What's the Most Fun-to-Drive Compact Sedan?
We named the 2017 Honda Civic the winner of our 2017 Compact Sedan Challenge for its worthy mix of features, value and fuel economy. But the question that's more interesting to me is, which compact is the most fun to drive? This Challenge had an aggressive price point and each of the contenders had to come in below $23,000. However, the good news is that even with a low price, you can still have fun behind the wheel with a few of these contenders.
The Mazda3 has long been one of the most fun-to-drive compacts — and that's still the case, as was clear from our judges scores in the handling portion of the testing. Our judges for this challenge were Cars.com editors Mike Hanley, Kelsey Mays and Fred Meier.
1. 2017 Mazda Mazda3
Powertrain: 155-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 150 pounds-feet of torque; six-speed automatic transmission
Handling Score: 8.3
Acceleration Score: 6.3
From a handling and fun-to-drive perspective, the Mazda3 is still the cream of the crop, and its scores reflect that. It had the highest handling score (8.3), and its dynamics were the most well-sorted of the bunch. Each of the judges praised its steering feel and the amount of feedback you get through the wheel, a contrast to some of the other vehicles in the Challenge that were numbed up like they were getting a cavity filled.
"True to form, the Mazda3 is fun to drive," said Mays. "Steering feedback is excellent, and you can slide the tail around a little in corners – a feat that's nearly impossible for much of this group."
The Mazda3 is also available with a larger, more powerful engine; opting for that engine would boost the Mazda3's mid-pack acceleration rating, and it's the engine I prefer in this car, as well.
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The judges also picked out three challengers from the rest of the pack which are fun to drive and can take a run at the Mazda3's dominance.
2. 2017 Honda Civic
Powertrain: 158-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder; 138 pounds-feet of torque; continuously variable automatic transmission
Handling Score: 7.0
Acceleration Score: 6.3
The Civic was third in handling and tied for third in acceleration, so why does it get the top spot as the contender closest to the Mazda3 in being fun-to-drive? It starts with the chassis.
"The Civic feels planted in corners, urging you to go faster where other compact cars beg you to back off," said Hanley, a sentiment shared by the other judges. This latest generation of Civic has great athleticism, atoning for the sins of the previous generation, which didn't have enough stiffness or confidence in its suspension. Mays also praised the Civic's steering, saying, "the Civic has the group's quickest-feeling steering ratio, which lends confident cornering at any speed."
As for drawbacks, most of my hesitation about the Civic came from the powertrain. This engine doesn't have a lot of torque, and it comes with a CVT. Even though this is one of the better CVTs out there, it's still not my favorite option for driving aggressively, and it can trip up when you try to ask for more power on corner-exit.
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3. 2017 Volkswagen Jetta
Powertrain: 150-hp, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder; 184 pounds-feet of torque; six-speed automatic transmission
Handling Score: 7.3
Acceleration Score: 7.0
The Jetta and Chevrolet Cruze had the only two turbocharged four-cylinder engines in the Challenge, and these two also had the best acceleration scores. The Jetta offered the most torque of any of the contenders and was praised by the judges, with Meier calling the engine "strong and willing, with surprising low-end torque for its size."
I found the Jetta to have strong handling (it finished second in that category) and a well-sorted suspension, with good ride quality and enough stiffness to keep the sedan upright in the corners. I also want to give Volkswagen a shout-out for something it does consistently well: The steering wheel is excellent. Besides the seats, the steering wheel is the part of the car that drivers touch the most; the one in the Jetta feels great, with just the right thickness and size.
Where did the Jetta fall a bit short? Mays in particular didn't like the tires, saying that "our Jetta was foiled by its efficiency-oriented Bridgestone Ecopia tires. Throw the car around, and they have all the traction of skateboard wheels." And each of the judges also thought that the Jetta's transmission was rough during downshifts.
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4. 2017 Chevrolet Cruze
Powertrain: 153-hp, turbocharged 1.4-liter four-cylinder; 177 pounds-feet of torque; six-speed automatic transmission
Handling Score: 6.5
Acceleration Score: 7.0
Much of the praise for the Cruze came in relation to its engine, with Hanley calling it a "strong, refined engine." The Cruze tied for first place in acceleration, a nod to its powertrain, which also sticks with a regular six-speed transmission. From a stop, the Cruze had good acceleration, jumping up to speed quickly. Interestingly, this powertrain also helped the Cruze achieve the best fuel economy in our testing, with a 38.4-mpg average during our test.
The Cruze's biggest drawback is its steering, which has a numb feeling. That can be disconcerting due to the amount of body roll experienced in the Cruze during quicker maneuvers.
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The Mazda3 remains the king of driving dynamics in this class, but it's not the only option. Both the Jetta and the Civic also finished ahead of the Mazda3 in our Compact Sedan Challenge, offering better value, fuel economy and larger backseats.
It's worth noting that three of these sedans — the Mazda3, Civic and Jetta — are also available with larger engines that make them even more fun. But the lower price ceiling for our Challenge meant that each came with the base engine for that respective model. Having driven each of these sedans with the larger engine installed, I can confidently say that that's the route I'd take for all three.
But for $23,000, I was impressed with what these sedans could do. It's good news that affordable doesn't have to mean boring.