From the October 2021 issue of Car and Driver.
The arrival of the 11th-generation Honda Civic for 2022 spurred us to take a fresh look at the world of compact sedans. The market’s mania for crossovers, pickups, and off-roaders of all stripes largely overshadows this segment, but practical and efficient four-doors continue to serve a great swath of buyers, many of them first-time new-car owners.
Opting for a well-equipped version like the sedans in this test will give you a level of style, polish, and content that was unimaginable in starter cars of the past. The democratization of luxury equipment has accelerated, and these small cars are the beneficiaries, offering things like adaptive cruise control, digital instrument clusters, leather seats, and wireless smartphone mirroring. To get the feel for automotive opulence, size small, we gathered six high-spec models with a rough target price of $28,000.
Redone for ’22, the Civic sedan line culminates in the Touring, which brings a 180-hp turbocharged 1.5-liter inline-four instead of the 158-hp 2.0-liter in lower trims. The Touring gets leather, a 9.0-inch touchscreen with navigation, and a digital instrument cluster. With a $395 upcharge for Morning Mist Metallic paint, our test car stickered at $29,710.
New for 2021, the Elantra sedan comes in numerous configurations, including the Hybrid, the sporty N Line, and soon the even sportier N model. For this test, we grabbed an Elantra Limited, a loaded version with a 147-hp engine. Hyundai packs the Limited with a digital instrument cluster, a 10.3-inch infotainment display with navigation, smartphone as key, and the brand’s Highway Drive Assist. Add a set of carpeted floor mats and it rang in at $26,610. Save your letter: We considered upgrading to the 201-hp N Line powertrain, but that trim lacks the premium goodies of the Limited.
The Mazda 3 similarly offers multiple powertrains, including a price-leader 2.0-liter with 155 horsepower and a 250-hp turbocharged 2.5-liter, but we went with the mainstay of the lineup: a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter four with 186 horsepower. The 3 also offers all-wheel drive—unusual for this segment—and while that feature will surely sell in the Snowbelt, it’s not what we would have preferred here. (We will remind all readers, snowbound or not, that a set of winter tires is a better adverse-weather insurance policy.) But it’s what showed up, raising the as-tested price of our Premium trim by $1400, to $30,140.
The Nissan Sentra lineup is simple by comparison, with a single powertrain—a 149-hp four paired with a CVT—and just three trim levels. The top-spec Sentra SR that we invited has a base price that undercuts the others’ by thousands of dollars, and even after adding the SR Premium package (a sunroof, heated front seats, a heated steering wheel, eight-speaker Bose audio, a surround-view monitoring system, and more), a Lighting package, two-tone paint, and carpeted floor mats, the feature-filled Sentra was still the least expensive, at $26,010.
The Toyota Corolla can be had in sedan or hatchback form with a gas or hybrid powertrain. Among gas-powered ‘Rollas, the 169-hp XSE Apex Edition tops the range and starts at $29,335. We would have preferred to field a regular XSE to save that wheel and suspension package’s $2385 premium, but Toyota had only Apex models on hand.
In keeping with our top-of-the-line theme, we procured the 147-hp Volkswagen Jetta in SEL Premium trim. It comes one way: loaded. Standard kit includes navigation and leather-wrapped, heated, and ventilated front seats. The Jetta SEL Premium carried a sticker price of $29,040.
To find the king of small cars, we set off on the first big C/D comparison test of sedans in years.
2021 Toyota Corolla XSE Apex
Highs: The Apex Edition’s head-turning styling, the underlying car’s presumed reliability.
Lows: The Apex Edition’s unpolished chassis tuning, the underlying car’s uninspired powertrain.
Verdict: Usually it takes an aftermarket tuner to screw up a suspension this badly.
Despite its name, the Apex paradoxically represents the nadir of the lineup, at least to us. Available on the SE and XSE, it consists of a blackout-trim package, a sport-tuned exhaust, and a stiffer suspension with a lower ride height intended to improve handling. The Apex makeover had the Corolla turning heads at several of our driver swaps—yes, really.
Assistant technical editor Maxwell B. Mortimer, who may be the staffer most likely to enjoy an unmuffled car, wrote, “The sport-tuned exhaust only accentuates the gritty drone that the engine emits.” That engine is a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter that makes 169 horsepower and 151 pound-feet of torque. Standard in the SE, XSE, and Nightshade Edition, the 2.0-liter is a step up from the base 139-hp 1.8-liter. Even so, it’s buzzy and a bit underpowered. The Toyota’s 8.2-second trot to 60 mph was the second slowest of the group, as was its quarter-mile time of 16.4 seconds.
At highway speeds, the slightest throttle provocation causes the CVT to lower the drive ratio, which in turn causes the revs to jump and the engine to moan. “You’re never far away from the drone zone,” noted testing director Dave VanderWerp.
The Apex’s suspension tuning, though, is what tripped up the Corolla. The car’s 0.86-g skidpad grip falls in the middle of the pack, and the Corolla resists body roll better than some of the other cars here. But stiff springs and damping left it unsettled, crashing over bumps on two-lane roads, and gave it a busy, almost frenetic highway ride.
There were some positives. The driver’s seat garnered praise from staffers of multiple body types, and the infotainment system is easy to use, earning extra points for its ability to display multiple functions at once. The interior isn’t very roomy, though, and suffers from a dearth of in-cabin stowage. The steeply raked windshield puts the A-pillars annoyingly close to the driver’s head too. Our recommendation to Toyota fans looking for an econosedan: Skip the Apex.
2021 Nissan Sentra SR
Highs: SR trim looks sporty but not cheesy, active-safety features come standard, great value—and not just because it’s inexpensive.
Lows: Poky acceleration, ride and handling don’t rise above midpack.
Verdict: The Sentra is not bad, but rivals are better.
As of the current generation, the Sentra is no longer exclusively a rental proposition. It boasts an eye-catching look that apes the Maxima’s, a significantly upgraded cabin, and an extensive feature set that includes a number of active-safety items as standard. For all that, the Sentra is still highly affordable, with our SR boasting the lowest base and as-tested prices in this test.
Slip into the Sentra and the interior feels airy. The key touch points are nicely padded, the controls are well laid out, and the infotainment system is easy to operate. But the execution isn’t at the level of the best here, and some found the driver’s seat relatively flat and unsupportive, though the rear seats were deemed comfortable.
Compared with the last gen, the latest Sentra has wider front and rear tracks, and an independent rear suspension replaces the old car’s torsion-beam setup. The car tied with the Elantra for highest skidpad grip and managed the shortest stopping distance, a hat tip to its Hankook Kinergy GT tires. But its steering feel, handling, and ride fell behind the leaders. Mortimer acknowledged that on the handling loop, “the Sentra tucks into turns accurately and with surprising willingness,” but the car really is happier in day-to-day commuting than on fun roads.
Overall, the Sentra’s fifth-place finish can be blamed on its powertrain: a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter engine paired with a CVT. Although its 149 ponies make it all but tied for least powerful with the Volkswagen and Hyundai, the Nissan came in last in all our acceleration tests, sauntering to 60 mph in 8.9 seconds, 0.7 second behind the next-slowest car, the Corolla. At the same time, the Sentra’s fuel economy was only middling.
Plenty to love for the money, Nissan’s Sentra does its job well. Four of the other sedans, however, do the job better.
2021 Hyundai Elantra Limited
Highs: Best-in-test infotainment system, sips fuel like an economy car should.
Lows: Artful interior doesn’t stand up to close scrutiny, some structural shake in hard driving.
Verdict: The Elantra has style, but the top finishers have a little more depth beneath the surface.
Several drivers confessed to having high expectations for the Elantra. It looks dramatic in pictures, sporting the brand’s exuberant exterior design with an intricate front fascia and creased door panels that somehow bring the Lamborghini Urus to mind. The interior is similarly statement-making, owing to its sweeping forms and oh-so-modern tri-screen dash—just like a Cadillac Escalade’s.
Yes, the infotainment and gauge screens are large and the system highly configurable; add in the impressive graphics and the Hyundai stands above the others. But the display to the left of the instrument cluster is actually not a screen at all, just a dummy panel with a pointless circle graphic. Some hard plastic spoils the futuristic luxury vibe, and the armrests are elbow-bruising. While the rear seat is the group’s largest, there are no USB ports back there.
A pleasant partner in a daily role, the Elantra’s steering offers decent feedback, but its ride score landed it toward the bottom of the pack. Mortimer noted: “The chassis becomes unsettled by modest bumps.” Hard driving on the handling loop revealed a lot of body roll and a few structural quivers, and the Hyundai’s brake pedal exhibited some sponginess.
Although the Elantra is reasonably well isolated from road noise, the 2.0-liter is the loudest engine in the test under full-throttle acceleration. It’s also often reaching into the upper rev ranges since the naturally aspirated four-cylinder lacks low-end torque. The 8.1-second charge to 60 mph and the 16.3-second quarter-mile sprint bettered the Toyota’s and Nissan’s but trailed the others’. We didn’t expect that the Limited would inspire much passion—that’s what the N Line and upcoming 286-hp N are for—but it is efficient. The Elantra returned the best fuel economy in the test, at 35 mpg, 3 mpg better than the next-best contender, the Jetta.
2021 Volkswagen Jetta SEL Premium
Highs: Cushy ride, unstressed engine, an automatic with eight real gears.
Lows: Loosey-goosey steering, determinedly unstylish, evident interior cost cutting.
Verdict: An ideal car for someone who doesn’t appreciate the performance of the GLI.
You sit tall in the saddle in the Jetta, which may appeal to buyers who are unsure about forsaking an SUV. The interior is well organized but dour—all hard edges and black plastic. It seems VW funnels its resources into screens: a digital instrument cluster and an 8.0-inch infotainment display. Feature-loving buyers will appreciate amenities such as heated rear seats, but there’s no escaping the cost-cut look of the molded-plastic rear door panels.
The Jetta’s eight-speed automatic transmission proved endearing in a field rife with CVTs. It’s paired with a turbocharged 1.4-liter inline-four that produces a substantial 184 pound-feet of torque at a low 1600 rpm. The combination makes for an unstressed powertrain in most driving. With its ready urge, the Volkswagen tied for quickest off the line with the Mazda, at 2.6 seconds to 30 mph, and its not-bad 7.7-second 60-mph time was just 0.2 second behind the 3’s and 0.5 second behind the Civic’s. The Jetta also tied for quietest at 70 mph, this time with the Elantra.
The suspension absorbs impacts in a way that takes the sting out of bad pavement and creates a blissful highway ride. The Jetta was out of its comfort zone on the handling loop, floating and rolling, although VanderWerp allowed, “I don’t hate it for that.” We were less forgiving of the overly light, disconnected steering. A commendably firm brake pedal was a pleasant surprise given the softness elsewhere in the chassis, but the VW’s 187-foot stop from 70 mph was the longest in the test.
There may not be much here for enthusiasts, but those in the know can always opt for the 10Best-winning GLI. For everyone else, the SEL Premium is an inoffensive and well-equipped choice.
2021 Mazda 3 Premium
Highs: Luxe cabin to shame an Audi A3, the best-sounding engine of the sextet, swanky looks.
Lows: Cramped interior, subpar fuel economy.
Verdict: Has enough style and luxury to play in another league, but there’s not quite enough practicality to win the day here.
The 3’s flowing lines and cab-rearward proportions make a strong first impression. And the car makes a great second impression when you slide inside, the cabin boasting richly upholstered surfaces and an upscale design. “The 3 really has the look and feel of something in the luxury segment,” wrote staff editor Austin Irwin.
With 186 horsepower and 186 pound-feet of torque, the 2.5-liter’s output is the best here, and the Mazda battled the Honda for the top spot in all acceleration tests. Its 7.5-second time to 60 mph is 0.3 second behind the Civic’s, but the Mazda was the quickest in the 30-to-50-mph passing test and tied the Civic in the 50-to-70 jump. Six speeds don’t seem like many these days, but the automatic doesn’t hesitate to downshift, and its crisp shifts were much preferred to the faux shifts of the competition’s CVTs. The Mazda’s 2.5-liter is the least raucous under full-throttle acceleration and actually does not sound bad when it’s wrung out.
The 3’s chassis delivers a “great blend of athleticism and comfort despite what the skidpad performance shows,” said VanderWerp, who added, “This and the Honda are head and shoulders above everything else here in terms of ride and handling and are more fun to drive.”
Although comfortable from the driver’s seat, this car fits tighter than most of the others, with a high beltline and A-pillars that draw in close. In the rear seat, a six-foot passenger can slide in behind a similar-sized driver but only just. And while Mazda’s infotainment display is set high to meet the driver’s line of sight, some would prefer a touchscreen to the 3’s rotary controller. No one will love its lowest-in-test (28 mpg) fuel economy, but it’s not surprising, given the 3 is the only vehicle here with all-wheel drive. It is convincing as a small luxury car, but it’s not quite the best compact sedan.
2022 Honda Civic Touring
Highs: Chassis tuning sets the benchmark, acceleration leads the field, interior execution is top notch.
Lows: Priced at the higher end of the spectrum, no manual for the sedan.
Verdict: With the regular Civic this good, we can’t wait to see what the Si is like.
It’s telling that on the first morning of our group drive, we kept mistakenly calling the Civic an Accord. That’s not just because it now looks like an Accord, this new generation having ditched the preceding model’s overwrought styling. It’s more because the Civic now enjoys the poise of its beloved sibling.
Although the interior is thoroughly modern-looking, the spacious cabin’s ergonomic logic and quality execution took us back to Hondas of the past. A low cowl and narrow A-pillars give an expansive view out that the others can’t match. The digital gauge cluster lacks the configurability of some but shows a lot of info in an easy-to-digest format. The Touring’s infotainment display is better than recent Honda efforts, with sharp graphics and an actual volume knob, although it still lacks a tuning dial. Even something as simple as the climate-control knobs are beautifully executed with knurled edges and snick-snick movement. As staff editor Connor Hoffman summed up, “This is the nicest Civic interior ever.”
As before, the top Civic trims are powered by a turbocharged 1.5-liter four. Yes, it’s hooked to a CVT (a manual is available in the hatchback), but it’s one of the better-programmed units out there, and the car also benefits from having a relatively robust 180 horses and 177 pound-feet of torque to dispatch. The Honda is the quickest in the group, with a 7.2-second time to 60 mph and a 15.6-second time in the quarter.
As with its larger sibling, the Civic delivers a master class in chassis tuning. “Stiff, stable, and refined,” Hoffman said. Over one particularly bombed-out section of freeway, the Civic’s tires and suspension thwacked loudly over potholes, but the cabin was largely undisturbed. Out on the handling loop, the Honda really established its dominance, its sharp reflexes and expertly damped suspension edging out the also-good Mazda. The steering marries ideal effort levels with a strong sense of straight ahead, and the brake modulation came in for praise as well. “What a fantastically easy car to hustle,” said Irwin.
It turns out we weren’t too far off when we likened this car to an Accord. The Civic is the Accord of the compact-sedan class.