2012 Compact Car Buying Guide

Last Updated: Jul 1, 2011

The 2012 Compact Car Guying Guide from iGuida.com highlights a class of economical cars that has never been more stylish, accommodating, or sophisticated.

Advancements in engine and transmission technology, weight-cutting design, and aerodynamic styling mean the most fuel-efficient 2012 compact cars use only as much gas as many smaller subcompacts. The smash hit Chevrolet Cruze and the redesigned 2012 Ford Focus and 2012 Honda Civic, as well as the latest Volkswagen Jetta, offer models that exceed 40 mpg on the highway. And every version of the 2012 Hyundai Elantra is rated 30/40 mpg city/highway.

With new-car sales recovering and the pain of high gas prices still fresh, the compact-car segment is experiencing a surge in popularity. Stoking demand is a slew of new or freshened entries, including the aforementioned Cruze, Focus, Civic, Elantra, and Jetta. Engineered to be cost-effective but not cheap-feeling, they’re among reasons today’s best compact cars are ideal for younger buyers moving into their first new rides as well as empty nesters looking to downsize without compromising style or features.

There’s plenty to warrant their attention. Compact cars are easier to maneuver than larger cars, and more nimble than even the most agile SUVs. They’re easy to park in space-starved urban areas and in crowded two-car suburban garages. Yet, compact cars typically provide sufficient front-seat room for all but the tallest riders. Most have a back seat large enough to hold two adults. There’s usually trunk space to facilitate a trip to Costco, and most offer folding rear seatbacks that expand cargo room into the passenger compartment.

The 2012 Compact Car Buying Guide from iGuida.com highlights 18 models and represents a segment of the auto business poised for continued growth. Not only is a broader range of shoppers becoming interested in the class, but automakers are counting on compacts to help them meet federal regulations that mandate a 40 percent boost in corporate average fuel economy by 2016.

The 2012 Compact Car Buying Guide focuses on mainstream compact cars. Luxury/sport compacts such as 2012 BMW 3-Series and 2012 Audi A4 are covered in our 2012 Premium Car Buying Guide. Likewise, our 2012 Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Buying Guide is the place to get the lowdown on gas-electric hybrid compacts like the 2012 Toyota Prius, extended-range electric cars like the 2012 Chevrolet Volt, and pure-electric vehicles (EVs), such as the 2012 Nissan Leaf.

That still leaves an expansive range of compact cars from which to choose, including roomy sedans such as the VW Jetta, stylish two-doors such as the Civic coupe and Kia Forte Koup, utilitarian hatchbacks like the Nissan Versa, and even downright exciting rides like the Civic Si and turbo-hot Mazda MazdaSpeed3.

The Compact Car class of 2012 includes the smartly redesigned Ford Focus sedan and four-door hatchback. Honda’s Civic is all-new for the first time since model-year 2006 and is roomier and more refined. South Korea’s Hyundai is making waves with its eye-catching new Elantra. Buick enters the fray with the 2012 Verano, an upscale and restyled version of the highly successful Chevrolet Cruze. Volkswagen is launching the all-new edition of its iconic Beetle, which is actually a Golf beneath the skin. Also due for model-year 2012 are redesigned versions of the Nissan Versa and Subaru Impreza. And Dodge is readying a replacement for the underwhelming Caliber hatchback; it’ll be engineered by new corporate parent, Fiat.

Compact-car prices typically start around $15,000. Many compact cars can easily reach $25,000 in their top trim levels when loaded up with options. At that point some buyers may want to consider moving to a roomier midsize car or compact crossover SUV -- though perhaps at the sacrifices of a few features -- for about the same money.

Compact-car safety features include as standard on every model side-impact airbags mounted in the front seats, and head-protecting curtain side airbags or both rows of seats. Antilock brakes for more controlled stops and antiskid stability control to mitigate sideways slides are now standard on all 2012 compact cars, as well.

While some entry-level models in various lineups are bare-bones strippers marketed primarily as Internet price-grabbers, most compact cars come equipped with a rather desirable array of features. Air conditioning and power windows and locks, along with Bluetooth hands-free mobile-phone connectivity, and a USB iPod interface are commonly available. And most compact cars can be equipped with amenities once limited to the luxury segment, such as leather upholstery, heated front seats, GPS navigation, and power sunroof.

Compact-car performance centers on delivering a competent driving experience without using too much fuel. With gas-electric hybrids and EVs covered elsewhere, the overwhelming majority of entries in our 2012 Compact Car Buying Guide use a four-cylinder gas engine; the exceptions are the Volkswagen Gold, Jetta, and Beetle. Their base engine is a gas five-cylinder, and they also are available with a four-cylinder diesel engine. 

The most advanced cars in the class employ the latest engine technology, including direct fuel injection, variable valve timing, and turbocharging to maximize both power and fuel economy. Horsepower ratings vary from modest to muscular. Engines of 140-170 horsepower are typical, But hot shoes can seek out the rip-roaring 305-horsepower turbo four in the Subaru Impreza WRX STi.

Five- or six-speed manual transmissions are generally standard, with optional automatics ranging from four to six speeds. In transmissions, the greater the number of gears, the more efficient the operation. Some Nissan and Mitsubishi compacts offer a continuously variable transmission instead of a traditional automatic. Such CVTs eschew gears for belt and a set of pulleys to deliver a continuous flow of power while maintaining top fuel economy. And the function of an automatic transmission in Focus and VW diesel models is performed by a dual-clutch unit that’s essentially an automatic-shifting manual without a clutch pedal.

No matter the powertrain choice, every carmaker seeks the highest possible fuel economy and a few field specially equipped models to achieve it. Models like the Chevy Cruze Eco, Ford Focus SFE (Super Fuel Economy) and Honda Civic HF top their lines with fuel-economy ratings over 40 mpg on the highway by using rolling-resistance tires and specific aerodynamic features. And they cost more than a comparable model in the lineup that may get just a few miles per gallon less.

Otherwise typical mileage in for gas-engine models this segment ranges from 22/29 mpg city/highway and 25 mpg combined city/highway for the five-cylinder 2012 Volkswagen Beetle with its optional six-speed automatic transmission, to 29/41/33 mpg for the Honda Civic HF. The 2012 VW Golf TDI and Jetta TDI diesel models rate 30/42/34 mpg.

On the road, most compact cars are engineered to favor ride comfort over ultimate handling ability, though the Focus and Mazda 3 are examples of compacts that deliver a fine balance of both. The raciest models, like the Mitsubishi Lancer Evo, Impreza WRX, Civic Si, and VW GTI and Jetta GLI are sports cars in disguise, though they tend to deliver a rougher ride than non-enthusiasts might enjoy.

The rule among compacts is front-wheel drive in which the mass of the engine and transmission is situated over the wheels that propel and steer the car. The arrangement helps maximize interior packaging and delivers predictable handling with adequate traction in snow. For maximum traction, all-wheel drive (AWD) is standard on all Subaru Impreza models and on the Lancer Evo and is available on the Toyota Matrix.

Here is our 2012 compact car buying guide:

2012 Buick Verano
Hits the market as a more stylish and luxurious version of the Chevy Cruze with added features

2012 Chevrolet Cruze
Now in its second season, this well-received sedan is among America’s best-selling cars

2012 Dodge Caliber
All-new version based on a Fiat design likely for model-year 2012 or 2013; Caliber name may go

2012 Ford Focus
European styling and sophistication marks these feature-packed sedans and hatchbacks

2012 Honda Civic
All-new, but evolutionary not revolutionary; Civic’s still a must-consider for compact shoppers

2012 Hyundai Elantra
Impressive sedan with sleek styling, lively performance and great fuel economy and value

2012 Kia Forte
Attractive and capable sedan and Koup two-door appeal to younger and value-conscious buyers

2012 Mazda3
Sporty and roomy, this sedan and hatchback tone down their oddball front-end styling for 2012

2012 Mitsubishi Lancer
Largely forgettable sedans and hatchbacks otherwise excel in racy Ralliart and Evo guise

2012 Nissan Sentra
Long overdue for a makeover, this small sedan is outclassed by a host of newer rivals

2012 Nissan Versa
An all-new Versa features modestly updated styling and continues its budget-minded mission

2012 Scion xB
Spacious small wagon with peppy performance and myriad accessories for customization

2012 Subaru Impreza
Due for a 2012 redesign with fresh styling and improved fuel economy; AWD remains standard

2012 Toyota Corolla
A mild facelift and moderate updates should breathe a little life into this too-sedate sedan

2012 Toyota Matrix
A four-door wagon version of the Corolla with a sleeker shape and optional AWD

2012 Volkswagen Beetle
No longer the “New” Beetle, it’s redesigned for 2012 with more masculine but still bulbous styling

2012 Volkswagen Golf
Two- and four-door hatchbacks that deliver European road manners at entry-level prices

2012 Volkswagen Jetta
Sedan line that ranges from bland to entertaining; expansive  rear-seat room and cargo space