Car Buying Tips

5 Best Compact Cars to Consider in 2023

As little as 10 years ago, compact cars represented the meat of Canada’s new-vehicle marketplace, before subcompact crossovers began stealing market share from small cars.

A decade is a long time in the fast-moving auto industry, and, thanks to today’s crossover-heavy marketplace, the compact car segment is a lot smaller than it was in the early 2010s. While many models in this segment have been discontinued to make more room for small SUVs, Canadian drivers still have a lot of affordable and practical options in this segment.

Our jury of 20 expert car reviewers considered every single vehicle in this segment and voted for the best ones, representing vehicles they would feel confident recommending to their own family and friends.

2023 Honda Civic/Civic Hatchback

The Honda Civic has once again been recognized as Canada’s Best Compact Car in the 2023 AutoTrader Awards, earning more votes from our jury than every other vehicle in this class.

This is the second model year for the 11th-generation Civic, which was introduced in 2022 with more tasteful styling that we think will age better than that of the 10th-gen version. The Civic comes in sedan and hatchback body styles, both powered by a choice of either 2.0L or 1.5L turbocharged four-cylinder engines and six-speed manual or continuously variable automatic transmissions (CVT).

In the eyes of our jurors, much of the Civic’s goodness is found in details like its modern yet charmingly retro interior. In his review of a Civic Sport Touring hatchback, Chris Tsui called out the “three extremely clicky knobs that control the climate,” which he found “immensely easy to use while being luxury-car-level nice to look at and operate.” Road Test Editor Dan Ilika liked everything about his Civic Touring sedan’s 9.0-inch infotainment touchscreen, which he called “vastly improved over the previous version” for its combination of touch-sensitive controls and hard buttons.

Jeff Wilson summed things up by calling the Civic’s dash “a masterclass in ergonomic layout.”

All four AutoTrader contributors who have reviewed the 11th-gen Civic praised its performance. Wilson found the car displayed “impressive composure” on curvy roads, while Tsui described the suspension as “communicative but comfortable.” Ilika appreciated the feeling of “serious substance,” and Peter Bleakney called the Civic “a serene and stable champion” of highway driving.

It must be said, however, that those test cars were all Touring sedan or Sport Touring hatchback models, which share the 180-hp turbo engine and other engineering traits you may not get in lesser trims powered by the 158-hp 2.0L engine.

Still, even the entry-grade LX trim will provide what Tsui described as “substantial” rear-seat legroom and an interior design that makes the cabin “feel bigger than it is.” Bleakney, a professional musician, used his Civic hatch to haul an upright bass and other gear to a gig, proving you don’t need an SUV or crossover to get big practicality in a small package.

Pricing for the 2023 Honda Civic starts at $26,835 in LX sedan trim and runs to $37,130 for the Sport Touring hatchback.

2023 Mazda3/Mazda3 Sport

The Mazda3 has been a perennial favourite among our expert reviewers since its introduction nearly 20 years ago as the Protégé’s replacement. The past few years have seen Mazda put a lot of effort into taking its beloved compact car upscale without addressing its snug rear seat and small trunk, which you might see as a drawback compared to competitors that now offer more space.

But if you like power, it’s hard to argue with the Mazda3’s available 2.5L turbo four-cylinder engine, which on premium fuel puts out 250 hp and 320 lb-ft of torque, the latter figure being huge for a mainstream compact. Of course, Mazda knows the 3 is an economy car at heart, so its more affordable trims use 2.0L and 2.5L non-turbo motors with 155 to 191 hp.

Jil McIntosh called the 2.5L turbo “a sweet little engine, with strong acceleration . . . good manners and no hint of excess muscle when you want to take off smoothly.” In his review, Sam McEachern called the turbo mill “buttery smooth” and praised its ability to “pull hard even at highway speeds.” Of note is that the turbo engine comes standard with AWD for effective power delivery.

But if you don’t want the turbo engine – or can’t afford its $36,000-plus entry tag – the Mazda3’s lesser motors are no downers. Justin Pritchard wrote that his tester’s base 2.0L engine “emits . . . a pleasingly smooth hum, and provides better low-rpm response than expected.” This year, the mid-range non-turbo 2.5L engine (which Jeff Wilson described as “sprightly” back in 2019) gets a 5-hp bump to 191 hp and a small improvement in fuel economy that makes it nearly as efficient as the 2.0L.

On the downside, most of our reviewers dislike Mazda’s infotainment system. McEachern called it “hard to use, plain and simple,” and Pritchard said he found himself “struggling occasionally with the interface, even after a week.” McEachern’s and Pritchard’s reviews were written about 2021 and 2019 models, but McIntosh drove a 2023 version and called the setup “a clunky system to use,” so it appears not much has changed in four years.

2023 Mazda3 pricing kicks off at $21,900 for a GX sedan, while the Mazda3 Sport GT Turbo tops the range at $37,400.

2023 Toyota Corolla/Corolla Hatchback

The Toyota Corolla’s big news for 2023 is the addition of a wild, high-performance GR edition that derives 300 hp from a turbocharged three-cylinder engine. However, the only Corolla variants our jurors considered for the Best Compact Car category were the plainer ones that better fit the car’s reputation for rock-solid reliability and thrifty fuel economy.

The current-generation Corolla hatchback debuted in 2019, with a redesigned sedan following in 2020 to round out the 12th-gen lineup. Even without the new GR sportster, this is the most fun the Corolla has been in a long time, thanks to a platform engineered for more driver engagement. Meanwhile, a Corolla-first hybrid option in 2020 emphasized the model’s focus on economy.

That economy was driven home for Dan Ilika in his review of a 2022 Corolla Hybrid, which returned “astonishing” average fuel consumption of 3.9 L/100 km in a week of driving – significantly better than the 4.5 L/100 km promised by the car’s NRCan ratings.

Ilika also liked the Corolla Hybrid’s driving feel, writing that its suspension exhibited “minimal body roll and sharp chassis response.” In a different review, Ilika called the Corolla hatchback “genuinely enjoyable to drive.”

In her 2022 Toyota Corolla sedan review, Jil McIntosh liked how the “plain” cabin design translated into “systems that are very easy to operate.” Ilika said the Corolla sedan’s front-seat occupants get the “lion’s share of space,” while rear-seat comfort is limited by just-adequate legroom and doors that don’t open especially wide.

Ilika was more fond of his Corolla testers’ powertrains than McIntosh, who wrote that her XSE sedan’s 169-hp 2.0L “gets the job done, even if it doesn’t always sound like it will.” Ilika noted that although his hybrid’s 138-hp drivetrain “sounds strained,” it “generates enough gusto when called upon to pass or merge without inducing panic.” Meanwhile, Ilika’s hatchback tester – fitted with the same 2.0L as McIntosh’s car – served up “steady and progressive pull – perfect for passing maneuvers or even a little fun.”

Until 2022, gas-powered Corolla sedan and hatchback models were offered with a six-speed manual transmission, but 2023 models all come standard with an automatic CVT.

This year, $22,690 will get you into the Corolla sedan’s entry-level L trim, while the hatchback starts at $23,490. The top option is a Corolla Hybrid XSE AWD, at $34,290; you can also get a front-drive hybrid starting at $25,990.

2023 Volkswagen Jetta/Jetta GLI

The seventh-generation Jetta arrived as a 2019 model, but a refresh last year updated the car’s styling and brought a new 158-hp 1.5L turbo engine to replace a 147-hp 1.4L mill for entry-level models. Meanwhile, the sporty Jetta GLI got similar styling tweaks but stuck with the same 228-hp 2.0L turbo engine.

It says something about the state of the compact sedan segment that our only coverage of the updated Jetta includes a 2022 first drive review and a comparison test that pitted the GLI against the Subaru WRX; our latest full Jetta test drive is of a 2021 model.

In that first drive, Jeff Wilson wrote that the 1.5L engine “has the character (and sound) of a larger engine, going about its business effortlessly.” Wilson also noted that the 2022 update brought a few interior updates. A standard digital cluster, heated/leather-trimmed steering wheel, and some driver safety assists were made standard – niceties that boost the Jetta’s value relative to its $23,295 starting price for 2023.

Back in 2021, Jil McIntosh reviewed a pre-update Jetta in top-end Highline trim, in which she found the front seats firm but supportive and comfortable, and she praised on-road manners that “seem like they belong to a much larger vehicle.”

McIntosh and Wilson agree that the base Jetta provides competent driving dynamics but isn’t particularly sporty. Wilson thought the updated 2022 model was an “exceptional” highway cruiser, while McIntosh appreciated her 2021 tester’s well-planted feel, confident brakes, and tight turning circle.

In his WRX comparison, Wilson was surprised by how well the Jetta GLI held its own despite giving up 43 hp to the Subaru. Both cars promise 258 lb-ft of torque, but the Jetta’s engine reaches that peak lower in its rev range, helping to narrow the performance gap between the cars. However, the GLI’s softer suspension and “steering that’s a bit lazy by comparison” let the WRX run away with the handling portion of the comparison.

In the end, our reviewers and jurors agreed that the Jetta’s core strength is the refinement delivered by its compliant suspension and torquey engine, which help make this little German sedan feel more expensive than it is.

The 2023 VW Jetta’s $23,295 starting price applies to Trendline trim with a manual transmission. An optional eight-speed automatic adds $1,400. The standard Jetta’s poshest configuration is the $31,295 Highline model, which includes the automatic. The GLI starts at $33,095 with a stick shift and $34,495 with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

2023 Hyundai Elantra

The seventh-generation Hyundai Elantra debuted in 2021 with angular styling wrapped around an interior more spacious than its relatively plain predecessor. With the 2022 Civic’s move to a more conservative look, the Elantra becomes one of the compact sedan segment’s most eye-catching offerings.

In base form, the Elantra’s specs don’t promise much to back up its extroverted appearance. The base engine is a 2.0L four-cylinder engine with 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque, which goes through an automatic CVT. Shift to the top N Line trim to get 201 hp and 195 lb-ft from a 1.6L turbo motor that’s mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox.

As with the Jetta, we haven’t covered the Elantra much since its 2021 arrival. That year, Dan Ilika reviewed an Elantra Ultimate with the optional tech package. He was impressed by that trim’s twin 10.25-inch driver info and infotainment displays, which turn the Elantra’s cabin into one that “feels more modern than anything else in the segment, and maybe beyond.” Ilika also praised the Elantra’s value, especially when loaded up with every option.

Sami Haj-Assaad described the Elantra’s cabin as feeling “premium and spacious,” and was particularly impressed by the fabric door trim in the Ultimate model. However, he wrote that the “diverse mix of materials . . . hides the cheap stuff from the driver.” He also didn’t like the way the aggressively styled console separates the driver and front passenger seats, as he found it “impacts access to some HVAC settings . . . and might even encroach upon hip room for larger passengers.”

Ilika was pleasantly surprised by the Elantra’s 2.0L engine, which he said “manages to do more with its . . . meagre output than others in the segment can” and is “stronger than the numbers would suggest.” Even the automatic CVT was an “unexpected highlight” in terms of how it managed the engine’s power. Ilika gave the Elantra 10/10 for driving feel, on the basis of its high levels of refinement and “ride quality that is Reebok Pump perfect” with a nice balance between comfort and agility.

However, Haj-Assaad pitted the turbo-powered Elantra N Line against the Honda Civic Touring in a head-to-head comparison and came away liking the Civic better, giving the Honda a narrow edge in comfort, driving feel, and safety.

2023 Hyundai Elantra pricing opens at $20,449 in Essential trim, which includes the 2.0L engine and automatic CVT. Topping the range is the $29,899 N Line Ultimate configuration, the only one that uses the 1.6L turbo and dual-clutch combo.