Car Comparisons

Mega Comparison Test: 2013-2014 Compact Cars

Comparison Data

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel
2013 Dodge Dart
2013 Ford Focus HB
2013 Honda Civic
2013 Hyundai Elantra GT
2014 Kia Forte
2014 Mazda3 Sport
2013 Nissan Sentra
2013 Subaru Impreza
2014 Toyota Corolla
2014 Volkswagen Jetta
Engine Displacement
Engine Cylinders
Diesel I4
Peak Horsepower
151 hp
184 hp
160 hp
140 hp
148 hp
173 hp
155 hp
130 hp
148 hp
132 hp
170 hp
Peak Torque
264 lb-ft
171 lb-ft
146 lb-ft
128 lb-ft
131 lb-ft
154 lb-ft
150 lb-ft
128 lb-ft
145 lb-ft
128 lb-ft
184 lb-ft
Fuel Economy
8.7 / 5.1 / 7.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
10.1 / 7.9 / 9.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
8.7 / 6.2 / 7.6 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
8.3 / 6.0 / 7.3 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
8.8 / 6.4 / 7.7 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
9.8 / 6.6 / 8.4 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
8.0 / 5.9 / 7.1 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
7.8 / 5.9 / 6.9 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
8.7 / 6.6 / 7.8 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
8.1 / 6.3 / 7.3 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
9.5 / 6.7 / 8.2 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb
Cargo Space
377 L
371 L
674 / 1,269 L
345 L
651 / 1,444 L
422 L
572 / 1,334 L
428 L
340 L
368 L
439 L
Base Price
A/C Tax
Destination Fee
Price as Tested
Optional Equipment
$1,580 – Enhanced Safety Package, $885; Crystal Red paint, $415; Convenience Package, $180; Oil pan heater, $100
$4,570 – GT group package (Leather Seats, Uconnect 8.4 touchscreen, Sport Suspension), $1,250; Power Sunroof, $1,295; Bi-Xenon HID headlamps, $775; GPS Navigation, $450; Premium Speaker System, $500; 18” Hyper Black Aluminum Wheels, $300
$3,300 – Luxury Group, $1,500; Navigation, $800; Automatic parking system, $600; Blue Candy Metallic paint, $400
$150 – Premium colour, $150
$1,700 – Skyactiv-Drive 6-speed Sport mode AT, $1,200; Convenience Package, $500
$2,535 – CVT, $1,300; SR Package, $1,100; metallic pearl paint, $135
$1,300 – CVT transmission, $1,300
$4,885 – CVT transmission, $985; Technology Package, $3,900
$1,570 – Technology Package, $1,570

2014 Chevrolet Cruze Diesel
2013 Dodge Dart GT
2013 Ford Focus Titanium
2013 Honda Civic Touring
2013 Hyundai Elantra GT SE
2014 Kia Forte SX
2014 Mazda3 Sport GS
2013 Nissan Sentra SR
2013 Subaru Impreza Sport
2014 Toyota Corolla
2014 Volkswagen Jetta

Review by Jonathan Yarkony, Jacob Black, Jeff Wilson and Peter Bleakney; photos by Jeff Wilson and Justin Couture

Introduction, Jacob Black

There are big fish in small ponds, and there are small fish in big ponds. The compact car segment is a huge pond – and these little fish are big business.

We took 11 of them on in an effort to determine which was a shark, and which was an undergrown neon tetra. At the end, one winner calmly stepped forward to claim its title, one contender stood, mouth agape, wondering how it all went wrong, and one minnow proved itself mightier than first appearances.

But this was not a knockout victory, oh no. It was a points decision, and a close one at that; but more on that later.

In all, our test was comprised of the Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra GT, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla and Volkswagen Jetta. The Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla are the salesroom heavyweights (each at over 30K Canadian sales to date this year), regularly smashing the opposition in the volume shootout, but are they the best? The middleweights include the Cruze, Jetta and Focus, all having sold 20–30K so far this year.

The range of features on offer runs the gamut from Spartan to sumptuous, the looks from beautiful to dorky, and there is every flavour of drivetrain: ‘boxer’ engine, turbocharged gas, turbodiesel, direct injection, CVT, dual-clutch, automatic and even a manual transmission.

So how do you pick a winner from this bunch? Well, just over a year ago, we threw nine of these fish into a ring, and it was the Chevrolet Cruze in sporty RS trim that rose victorious from that Compact Car Comparison Test.

But competition has tightened. Most of these cars had major revisions, the Cruze raised the bar with a new diesel powerplant, and the Dodge Dart burst onto the scene.

The Mazda3 is a media darling, the 2014 model year sees the full SkyActiv treatment, platform and engines, plus a new infotainment system. Corolla is trying to shake off its “beige” reputation and realign itself with a more youthful demographic.

Even the Nissan Sentra is revised. In this segment styling is vital, and all but the Focus and Cruze have taken a visual leap forward – some more impressively than others.

This is a complicated ecosystem, flush with diversity and quality. Read on to find out which compact car has the best combination of style, practicality, comfort, capability and value.

11th Place: 2013 Dodge Dart GT, Jonathan Yarkony

It is with a heavy heart that I break the news that the Dodge Dart fared no better than last place. I really like the Dart, especially in this GT trim. It is a good car.

Last year, without reservation, I slammed the last-place Corolla as the “Anti-Car” and found only the driest of positives in its defense. But this Dart, with its sleek new looks, big engine, long list of features, excellent stereo interface and, heck, it even had a manual transmission (we love manual transmissions!), how did it fall so far? And why am I always writing up the last place cars?

It’s simple really. Price and practicality. Our comparisons place a huge premium on value, and we thoroughly test a variety of practical aspects of the vehicles, including specific tests for seating and cargo space. The Dart came in with the third highest price at $29,360 with destination. Ouch.

However, it’s not like it was lacking in features, including bi-xenon headlights, navigation, power sunroof, upgraded wheels and the GT group adding leather seats, that glorious 8.4-inch Uconnect touchscreen interface and the Sport suspension. The Dart took the prize for Usability and Ergonomics thanks to that easy-to-use Uconnect infotainment system, and was near the top for exterior and interior styling and even showed well for interior quality.

But that Sport suspension was another point of contention. One of our judges found the ride so stiff that he queried in his notes “Is the Dart equipped with shocks?” while another countered “It shows its stuff when you lean on it in the corners…” Overall, it scored worst in Ease of Driving and Ride Comfort, so the “ropey shifter and vague clutch takeup” that Peter Bleakney notes and Jeff Wilson similarly pans in his Dart GT Test Drive actually did it no favours.

Fuel consumption was also a worst in test at 9.8 L/100 km on the day’s drive, and rated an EPA worst 27 mpg combined (8.7 L/100 km).

The Dart really took a hit on rear seating and cargo/passenger flexibility because of a tight back seat and below average cargo space, and the front seats weren’t much better, though not dead last.

But it’s not all bad news for Dodge’s new compact. Although gruff, the new 2.4L Tigershark (grrrrr… sound-that-a-shark-makes…) took the Engine honours and pulled strong thanks to 184 hp and 171 lb-ft, undiluted by torque converters and put down by sharp 18-inch wheels.

Editor Jacob Black summed it up nicely: “This car’s interior tech is brilliant, beaten only by the Mazda’s, but the drive experience lets it down.” I’d add that the seating, practicality and fuel efficiency also held it back. I stand by my opening statement: the Dart is a good car. But in this test, there were better cars and far better values in this segment.

Pricing: 2013 Dodge Dart GT
Base Price (SE Model):  $15,995
Base Price (GT Model): $23,295
Options: $4,570 – GT group package (Leather Seats, Uconnect 8.4 touchscreen, Sport Suspension), $1,250; Power Sunroof, $1,295; Bi-Xenon HID headlamps, $775, GPS Navigation, $450; Premium Speaker System, $500; 18” Hyper Black Aluminum Wheels, $300
Destination: $1,695
A/C Tax: $100
Price as tested: $29,660

10th Place: 2013 Ford Focus Titanium, Jonathan Yarkony

Here is another good car that has fallen because of a high price and compromised practicality.

Where the Ford Focus shone was in Exterior Design and Interior Design, a rare double win, and was tops in Quality as well thanks to impressive fit and finish, and the screens and gauges were also in a three-way tie for first, but usability fell to mid-pack because of MyFord Touch’s still somewhat slow response time to finger prompts and occasionally convoluted menus.

Out on the road, the Focus handling shines, earning top marks there and near the top for steering and braking feel, but the ride comfort suffered, landing just barely ahead of the last place Dart. As Peter Bleakney noted: “Feels Euro-solid and handles well, but stiff ride might turn off some buyers.”

The powertrain was neither loved nor hated, although several testers noted some rough shifting from the “PowerShift” dual-clutch automated transmission. Jeff Wilson cited an “unusual stuttering of the transmission when pulling away from a stop” and others noted occasional shudders, but driven in Sport mode can deliver rewardingly fast shifts without any hiccups.

The 2.0L inline-four manages an impressive 160 hp and 146 lb-ft thanks to direct injection, but it is “not a particularly inspired engine, a bit boomy down low and buzzy up top” as per Peter Bleakney in his Ford Focus Test Drive. It was also below average in fuel consumption on test day (9.4 L/100 km) despite showing well in EPA testing (combined 31 mpg/7.6 L/100 km).

However, the Focus had a tight back seat, though not as bad as the Dart, and despite being a hatchback scored worst for Cargo Space even if it scored well in Flexibility. That trunk is narrow and not very deep.

And that price was an equally tough pill to swallow, claiming highest in test at $30,650 with destination. Though it scored near the top for Feature Content, it was ranked the poorest Value as many more affordable entrants seemed to offer the same key, desirable features. Black had this to say, “The Titanium is not the trim I’d have entered in this fight, with too many excessive options (like the cool-but-pointless interior light show).”

If you have the coin to spend on a premium compact the Focus Titanium delivers a sporty look and quality interior with high feature content, even if some of it might seem frivolous, but if you want a more practical, comfortable value, consider looking elsewhere.

Pricing: 2013 Ford Focus Titanium Hatchback
Base Price: $25,799
Options: $3,300 – Luxury Group, $1,500; Navigation, $800; Automatic parking system, $600; Blue Candy Metallic paint, $400
A/C Tax: $100
Destination: $1,550
Price as Tested: $30,749

9th Place: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel, Peter Bleakney

And we have a fuel economy champ. No great surprise here – we all know the benefits of diesel propulsion. While the Euro-sourced 2.0L turbodiesel puts out a modest 151 hp, it’s that wallop of way-down torque (264 lb-ft with 280 lb-ft on a 10-second overboost) that makes the Chevrolet Cruze feel fleet out on the road and earns it a win in the Engine/Power category. In fact, in this crowd of low-torque gasoline four-pots lugging away at minimum revs to attain respectable fuel numbers, the Cruze’s right-now throttle response was a bloody revelation.

From the outside, this oil-burner sounds like a blender full of walnuts but once in the cabin you’re barely aware that its fuel flows from the yellow handle.

The Cruze Diesel is best as a highway hauler. The engine disappears into the background yet is always there to deliver the needed passing power. Wind noise is minimal. The leather seats are good, but the problem with extended highway cruising is that it gives you time to look at the cabin. The MyLink system seems simple at first, but a lot of options means a lot of stuff to figure out and the screen and centre stack seemed cluttered – usability and ergonomics were near the bottom. And what’s with those sandpaper grade fabric panels on the dash and doors?

The Cruze lost marks for back seat room and access – the rear door openings are tight, and we all felt the little Chev’s styling is looking dated.

The Cruze Diesel adopts some fuel saving tweaks from the gasoline Cruze Eco – active grille shutters, underbody aero aids and low-rolling-resistance tires. That latter non-performance tires in conjunction with the heavy diesel lump up front take away from the Cruze’s usual agility. This one feels a tad ponderous when pushed. In fact, the diesel weighs in a good 136 kg more than a Cruze LTZ, which essentially equates to having one Rob Ford perched on your hood.

Editor Jacob Black complained about the six-speed transmission. He felt it caused undue vibrations and upshifted too early.

As with most diesels on the market, you’ll have to sit down with a calculator to see if the extra hit at the dealership can eventually be recouped in fuel savings. The more you drive, the more sense these cars make.

Pricing: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze Clean Turbo Diesel
Base Price: $24,945
Options: $1,580 – Enhanced Safety Package (rear cross traffic alert, rear park assist, blind spot warning), $885; Crystal Red paint, $415; Convenience Package (auto dimming interior mirror, illuminated vanity mirrors), $180; Oil pan heater, $100
A/C Tax: $100
Destination: $1,600
Price as Tested: $28,225

8th Place: 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT, Jonathan Yarkony

When the Hyundai Elantra GT arrived on the scene last fall, it seemed the answer to so many of our needs. Hyundai value, European hatchback flair, practicality and even a dose of sporting dynamics expected of a European hatchback. So how does such a promising proposition end up in an unimpressive eighth?

In almost every category where we expected big things from the Elantra GT, others did it better. Value and Content? Trumped by Toyota, Mazda and even its Korean cousin, Kia. Handling and Comfort? Bested by the Jetta, the 3, Impreza and even Corolla again. Fit and Finish and Usability? Mid-pack at best. Engine? Don’t even ask.

Well, okay, Bleakney will answer anyway: “Plenty of style but not much substance. The new for 2014 2.0L can't come fast enough.” The engine, a 1.8L four making 148 hp and 131 lb-ft, felt almost overrated, and was ranked second last, ahead of only the Sentra. A middle-of-the road transmission (six-speed auto) didn’t help it in the fuel consumption department, either: 9.4 L/100 km observed and 30 mpg EPA combined (7.8 L/100 km) trailed most of the pack.

It wasn’t far off the leaders in design, inside and out and quality, but there simply wasn’t enough stuff, and we like stuff. Lots of stuff. Like Peter, Jeff Wilson was disappointed. “It was uninspiring to drive and with so few features for the cost, didn't even represent a great value.”

At least the practical configuration earned it a couple of wins in Practicality/Flexibility and Cabin Storage, and its warranty is the equal of Kia’s, but there was not enough to distinguish it from cars that were superior overall or others that outshone the Elantra GT in Hyundai’s traditional selling points. Even its relatively low price of $25,999 wasn’t enough to help it climb out of a weak finish.

Driven in isolation, you’d likely be impressed by the Elantra GT as a smooth, comfortable car, with an impressive array of features (as we have been in the past), but against all the latest offerings in the segment, it no longer seems to hold its lustre.

Pricing: 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT SE
Base Price (SE): $24,349
Options: None
A/C Tax: $100
Destination: $1,550
Price as Tested: $25,999

7th Place: 2014 Kia Forte SX, Jacob Black

Kia is making some of the best-looking cars going at the moment and this Forte is no exception. It’s a stunner. The Forte and the Focus were neck and neck in exterior styling in this challenge, with the Focus taking the top spot by the barest of margins, and only because it’s a hatch – you know how we auto writers love us a hatchback.

The Kia Forte also picked up points for its well-laid out gauges and instrument cluster and a surprising win in “rear seat comfort”. Jeff Wilson was left impressed by the Forte fit-out, and its appearance. “The Forte astonished me for its luxuriousness,” he says. “Seriously, heated and cooled seats in a compact car of this price?  Heated rear seats?!  Unheard of.

“And the styling both inside and out is something an owner would be proud to show off to the neighbours.  It's a handsome car all around.”

The Forte picked up another surprising win for its transmission. It was the definition of smooth, if somewhat unexciting.

Unsurprisingly, the Forte cleaned up for its long warranty and laundry list of features. There is a lot of car here for your money and the Forte ended up second only to the Mazda3 in our Value scores.

Jonathan Yarkony especially enjoyed the ventilated driver’s seat.  I found the ride to be extremely comfortable, with a nice soft bounce over the bumps, but the Forte lacked driving excitement and fuel efficiency. Only the Dart shows worse fuel numbers on EPA official ratings (28 mpg/8.4 L/100 km combined), but to the Kia’s credit, its observed consumption on the day was much closer to its official ratings than others (9.4 L/100 km), namely the Civic, Elantra, Focus and Jetta – all four ended the day in the same band as the Kia.

Steering and braking feel were also down, but part of that might have been related to the snow tires that had already been fitted; they seemed to soggy up the communication between the road and the driver.

Kia showed flashes of brilliance during this test, and that bodes well for the Korean automaker – its final finishing position might not seem like a great result, but this is a very tough category, and it beat last year’s winner, the Cruze, as well as the brand new Dart, the much-loved Focus and its distant cousin, the Elantra GT.

If features and style are your driving motivation – than the Kia Forte will suit you just fine, and it’s not too far off the competition when it comes to the other key categories.

A future contender for sure.

Pricing: 2014 Kia Forte SX AT
Base Price:
Options: $150 – Premium colour, $150
Destination: $1,485
A/C Tax: $100
Price as Tested: $27,930

6th Place: 2013 Subaru Impreza Sport, Jeff Wilson

In last year’s Compact Car Comparison Test, the Impreza was declared most polarizing and surprised a few people by clinching a third-place spot.  This year, with a few new faces behind the wheel and a host of new models in the competition, the Impreza slips another three spots to sixth.

It’s safe to say the polarizing aspect applied less this year with no raging Subaru fanatics in the driver group.  For the most part, people were lukewarm at best to the Subaru’s appearance.  With such handsome new competitors as the Forte, Mazda3 and yes, even the Corolla, it’s not surprising the Impreza was left red faced at the dance sitting beside the dowdy Sentra.  The Impreza is not an attractive car.

But to dismiss it on its looks alone would miss the great job Subaru has done on the Impreza’s drivetrain.   In discussing the attributes of the Subie following our respective drives, Peter Bleakney and I agreed that the design money was poured into the greasy bits of this car rather than trying to make it pretty or full of techno gadgets.  For those of us who appreciate function over form, that’s a good thing.

And despite its sixth place finish, the Subaru Impreza is a good thing.  The 2.0L boxer engine has that traditional gruff sound I personally love and the CVT transmission is the most performance-oriented of its kind with actual stepped “gears” available, rare for this class.  What’s more, the engine feels stronger than the 148-hp output claimed in Subaru’s literature thanks to snappy throttle response.

The suspension soaks up bumps better than anything else in the test, yet in typical Subaru tradition, rolls around a lot, but still hangs on when the roads are twisty.

This is due in no small part to Subaru’s stellar all-wheel-drive system – the only car in this bunch to offer such a feature.

For most of Subaru’s buyers, that will dramatically outweigh its lack of giant panorama sunroof, nine-inch touchscreen or cooled seats and vault the Impreza into the number-one spot.  For this test, a little more style and a little more content would do wonders to help the Subaru’s value quotient and ranking.

Pricing: 2014 Subaru Impreza Sport 4 door
Base Price: $23,895
Options: $1,300 – CVT transmission, $1,300
Destination: $1,595
A/C Tax: $100
Price as Tested: $26,890

5th Place: 2014 Nissan Sentra SR, Peter Bleakney

It seems our team could not find a warm place in its collective heart for this bulbous offering from Nissan. But by virtue of considerably undercutting every car here on price (and by a lot – $21,750 as tested), it clawed its way up from last to fifth place. And we agree with that adjustment – it’s hard to see the Focus and Dart as being $8,000 better than this admittedly simple but still perfectly functional car.

Yes, it lacked heated seats and the interior quality and NVH got the lowest score, but there is much to recommend the Sentra as long as it’s not an all-out sporting or refined experience you’re after.

First off, the Sentra’s generous backseat headroom and legroom trumped all comers, and it was judged easiest in Child Seat Installation. Additionally, you could rent the trunk out as a student apartment. With the 60/40 rear seat folded and the passenger down this sedan will accommodate long and large items. Like a surfboard.

Oh, and looky here. It returned the same fuel numbers (7.8 L/100 km on test day) as the best of the gas burners – the Corolla and Mazda3 – and has the best EPA rating of the bunch at 34 mpg combined (6.9 L/100 km).

While most complained of the Sentra’s tepid driving experience, I will defend it by noting the brisk throttle tip-in, smooth ride and generally quiet cabin. However, both Engine and Transmission earned the lowest scores in this comparison, as did handling. I won’t defend the drone from the engine room when accelerating, but such is the way with modestly powered engines (130 hp and 128 lb-ft) hooked to CVTs (continuously variable transmissions). Again, look at the fuel economy.

The Sentra’s front seats and driving position came in for lots of criticism. The dash is plain but the important essentials are there – clear gauges and easy to use radio and HVAC controls, but nothing that scored particularly well in any of our categories.

Granted, the Nissan Sentra is really no fun to drive. The handling limits are low – it’s pretty roly-poly – but at least there are no evil dynamic surprises lurking within. The steering is linear and feels reasonably connected. As a functional, efficient, roomy and completely innocuous form of transport, the Sentra delivers. And did we mention it’s affordable?

Pricing: 2014 Nissan Sentra SR
Base Price: $17,548
Options: $2,535 – CVT, $1,300; SR Package (17-inch alloys, rear disc brakes, rear lip spoiler, fog lights, side sill extensions, sport front and rear fascia, chrome exhaust tip, upgraded interior trim and seat fabric), $1,100; metallic pearl paint, $135
A/C Tax: $100
Destination: $1,567
Price as Tested: $21,750

4th Place: 2013 Honda Civic Touring, Jeff Wilson

The Civic – along with the Impreza – is probably the least changed car since its entry into last year’s competition.  And yet here it is climbing all the way up to fourth place from a poor show of sixth last year.  This despite not having a new drivetrain (like the Cruze and Volkswagen), a new body type (like the Elantra) or a whole new everything (like the rest).

So how’d it do that with so many other impressive entries?  Simple:  quality and value.

After only one year of getting beaten up by the automotive press, Honda went back to the drawing boards and fine-tuned the Civic for 2013.  Those details improved handling and styling (though the Civic still ranked near the bottom of this group for its space-shuttle looks).  What’s more, the trim level provided by Honda this year (top-tier Touring instead of mid-level EX as last year) raised the price by about four grand, but the content level dramatically.

The Honda Civic was praised by several testers for its nimble handling.  Indeed the Civic does feel light on its feet when taking to the on- and off-ramps, but at the cost of its ride.  Contributing judge Brian Weeks rightly pointed out that the Civic is worst on the rough, choppy concrete airport roadway segment of our test loop.

The engine, with its need for revs and dearth of torque (140 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque) seems outclassed amongst its peers, even if it is smooth.  Although only a couple of years old now, the Civic’s mechanical bits and designs seem dated already compared to the new players.

Honda also lost points for its polarizing interior styling and ergonomics.  Where Senior Editor Yarkony complained about the usability of Honda’s HMI interface and Editor Black described the interior as “less welcoming than a port-a-loo on an autoTRADER test day,” Weeks and I found the two-tier gauges to provide very clear information.

Ultimately, winning only Ease of Parking, Ease of Driving and Quality Fit / Finish categories isn’t enough anymore to place in the top three of this accomplished crowd.  The Civic really is a very good car.  But the top three spots are occupied by great ones.

Pricing: 2013 Honda Civic Sedan Touring
Base Price: $24,900
Options: None
Destination: $1,495
A/C Tax: $100
Price as Tested: $26,495

3rd Place: 2014 Jetta Highline 1.8T, Peter Bleakney

This Mexican-built Jetta with the new-for-2014 1.8L direct-injected and turbocharged four-pot was the clear favourite among our testers.

As Jacob Black put it “Lop $2K off the purchase price and it would have conquered all.”

Granted, our larger North American–specific Jetta is hardly a looker, but here in Toffee Brown Metallic and perched on classy 17-inch rims it cuts a somewhat elegant profile. Same story inside. The dash design is plain, yet it only takes a few moments to realize the rightness of it all. Wonderfully clear gauges, the best audio of the bunch, seats that find the right balance of comfort, firmness and support, and quality touch points. And most of us appreciated the Cornsilk Beige Vienna leather that was a nice respite to the unrelenting black of every other tester.

What really won our hearts was the drive – read: classic Volkswagen dynamic signature. Well weighted steering that directs a chassis showing poise, refinement and an impressive ride/handling combo. The Jetta feels premium, mature and well-engineered.

And then there is the new blown-four that replaces the gruff and thirsty 2.5L five-cylinder. In this crowd of tepid naturally aspirated fours, the Jetta’s get-up-and-go had us goin’, helped in no small part by the six-speed auto transmission, which was smooth and sufficiently quick for this class. Would’ve been nice to have had paddle shifters here, as they actually make sense with a transmission this quick, even if it's not the DSG.

On the down side, the engine clatters a bit at lower revs, which seems typical of VW’s direct-injection fours. Fuel economy was on par with the considerably tardier Focus, Civic, Forte and Elantra.

The Jetta 1.8T also scored well on back seat room for two, although put three in there and the hump in the floor and hump in the seat makes for an uncomfortable ride. Its trunk trumped all.

Next to the Focus, this Jetta was the most expensive car here. Here’s a case where you get what you pay for.

Pricing: 2014 Volkswagen Jetta Highline 1.8T
Base Price: $26,890
Options: $1,570 – Technology Package (Fender audio, touchscreen navigation, back up camera, single CD slot), $1,570
Destination: $1,395
A/C Tax: $100
Price as Tested: $29,955

2nd Place: 2014 Toyota Corolla S, Jeff Wilson

As all the drivers exited the test vehicles following their last drive of the day, we congregated for some final thoughts.  It was then we universally agreed that even if it didn’t win the overall competition, the Corolla would definitely take home the prize for Most Improved.

What’s more, when Senior Editor Yarkony polled the group of six drivers as to which car they’d choose to spend their own money on, there were five different answers showing just how closely fought this battle was.  Without tallying or even looking at my scores, my response was the Corolla.  It looks good, drives well and based on generations of solid build quality, stands a pretty good chance of being a very reliable machine.

Toyota played it smart when offering up our test car.  They provided a top-trim “S” model with a sticker price of less than twenty grand, then threw a $3,900 Technology Package at it that includes everything from stylish alloy wheels to Toyota’s SofTex Leather seats to a power sunroof and navigation.  At less than $26,000, the Corolla was more affordable than everything other than the “stripper” Sentra and Mazda3, but offered way more content.

It was this obvious value that appealed to my head, but its handsome exterior styling appeals to my heart, too.

Where did Toyota miss the mark with the new Corolla?  Well, everywhere and nowhere.

The Toyota was the only car of the group that neither won nor lost a single category.  As Yarkony pointed out, this is “the very definition of balance (or some would say mediocrity).”

Throughout the entire score sheet, the Corolla consistently posted mid-pack scores in everything except Features/Amenities, Value and Observed Fuel Economy – all very important and pragmatic categories where it placed near the top.

One noteworthy weak point is the Corolla’s interior design, which seems to take all the car’s necessary controls and throw them haphazardly at the wall of black plastic that is the dashboard, consequently its Usability score suffered.  Still interior materials are mostly decent quality and feel like they should hold up well over time.

Unfortunately for Toyota, there is another all-new kid on the block that embraces the driver with a little more zeal than the Corolla does.  Simply being Most Improved doesn’t necessarily guarantee a position in the winner’s circle.

Pricing: 2014 Toyota Corolla S
Base Price: $19,215
Options: $4,885 – CVT transmission, $985; Technology Package including 17” alloy wheels, rear disc brakes, Premium Sound System, Navigation, 8-way Power Driver’s Seat, Leather Seating Surfaces, Smart Key System, Power moonroof, $3,900
Destination: $1,520
A/C Tax: $100
Price as Tested: $25,720

1st Place: 2014 Mazda3 Sport GS

And the winner is… the Mazda3!

It takes excellent road manners, an easy-to-use infotainment system and a pleasing interior to excel in these comparison tests – and the Mazda3 ticked all those boxes. As Senior Editor Jonathan Yarkony pointed out, the 3 is a little down on power compared to the leaders, but its efficiency and the overall driving experience make up for that minor shortfall.

Despite its virtues, the Mazda3’s victory was a surprise to me. This car has been pleasing automotive media for months now, so I should have seen it coming – but I really didn’t. Maybe it’s because I don’t much enjoy the styling. Maybe it’s because the Jetta left me feeling more impressed. And I’m not alone there; many of us felt like the Jetta was a strong contender, and many of us preferred it to the 3. There was even talk that Mazda had submitted the wrong trim for this fight, and that the GT might have fared better against the Volkswagen.

“It may not broadside you with its abilities, but its essential ‘rightness’ becomes apparent the more you drive it,” Peter Bleakney says, and he is right.

It wasn’t until the tally sheets were in and the real breakdown of scores began that we began to see a pattern; the 3 had the perfect balance of positives in the categories that mattered.

It took out category wins for: Interior Styling, Driver Seat/Position, Practicality/Flexibility (seating and cargo), and NVH. Though not a heavily weighted category, the Mazda also claimed the best steering and braking feel. The only thing that hurt it for ease of driving was visibility – those rear pillars are enormous.

It also had probably the best infotainment setup of the class. With definite influence from Audi, Benz and BMW, the rotary knob–touchscreen setup was a joy to use, and it looked stunning too. The interior of the Mazda3 was a very happy place to be.

Said Jeff Wilson, “The driving position in the Mazda3 suited me best.  The seats were great, the gauges all legible and controls easy to access.  Plus, unlike others who voiced their (wrong) opinions, the styling of the Mazda is very near the top for me.  Reminds me of an Alfa – and that's a great thing.”

In the end it was the price that really railed home the victory – Mazda was the highest scorer on value, and the second-cheapest rig in the test at $24,190 (the lowly Sentra was cheapest). There was a monster $5,865 difference between the 3 and the third-placed Jetta. Even if all of us liked the Jetta more on first impressions (well, all except for Jonathan “I always pick the winner” Yarkony), none of us liked it $5,865 more.

The Mazda3 is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a fun, engaging little rig with excellent road manners and a stunning new infotainment system. It survives close scrutiny better than its competitors, and it also checks the most important box there is in this segment: Value.

Pricing: 2014 Mazda3 GS
Base Price:
Options: $1,700 – Skyactiv-Drive 6-speed Sport mode AT, $1,200; Convenience Package (Rain-sensing wipers, heated driver and passenger seats, heated exterior mirrors, leather steering wheel, leather shift knob, leather brake handle, and fully automatic headlights), $500
Destination: $1,695
A/C Tax: $100
Price as Tested: $24,190