2011 Compact Car Buying Guide

Last Updated: May 2, 2010

The 2011 Compact Car Guying Guide from Iguida.com highlights economical vehicles that are increasingly stylish and accommodating.

Like Goldilocks checking out the Three Bears’ sleeping arrangements, many car buyers find subcompact cars “too small” and midsize car “too big.” Compacts, they find, are “just right.” Indeed, compacts typically have sufficient front-seat room for all but the tallest riders. And most have a useable back seat and enough cargo room to facilitate a trip to Costco. Compact cars are easier to maneuver than larger cars and certainly SUVs, and easy to park in space-deprived urban areas.

Iguida.com’s 2011 Compact Car Buying Guide highlights 16 cars and represents a segment expected to grow substantially in coming years. For starters, gasoline prices that topped $4.00 a gallon in 2008 and $3.00 in 2010 are forcing buyers to take a second look at more fuel-efficient models. What’s more, recently enacted federal regulations are mandating a 40 percent boost in automakers’ corporate average fuel economy by 2016; this means a fresh fleet of smaller and more economical cars is on the horizon to help meet the new requirements.

Note that cars of compact-size dimensions can be found in a variety of automotive segments. However, we focus here on broad-based and practical compact cars, not the sportiest and most luxurious entries, like the BMW 3 Series or the Audi A3, which belong to the premium class. Likewise, fuel-frugal gas/electric-powered compacts such as the Honda Insight are covered separately in the section on hybrids.

Still, this leaves lots of variety for the car buyer with an eye on the budget. The segment ranges from stalwart sedans like the Kia Forte and Toyota Corolla, utilitarian wagons and hatchback versions of models like the Volkswagen Jetta and Nissan Versa, and even some performance-minded variations, such as the sporty Honda Civic Si and Mazda MazdaSpeed3.

The newest compact cars are engineered to be economical but to not necessarily feel cheap. These include the Chevrolet Cruze, which is a good-looking four-door with a relatively spacious, quiet, and rich-looking interior and a choice of two fuel-efficient four-cylinder engines, including a peppy 1.4-liter turbocharged version that promises 40 mpg on the highway. What’s more, auto enthusiasts who have long asked Ford to provide American buyers with the sportier and more refined European version of its compact Focus will finally get their wish starting early in 2011.

Most of the models in our 2010 compact car buying guide carry base prices that start at around $15,000. A noteworthy exception is the Nissan Versa, which features an unadorned starter sedan priced under $11,000. Also worth remembering is that, loaded with a range of amenities, top trim levels of compact cars can easily reach $25,000. That money can also buy a modestly equipped midsized sedan or compact crossover SUV. If you’re prepared to spend top dollar on a compact car, be sure to cross-shop similarly priced alternatives in other segments; you may find a better value in a larger vehicle.

Other than a few stripped versions meant primarily to advertise a low base sticker price, the majority of compact cars come standard with the most desired features. These include air conditioning and power windows and locks. This segment attracts a large number of younger buyers and automakers are responding by including USB/iPod connectivity in an increasing number of compact cars; many models now offer it as standard equipment. And most compact cars can be fitted with what once were considered luxury amenities, such as leather upholstery, heated front seats, GPS navigation, sunroof, and Bluetooth hands-free cell phone interfaces.

Most compact cars offer a range of safety features, either as standard or optional equipment. This includes side-impact airbags mounted in the front seats, head-protecting curtain side airbags that for both rows of seats, and antiskid stability control to help maintain control in extreme handling maneuvers. As with some comfort and convenience features, however, the full suite of safety items may not be included or available on lower trim levels.

Four-cylinder engines are the norm in this segment. The best of them, like the aforementioned Cruze, include such technology as direct-fuel injection and turbocharging to wring out as much power as possible while maintaining thrifty fuel economy. Horsepower ratings are all over the map in this segment. They range from the base Versa’s measly 107 to the Subaru Impreza WRX STi’s 305. Five- or six-speed manual transmissions are generally the standard gearboxes among compacts. Four-, five-, or six-speed automatic transmissions are optional. Automatics having more gears generally afford smoother and more fuel-efficient operation. The top-level Versa goes its own way with a continuously variable transmission that eschews gears for belt and a set of pulleys to deliver the convenience of an automatic and the efficiency of a manual.

All-wheel drive (AWD) is standard on every Subaru Impreza and available on the Toyota Matrix and Dodge Caliber; it adds surefootedness in foul weather. All other compact cars utilize front-wheel-drive, which affords both predictable handling and adequate traction to tackle all but the worst climactic conditions.

Ride and handling characteristics in this segment are of the “just right” school of auto engineering. They’re neither too soft nor too stiff -- though some models, like the Mazda3 have sporty suspension tuning by any measure. “Pocket rockets” like the WRX STi and Volkswagen GTI amp up performance considerably, though at the expense of a rougher ride than some motorists might want and higher sticker prices than they might find agreeable.

As is the case in most automotive segments these days, compact cars tend to fare well in crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. On NHTSA’s five-star scale, most 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 car with another only within a given size and weight class – a compact car colliding with another compact car, for example. A larger and heavier vehicle will always fare better in a crash with a smaller and lighter one.

Here is our 2011 compact car buying guide:
2011 Chevrolet Cruze
This all-new sedan replaces the Cobalt and surpasses it in virtually every respect

2011 Dodge Caliber
A four-door hatchback with macho looks but subpar refinement; AWD is available

2011 Ford Focus
Redesigned via Ford of Europe, it has the styling and sophistication to be a hit

2011 Honda Civic
A 2011 makeover promises to help this remain one of the better small cars available

2011 Hyundai Elantra
Great value in the sedan and especially the wagon; an all-new sedan is due as a 2012

2011 Kia Forte
A stylish sedan and sporty ”Koup” with strong appeal for value-conscious younger buyer.

2011 Mazda3

Roomy sedans and versatile hatchbacks with fine road manners and odd-looking noses

2011 Mitsubishi Lancer
Sedans and nifty four-door hatchbacks are lackluster except for fast Ralliart and Evo models

2011 Nissan Sentra
Competitive pricing, adequate performance, but an ugly and oddly soul-less sedan

2011 Nissan Versa
Smartly designed and fun to drive. We love the hatchback. Expect all-new Versa for 2012

2011 Scion xB
The box-on-wheels done right. Great road manners and spacious enough for taxicab duty

2011 Subaru Impreza
Standard AWD makes it costlier than the norm, but a cut above for design and refinement

2011 Toyota Corolla
Blandness repels driving enthusiasts but attracts enough mainstream buyers to be a top seller

2011 Toyota Matrix
Essentially a Corolla sedan with a useful four-door wagon body and available AWD

2011 Volkswagen Golf
Two- and four-door hatchbacks are the class of the class for refined European feel

2011 Volkswagen Jetta
Basically sedan and wagon versions of the Golf; 2011 models are due strategic updates