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The best compact cars for 2021

Driving a compact car is no longer a miserable experience. It can actually be enjoyable. Today’s compacts skillfully argue that small isn’t a byword for cheap, cramped, slow, and loud. We’ve again chosen the Mazda3 as the best model in the segment because it continues to offer a generous amount of interior space and excellent gas mileage in a package that’s small enough to fit in the tightest parking spots. It’s relatively affordable for a new car, too.

If the Mazda3 isn’t for you, we’ve also chosen several other standouts, including the best all-wheel-drive compact and the best compact electric car.


The best

2019 Mazda Mazda3 AWD review
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why you should buy this: It’s an economy car with a soul.

Who it’s for: People who want more than just basic transportation.

How much it will cost: $20,500+

Why we picked the Mazda3:

The Mazda3 is the kind of car other automakers should be building. Offered as a hatchback (pictured) and as a sedan, it’s a regular compact economy car that emphasizes style and driving dynamics in a way that most of the competition doesn’t. Many regular cars feel like appliances, but not this one. It punches above its class.

Although it’s not particularly fast in its basic configuration, the Mazda3 is very nice to drive. The steering and suspension respond with an immediacy other cars in this class lack, as do Mazda’s Skyactiv four-cylinder engines. Engine options range from a 2.0-liter rated at 155 horsepower to a 250-hp 2.5-liter turbo four.

Mazda’s Kodo design language yields a car that is handsome and distinctive, without resorting to excessive styling gimmicks. Current Mazda interiors are admittedly a bit plain, but the 3’s cabin is sensibly designed, and Mazda’s rotary knob infotainment controller is easy to use.

Like many mainstream cars these days, the 3 is also available with an array of electronic driver aids, including adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, lane departure warning, autonomous emergency braking, and traffic sign recognition.

Read our Mazda3 first drive review

Subaru Crosstrek

The best all-wheel-drive compact car

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why you should buy this: You won’t need to buy an SUV.

Who it’s for: Winter warriors.

How much it will cost: $22,245+

Why we picked the Subaru Crosstrek:

The Crosstrek has an ace up its sleeve in the form of all-wheel drive, allowing it to keep driving long after other cars would have spun into a ditch. Closely related to the Subaru Impreza, the Crosstrek sports more rugged exterior body cladding and additional ground clearance to make it look more like an SUV. But the Crosstrek is still a compact car, so it’s much nicer to drive (not to mention easier to park) than the average SUV.

The Crosstrek shares most of its features with the five-door hatchback version of the Impreza, and that’s a good thing. While the current-generation Impreza has lost some of the quirkiness of previous generations, it’s a well-executed compact car with refined road manners and a spacious interior. The Crosstrek also comes standard with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, and it’s available with a long list of electronic driving aids.

Power for the base model comes from a 2.0-liter flat-four that wheezes out 152 hp, though a 2.5-liter flat-four rated at a more usable 182 hp joined the range for the 2021 model year. While the Crosstrek shouldn’t be confused with a Jeep Wrangler, its 8.7 inches of ground clearance allow it to handle rougher terrain better than the average compact.

Read our Subaru Crosstrek Hybrid review

Audi A3

The best compact luxury car

2020 Audi A3 sedan
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why you should buy this: It has the features of bigger Audi models, in an easier-to-park package.

Who it’s for: The upwardly mobile.

How much it will cost: $33,300+

Why we picked the Audi A3:

Over the years, many automakers have introduced compact luxury cars, but the Audi A3 is the first to really get it right. The A3 really is just a smaller version of other Audi sedans, with the same crisp exterior styling and upscale interior as its siblings. The A3 also shares many standout tech features with the rest of the Audi lineup, including the Virtual Cockpit digital gauge cluster and a version of Audi’s excellent touchscreen-based MMI infotainment system.

The A3 feels as solid as a proper luxury car, but it’s also as nimble as its compact dimensions would suggest. Audi’s Quattro all-wheel drive system offers all-weather traction, although base models are front-wheel drive.

While the basic A3 offers a lively driving experience, Audi also offers sportier S3 and RS 3 performance models. The latter boasts a 2.5-liter turbocharged five-cylinder engine with 400 hp, and it can do 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds.

Audi will introduce a new A3 with a sharper design and more tech for the 2022 model year.

Volkswagen Golf GTI

The best compact performance car

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why you should buy this: It will make your commute more fun.

Who it’s for: Hot hatch hooligans.

How much it will cost: $28,595+

Why we picked the Volkswagen Golf GTI:

The GTI was one of the first modern hot hatches, and it remains one of the very best. It combines sporty handling with a level of refinement that belies its economy-car roots. Now well into its seventh generation, it’s powered by a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that sends 210 hp and 158 lb-ft to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed paddle-shifted automatic. The GTI also benefits from upgraded brakes, beefier suspension, and a trick electronic system meant to mimic a limited-slip differential. That helps curb the torque steer that typically plagues powerful front-wheel-drive cars. In other words: It drives as good as it looks.

But the GTI is still a Golf, meaning you also get a spacious interior with a high-quality feel. Aside from subtle differences — like a red stripe across the grille and unique wheels — the GTI also looks largely the same as its less-sporty brethren, allowing the driver to fly under the radar.

Volkswagen confirmed the eighth-generation GTI will go on sale in the United States for the 2022 model year. Celebrated as the first digital GTI, it’s smarter and more powerful than its predecessor. It should be worth the wait.

Nissan Leaf

The best compact electric car2020 Nissan Leaf

Why you should buy this: You’ll never visit a gas station again.

Who it’s for: Those looking to trim their fuel budget.

How much it will cost: $31,600+

Why we picked the Nissan Leaf:

With the second-generation Leaf, Nissan proves electric cars don’t necessarily need to be fast, sexy, or expensive. The Leaf looks just like a regular compact hatchback, and it’s not any quicker than one, but it runs on batteries. Nissan designed it as an electric car from the get-go. Look no further if you’re in the market for a mainstream electric car.

Power comes from an electric motor linked to a 40-kWh lithium-ion battery pack that stores enough electricity to provide up to 150 miles of range. Charging the pack takes between eight and 16 hours depending on the type of charger it’s plugged into, though a quick charger provides a usable 80% charge in 40 minutes. The motor zaps the front wheels with 147 hp and 236 lb-ft. of torque. If you need more range, power, or both, the more expensive Leaf Plus offers up to 226 miles of range from a 62-kWh pack, plus 214 hp and a stout 250 lb-ft. of torque from a more potent electric motor. It’s the variant we recommend if you’re shopping for a daily driver, not a second car.

The second-generation Leaf inaugurated Nissan’s ProPilot Assist technology. As the name loosely implies, it’s a suite of electronic driving aids designed to give the driver a hand when driving becomes tedious, dangerous, or simply boring. It doesn’t turn the Leaf into a full-on autonomous car — that’s still years away from becoming a reality — but it can take over in stop-and-go traffic, and it’s capable of controlling acceleration, braking, and steering on single-lane highways when the right conditions are met. The system is available between 18 and 62 mph.

Read our Nissan Leaf Plus review

Jeep Renegade

The best compact SUV

2020 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Why you should buy this: You’ll go further off the beaten path than you thought possible.

Who it’s for: Adventurers.

How much it will cost: $22,620+

Why we picked the Jeep Renegade

Motorists buy compact SUVs faster than car companies can build them. Most models in the segment are car-based, meaning they offer a rugged design and a relatively tall seating position but they’re all show and no go off-road. The Jeep Renegade sings a different tune — it’s in the same lineup as the Wrangler and Gladiator, after all.

While base models offer front-wheel-drive, the Trailhawk model benefits from a sophisticated all-wheel-drive system and suspension improvements that give it a surprising amount of off-road prowess. The Renegade is not a true, dyed-in-the-wool off-roader but it will confidently venture further off the beaten path than rivals such as the Honda HR-V and Hyundai Kona. And yet, its compact dimensions make it easy to maneuver through tight parking garages.

Most variants of the Renegade also come with the well-regarded Uconnect infotainment system found in several other Jeep models. It’s a touchscreen-based system that’s relatively intuitive to use. To get you moving, engine options include a 1.3-liter turbocharged four-cylinder rated at 177 hp and a 2.4-liter that makes 180 hp.

How we test

The Digital Trends automotive team tests vehicles through a comprehensive scrutinizing process. We examine the qualities of the exterior and interior and judge them based on our expertise and experience in the context of the vehicle’s category and price range. Entertainment technology is thoroughly tested as well as most safety features that can be tested in controlled environments.

Test drivers spend extensive time behind the wheel of the vehicles, conducting real-world testing, driving them on highways, back roads, as well as off-road and race tracks when applicable.

Editors' Recommendations

Stephen Edelstein
Stephen is a freelance automotive journalist covering all things cars. He likes anything with four wheels, from classic cars…
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