Which Compact Sedan Has the Best Value?

Which Compact Sedan Has the Best Value?

02/10/2021

Sticker shock seems almost inevitable these days. J.D. Power pegged the average transaction price on a new vehicle at $37,165 in January as the fixation on SUVs remains, well, a market fixture. That extra utility and higher ride height doesn’t come cheap: As of late 2020, the median list price for a new SUV on Cars.com was roughly $7,500 more than that of a new car. So what’s a shopper on a budget to do? The answer’s staring you in the face: Shop sedans instead.

Related: What’s the Best Compact Sedan?

Among the most viable options is the humble compact class, a segment thinned by recent departures from GM and Ford. But it still claims ever-popular nameplates like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, both of which we recently compared (in the link above) to the redesigned Nissan Sentra. That got us to thinking: In terms of straight value, which compact sedan gives you the most bang for the buck?

It’s no easy question. We took eight popular small sedans for the 2021 model year — the Civic, Corolla and Sentra, as well as the Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Subaru Impreza and Volkswagen Jetta — and stacked up the cheapest trim level that accounted for at least 10% of each sedan’s model-year 2021 inventory on Cars.com. Then we compared safety and convenience features, EPA mileage, warranty and free-maintenance programs, and, most critically, price.

All prices include destination and (if it’s optional) the cost of an automatic transmission. Two other caveats: We can’t factor in manufacturer and dealer discounts, which vary considerably based on where and when you shop. And we didn’t consider drivability, quality or projected reliability — factors that could undoubtedly affect your decision. This is strictly about what you get for the dollars. 

Here’s what we determined.

Best-Equipped Cheap Trim Level

Hyundai Elantra SE ($20,655)

  • Availability: 11% of all model-year 2021 Elantra sedans on Cars.com
  • Major features at this price: 8-inch touchscreen with wireless Apple CarPlay and wireless Android Auto; two USB ports; height-adjustable passenger seat; automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection; blind spot warning; lane-centering steering down to a stop; 15-inch alloy wheels
  • EPA combined mileage: 37 mpg
  • Warranty: Five years/60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper; 10 years/100,000 miles powertrain
  • Free maintenance: Three years/36,000 miles

Accounting for just over 1 in 10 model-year 2021 Elantra sedans on Cars.com is the base trim, called the SE, which starts at a wallet-happy $20,655. For such little dough, the gettings are good: A robust set of safety and convenience features are standard, including the group’s only wireless application of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (it’s available on higher trim levels of the Jetta but unavailable elsewhere). Beyond that comes impressive fuel efficiency, Hyundai’s crazy-good warranty and three years of free maintenance. Other conveniences are scant at this price — Hyundai reserves things like automatic climate control and push-button start for higher trims — but for the second-cheapest nominee in this group (the cheapest, Kia’s Forte LXS, is $270 less), the Elantra SE has a boatload of basics.

Honorable Mentions

Nissan Sentra SV ($21,420)

  • Availability: 57% of all model-year 2021 Sentra sedans on Cars.com
  • Major features at this price: 8-inch touchscreen with wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; three USB ports; dual-zone automatic climate control; keyless access with push-button start; automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection; lane departure and blind spot warnings; adaptive cruise control down to a stop; 16-inch alloy wheels
  • EPA combined mileage: 33 mpg
  • Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper; five years/60,000 miles powertrain
  • Free maintenance: None

Widely available among model-year 2021 Sentra inventory on Cars.com, the mid-level SV trim starts at an affordable $21,420. (A base trim, the Sentra S, starts $1,060 less, but dealer availability was just under our 10% threshold as of this writing.) The SV mixes premium conveniences (dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless access with push-button start, a third USB port) with important basics (automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, a decent-size touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto). The Elantra SE has the edge on warranty, free maintenance and availability for its value-priced base trim, but the Sentra SV is close behind.


Toyota Corolla LE ($21,470)

  • Availability: 57% of all model-year 2021 Corolla sedans on Cars.com
  • Major standard features: 8-inch touchscreen with wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; two USB ports; single-zone automatic climate control; one-touch power windows all around; automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection; lane-centering steering and adaptive cruise control, both down to a stop
  • EPA combined mileage: 33 mpg
  • Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles bumper-to-bumper; five years/60,000 miles powertrain
  • Free maintenance: Two years/25,000 miles

The Corolla’s bread-and-butter LE trim level is among the easiest cars here to find, accounting for nearly 3 in 5 model-year 2021 Corolla sedans on Cars.com. (A base trim called the L slots below it, but it’s a needle in a haystack.) The LE goes for broke on safety and driver assist features, with standard automatic emergency braking and pedestrian detection, plus lane-centering steering and adaptive cruise control both down to a stop. Also included are one-touch windows, the must-have multimedia goods, automatic climate control and two years’ free maintenance — enough to land Toyota within striking distance of the Elantra. With a better warranty and a few hundred dollars’ lower pricing, the Corolla LE might have earned our top overall pick; even here, it remains a strong value.

The Rest

It’s important to note that the others, listed below in alphabetical order, still offer compelling value. This is a tightly packed group, such that a few hundred dollars’ cash incentives might shift your particular equation. But at face value, list pricing for the cheapest widely available trims on the rest of our contenders couldn’t match what Hyundai, Nissan and Toyota brought to the table.

    • Honda Civic LX ($22,245): The Civic’s base trim, the widely available LX, has the unfortunate combination of being relatively expensive and lean on conveniences. For $22,245 — the second-highest price in our analysis — it has a 5-inch audio display, no Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, and just one USB port. The requisite safety features are all here, and Honda throws in automatic climate control and one-touch front windows at this price. But bare-bones multimedia and for a lot of relative dough make the Civic LX a tough value sell.
    • Kia Forte LXS ($20,385): One rung above the Forte’s base trim level, the LXS accounts for roughly 2 in 5 model-year 2021 Forte sedans in Cars.com inventory as of this writing, so you should have no problem finding one. (The Forte’s base trim, called FE, accounts for less than 10% of inventory.) Although the LXS is the cheapest trim in this analysis and packs must-have safety and multimedia features plus an impressive warranty, the features beyond that are a little thin: It has just one USB port and no pedestrian detection with its automatic braking, for example.
    • Mazda3 Select Package ($23,645): The Mazda3’s lowest widely available trim is the Select Package, one step up from the base trim; it accounts for about 14% of all model-year 2021 Mazda3 sedans on Cars.com as of this writing. The Mazda3 is handsomely equipped at that price: leatherette (vinyl) seating, dual-zone automatic climate control, keyless access with push-button start, 18-inch alloy wheels, one-touch windows, the requisite crash-avoidance technology and a wide, 8.8-inch dashboard display with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are all included. But an unremarkable EPA-rated 30 mpg combined, plus no touchscreen (you have to use armrest-level controls), gives us pause. More jarring is the Select Package’s price, at nearly $3,000 beyond the Elantra SE. For that kind of scratch, many rivals’ higher trims add comparable features.
    • Subaru Impreza base ($21,020): The Impreza’s widely available base trim starts a hair past $21,000 after you add its optional automatic transmission, and it’s the only car at this price to offer all-wheel drive, a standard feature on all Imprezas. But other features at this price are thin: Automatic emergency braking and lane departure mitigations require springing for Subaru’s optional EyeSight system, and the Impreza’s base touchscreen measures just 6.5 inches. Still, that might not matter for Snow Belt shoppers — the Impreza isn’t the only car here to offer AWD (the Mazda3 does, too), but it’s by far the cheapest. Additionally, Subaru offers two years of free maintenance on the 2021 Impreza in certain markets, mostly in Sun Belt states where the brand has a smaller presence.
    • Volkswagen Jetta S ($20,790): The Jetta’s base trim, the widely available S, starts under $21,000 after you add the optional automatic transmission. Although the standard niceties include one-touch power windows and two years’ free maintenance, it has the same issues as the Impreza: automatic emergency braking and lane departure mitigations cost extra, and the base trim’s standard touchscreen measures just 6.5 inches.

    More From Cars.com:

    • 2021 Hyundai Elantra Review: Almost Great
    • Cars.com’s Award for Best Value of 2021
    • How to Calculate a Car Payment
    • Here Are the 10 Cheapest New Cars You Can Buy Right Now
    • Sedan Vs. SUV: Why Now Is the Time to Buy a Sedan, Not an SUV

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