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Vehicle Recommendations: Compacts

September 1, 2006

Continuing on from subcompacts, today I will visit the compact car segment and throw down my recommendations.

Compact cars aren’t exactly so "compact" these days.  After all, today’s Honda Civic is the approximate size and weight of a 1989 Honda Accord.  I will grant that the bloat is nowhere as absurd as, say, the mid-size pickup segment, but nevertheless, "compact" is best used loosely. 

Mainstream

The compact market in the U.S. has been a playground for Japanese automakers for the past twenty-plus years and, though American builders are waking up to the segment, they remain also-rans.  Let’s face it.  Ford is still pushing the same Focus they’ve been selling since 2000 (while Europe got a nice, shiny new model in 2004).  Chevy has the Cobalt, which completely outclasses the Cavalier, but not much else.  Saturn’s limping along with the hideous Ion, counting down the days until it gets its own version of the Opel Astra.  And Dodge…well…Dodge has seen some success with its new Caliber, but the performance and the "Sea of Plastic" interior take it down a peg or two.

None of these cars are bad, per se, they just don’t stand up to the Japanese offerings, particularly the Mazda3 and the recently redesigned Honda Civic.  Both are great cars with sporty looks, solid handling, and best-in-class interiors.  It is really a judgement call, but if I have to recommend just one, it would have to be the Mazda3.Mazda3_1

Why the Mazda3?  What sets it apart?  To be honest, what wins me over is Mazda’s focus steering, suspension, handling, and overall driving feel.  Their dedication to making their cars fun to drive has turned them into something of a mainstream BMW.  The Mazda3 is a case in point, and simply one of the best driving cars, period, for under $20,000.  And, if the Mazda3’s dynamics just aren’t enough for you, never fear, there’s always the 263-horsepower, turbocharged Mazdaspeed3.  Oh, and it comes in plain old sedan, too, for you wagon haters.

But the Civic is great, too, and if you are in the market, certainly warrants a look.  My biggest issue with it, to be honest, is the goofy interior.  It reminds me of the shuttlecraft from Star Trek.

Luxury

There are a lot of very good vehicles in the compact luxury category, but at the end of the day, there are two that stand above the others – the BMW 3-Series and Audi A4.  Which one should you choose?  Well, that depends on what you value in a car.Bmw_3series_sedan

The 3-Series is the driver’s car, no mistake about it.  Rear-wheel drive, brilliant handling, and dead-on 50/50 weight distribution make it quick and nimble on tight, twisting roads, and the inline-six responds eagerly when you stomp on the go pedal.  But it is by no means a soft car.  If you want to ride on a cloud, you’re barking up the wrong luxury tree.  If you want to be swaddled in luxury, the 3-Series may not be the car for you, either.  Yes, it has leather and, if you want, wood.  It has fifteen thousand speakers and Bluetooth and dual-zone climate control and heated seats and whatnot, but others do interiors better.

Audi_a4
For example, Audi.  The A4 may not be quite the handler that the 3-Series is (though it can more than hold its own), but what it lacks in driving performance it makes up for with the best interior in its class.  Audi’s attention to interiors is the stuff of legend, with engineers who go so far as to study the tactile sensations of buttons to deliver just the right click when pressed.

So, which one to get?  Again, it depends on what you value in a car.  I know people who have gone in both directions, and every one of them has been happy with their decision. 

Honorable mentions…

  • Infiniti G35 – It doesn’t come close to either Audi or BMW in terms of its interior, but the G35 does at least approach BMW’s crisp handling, and for several thousand less.
  • Acura TSX – Okay, it may be the Euro-spec Accord with some Acura badging, but the interior is top-notch (I prefer it to the larger TL and RL) and the handling is surprisingly good.  Not in the same league as a BMW or Audi, but if you’re looking for a relatively affordable, somewhat sporty luxury sedan, look no further.

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