Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
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Originally published May 23, 2012

Review by Jonathan Yarkony, Michael Schlee and Chris Chase
Photos by Jonathan Yarkony, Brigitte “The Moderator” and Chris Chase

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Compact car comparo

Bestsellers.

Every company wants to have one (or several) on their hands, and in Canada, the biggest segment is the compact segment, accounting for over 350,000 vehicle sales in 2011, ranking even ahead of pickups (260K) and compact sport utilities/crossovers (268K). Any manufacturer that wants to be a volume player in Canada has to bring a competitive compact to market.

And our readers want to know which is the best.

Early this spring, when we were discussing which comparisons we wanted to make, we agreed that the compact segment was the most crucial, the most popular, and possibly the most controversial. We still do. Of the top ten bestselling cars in Canada, seven are compacts, and they are the top seven, and four of the top ten bestselling vehicles are compact cars, although none are in the league of the F-150 and its 96,000+ sales in 2011. Not even close.

Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
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Initially, we just wanted to get the top three or four bestsellers (Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3, and Toyota Corolla), but that meant we would be excluding the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Focus, vehicles we have driven and that impressed us. And once we started adding cars, well, we just couldn’t stop, so we ended up with a total of nine vehicles, all those mentioned above, plus the Volkswagen Jetta, Nissan Sentra, and the Subaru Impreza, fresh off its win in the AWD Compact Comparo we conducted recently.

As much as we liked the Mitsubishi Lancer, it still lost, and with an evaluation in this comparo that placed more importance on interior appointments, we felt that the sub-par Lancer interior just wouldn’t cut it and would never have a shot at winning. We saw nothing that changed our mind on that front. Unable to attend was the Kia Forte, but perhaps it can make an appearance when we bring back our favourites to test themselves against the 2013 Dodge Dart this summer or fall.

Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
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Our route took us from a mall on the outskirts of Toronto through a loop of urban streets, highways, and construction zones that provided a good shakedown to see if the cars held up to scrutiny in a typical urban and suburban environment. We managed without incident, except for one flat tire on the Mazda3, which Mazda Canada managed to replace at a moment’s notice, and GM Canada who were quick to get all-season tires on the Cruze when we spotted the dreaded winter-tire curse. And our thanks to all the manufacturers that put up with our convoluted requests and last-minute arrangements.

Going into the comparison, there were a few frontrunners based on previous driving impressions and impressive résumés. AJAC 2012 Canadian Car of the Year Hyundai Elantra, which beat out the Ford Focus and Subaru Impreza in its Small Car Over $21K category (the Honda Civic suspiciously ducked out of that category and into the Under $21K category, the traditional fighting ground of subcompacts) at AJAC’s TestFest, and other CCOTY category winners in the final vote-off. It also took home the North American Car of the Year honours. Of course, the Ford Focus is no slouch, earning a spot on Car and Driver’s 10Best, the Chevrolet Cruze, last year’s Canadian Car of the Year entered as something of a dark horse, and the Mazda3, because it has that balanced fun, value, and practicality that we thought would score well in our points system.

But what we think going in isn’t enough to win. Read on to find out how it all played out.

9th Place – Toyota Corolla

Someone had to finish last. Some people really didn’t like this car. It wouldn’t even be a stretch to say that a couple people genuinely hated it. One judge noted that it had a “Clean look.” Said judge will remain anonymous, although perhaps he was referring to the total lack of anything going on in exterior or interior design. Throughout the testing we repeatedly grilled each other wondering how Toyota manages to sell this car in such numbers, or even sell any of them at all without massive financing. At a certain point we landed on a viable theory.

Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
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The Corolla is the Anti-Car, and all that such a title implies. By virtue of our profession and involvement in this comparison, we obviously like cars and probably driving to some degree. If you’re anything like us, this car is not for you. However, if you could care less about how your car looks, how it handles or steers, or even what materials you will come in contact with, well, maybe the Corolla is for you, and you’re welcome to them. It’s not that Toyota can’t build good cars, either — give us a Yaris over this tired Corolla any day and we’d be happy.

The Corolla is as simple to operate as a door knob, particularly the conventional stereo and heating controls, and the puny 15-inch steel wheels and hubcaps turn in the direction the steering wheel points them. The 132-hp 1.8L engine is the weakest in this class, but it had no problem getting the 1260-kg sedan up to speed in a reasonable time, though no one claimed it was pleasant, particularly the shifting of the archaic four-speed automatic. At speeds over 100 km/h, it suffered from a variety of wriggling, floating, wandering, and steering so loose that it was disconcerting. Once again, not a car for people who like to drive fast.

At the end of the day, it is a car that fulfills a mission we find hard to relate to. It is spacious in the front and rear seats, and cargo volume is also sufficient for basic needs. It is practical (easy to get in and out of and install a child seat), safe (IIHS Top Safety Pick), and lives up to its promise of fuel efficiency at 7.8 L/100 km observed, the second-best results in the test behind only the Mazda3. At $20,565, its price was only a few hundred dollars short of being the cheapest to show up on the test (the stripper Sentra took that honour), but still featured key options like power windows, doors, mirrors, six-way adjustable seats that were okay for everyone. And, as mentioned earlier, those features were dead simple to use, including Bluetooth that practically connected itself to at least one phone.

And Toyota’s trump card, its reputation for reliability, didn’t factor into our scoring, but the Corolla is expected to deliver Better than Average reliability and the best possible ownership costs (y’know, the full red circle thingy) according to Consumer Reports and Toyota is the top non-luxury brand in JD Power’s 2012 Vehicle Dependability Study, with the Corolla behind only the Prius in the Compact Car segment. So there you have it, plenty of reasons that people unlike us buy the Corolla.

Pricing: 2012 Toyota Corolla CE
Base price: $15,450
Options: Enhanced Convenience Package ($3,540), Automatic Transmission ($1,000)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,465
Price as tested: $20,555

8th Place – Honda Civic EX Sedan

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. How did a brand new for 2012 model place behind a 6-year-old design (Nissan Sentra) that didn’t have a height adjustable seat or cruise control? Well, simply put, the new Honda Civic is drowning in a sea of complacency and mediocrity. As one tester put it, “This new Civic drives like the old Civic. Honda clearly thought that was a good thing; let’s hope buyers do, too.” Judging by the sales numbers alone, buyers do like it. However, this year, the Elantra is making a strong claim for first overall with two new body styles about to hit the market.

Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
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Don’t get us wrong, the Civic is still a compelling package and, priced at $22,435 after delivery, is still a good value, especially with the current deals Honda is offering. However, everyone else has stepped up their game in the compact car segment while the Civic has remained neutral. Some of our testers would even argue that it has taken a step backward with the current interior and exterior design.

But it is not styling alone that relegated the Civic to the back of the pack in this comparison. We found the engine note, while pleasant, was loud. So was basically every other noise such as wind and tire roar. As Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony commented, “The Civic sounds rickety.” The steering also drew its share of criticism as some found it wandered too much at highway speeds.

The stereo, on the other hand, is easy to use and offers enjoyable sound, but the two-tiered dash continues to be a sore point with some. Rear seat comfort for two people tied for last with the Elantra due to a lack of rear headroom and low seat position, but with three people, adequate legroom and shoulder space placed it mid-pack. Cargo space was third smallest at 344 L available in the trunk.

On the plus side, power is quick and immediate from the 1.8L 140-hp 4-cylinder engine and the five-speed automatic transmission goes about its business without drama. The Civic returned an impressive 7.9 L/100 km average fuel consumption during our test, which was in the top half of the field thanks to being the lightest vehicle in the group with a svelte 1,255-kg curb weight.

Honda will continue to sell this vehicle in large quantities due to reputation, familiarity and pricing. However, Honda realizes it needs to step up its game and is reputedly already working on a replacement for this Civic.

Pricing: 2012 Honda Civic EX Sedan
Base price: $20,940
Options: None
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,495
Price as tested: $22,535

7th Place: 2012 Nissan Sentra 2.0

If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then Toyota should be plenty flattered by the Nissan Sentra, a car that seemingly aims to cut directly into the Corolla’s dance card. From the forget-me-please styling to the thoroughly unexciting way the Sentra goes down the road, Nissan has done a good job aping that most popular Toyota model.

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Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
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The Sentra was among the least expensive cars in our group, and that was reflected in its short list of standard equipment, which did not include Bluetooth or steering wheel–mounted audio controls.

Our tester did have the continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT), a type of transmission much maligned by enthusiasts, but perfectly suited to this car’s relaxed on-road ambitions. It works very well here, and was praised for the smooth way it goes about its business.

The driver is greeted by a seat as soft as grandma’s favourite wingback, but it doesn’t adjust for height, and the steering wheel only tilts and can’t be adjusted for reach. That made for an awkward driving position for some. Also awkward were the tiny, oddly shaped outside mirrors.

Like the exterior, the Sentra’s interior design is plain, but functional. Fit and finish seemed fine, but many testers noted that the latch on the flip-up centre console cover was already broken.

It earned one of the highest scores for rear seat comfort with three adult riders buckled in, but scored only mid-pack for space and comfort with two passengers.

In a straight line, the Sentra was one of the quietest cars here, with well-muted engine and road noise. Cornering brought out some less favourable characteristics, including an almost complete lack of handling prowess and a suspension that seemed to combine the worst aspects of a ride that somehow managed to be both too soft and too firm. We expected this car to be a highway-cruising champ, but the vague steering wasn’t good at allowing for small course corrections, and so the car tended to wander in its lane.

Through the years, Corolla has become synonymous with basic A-to-B transportation. What this comparison test revealed, though, is that the best Corolla of the bunch doesn’t wear a Toyota badge.

Pricing: 2012 Nissan Sentra 2.0
Base price: $15,478
Options: Value Option Package ($2,000), CVT Package ($1,300), 3-coat paint ($300)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,467
Price as tested: $20,645

6th Place – 2012 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 Comfortline

Compared to the competition, the Jetta seemed massive. As one tester commented “Did we bring a Passat by accident?” At a length of 4,628 mm, the Jetta dwarfs the smallest vehicle in the test, the Focus, by 269 mm. Despite this girth, at 1,410 kg, the Jetta wasn’t the heaviest vehicle in the test; that honour went to the Chevrolet Cruze.

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Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
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To motivate the biggest car in our comparison test, the Jetta arrived with the biggest engine; a 2.5L five-cylinder unit combined with a six-speed automatic. Making the most power and the most torque in the group, the Jetta should have been the runaway winner in the acceleration department. But a sluggish, lagging first gear had us wondering if there was a secret turbo attached to the engine taking eons to spool. Once the Volkswagen kicks into second gear, though, the engine comes into its own and growls away with authority.

Some of us found the engine sounded good in an off-the-wall sort of way, while others, like Associate Editor Chris Chase, found the engine noise not to his liking; “Why does the engine sound like an angry goose at full throttle?” Whatever your take, once up to speed the engine becomes incredibly quiet and an odd throbbing hum mildly fills the cabin. It is easily countered by a little radio volume, but a strange noise nonetheless.

Thanks to its large size and long wheelbase, the Jetta feels planted and solid on the highway and is easily the best freeway cruiser of the group. The suspension is soft and soaks up expansion joints flawlessly. Add in the Jetta’s cavernous 440 L trunk and this is the ideal weekend getaway vehicle, as long as you can live with the worst-in-test observed fuel economy average of 9.3 L/100 km.

The Jetta’s exterior had the group divided. Some found it to be a mature, tasteful design that had an upscale feeling while others found it to be bland. “The interior and exterior offer a complete lack of imagination,” bemoaned one tester. The “plastic fantastic” interior, although tasteful to look at and very spacious, used materials that looked cheap and felt cheap; for a vehicle priced at $25,540 after destination charges, we expected better. The seat fabrics were hard and rough to the touch, yet surprisingly comfortable to sit in. The rear seat was one of the most comfortable in the group and not surprisingly offered the most legroom.

The Jetta soon adopted the unflattering title of the “Bland Mobile”. Then again, for many shopping in this segment, that is exactly what they are looking for; an inoffensive vehicle that can easily transport them and three or four friends.

Pricing: 2012 Volkswagen Jetta 2.5 Comfortline
Base price: $22,575
Options: Multimedia Package ($1,300), Engine Block Heater and Front Fog Lights ($300)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,365
Price as tested: $25,640

4th Place (Tie): 2012 Hyundai Elantra Limited

If you’re wondering what happened to 5th place, note that the Elantra and Focus were dead even on points, and were even tied with one vote each as personal favourites, giving us a tie for 4th.

It’s a wonder the Elantra’s generous standard equipment list doesn’t include a trophy shelf in the back window: this car was picked as AJAC’s Best New Small Car over $21,000 (beating the Focus and Impreza in that category), then proceeded to win both Canadian (AJAC) and North American Car of the Year awards in 2012.

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Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
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There are many reasons why it deserves recognition, not the least of which is that it injects so much style into a class of car dominated by utilitarian-looking snooze-mobiles.

It also won those awards partly because, as is Hyundai’s way, this car is a value leader in the compact segment. Our Limited trim tester costs a little less than $25,000 (including destination), which is about mid-pack, and yet it rivals the most expensive Focus (at nearly $30,000) for having the most kit.

Our drivers noted how quiet the Elantra’s engine is at cruising speeds, but there were a few comments on how thrashy it can get when pressed. Most testers found this car’s 1.8L engine felt strong enough, but was not particularly impressive in any respect. Our observed fuel consumption figure of 8.6 was better than just two other cars here, in spite of its impressive Natural Resources Canada ratings.

Demerits were issued for touchy brakes and throttle, a suspension easily upset by rough pavement (we suspect our tester’s big, heavy 17-inch wheels and low-profile tires had something to do with that) and steering described as feeling “loose” and “sloppy” by some, while others countered with “light and accurate.” Go figure.

The driver’s seat was polarizing: some thought it the most comfortable in the group, while one found it too firm. Same with the styling, which a few drivers loved and others thought was overwrought.

It seems everything about this car was designed to appeal to as broad a cross-section of small-car shoppers as possible. It’s a good approach when big sales numbers are your goal, but the result is a car that won’t generate much excitement among enthusiastic drivers. This car is the stainless steel refrigerator of this group of cars: it looks sharp, but is still nothing more than an appliance.

Pricing: 2012 Hyundai Elantra Limited
Base Price: $22,699
Options: none
A/C Tax: $100
Freight: $1,495
Price as tested: $24,294

4th Place (Tie): 2012 Ford Focus SEL

The Focus was designed in Europe, and it shows; this car beats the Jetta at the game Volkswagen invented, by bringing a small car with superior handling and a premium feel to the compact segment.

Several testers thought the Focus felt underpowered, though its 160 horsepower was second highest among these cars. Using the transmission’s manual shift mode made that better for one driver, but another commented that the manual shift control — a toggle on the side of the shift lever — felt “like a cheap video game control, and an answer to a question nobody asked.”

Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
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Most of our drivers also disliked the PowerShift twin-clutch automatic transmission for its jerky and occasionally indecisive behaviour in normal driving. The way the clutch shudders as first gear is engaged from a stop is off-putting, too. Interestingly, this gearbox seems to perform better the worse you treat it: without fail, aggressive acceleration rewarded the driver with smooth, crisp upshifts, though it remained lazy about downshifting.

The Focus was well liked for its eager handling, accurate, well-weighted steering and good brake feel, all of which were voted by many to be best in this test. This is a nicely sorted chassis that finds a good balance between a compliant ride and sharp responses, makes for a car that feels unflappable at legal highway speeds, and that would remain so well above those velocities.

Testers were nearly unanimous in praising how easy it was to pair Bluetooth devices with Ford’s Sync system. The front and rear parking sensors helped mitigate iffy sightlines in parking manoeuvres, and the convex spotter mirrors were a bonus, too.

The other thing going against our test car was its price. At almost $30,000, it was far and away the priciest in this comparison. To be fair to Ford, they didn’t equip this car specifically for the comparison, where other manufacturers had vehicles on fleet that better represented what the majority of buyers choose in the compact segment.

But along with the highest price came the most tech options, like navigation and those parking sensors, and it was in the minority with its automatic climate control; the stereo was one of the best, too. These are all items that will find appeal among many younger compact car shoppers. But for 30 grand, more than one tester remarked that the lack of a sunroof and leather seats seemed like serious omissions.

Pricing: 2012 Ford Focus SEL
Base Price: $22,399
Options: $5,430 (Audio Interface Package, $1,500; six-speed automatic transmission, $1,450; Parking Technology Package, $600; Engine block heater, $100; Navigation, $700; 17-inch polished wheels, $650; Stewardship Ontario environmental fee, $30)
A/C Tax: $100
Freight: $1,500
Price as tested: $29,329

3rd Place – Subaru Impreza 2.0i Touring Sedan

When we assembled this group of vehicles we never figured that the Impreza would end up being the most polarizing vehicle in the test (or that it would finish so high). Some testers absolutely loved the vehicle while others were utterly disappointed in it. For the most part though, the Impreza, um, impressed us (get it?? Impreza – impressed… ha ha) by checking off all the right boxes for compact car shoppers. Although Subaru won’t admit it outright, when they restyled the Impreza for 2012 their goal was to be more mainstream and attack the compact leaders head-on. Mission accomplished. The Impreza now competes head to head with the likes of the Civic, Corolla, Mazda3, and Elantra. No longer is it relegated to the fringes trying to carve out a niche for itself as a specialty AWD vehicle, which is good news for general consumers, bad news for enthusiasts.

Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
Click image to enlarge

The new Impreza is easy to drive. Everyone who got behind the wheel noticed the hair-trigger throttle response, which was appreciated by some, loathed by others. Power delivery from the 148-hp 2.0L horizontally opposed four-cylinder felt strong and the continuously variable transmission was quick to adjust ratios. That CVT was also a point of debate. Some found the unit in the Sentra better while others favoured the Impreza’s. All agreed that transmission and engine noise was more apparent in the Impreza than many other vehicles in this comparison. Steering feel was highly praised as were the tap-shift/paddle shifters. Combined with nimble handling, the Impreza stood out as one of the more fun-to-drive vehicles; maybe it isn’t all bad news for enthusiasts after all?

Keeping with tradition, the Impreza comes standard with all-wheel drive; an exclusive in this test. Historically the Impreza has paid the price for having full-time all-wheel drive with poor fuel economy. With the 2012 Impreza, Subaru wanted to offer equivalent fuel consumption to the class-leading compacts while still retaining all-wheel drive. At an average of 8.2 L/100 km over the course of our test, the Impreza succeeded in doing so by finishing mid-pack.

Inside the Impreza, Subaru has improved by leaps and bounds over the previous generation. The majority of interior materials are now soft-touch and very good quality, but still look boring and dated. The stereo looks out of place and sound quality is adequate at best. Rear seat space is ample for two people, but not great for 3 as the seat bottom of middle position is rock hard pokes into your back. Cargo space is second smallest at 340 L due to the all-wheel drive hardware eating up space.

The Impreza exterior is a bit of a contradiction. Up front it features an attractive fascia that many considered one of the best in the test. Out back, however, the rear end approaches Jon Doe levels of anonymity. All in all the Impreza is a simple, well thought out vehicle. Associated Editor Chris Chase summed it up best as “A modern take on the winning Corolla formula… with the bonus of all-wheel drive” and at $24,690, it won’t break the bank either.

Pricing: 2012 Subaru Impreza 2.0i Touring 4-Door
Base price: $22,995
Options: None
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,695
Price as tested: $24,790

2nd Place: 2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky

The 2012 Mazda3 was the first of the company’s vehicles to feature SkyActiv technology, in the form of a thrifty 2.0L engine and six-speed automatic and manual transmissions, all exclusive to the GS-Sky model. Chassis changes aimed at reducing weight will come to this compact car for 2013; the first Mazda model to get the full deal is the recently introduced CX-5 compact crossover.

Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
Click image to enlarge

Part of this Mazda’s fuel-saving bag of tricks is a combination of a new direct-injected, high-compression 2.0L four-cylinder engine (as compared to the “old” 2.0L used in the base GX model) and new six-speed transmissions.

Our test drivers loved this transmission, not because it does anything particularly zoom-zoomy, but for its virtually transparent — and yet intuitive — operation. In spite of the engine’s extra power — 155 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque, bumps of 7 and 13 over the base 2.0L — many found this car felt sluggish.

“A lot more ‘Sky’ than ‘Activ’ to this this drivetrain,” wrote one tester; “150 hp? Really? Underwhelming engine,” was another’s comment. My own observation was a noticeably uneven idle. Even still, this power team proved more responsive than the Focus’.

The Ford was better in a couple of specific areas: it felt more stable and planted at highway speeds, and offered better brake pedal feel.

The Mazda3 GS-Sky may make miserly operation its mission, but it still aims to entertain. Its handling satisfied many, but the harsh ride and surfeit of road noise did not. Mazda’s interior treatment was universally praised for high-quality materials and seats that were firm but comfortable, and the only ones to offer any meaningful lateral support.

The lack of a proper trip computer is a weird omission considering how heavily Mazda is promoting this car’s impressive fuel consumption ratings. We had to fill the tank at the end of two days and do math [Mazda’s lucky we did not deduct points for making us do math. -Ed.] to find out that this was the most efficient car in the group at 7.2 L/100 km.

There’s no rocket science behind the reasons for this car’s popularity. While the car doesn’t push everyone’s buttons, this new drivetrain’s impressive efficiency certainly will draw even more shoppers into Mazda showrooms.

Pricing: 2012 Mazda3 GS-Sky Automatic
Base price: $20,395
Options: $2,195 (GS Leather Package, $1,300; Sunroof, $895)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,595
Price as tested: $24,185

1st Place – 2012 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo

Wait… a compact car from General Motors just won a comparison test? Did that just happen?!? Yes. Forget everything you remember about vehicles named Cobalt, Cavalier, Sunbird, Skylark, and Cimarron; the Cruze is the real deal.

Going into this comparison test Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony kept referring to this Chevrolet Cruze as the “dark horse” of the competition and we kept referring to Jonathan as “crazy”. [What??? You were? What the… -Ed.] Sure, we all like the Cruze well enough and think it is a competitive vehicle, but is it really good enough to win the whole shebang? Well, as it turns out, yes, yes it is. [Told ya’ so! And why are you so surprised, it won AJAC’s Canadian Car of the Year just last year. -Ed.]

Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
Comparison Test: Compact Cars volkswagen toyota subaru reviews nissan mazda hyundai honda ford car comparisons chevrolet
Click image to enlarge

The secret to the Cruze’s win lies in the fact that it does nothing poorly and many things brilliantly. Take the chassis and drivetrain: although the little 1.4L turbocharged inline-four develops a mere 138 hp, the 148 lb-ft of torque developed at 1,850 rpm is its trump card. The engine is a little torque monster that behaves more like a diesel than a gasoline engine, right up to its 4,900 rpm power peak. Admiration for the engine was equally matched by admiration for the smooth shifting six-speed automatic transmission that always seemed to intuitively know which gear you wanted to be in. Where the Elantra’s gearbox was at times slow to react, the Cruze’s just knew which gear to select.

Then there is the chassis. Phrases like “rock solid”, “a huge positive” and “out-Germans the Jetta” were bandied about with general agreement. What Chevrolet has done is found a perfect balance between ride and comfort with the Cruze that offers a driving experience far more sophisticated than a compact car should be. It wasn’t rough like the Mazda3, nor was it floaty like the Sentra. Some found the steering to be a little too precise and darty while others appreciated its responsiveness in combination with optional 18-inch low profile tires. Part of the chassis refinement can be attributed to the Cruze’s curb weight of 1,427 kg, heaviest in the group. Despite this portliness, the Cruze managed a respectable 8.3 L/100 km observed fuel economy during our testing.

Inside, the Cruze features a mature looking dash that does not feature the same amount of soft-touch plastics as others in this test, but pulled off an elegant look as opposed to the confused Civic or plain-Jane Impreza. The one area that is “soft touch” in the Cruze’s cabin, the upholstered dash, did not attract many fans. We found it to be out of place, tacky, and even a bit cheesy. That said, in solid black it blends in better than the red and black fabric option. Many loved the expensive feel of the switchgear as well. One interior feature missing in the Cruze was heated seats, which require a financial leap to the LTZ package.

On the outside the Cruze is a sharp-looking vehicle thanks in part to the optional RS package that really sets the vehicle off. The subtle spoiler, 18-inch wheels and minor skirt package make this Chevrolet look sporty yet mature. Even equipped with the LT trim and RS package, the Cruze came in at reasonable $23,205 after destination.

There were a few more minor complaints with the Cruze, such as the upper driver’s seatback that seems to push your shoulders forward into a hunched position, a B pillar that blocks your view in lane changing maneuvers, and a brake pedal that is a bit too squishy.

But overall there were few quibbles in a car that has set the bar for the compact class and has a large enough trunk (425 L) to carry all of the accolades we can throw at it. But rest well, Mr. Cruze, as the Dart is on the horizon, and new versions of the Sentra and Corolla can’t be far off.

Pricing: 2012 Chevrolet Cruze LT Turbo Sedan
Base price: $18,755
Options: 1SB Package ($980), RS Appearance Package ($1,875)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,495
Price as tested: $23,205




About Jonathan Yarkony

Jonathan Yarkony is the Senior Editor for Autos.ca, a Brampton-based automotive writer with eight years of experience evaluating cars and an AJAC member.