Not too big, not too small, but just right. That’s the way many people feel about compact cars—which aren’t nearly as “compact” as they used to be. Many are roomy enough to be family sedans while still getting good fuel economy, which is a large part of their appeal.

Compact cars make up a prominent segment of the automotive market, and the class numbers 20 for 2018. Front-wheel-drive four-door sedans with 4-cylinder engines dominate the segment, though there are also hatchbacks, three wagons, one coupe, two hybrids (both offering plug-in versions), and one electric car with a range-extending gasoline engine. (Pure electric vehicles have their own Best Buy category.) Four compact cars offer all-wheel drive, but none are available with a V6 engine.


Following in the footsteps of its sedan sibling’s redesign last year, the Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback is redesigned for 2018, gaining classy new styling, a host of new technology and safety features, and a peppy new performance model named Sport. Hyundai’s eco-focused Ioniq 4-door hatchback gets a plug-in hybrid model that joins the pure-electric and hybrid versions that debuted for 2017. The Fiat 500L gets an exterior facelift and a number of interior updates that include a thin-film transistor (TFT) instrument-cluster display, an additional USB port, updated center console with relocated cupholders, and LED ambient interior lighting. The Chevrolet Cruze hatchback, which debuted last year, is now available with a diesel engine like its sedan sibling. The Nissan Sentra now has emergency automatic braking standard on most models. The rest of the class is either unchanged or sees minor revisions, such as updated infotainment/connectivity systems or a rearranging of trim levels and optional equipment. The Mitsubishi Lancer is discontinued.


The compact-car segment is a relatively homogenous class, though there are a couple of vehicles that stand out. The Fiat 500L’s tall-wagon body style pushes it a bit toward the subcompact or compact crossover SUV category. Likewise, the Volkswagen Golf Alltrack ventures toward crossover-SUV territory with its raised ride height, hill-descent control, and other off-road-focused features. Those who live in very snowy climates might lean toward vehicles offering all-wheel drive. In the compact class, that narrows it down to the Subaru Impreza and VW Golf Alltrack and SportWagen (and the high-performance Ford Focus RS).

Fuel economy may top some people’s list of requirements, and though most cars in this class are quite fuel efficient, a few stand out. The Chevrolet Volt is obviously noteworthy in terms of efficiency and “green” credentials. Traditional hybrids also do particularly well in city driving, and two are offered in this class: the Hyundai Ioniq and Toyota Prius, both of which also offer plug-in-hybrid versions. As of now, the Chevrolet Cruze is the only compact car to offer a diesel engine; VW dropped its diesel engines in the wake of its 2015 emissions-cheating scandal, and has not reintroduced them.