Since when did compact cars become so interesting? Back in 2009, if you wanted something good in the compact class, you bought a Honda Civic or Volkswagen Jetta, and no one was the wiser. But now, other brands have stepped in, and the pickings are, evidently, worth a serious look. On a random day in April, I decided to drive three new compact cars, all of which are significant in their own right.
2012 Ford Focus SE Sport
The Focus is all new for 2012, and although it is on sale, not a lot of them have reached dealers yet. The dealer in my area happened to have only 3, a sedan and two hatchbacks. I drove a black SE Sport. The new Focus has been touted by journalists across the industry as being good around corners.
They’re not joking. I took it around some wet roads and wetter back-roads in my area, and it sticks like glue for its size. Despite the small, 16-inch wheels (and their higher-profile tires), body lean was only moderate. The brakes contained a slight deadspot, but the car stopped with authority and poise thanks to the four-wheel disks (which I wish could be on all versions, but are not). My test car came with SYNC and the Sony audio system, as well as heated seats. Unfortunately, the heated seat switches are very hard to reach, having been mounted directly under the armrest, completely out of sight to the driver. The mirrors are also a bit small, which obstructs visibility.
These issues, however, are small compared to the DCT, which was confusing in that it did not allow downshifting in certain cases (A closer look at brochures and owners manuals online cleared up this—the Focus uses intelligent shift logic to ‘learn’ a driver’s style and will program the transmission to mimic that style). Hopefully, a second drive will vindicate the DCT’s minor issues, as in normal driving, even in Sport mode (without shifting manually via the button), the transmission offered very quick shifting. For $21,750 (our MSRP), this is a fairly good value, despite its transmission niggles. I’ll gladly wait for the ST version, to see just how much this platform can handle. In fact, I am counting down the days until it comes out.
2011 Mazda Mazda3s Sport sedan
The Mazda 3S has been on the market for about two years or so, but is still a fresh (if unendingly smiling) face. My black S Sport tester was equipped with only the moonroof package, which also includes a Bose audio system and a six-disc CD changer. Upon the first stab of the gas, it was apparent that the transmission in the 3 is much more conventional than the DCT in the Focus—while not as sophisticated, the manual-shift function was still a very useful feature, even if it did not change gear as quickly as the Focus. The interior was far easier to understand, but felt almost ‘uninviting’ in that the entire interior was coated in black plastic. However, quality was high, and nothing felt genuinely cheap.
On the road, the Mazda feels tight and controlled. The suspension is very well balanced; despite the larger rims on the car in question, the ride was more than acceptable. The tires gave grip aplenty and the suspension kept lean at bay, but the brake pedal was not as responsive as I expected it to be. The engine sounds like exactly what it is—four little cylinders in a line, spinning around, but moves the 3 around with respectable authority. Unfortunately, gas mileage does indeed suffer—the 3 is still rated lower than most of its sister cars in this class on efficiency, and that smile doesn’t suit the car’s lines all that well. Still, that’s a small price to pay for a very, very respectable set of cheap wheels.
2011 Hyundai Elantra GLS
The Hyundai Elantra, which has garnered impressive ratings and reviews, recently became a Consumer Reports “Top Pick” for the compact car class. The test vehicle, due to high demand, turned out to be a GLS with almost every option box checked off. On the short drive, the engine was fairly refined, far quieter than the Ford or Mazda. However, the suspension was very soft; it almost felt like a much bigger car. This is great news for those used to being bounced around in an older compact like a Mexican Jumping Bean, but for enthusiasts, this doesn’t really help. Body lean is pronounced, and the brake pedal is almost like a switch—either it’s on, or it’s off. In addition, this engine was the smallest and least-powerful of the three, which did not help its case on acceleration; the Elantra did not feel exceedingly slow, but it was no fireball on the highway or off the line. The transmission was also slower to react than the Mazda and the Ford, thus implying that this is not a car designed for the sporting sort of person.
Typical of Hyundai, the equipment for its sticker price (approximately 20 grand) was astounding. This was the sole car of the group with a navigation system or a backup camera, and the controls were still pretty easy to understand. Interior quality was surprisingly good—Hyundai uses a large amount of soft-touch surfaces in the GLS, along with plastics that feel well-grained and solidly put together. The gas mileage is attractive too, being best-in-class and the only one in its size that doesn’t use special tricks to achieve its numbers. In addition, the seat felt larger, and probably will suit larger drivers much better than the Ford’s thickly padded sport seat.
That said, compared to the cheeky, fun personalities of the Ford and the Mazda, the Elantra is more of a miniature luxury cruiser. I respect the goal of the designers, but in this case, I would much rather enjoy the drive than the toys I’m surrounded with. This is the particular reason why the Hyundai sits in third place of these three. The Mazda is a lot of fun to drive, but the Kodak-smile front end and relatively poor gas mileage don’t help its case. The Ford wins here thanks to its combination of gee-whiz tech, clean styling, great mileage, and low price. They just have to work that transmission out, and the Focus will fly off the lot faster than the coffee at a 7-11 in the morning.