While trucks, SUVs, and crossovers continue to set sales records and take top billing in marketing materials, it's easy to overlook the essential goodness of the compact car—particularly hatchbacks. Reasonably sized, efficient, and often quite affordable, the compact has a righteous role. Thanks to tight competition and a surge in the availability of technology features, the traditional four-door-compact formula has become elastic, stretching to include everything from box-on-wheels wagons to sleek and sporty coupes. Whatever your needs, there's probably a compact car that will fill them. Here, we've arranged how the current compact offerings rank against one another, from worst to best.
Last place is an onerous position for any car to find itself in when set against its competitors. Nissan's Sentra earns its billing, however, with shortcomings that include sloppy handling, overly light steering effort, and brakes that fail to inspire confidence in the driver. By reputation, the Sentra is a reliable, affordable conveyance, but the plain interior and the haphazard ways in which its optional features are integrated relentlessly remind you that this is a car built on a budget for those on a budget.
The distinctive VW Beetle, offered as a coupe or a convertible, is the rare car that is nearly as fun to drive as it is to look at. A 170-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine is standard, and customers can choose between a five-speed manual transmission and a six-speed automatic. The Beetle Dune gets the automatic standard, as well as an extra 0.2 inch of ground clearance and SUV-like body cladding. If road-burning is more your thing, the 210-hp turbocharged R-Line brings a sportier vibe. Get any of the Bugs while you can, however: For the second time in its history, the Volkswagen Beetle will fade from the U.S. market. The Beetle will be sold through the end of 2019, with no 2020 model year planned. A replacement could take the form of a full-electric, but details on that are forthcoming.
The Mini Cooper family encompasses both the two-door hardtop and the 4-Door hardtop, with both available in base and S guises, as well as the two-door convertible offered in the same two trims. The two-doors offer a 228-hp John Cooper Works option, as well. The base and S specifications are powered by a 134-hp turbocharged three-cylinder engine and a 189-hp turbo four. Both the hardtop and the convertible are pricey and small for the segment, although the droptop is at least unique (there aren't many small convertibles left) and every Mini carries an overt focus on style and premium trimmings.
Those interested in the Toyota Prius hybrid but who feel it could use even stranger styling and more electric-only driving range should take a close look at the Prius Prime. This plug-in hybrid version of the Prius wears slightly unique styling—particularly at the rear, with an oddball taillight design—and gets some more equipment (including an available touchscreen oriented vertically, like Tesla’s). A larger battery pack affords the Prime up to 25 miles of electric-only driving range, a somewhat weak figure among plug-in hybrids—especially compared to the 53 miles served up by Chevrolet’s Volt.
The word “Prius” is now synonymous with “hybrid.” Toyota’s popular hybrid sets the standard by which all other hybrids are judged, thanks to its ubiquity and staying power in the market. For 2019, Toyota toned down the Prius’s weirdo styling somewhat and has even added an all-wheel drive option for the first time ever. The hatchback remains roomy inside for people and cargo, despite its modest exterior dimensions, and it is extremely fuel-efficient, with the EPA rating it for between 50 and 56 mpg combined.
Now in its second generation, Nissan’s long-serving Leaf EV has sprouted a longer-range Plus variant. A larger battery and a more powerful electric motor highlight the Plus’s upgrades, which are enough to push the Leaf’s driving range from 150 miles to up to 226 miles. Affordability ranks high on the Nissan’s list of pluses—pun intended—though the price gap between the Leaf and some longer-range competitors has shrunk in recent years.
With snappy good looks and an impressive list of standard and available features, Kia's Forte sedan (pictured) offers great value and few compromises. (A replacement for the Forte5 hatchback is forthcoming—Kia hasn’t revealed it yet.) The base sedan has a 147-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and a six-speed manual. A 164-hp 2.0-liter four represents the step-up engine, and a six-speed automatic transmission is available.
Subaru's Impreza sedan and hatchback are competent small cars, but with a 152-hp four-cylinder engine and either a five-speed manual or a continuously variable automatic, neither does much to excite enthusiast drivers. Standard all-wheel drive sets them apart in the compact segment, as does their available EyeSight camera-based active-safety features that include adaptive cruise control and automated emergency braking.
Unlike the Chevrolet Volt—that’s with a “V”—the full-electric Chevy Bolt (“B!”) isn’t being discontinued this year. It’ll soldier on as General Motors’ affordable long-range EV. Prices start at $37,495, so, entry-level Tesla Model 3 territory, but the Bolt has 238 miles of driving range out of the gate. Getting that kind of range in the Tesla costs more money. Perhaps the car’s only failings are its relatively low-rent interior and its anonymous, economy-hatchback styling. Otherwise, the Bolt drives smoothly and quietly, and offers useful cabin space for four people.
By now it has become nearly expected that each new generation of Hyundai products is better than the last. The Elantra sedan is no exception, with the newest model offering the best value yet. Stylish inside and out (more so for 2019, thanks to a snappy refresh), the roomy Elantra can be loaded with Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, heated seats, a full complement of active-safety features, and more. A 147-hp four-cylinder engine is standard, while the fuel-efficient Eco trim gets a turbocharged 1.4-liter four and a seven-speed automatic transmission; in our testing, the Eco recorded 43 mpg on the highway.
Even though it shares its name with the Elantra sedan—excepting, of course, the "GT" tacked on at the end—the sweet-driving Hyundai Elantra GT is more than just the hatchback spin-off. The styling is slightly sharper, more European, and the powertrains are different from the sedan's. A 161-hp 2.0-liter four is standard, and it can be mated to either a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed automatic; a 201-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter four is optional. Other standard equipment includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Unlike the Hyundai Elantra and Elantra GT, the Chevrolet Cruze sedan and hatchback are one in the same, albeit with unique tails. (Hence why both are grouped into a single entry here.) The Chevrolets also drive with a solid, big-car feel, with both delivering a comfortable, well-isolated ride and a quiet cabin at speed. A gasoline-fed turbocharged four-cylinder engine is standard, while a diesel is optional—the latter delivered an incredible 52 mpg in our testing. In an interesting twist, the Cruze is being canceled early in 2019, despite Chevrolet having just rolled out a facelifted version earlier this year.
Redesigned for 2019, the Jetta sedan once again realigns with Volkswagen's global Golf hatchback—at least structurally. The two now share VW's MQB modular architecture (for the past few years, the Jetta's architecture has been distinct from the Golf's), and the fully modern running gear and electronics represent the latest from VW's arsenal. To wit, every Jetta is powered by a 147-hp turbocharged four-cylinder engine paired to either a six-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed automatic. Full-LED exterior lighting and a state-of-the-art infotainment system are standard, and the Jetta feels upscale and refined in spite of its modest pricing.
Previously a wacky-shaped also-ran in the sport-compact world, the Veloster hatchback now has newfound driving verve, refinement, and a low price that makes it a relative bargain. Unlike its predecessor, the latest Veloster's structure is stiff, its steering direct, and the suspension is well-tuned for handling at little expense to the ride quality. The 201-hp Turbo model elevates the breed (pictured here), as does the ambitious, 275-hp Veloster N.
Say hi, then say goodbye to Chevrolet’s Volt plug-in hybrid. This slick, nice-driving hatchback offers up to 53 miles of electric-only driving (per the EPA) before reverting to a gas-electric hybrid; keep the battery topped off, and the car will only burn off gasoline every once in a while to keep the mechanicals fresh. As we’ve put it, the Volt is “not just a good hybrid but a good car.” It’s too bad, then, that Chevrolet is killing it off after 2019.