Best compact cars for 2011: A side-by-side comparison

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Not everyone can afford a Lexus. In fact, for most car buyers, the payments on an entry-level car like the Ford Fiesta or the upcoming Chevy Sonic are much more palatable. Yet, those small cars do not provide enough cargo space. The next step up – vehicles like the new Ford Focus and the Chevy Cruze – are more realistic for anyone who has kids, need to drive long distances in a daily commute, or just want a few extra amenities beyond the climate controls and a stock radio. Interestingly, these affordable cars go way beyond the basics – some even include self-parking features, turn-by-turn navigation, and several other hidden surprises. But which one is really the ultimate winner of the bunch?

We stacked category leaders including the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra and Honda Civic side by side to see what each brings to the table in this competitive and value-packed market.

2012 Ford Focus, $18,200

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We wrote about the 2012 Ford Focus in an early sneak peak several months ago. Most of our findings have not changed too much, but we will say that the Focus is by far the most technically advanced of the round-up. There are trim levels that include a self-parking feature (you push a button and the car will parallel park for you), a touchscreen interface for controlling climate and the radio, and even an in-car wireless system that can share the signal from your own 3G USB modem over Wi-Fi. The Focus actually has two USB ports, so you can use one for the USB stick and one for your MP3 player.

The Focus is the only vehicle in our round-up that has blind-spot detection as a standard offering. It means you’ll see a warning in the side mirror if there is a car in the next lane. Also, the Focus is unique in offering sensors (forward and reverse) that warn you about any potential fender-benders. There’s also a unique key entry system that you can use to program the vehicle for specific drivers. For example, you can set a chime to ring for a teen driver when they go over 60MPH, or to limit the top speed. You can even set the radio so the music can only be played at a certain volume level.

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In terms of driving impressions, the Focus uses a new torque vectoring system that makes cornering a bit smoother. (Stiffness in cornering is a hallmark of affordable cars, and one of the main reasons people often move up to a higher-priced full-sized sedan like the Chevy Impala.) It’s also worth noting that, while our driving impression originally was that the 160-horsepower engine felt underpowered on California roadways and in thick traffic, it’s quite a bit sportier than the 138-horsepower Cruze.

Meanwhile, only the Focus offers a capless fuel filler system as a standard feature on all trim levels, which is a bit surprising for an affordable sedan, but more common on upper-end vehicles including crossovers and full-size SUVs. That said, the Focus loses some points in terms of fuel economy (just 36mpg for the manual transmission compared to above 40mpg for the Cruze and Civic). Another ding: the Focus does not feel nearly as roomy as the Cruze, which has more passenger and cargo space.

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The extra tech features come at a price, though. As we mentioned in our review, the Focus S costs just $18,790 for the version with a manual transmission and none of the extra tech features like self-park. The high-end Titanium version costs $26,000 for all the extras – a lot for a small car.

Verdict: The Ford Focus in the small car you want if you’re mostly interested in tech advancements. You’ll love Ford Sync voice recognition (it actually works) and the vivid touchscreen.

2011 Chevrolet Cruze, $16,525

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Chevy made some dramatic changes in its line-up for the 2009 model year, and one of them was to ditch the Cobalt brand and introduce the Cruze. The 2011 model comes in several trim levels, starting with the Eco version that costs $16,525, up to the LTZ version that starts at $22,225.

The Cruze is not even in the same ballpark, though, in terms of tech features compared to the Focus. There is no version that offers a touchscreen with navigation and climate control. And, there are no sensors for alerting you when you get too close to a Mercedes in a parking lot. Only the Ford Focus offers Wi-Fi in the car for sharing a 3G signal and a self-park feature in the upper trim levels.

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What you do get with the Cruze is better fuel economy. In the Eco version we tested all the way from Chicago to Fargo, the mpg rating hovered right around the stated 42mpg, which is best-in-class unless you count the “green” versions of the Civic (and we do, by the way). Chevy has also outdone the competition in terms of standard safety features. The Cruze is the safest of the bunch with ten airbags and a five-star crash test rating. According to the NHTSA, the Cruze is a top safety pick.

In some trim levels, the Cruze offers a nine-speaker Pioneer sound system that is best-in-class. In our tests, the ride was comfortable and quiet but not as sporty as the Hyundai Elantra. The 138-horsepower engine felt underpowered at times, which is why we recommend the Eco version because you get more control over the gears and can speed up quickly in a pinch. Still, if you crave a bit of “wow” factor in acceleration and passing, go with something like the new 2012 Volkswagen CC R-Line.

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That said, the Cruze does offer OnStar service for navigation (when you get directions, they appear on a text display), crash support after an accident, and concierge service for a reasonable fee.

Verdict: The Chevy Cruze gets the nod for fuel economy and roominess, but loses out in terms of tech features and a sporty drive – the Elantra is a better pick for zipping around town.

2011 Hyundai Elantra, $14,945

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For a rather jaw-dropping price, the Hyundai Elantra offers an impressive driving experience overall. It’s sportier than the Focus or the Cruze in terms of cornering and quick acceleration with a powerful 148-horsepower engine, at least for an entry-level car. Yet, the Elantra is also the least technology-laden of the bunch and has few extra amenities – it is designed to be wholly economical.

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Interestingly, while the Elantra comes in third-place for fuel economy with 40mpg behind the Civic and the Cruze, it achieves that rating using an automatic transmission and a standard gas engine. And, for both the GLS and Limited models, the flashy design is arguably the most distinct of the bunch. During our week-long test, the Elantra stood out most in the crowd. There’s a gentle slope to the vehicle from front to back, almost like the BMW 5-Series we tested not long ago. In many ways, the Elantra has a luxury sedan look (only at a much smaller size) that the Cruze and Focus lack.

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The Elantra comes standard with a few tech offerings, but none of them compete with the Ford Focus. You do get the ability to sync your phone and play Bluetooth streaming audio. There isn’t a touchscreen, navigation system, Wi-Fi for sharing a 3G signal, or any self-parking features. In the Limited version, there is a six-speaker audio system but it can’t compete with Cruze’s nine-speaker stereo. In terms of safety, the Elantra has six airbags compared to the 10 used on the Chevy Cruze.

Verdict: The Elantra is a fun car to drive and costs about $1,500 less than the Eco version of the Cruze. You won’t get nearly as many tech features, though.

2012 Honda Civic, $15,805

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The real story behind the 2012 Honda Civic is that there are six trim levels including a Hybrid gas-electric, and a version that runs on natural gas. There’s an Si version that comes in a two-door and foor-door version. Most notably, there’s the Civic HF (High Fuel Economy) version that somehow gets 41mpg on the highway with an automatic transmission, the highest in the affordable car round-up — not including the Cruze Eco with a manual transmission. The Civic Hybrid gets 44mpg, which is astounding.

Honda achieved these higher fuel economy ratings by making the Civic lower in height and more aerodynamic – the car is just 56.6 inches tall or about two inches shorter than the Cruze. The new Civic has a distinct slope, especially in the front, compared to previous models. We tested the 2012 model at a dealership and the handling felt a bit stiff compared to the competition. Interestingly, while the 140-horsepower engine should be ready for zipping quickly in and out of traffic, we felt the more Elantra was faster from a standing position and the Focus handled much better around corners.

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So, other than the plethora of trim levels and the good fuel economy, is the Civic a major contender against other affordable cars? Well, this is a Honda. This particular version has rated highest in consumer satisfaction and overall quality ratings for the past several decades. It’s also important to note that the base Civic version, the DX, costs about $600 less than the entry-level Cruze Eco and $2,000 less than the base-level Ford Focus. That said, prices go skyward quickly: the EX version costs $22,005.

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In terms of tech features, most of what you will find on the Civic is actually related to the engine, not any exceptional Wi-Fi features (it doesn’t have any) or an expansive touchscreen. There are small amenities that reminded us of the things you will find on a Lexus, like a meter that shows when the variable transmission has added more punch in upper gears. There are also lights that come up to show you that you are driving economically, similar to the Eco indicators on many Nissan cars.

Verdict: The Civic can’t beat the Focus for tech features, comes in a hair under the Cruze Eco in fuel economy, and can’t beat the Elantra for acceleration and handling. Yet, this model is a clear winner in terms of trim options, including a Hybrid and a highly unique natural Gas version.

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