Tested: 2007 Compact Car Comparison

From the December 2006 issue of Car and Driver.

What’s not to like about combining frugality with fun? Nissan’s all-new-for-2007 Sentra comes standard with a six-speed manual. Let’s round up the whole class of compact four-doors, equip them with all-natural U-shift-’em gearboxes, and enjoy driving while we compare choices at the low-budget end of the market.

There’s action once again in the small-car biz. Gas-pinched motorists are climbing down from their SUVs with mpg on their minds. At the same time, carmakers have introduced three new models. Besides the long-overdue Sentra, value-brand Hyundai is back with a fresh Elantra—”all new from headlight to taillight,” the company says. When the same company did all-new about a year ago, the thoroughly delightful Sonata hit the street, leading us to have high expectations for the Elantra.

Just off the boat from Germany is—ta-da!—the Volkswagen Rabbit. Seriously, folks, the Beetle brand is making another grab for cuddly. Okay, the last VW Rabbit (b. 1975, d. 1984) lived an inglorious life. Actually, the cars rusted out so quickly you’re supposed to have forgotten by now. So Volkswagen is running the exact same play again. The compact hatchback known in Germany as the Golf will be renamed the Rabbit for the U.S. market. One difference: This time there’s no plan for a U.S. assembly plant. A 2.5-liter five-cylinder engine is standard equipment, 25 percent more cylinders than any other in the class.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

The big names in small cars are, of course, Honda and Toyota. The Honda Civic was all-new and radical for 2006. With only minor changes for 2007 it remains radical, having the lowest roofline in the class and a daringly aerodynamic silhouette. Toyota’s Corolla, on the other hand, is the senior citizen of this group, little changed since its last major redesign for 2003.

Playing opposite the Corolla—imagine a character acting as the un-Toyota—is usually something from Mazda, which purposefully infuses a spring into the step of its models, a bright-line contrast to the buttoned-down-and-tucked-in personality of Toyotas. Our Mazda 3 for this meeting packs a 2.3-liter four rated at 156 horsepower, making it the most powerful player on the field.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Good so far. Unfortunately, our plan for fun with gear levers fetched up against cruel reality in Detroit. The domestics sell so few manual cars that we were unable to find test samples, even in the manufacturers’ own fleets. That meant no Chevy Cobalt, the newest American entry in the class, and no Ford Focus, an oldie for sure but also a five-time 10Best Cars winner.

Reality prevails, too, in the as-tested prices of our samples. Keep them under $18,000—that was the target. Hyundai gets the frugality prize, nicely equipped at $16,295, with the Toyota Corolla just $58 higher. Regrettably, the Mazda, Nissan, and VW examples here carried combinations of equipment that bumped them well into the $18,000 range.

But never mind. We’ve got 31 speeds forward, divided among six compact sedans, and we’re going to test the whee out of ’em. C’mon.

Sixth Place: Nissan Sentra 2.0S

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

The six-speed is a bit misleading here, rather like putting a football jersey on the piano player. Athletics are not a part of the Sentra’s act. Instead, expect serenity on those high-speed interstate jaunts; powertrain noise is wonderfully hushed. Expect Barcalounger comfort from the plus-size front buckets, too, another best in class. And Jared Gall, our jolly giant at six feet seven and 250 pounds, says he has plenty of room.

Highs: Six-speed gearbox, hushed powertrain on the interstate, room for big drivers.
Lows: Low satisfaction clutch, tippy suspension motions, LCD gauges unreadable with polarized lenses.

Driving fun, on the other hand, is in short supply; it ties with the Corolla for last place in the balloting. Clutch effort is heavy and numb. The shifter is limp and indifferent. And the suspension makes tippy, bobbing motions. The shocks are obviously calibrated for plush ride quality, and they do well on that score. Think mini-Town Car.

The track numbers support that assessment. Zero-to-60 times are weakest of the bunch at 8.3 seconds, braking distance is just one foot shorter than that of the last-place Corolla, cornering grip is below average. Mini-Town Car, we keep saying.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Apart from the front buckets, the interior does not impress. The door and center armrests in front feel like hard rubber, the small LCD gauges in the dash are unreadable through polarized sunglasses, and the door pockets are tiny. Then again, maybe this complaint should be entirely offset by the huge glove box. Styling, both inside and out, ties with that of the ancient Toyota for lowest marks. The exterior looks troubled, maybe even tortured.

Rear-seat passengers will find a rather shapeless bench, which turns into an advantage for three across. Because there are no sweet spots built into the cushion to accommodate two, adding a center occupant doesn’t force the others into uncomfortable contours. Foot space under the front buckets is crowded by the tracks.

The Verdict: What happened to the frisky compact we’ve come to expect of Nissan?

The Sentra’s other transmission choice is a CVT. It’s more in keeping with this compact’s temperament.

2007 Nissan Sentra SE
140-hp inline-four, 6-speed manual, 2915 lb
Base/as-tested price: $16,265/$18,565
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.3 sec
1/4 mile: 16.5 @ 84 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 199 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.79 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 27 mpg

Fifth Place: Toyota Corolla LE

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

We have no passion for this compact, but we’ll most certainly respect it in the morning, and for years of mornings to come. This is a carefully executed solution to your transportation problem. For recreation, look elsewhere. Just keeping up on the interstate requires a heavy foot—and spurs.

The Corolla tops the EPA gas-mileage rankings with 32 mpg city and 41 highway. It also tops our chart with 33 mpg over our 550-mile test loop, in a tie with the Civic.

Highs: Lexus-sharp instrument cluster, quiet ride, very competitive price, perfect fake-wood dash trim.
Lows: Soulless driving, short-inseam pilot position, sounds, frantic on the interstate.

For acceleration, the Corolla barely beats the Sentra to 60 mph, by just 0.4 second; they tie for quarter-mile ET. Skidpad grip is lowest of the pack, and braking distance is longest by the slimmest increment. But who cares? This is a transpo appliance, arguably good enough at everything, excellent at the small things, like trunk space, instrument legibility, HVAC controls, ride smoothness, and road noise.

Actually, there is an issue here. The low as-tested price of $16,353 is achieved, in part, by shunning the optional anti-lock brakes. So rare is the old-style driver-modulated system these days that we terminally flat-spotted the original tires in our brake test. Not that we’ve forgotten how to drive, but you can’t be sure there’s no anti-lock until you lock up, at which time it’s too late to preserve round tires. Yeah, we bought a new set.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Most controversial is the driving position. The pedals are close, and the seat cushion rolls off early, as if this chair were designed for short-stature people. Chick car, anyone? The column tilts but doesn’t telescope. All the guys complained, but not about the dead pedal — it’s just right.

Also controversial is the perfect fake wood molded into doors and trays on the center stack. It’s so enthusiastic in its fakery we have to mention it. Otherwise, the materials and textures are first-rate. The subtle shading change from upper to lower dash is a Lexus-quality detail.

Another complaint: New Toyotas come with an overdose of new smell, something your Aunt Tillie, the one who loves the clear plastic seat covers, would be quite proud of.

This is a car light to the touch — drive it with your fingertips, even at tire-squeal speeds. It’s light on the scale, too, at 2524 pounds, 590 less than the all-beef Rabbit at the heavy end.

The Verdict: The grandpa of the compacts, in both years and mood.

Just among us car guys, when your sister asks what car to buy, she’ll love the Corolla.

2007 Toyota Corolla LE
126-hp inline-four, 5-speed manual, 2524 lb
Base/as-tested price: $15,995/$16,353
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.9 sec
1/4 mile: 16.5 @ 85 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 200 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.76 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 33 mpg

Fourth Place: Hyundai Elantra SE

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

No surprise, this new Hyundai scores high on value. At $16,295, the lowest price of the group, the SE weighs in as the sporting middle child of the Elantra line. A leather-wrapped steering wheel with buttons for cruise control and audio is standard equipment, along with 205/55HR-16 tires on alloy wheels.

Highs: Top-quality interior materials and details, sit-all-day seats, slick shifter and clutch, smooth ride.
Lows: Engine roars on the highway, tippy-floaty body motions, steering overresponds on turn-in.

The interior is nicely styled, with plenty of contour sculpted into the dashboard and sophisticated use of texture and sheen to suggest luxurious surroundings. Lots of storage spaces have been carved out, including a generously sized lidded compartment atop the dash. The front buckets have a plush feel; they did a better job of eliminating pressure points than those in the Honda or Toyota. But it was the back seat that impressed us most. The cushion is nearly chair height. Foot space under the front seats is excellent. The tunnel is narrow, allowing the center occupant more footroom with less splaying of legs. As a passenger hauler, we gave this one top marks for both space and comfort.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

On the road, the Elantra has light controls and a smooth, low-effort shifter. At metro-traffic speeds the car feels agile and trusty. Grab it and go, like you’re old friends. But it never lives up to its sporty SE promise at higher speeds. The suspension is underdamped; it always feels teetery-tippy, and the steering has an unnerving way of seeming to increase the turning angle as the cornering forces build. On the interstate, the engine turns raucous and irritating above 72 mph and downright annoying in the upper 70s.

By most measures of track performance, the Elantra is average or a bit below. Fuel economy over our 550-mile test drive was 28 mpg, again just a fraction below average.

The Verdict: If your car-pool passengers have a vote, you’ll drive this one.

It’s an underachiever in the fun-to-drive column, too.

2007 Hyundai Elantra SE
138-hp inline-four, 5-speed manual, 2867 lb
Base/as-tested price: $16,295/$16,295
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.9 sec
1/4 mile: 16.3 @ 86 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 184 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.78 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 28 mpg

Third Place: Honda Civic LX

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

In our final ratings, this test breaks into two distinct groups, with the Honda, Mazda, and VW scoring significantly above the other group. The Civic is strong in measures of performance and, particularly, fuel economy. It tied the Corolla at the top of our road-driving evaluation with 33 mpg.

Highs: Distinctive exterior proportions, light, sweet clutch and shifter, space-shuttle feel of the cockpit.
Lows: Overly sculpted dash panel, near-and-far instrument layout, too many interior textures, road noise.

Acceleration is second-best to 60 mph at 7.7 seconds. Skidpad grip is also second-best in a tie with the VW at 0.81 g. Hondas, especially those with manual transmissions, usually drive well, too, and this one continues the tradition. The driver’s seat provides a good position and plenty of support for cornering. The elbow rests are nicely padded. The clutch works with a short, intuitive stroke, and the shifter is similarly quick, although there were complaints on the third day that shifter precision wasn’t up to the traditional Honda standard.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

The suspension is surprisingly noisy over road impacts, and the ride is crisp. The sculpting of the instrument panel draws both yeas and nays, and they are loudly expressed. The driver looks out over a haphazard landscape (a “varied landscape,” say the approvers, “ridiculous,” say the critics) of hues, textures, and shapes, with instruments positioned near and far. The huge digital speedo forward toward the base of the windshield is widely appreciated for its legibility, and the huge worldview through the sloping glass gets wows, too.

The rear seat is low, typical for a Honda, and the foot space under the front buckets is tight on the instep. The bench seat is deeply pocketed for two passengers. As for shoulder space with three adults, well, the center guy might be better advised to take the bus.

The Verdict: If astronauts were to have company cars, why anything but this?

This Civic is hugely polarizing. One tester writes, “I dig the futuristic, artsy look.” Another says, “I hate everything but the way it drives.” Here’s the consensus: You won’t be bored.

2006 Honda Civic LX
140-hp inline-four, 5-speed manual, 2701 lb
Base/as-tested price: $17,555/$17,555
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.7 sec
1/4 mile: 16.1 @ 87 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 191 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 33 mpg

Second Place: Mazda 3 s Touring

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

As expected, this Mazda is a sporty number. But here come the asterisks. A Mazda 3 is available for less than our $18,000 target, but it would be a less zingy car without the 156-hp, 2.3-liter engine (a 2.0 is standard with 148 horsepower) and without the 17-inch wheels wearing 205/50 Goodyear Eagle RS-A tires (15s are standard, 16s could duck under the price limit).

Highs: Sportiest of the bunch, spirited interior style, suspension has good roll stiffness, plenty of oomph.
Lows: Tire tread screams on the interstate, ride motions too taut for some, red instrument markings.

That said, this sample made good use of its extras, easily romping to the front of the pack in acceleration, hitting 60 sooner than the second-best Civic by 0.4 second, finishing the quarter-mile in 15.8 seconds, 0.3 ahead.

It also topped the roadholding chart with 0.85 g and stopped shorter than the others at 168 feet from 70 mph. No question, this is the all-sports all-star.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

It’s a sporty dresser, too. Dimpled leather forms the handgrips on the wheel. The dash has a narrow red stripe running horizontally through the center stack, a theme picked up by the red circles around certain controls and red threads in the black upholstery inserts. Fine so far, but the red numbers in the speedometer and tach are hard to read with sunglasses. At night, the dimmer works on the center-stack lights but has little effect on the main dials.

The cockpit is confining in the wrong places. Most drivers complained about the dash being tight against their right knees. The brake pedal is also close to the tunnel, leaving scant Reebok room at the gas pedal. The door armrest has meager padding for the elbow, and the console armrest is even harder.

The Verdict: Sporty for those you need it, too much for those who don’t.

There’s an expensive feel about this car in the firmness of its seat, in the purposeful responses of the controls. The steering is exceptionally reassuring, requiring a deliberate effort buildup to turn off-center. Expensive, this compact, and worthy.

2007 Mazda 3 s Touring
156-hp inline-four, 5-speed manual, 2889 lb
Base/as-tested price: $18,885/$18,885
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 7.3 sec
1/4 mile: 15.8 @ 88 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 168 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.85 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 27 mpg

First Place: Volkswagen Rabbit

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Again, the sticker is overbudget, but less so than the Mazda’s. The Rabbit’s base price runs $17,620, leaving just enough change for satellite radio and a Quarter Pounder at Mickey D’s. So a Rabbit would make the cut for a careful shopper. The test car had one performance-enhancing option, the upsize alloy wheels with 205/55R-16 tires ($400) instead of the standard 15s.

Highs: Liquid ride motions, traditional instruments, sweet-sounding five, best padding on the elbow rests.
Lows: Hopelessly inflationary speedo, inhospitable rear seat, throttle response complicates launch.

From the driver’s seat, this is an easy car to love, as you can see by our top ratings in Gotta Have It and Fun to Drive. The steering is wired to your hard drive. The well-damped suspension acts to pour this car down the road in one liquid motion. The ride has a short memory for disturbances; hit once and forget each one. There’s a confidence here — you feel it in the no-nonsense motions of the shifter and the simple white-on-black markings of the instruments. Tradition, not fleeting fashion, spoken in this cockpit.

AARON KILEYCar and Driver

Interior details—charcoal upper dash and window sills with shades of beige below—are exceptionally pleasing for this price class. The front center armrest adjusts fore-and-aft. The exterior has a familiar look, rather like the Golfs we’ve been seeing for years, only inflated to about 70 psi. Plump and puffy, ready to burst out in a giggle.

At the track, the Rabbit puts up strong grip numbers, cornering at a second-best 0.81 g and stopping from 70 at a second-best 171 feet, just three feet back from the first-place Mazda. Acceleration is a tick below average at 8.1 seconds to 60 mph, but the strong torque of the five (170 pound-feet at a low 3750 rpm, compared with the Mazda’s second best of 150 at a much higher 4500 rpm) makes this a punchy performer even if you don’t exercise the shifter.

The Verdict: Your passengers won’t love it nearly as much as you will.

Rabbit redux. It’s better this time.

2007 Volkswagen Rabbit
150-hp inline-five, 5-speed manual, 3114 lb
Base/as-tested price: $17,620/$18,470
C/D TEST RESULTS
60 mph: 8.1 sec
1/4 mile: 16.2 @ 86 mph
Braking, 70­–0 mph: 171 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad: 0.81 g
C/D observed fuel economy: 24 mpg

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