The best compact cars of 2019

The best compact cars pack full-size features in fun-size packages

best compact cars badge

Driving a compact car doesn’t have to feel like serving a life sentence. Take the Mazda3, the best compact car sold new. It’s stylish, it’s dynamic to drive, it’s loaded with useful tech features, and it’s relatively efficient. It sounds expensive, right? Nope — it’s one of the most affordable cars sold new in the U.S. It’s safe, too.

Digital Trends selected the Mazda3 after driving nearly every single compact car available new. There are other great options, though. The Subaru Crosstrek is the best compact car with all-wheel drive, for example, and the Audi A3 is the best luxury compact. These picks will convince you once and for all that driving a compact doesn’t mean making a compromise.

Mazda3

The best

2019 Mazda Mazda3 AWD review

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: $21,000+

Why we picked the Mazda3:

The Mazda3 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.

Read our 2019 Mazda Mazda3 AWD first drive review

Subaru Crosstrek

The best all-wheel drive compact car

2018 Subaru Crosstrek

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

Who’s it for: Winter warriors.

How much will it cost: $21,895+

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

Audi A3

The best compact luxury car

2017 Audi A3

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: $32,500+

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.

Volkswagen Golf GTI

The best compact performance car

2015 Volkswagen Golf GTI

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.

Nissan Leaf

The best compact electric car

2018 Nissan Leaf review
Why should you buy this: You’ll never visit a gas station again.

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 Nissan Leaf first drive impressions

Jeep Renegade

The best compact SUV

2017 fiat chrysler automobiles roundup jeep renegade 1

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: $22,025+

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.

Product Review

The segment-bending 2020 Porsche Cayenne Coupe is an SUV in a track suit

For the 2020 model year, Porsche is expanding the third-generation Cayenne lineup with a more stylish Coupe-badged model. It's lower than a regular Cayenne, a little bit wider, and it wears a more muscular design.
Deals

Walmart drops price of this KitchenAid mixer below its Black Friday deal

Walmart's closeout sale on the popular KitchenAid Artisan Series 5-Quart Tilt-Head Stand Mixer is better than any holiday sale price we've seen. Grab one while it's down to it's lowest price.
Cars

Crisp and connected, the Volkswagen Golf will get a digital reboot in 2020

Volkswagen is putting the final touches on the eighth-generation Golf. The hatchback will still be recognizable as a member of the Golf family, but it will receive a crisper design inside and out.
Mobile

FCC chairman and commissioner support the T-Mobile and Sprint merger

T-Mobile and Sprint are getting closer to merging. After a few failed attempts, the two companies announced their merger at the start of 2018. The new T-Mobile could be better positioned to take on the likes of Verizon and AT&T.
Deals

The best sound machines to help you fall (and stay) asleep

Whether you find that you sleep better with white noise, rain sounds, or deep sleep music, there’s a sound machine on the market that will be able to help you catch more z’s in no time at all.
Cars

Weighing the risks: The most dangerous cars, trucks, and SUVs in the U.S.

Larger passenger cars are safer than smaller cars, reports iSeeCars. In its analysis of the NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) annual report, the fatal accident rate for passenger cars decreases as their size increases.
Product Review

Hyundai’s luxurious Tucson suffocates you with more – in a good way

The refreshed 2019 Hyundai Tucson may be one of the more affordable compact SUVs on the market, but there are more safety features than before as standard, as well as a hint of luxury.
Cars

Live out your 007 fantasy with this special edition Aston DBS Superleggera

Aston Martin is releasing a limited-edition DBS Superleggera inspired by the James Bond movie On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. The Superleggera's ancestor was 007's car in that movie.
Cars

2020 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 pickup lets you see through trailers — sort of

The 2020 Chevrolet Silverado 1500 pickup truck gets a handful of updates for the new model year, including a transparent trailer camera system and a big boost in maximum towing capacity.
Cars

Insiders claim the Tesla Model S nearly became the long-rumored Apple car

Apple offered to buy Tesla in 2013, according to an analyst who spoke to people familiar with the talks. Apple made Tesla a great offer, but the deal fell through when Elon Musk refused to step away from the company he helped found.
Cars

Parents will never miss soccer practice with BMW’s new 523-horsepower SUVs

BMW is launching M Performance versions of its biggest SUVs, the X5 and X7. While not full-on M models, they do pack 523-horsepower twin-turbo V8 engines, allowing both SUVs to sprint from zero to 60 mph in under five seconds.
Cars

Don’t trust Tesla’s new automatic lane-changing feature, Consumer Reports warns

Consumer Reports warns that last month's Autopilot updates that enabled automatic lane changing may put you at risk of a ticket or accident. Reaction times lagged what a human could do, testers say.
Cars

Texas awaits one signature to put a statewide stop to red light cameras

When Texas Governor Greg Abbott signs state House Bill 1631 into law, he will bring a halt to red light cameras in the state. The central issue in the bill's passage is the presumption of guilt of the registered owner of the car.
Cars

EV owners may still need to stop at a Chevron station, but not to buy gasoline

EVgo, the operator of a sizable network of electric car charging stations, has partnered with Chevron. Five Chevron stations located in California will install EVgo chargers that electric car owners can pay to use.