2010 Compact Car Buying Guide

Last Updated: Sep 16, 2010

Our 2010 compact car buying guide is your roadmap to great value, reliable transportation, even some driving fun.

Compact cars are sized and priced between subcompact cars, such as the Honda Fit, and midsize cars, such as the Toyota Camry. As our 2010 compact car buying guide demonstrates, compact cars serve a broad range of buyers looking for affordable transportation in a not-too-big, not-too-small package.

Indeed, our 2010 compact car buying guide focuses on the 20 compact models with the widest appeal and includes many of America’s top-selling cars, such as the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic.

This 2010 compact car buying guide does not cover compact-sized luxury and performance models, such as the Audi A3 or BMW 3-Series. This is a guide to lower-priced, more mainstream cars, and includes variety enough to satisfy a range of tastes. There are fuel-sipping wagons, such as the Kia Spectra5; European-bred sedans like the Volkswagen Jetta; and pocket-rocket hatchbacks, such as the Subaru Impreza WRX.

Base prices for models in our 2010 compact car buying guide dip below $11,000 for a special economy edition of the Nissan Versa sedan, but generally start about $14,000-$15,000. Top-line versions of a few models are in the $25,000 range. All come with power steering, and many include such amenities as air conditioning and power windows and locks among their standard equipment. Upscale features like leather upholstery, navigation systems, sunroofs, USB iPod and Bluetooth connectivity pepper the options lists.  

Virtually all of these cars have front-wheel drive for good traction in all weather and four-cylinder engines for economical running. Dodge, Pontiac, Subaru, and Toyota models are available with the added grip of all-wheel drive. Volkswagen offers a diesel engine, and a few cars here appeal to enthusiast drivers with turbocharged power and taut sport suspensions: check out the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution, for example.

Our 2010 compact car buying guide does not cover gas-electric hybrid cars; we’ll address those in a separate buying guide. But this is still a fuel-efficient group. Except for the few speed demons, no model in our 2010 compact car buying guide has an EPA rating below 19 mpg in the city – most are around 22 mpg. And highway ratings of 30 mpg or more are common.

All of these cars come with dual driver and passenger front airbags. Standard or optional on all but a few is the added safety of torso-protecting side airbags mounted in the front seats or head-protecting curtain side airbags covering front and rear seating rows. Active safety features, such as antilock brakes and an antiskid system (designed to prevent sideways slides) are standard on some and available at extra cost on most. 

In government crash tests that award five stars for maximum occupant protection, all compact cars rate four or five stars for frontal collisions and three to five stars in side-impact protection. Note that these tests are designed to allow you to compare one compact car with another, not to measure how well compact cars protect occupants in collisions with other types of vehicles.

This leads us to the sobering fact that in real-world crashes, compact cars have the highest occupant fatality rate of any class of vehicle, according to government statistics. In 2004, the last year for which figures were available, the fatality rate for compact cars was 17.7 per 100,000 registered vehicles. Compact pickups were second, with a rate of 16.8 per 100,000. The rate for all passenger vehicles was about 15, with minivans registering the lowest, at 11.

These rates partly reflect relative size. Larger cars, SUVs, and pickup trucks tend to fare better than smaller, lighter vehicles in crashes. But the rates also are a reflection of driver age, experience, and demographics. Compact cars, by their nature, are often the choice of younger drivers who have less experience behind the wheel and take more chances than the older, more affluent drivers of larger, more expensive vehicles. So be careful.    

Here is our 2010 compact car buying guide:

2010 Chevrolet Cobalt
Fading away to make room for the 2011 Chevy Cruze, but not a bad budget buy

2010 Chevrolet HHR
Last year for the 1950s-Suburban-inspired styling. Futuristic replacement due for 2011.

2010 Chrysler PT Cruiser
Outdated retro, what a concept. Likely the last year for this oddly charming wagon.

2010 Dodge Caliber
Tough looker, weak driver. Little to recommend it beyond available all-wheel drive.

2010 Dodge Hornet
A Nissan Versa rebodied by Dodge. It should make up for the Caliber catastrophe.

2010 Ford Focus
Affordable, and hands-free Sync infotainment is nice. But wait for the new 2011 Focus.

2010 Honda Civic
Last model year for the current design, but still the all-around best small car at the price.

2010 Hyundai Elantra
Surprisingly solid sedan and wagon. Remarkable value. Belong on your shopping list.

2010 Kia Spectra
Just-updated spunky sedan and wagon share Elantra’s platform from parent Hyundai.

2010 Mazda 3
Progressive new styling, but the same fun-to-drive feel that gets your heart pumping.

2010 Mitsubishi Lancer
Roomy, but a disappointing underachiever otherwise -- save for the rocket Evo models.

2010 Nissan Sentra
Competent, but choppy styling and little driving fun mean Nissan wasted an opportunity.

2010 Nissan Versa

Due for a model-2011 redesign, but the current hatchback is a winner; sedan falters.

2010 Pontiac G5
A Chevy Colbalt with a Pontiac grille. A Chevy Cruze with a Pontiac grille may replace it.

2010 Pontiac Vibe
A Toyota Matrix with a Pontiac grille. That’s not a bad thing. Competent but no standout.

2010 Saturn Astra
German breeding in a rebadged Opel. Hurt by highish price. Likely redesigned for 2011.

2010 Scion xB
Polarizing design, but abundant space, surprising refinement, and affordable fun.

2010 Subaru Impreza
Flies below radar, but all-wheel-drive is standard, and WRX versions are hot performers. 

2010 Toyota Corolla
Take-no-chances design and Toyota reliability make this America’s best-selling car.

2010 Toyota Matrix
Essentially a high-roof wagon version of the Corolla, but available with all-wheel-drive.

2010 Volkswagen Jetta and Rabbit
Redesigned versions of this Euro-flavored sedan and hatchback are on tap for 2010.