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.
Though the rise in popularity of subcompact and compact crossover SUVs has cut into their sales in recent years, compact cars still make up a prominent segment of the automotive market. Front-wheel-drive four-door sedans with 4-cylinder engines dominate the class, though there are also hatchbacks, a wagon, and five hybrids (two offering plug-in versions). Three compact cars offer all-wheel drive, but none are available with a V6 engine.
HIGHLIGHTS FOR 2021
The class sees one completely redesigned entrant this year: the seventh-generation Hyundai Elantra sedan. Most will have a 147-hp 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine and a CVT automatic transmission. Joining the line is the first-ever Elantra Hybrid model (Hyundai says it will be rated at 50 mpg), and a 201-hp N Line performance model. The new Elantra has an emphasis on tech and connectivity; highlights include SoundHound Voice Recognition (which can be used for mundane tasks such as rolling down the windows), and Hyundai’s Digital Key feature, which allows you to unlock the car and start the engine using your smartphone. Meanwhile, the Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback is discontinued.
A redesigned Honda Civic is scheduled to launch as a 2022 model. This year, the Civic’s 2-door-coupe body style is discontinued, and Si performance models go on hiatus (the Si is slated to return with the next-gen Civic). The high-performance Civic Type R is available in a new Limited Edition model that gets lighter wheels and deletes some equipment and sound insulation for a 46-pound weight savings. Production is capped at 600 examples. The Mazda 3 gets two additional engine options: a base 155-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder, and a 250-hp turbocharged 2.5-liter four that comes standard with AWD.
The Toyota Corolla receives standard rear side airbags and Android Auto connectivity. Corolla sedans are now available in Apex Edition form with sport suspension tuning and unique trim, and the Corolla Hatchback adds a Special Edition model with a rear spoiler and specific trim. The Toyota Prius gets Android Auto and a “2020 Edition” that celebrates the car’s 20th anniversary in America. (Note that 2020 refers to the car’s limited production run, not its model year.) The Volkswagen Golf returns unchanged for what is likely its final model year; a redesigned eighth-generation Golf is available in Europe, but at this point it is highly unlikely the regular-line, non-performance versions of the new Golf will be sold in America.
MODELS THAT OFFER SOMETHING UNUSUAL
Fuel economy may top some people’s list of requirements, and though most cars in this class are quite efficient, there are also five hybrid models on offer: the Honda Insight, Hyundai Elantra, Hyundai Ioniq, Toyota Corolla, and Toyota Prius. The Ioniq and Prius also offer plug-in-hybrid versions, and the Ioniq comes in a pure-electric version as well. Those who live in snowy climates might be drawn to the Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, and Toyota Prius—the only cars in this class to offer all-wheel drive.