We’ll compare their powertrains, fuel economy, and spaciousness to find areas in which they sdiffer. Of course, specifications only tell part of the story, so we recommend checking out our reviews for each of these vehicles, and test driving them to find the absolute best fit for you. And if you’d like to compare any of these with other compacts, be sure to try out our comparison tools. And with that, let’s look into these cars.
Engines, transmissions, and performance
Powertrains in the compact segment are impressively diverse. Among the five sedans here, displacement ranges from 1.4 liters with the VW Jetta and the Hyundai Elantra Eco up to 2.0 liters in the base Honda Civic and the base Hyundai Elantra. There are also turbocharged and naturally aspirated engines on offer. The horsepower leaders are the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra with their optional turbocharged engines. The Sentra wins out with 188 horsepower and the Civic follows with 174 hp. But when it comes to torque, the Volkswagen takes home top honors with 184 pound-feet. Its 147 horsepower, however, is mid-pack.
Impressively, every car here is available with a manual transmission. Even the higher-spec turbo Civic and Sentra can be had with a stick. In fact, the Civic sedan (it also comes as a hatchback with differing options) can only be had with a manual when opting for the turbo engine. The Civic, Corolla, and Sentra all resort to CVTs for automatic shifting duties. The VW is the only car available with an 8-speed transmission, and, oddly, the Hyundai is the only one available with a dual-clutch transmission. That transmission is only available on the Eco model with the turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder.
In addition to having one of the most powerful engines of these five, the Civic is also the most frugal. With the CVT, the turbocharged Civic has the best city, highway and combined fuel economy. The manual comes close to the CVT, losing just 1 mpg in the city and combined ratings. The torque-monster Jetta’s numbers of 30 city, 40 highway and 34 combined roughly match the less sprightly Corolla Eco, Hyundai Elantra Eco, and the naturally aspirated Honda Civic. The clear loser in fuel economy is the turbocharged Sentra, which only gets 27 in the city, 33 on the highway and 29 combined with the CVT. Getting it with a manual knocks 1 mpg off each number. The naturally aspirated Sentra is close to the non-“Eco” versions of the Corolla and Elantra.
Exterior and interior dimensions
The Jetta is one of the largest cars here. It’s the longest by two inches, and is only edged out in width by a tenth of an inch by the Elantra, and height by about an inch and a half by the Sentra. It’s also neck-and-neck with the Sentra for being the heaviest of the group. In contrast, the Civic and Elantra have the lightest versions, and even their heaviest iterations are barely heavier than the Corolla. The Civic is also the lowest of the group, with a roofline 3 inches below the tallest Sentra, and the Elantra is the shortest in length. It’s over 2 inches shorter than the next shortest Sentra.
Despite the Jetta’s large exterior dimensions, it isn’t the most spacious inside. The Civic and Sentra are tied with the most cargo space at 15.1 cubic feet, and the Corolla brings up the rear at 13 cubic feet. For headroom, the Sentra wins up front, but the Elantra and Jetta are nearly tied for most rear headroom. Front legroom is very close for all of these cars, with the Sentra winning out. The Corolla has the most rear legroom, though the way that measurement is calculated may differ between manufacturers. Shoulder room front and rear is basically a tie between the Civic and Elantra.
Pricing and fuel economy
The Elantra is the cheapest of these five sedans, but it only bests the Sentra by $ 40. The priciest of the bunch is the Honda Civic, and the Jetta is right in the middle. The trade-off for the high price is that the Civic also has some of the most efficient engines, the best of which is also the most powerful.
Editors’ driving experiences and recommendations
We at Autoblog have driven all of these small sedans, and the numbers don’t reveal everything. In our experience, we can confidently say the Civic is the most enjoyable drive. Its engines are smooth, and the turbo engine gives it some legitimate pep. It also handles well, rides fairly smoothly, and the manual is slick and quick. The interior is attractive and spacious. Its only major defect is a thoroughly annoying infotainment system that’s clunky, slow, and has an unfortunate lack of physical buttons or knobs.
Behind the Civic we would put the Jetta and the Elantra. Picking between the two will depend on what you value. The Jetta is arguably more stylish inside and out, gets good gas mileage, and its torque is quite welcome around town. The Hyundai is distinctly more affordable, and it has a pleasant interior with user-friendly controls and comfortable seats. Both also have solid warranties and a somewhat soft ride.
We would be least likely to recommend a Corolla or Sentra. Both are uninspiring to drive with unpleasant steering and lukewarm handling in general. The Toyota does at least have a nice interior, especially compared with the chintzy Sentra. But on the other hand, the Sentra’s turbo engine is punchy, and brings a hint of fun to the otherwise mediocre machine. They each have sub-par infotainment systems that lack Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, too.