turbo-four engine delivers 180 hp and 177 lb-ft, enough to launch the Honda to 60 mph in 8.0 seconds. But that’s the least important fact about the Civic. Rather, its ride and handling are extraordinary, delivering outstanding body composure over bumpy roads and tight turns. Its steering is sharp and gives good feedback, and its CVT is smooth. Still, we sometimes wished its cabin were quieter and the suspension a tad less stiff.
VW updated the 2022 Jetta with a new 1.5-liter turbo-four and eight-speed automatic that came straight out of the Taos SUV, pumping out 158 hp and 184 lb-ft. This engine launches the Jetta to 60 mph in a respectable 7.6 seconds, but its throttle tuning, ride, and handling are subpar. “From a standstill, power delivery is very indecisive and inconsistent,” associate editor Bob Hernandez said. Features editor Scott Evans added, “Its steering feels numb, and its rear suspension had trouble with medium-sized bumps. It handles well as long as the roads are smooth, but hit a mid-corner bump with any speed, and the stability control gets very jumpy.”
The Forte’s 201-hp, 195-lb-ft 1.6-liter turbo engine propelled it to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds, but its seven-speed dual clutch transmission is unrefined and unpolished. “You can feel the vehicle’s clutch engaging in a way that does not feel smooth or refined,” Brady said. On the other hand, the sporty Forte’s ride is stiffer and its steering is heaviest of the group, and we appreciate the exhaust’s sonorous snaps and pops when the transmission downshifts.
Although the Mazda 3 is by far the most powerful car of this test, Mazda sent us a unicorn. Our tester came with all-wheel drive and the 227-hp (250 on premium fuel), 310-lb-ft 2.5-liter turbo engine. This 3 drives wonderfully and feels stronger at lower speeds than the Kia on the road, though the two cars tied on the track in the 60-mph run. Its advantage wanes above 60, thanks to its old six-speed automatic, which continues to hold gears well and shift smoothly. “I love the way this engine purrs at speed,” Gale said. The planted ride and strong body control upped the driving experience even more, absorbing bumps with confidence while keeping the chassis planted.
Most of the cars in this group are within reasonable range of each other pricewise, the Mazda aside. At $34,115, the 3 is by far the most expensive model here. Although it has a larger, more powerful engine and superb materials for a mainstream compact sedan, it’s hard to justify spending $7,000 more than the Elantra.
Korean carmakers have always played a magnificent value game, and the Elantra and Forte are no exception. The Kia is the least expensive model in the group, but at $26,870 it doesn’t feel like it—especially when you consider it has the turbo engine. The Hyundai also impresses; for $27,080, you get a compelling package without spending too much.
Nissan prices the Sentra SR in the middle of the segment, just above the Korean competitors. With its $27,475 price tag, it delivers decent bang for the buck. However, the aging Sentra isn’t state-of-the-art in terms of its technology, and other brands provide better tech for less money. But the Nissan’s styling, interior space, and ride quality are attractive traits.
The Jetta and Civic have matured as far as their designs go, and their prices reflect it. The VW’s $29,185 price might be a bit too expensive, especially considering its material quality. Still, its design and fabulous technology might seal the deal. And although Honda’s tech isn’t as sophisticated as VW’s, its interior design and materials quality make it easier to justify Civic’s $30,360 price.
As automakers push for advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS), some brands like Honda include this technology as standard, while others offer more advanced systems as you climb the trim ladder.
We used a 3.0-mile stretch of highway to test these systems and found Honda’s, Hyundai’s, and Kia’s were the best. All three cars remained centered in their lanes while maintaining a safe distance to the cars in front. The Elantra and Forte allowed us to keep our hands off the wheel for a longer period (about 30 seconds) compared to the Honda, and that’s mostly thanks to the smart cruise control and highway-drive assist. While Kia charges an additional fee for those systems, Hyundai packs them standard on the Limited model. All Civics, regardless of trim, come with Honda Sensing standard.
Between the Jetta and the Mazda, the VW boasted much better lane keep assist, though its centering capability felt limited. But it impressed more than the Mazda, which failed to stay within its lane. Like the Korean cars, the Jetta’s IQ.Drive technology package is available on S and Sport trims but standard on SEL. The Mazda 3 comes standard with lane keep assist, radar cruise control with stop and go, and lane departure warning.
We were most disappointed with the Sentra, as Nissan hasn’t equipped its compact sedan with ProPilot Assist. The Sentra comes with regular cruise control and standard automatic emergency braking but lacks the advanced technologies featured throughout the rest of the segment.
Of all the cars in the group we tested, the Forte is the only one that boasts a four-star crash rating from the NHTSA. The IIHS, on the other hand, awarded the Civic and Mazda 3 with its top honors, while the Sentra and Elantra received Top Safety Pick awards; the updated Jetta is yet to be tested.
After spending an entire day driving these compact sedans in Southern California, we sat down to choose a winner. We talked about the Elantra’s smoothness, the Civic cabin’s attention to detail, and the Jetta’s tech. We agreed the Forte represents fantastic value, and that Mazda did a good job distinguishing the 3 from the rest of the segment, though the price difference is extreme. We discussed how Nissan managed to make the Sentra comfortable for all its occupants. But if we had to buy a compact sedan today, which one would we choose?
6th Place: Volkswagen Jetta
- Premium technology
- Handsome styling
- Roomy cabin
- Inconsistent throttle tuning
- Numb steering
- Bouncy ride
Once known as the compact to buy, the Jetta has fallen from the top. Our judges faulted its cheap interior plastics, numb steering, and erratic throttle mapping. We like its looks and tech, but we urge VW to revive the emotion the Jetta was once known for.
5th Place: Kia Forte
- Sporty vibe
- Loud exhaust
- Tremendous value
- Annoying transmission
- Cheap materials
- Bland styling
The Forte boasts a well-equipped cabin, dynamic styling, and sporty character, but its dual-clutch transmission needs work.
4th Place: Mazda 3
- Luxurious cabin
- Potent engine
- Majestic handling
- Clunky infotainment
- Cramped second row
- Sky-high price
The Mazda 3 is proof positive of Mazda’s “Driving Matters” slogan, but its high price, cramped second row, and inconsistent safety technologies meant it couldn’t finish higher in our contest.
3rd Place: Nissan Sentra
- Comfortable seats
- Smooth ride
- Second-row legroom
- Aging technology
- Lack of adaptive safety systems
- Transmission feels stressed under hard running
Despite its older styling and tech, the Sentra is a comfortable, well-equipped sedan. It’s not the most fun to drive, but it’s a worthy podium finisher.
2nd Place: Hyundai Elantra
- Superb technology
- Settled ride
- Incredible value
- Hard plastics
- Aggressive styling
- Vague steering
Hyundai continues impressing us with its new models. The Elantra’s settled ride, quiet cabin, and modern tech are traits typically found on more expensive cars.
1st Place: Honda Civic
- Agile handling
- Well-appointed cabin
- Spacious interior
- Stiff ride
- Middling infotainment
The new Civic feels closer to the Accord in many ways. Its styling, fun driving characteristics, and good value put it at the top of our list.
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