Compact cars have a reputation for being boring econoboxes, the only resort for buyers restrained by limited budgets. But that’s simply not the case anymore.
Today’s compact cars offer style, performance, and technology comparable to larger models. Automakers no longer feel the need to hold back when it comes to sporty driving dynamics, or the latest tech features. Moreover, many compact cars aren’t even that compact anymore. Thanks to the growth of cars in all size categories, today’s compacts offer interior space one might have expected from a midsize car generations ago.
Compact cars can still be basic and affordable, but they are no longer penalty boxes. Don’t believe us? Check out the picks below.
Why should you buy this: It’s an economy car with a soul.
Who’s it for: People who want more than just basic transportation.
How much will it cost: $18,095+
Why we picked the Mazda 3:
The Mazda 3 is the kind of car other automakers should be building. 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.
Available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, the Mazda 3 isn’t particularly fast, but it’s 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. Base models get a 2.0-liter engine, which sends 155 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque to the front wheels through six-speed manual or automatic transmissions. A larger 2.5-liter four, good for 184 hp and 185 lb-ft, is available on higher trim levels.
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.
The best all-wheel drive compact car
Why should you buy this: You won’t need to buy an SUV.
Who’s it for: Winter warriors.
How much will it cost: $21,795+
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. Based on 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.
As with the Impreza, the Crosstrek’s main weak point is its engine. The 2.0-liter flat-four’s 152 hp is adequate, but not thrilling. But the added grip of all-wheel drive pays handling dividends even on dry pavement. While the Crosstrek shouldn’t be confused with a Jeep Wrangler, 8.7 inches of ground clearance allow the Subaru to handle rougher terrain better than the average compact car.
Read our Subaru Crosstrek first drive impressions
Chevrolet Cruze Diesel
The best fuel-efficient compact car
Why should you buy this: It squeezes maximum mileage out of each tank of fuel.
Who’s it for: Hyper milers.
How much will it cost: $21,170+
Why we picked the Chevrolet Cruze Diesel:
Volkswagen may have given diesels a bad name, but diesels still offer impressive fuel economy. General Motors is keeping the faith with its second-generation Chevrolet Cruze Diesel, which achieves an EPA-rated 37 mpg combined in its most efficient form. Chevy says the Cruze’s maximum 52 mpg highway rating is the best of any non-hybrid car currently on sale.
The diesel engine is a 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, with 137 hp and 240 lb-ft. Drive is to the front wheels through six-speed manual or nine-speed automatic transmissions. Like the gasoline Cruze, the diesel is offered in four-door sedan or five-door hatchback body styles.
The second-generation Cruze is also a massive leap forward compared to the previous version, and a much closer rival to bestsellers like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. It’s more stylish and better to drive than before as well, thanks to a chassis that’s 27 percent stiffer. Like the previous-generation Cruze, a built-in Wi-Fi hotspot is standard, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto available through the MyLink infotainment system.
Read our Chevrolet Cruze Diesel first drive impressions
The best compact luxury car
Why should you buy this: It has the features of bigger Audi models, in an easier-to-park package.
Who’s it for: The upwardly mobile.
How much will it cost: $31,950+
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 MMI infotainment system.
Riding on Volkswagen Group’s ubiquitous MQB platform, 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. The A3 is offered as a four-door sedan or a convertible — one of the few drop tops still available in the U.S.
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 can do 0 to 60 mph in 3.9 seconds. Alternatively, the A3 Sportback e-tron hatchback features a plug-in hybrid powertrain, with up to 16 miles of electric-only range.
Volkswagen Golf GTI
The best compact performance car
Why should you buy this: It will make your commute more fun.
Who’s it for: Hot hatch hooligans.
How much will it cost: $26,415+
Why we picked the Volkswagen Golf GTI:
The GTI was one of the first modern hot hatchbacks, and it remains one of the best. It combines sporty driving dynamics with a level of refinement that belies its economy-car roots. For seven generations, the GTI has added a bit of sizzle to the Golf lineup. The current-generation Golf is an impressively civilized and comfortable commuter car, but the GTI takes that foundation and transforms it into a grin-inducing pocket rocket.
A 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine sends 210 hp and 158 lb-ft to the front wheels through either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed DSG dual-clutch automated gearbox. 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.
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.
The best compact electric car
Who’s it for: Those looking to trim their fuel budget.
How much will it cost: $29,990+
Why we picked the Nissan Leaf:
With the second-generation Leaf, Nissan proves electric cars don’t necessarily need be fast, sexy, or expensive. The Leaf looks just like a regular compact hatchback, and it’s not any quicker than one, but it’s equipped with a batter-powered drivetrain. 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 150 miles of range. Charging the battery 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 percent charge in just 40 minutes. The motor zaps the front wheels with 147 hp and 236 lb-ft. of torque.
The new Leaf inaugurates 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, and goes well beyond mere lane-keep assistants and departure warnings.
Read our 2018 Nissan Leaf first drive impressions
The best compact SUV
Why should you buy this: You’ll go further off the beaten path than you thought possible.
Who’s it for: Adventurers.
How much will it cost: $18,750+
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 when asked to leave the pavement. The Jeep Renegade sings a different tune — it’s in the same lineup as the Wrangler and the Grand Cherokee, after all.
While base models come with front-wheel drive, upmarket variants benefit from all-wheel drive and a surprising amount of off-road prowess. It’s 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 the Nissan Rogue Sport. 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 developed by Jeep parent company Chrysler. It’s a touchscreen-based system that’s relatively intuitive to use. And, to get you moving, engine options include a 1.4-liter four-cylinder rated at 160 horsepower and a 2.4-liter that makes 180 horsepower.
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.