Shootout: The Best Car for Under $20,000/Over 35 MPG


Drivers are still smarting from roller coaster gas prices. Luckily, automakers have been rolling out impressive new compact cars that deliver the high gas mileage you might expect from something smaller.

The 2012 Ford Focus, 2012 Honda Civic, 2011 Hyundai Elantra, 2011 Kia Forte and 2011 Chevy Cruze were put through a series of tests by and USA Today experts as well as a real-world family to see which one reigned supreme. Under 20/Over 35 Shootout



Quote of the Day:

"Many areas are a bit crappier than they used to be."



you noted that your at the pump calculations had a larger variation for the hyundai/kia than for the chevy/ford/honda but you didn't provide the numbers. how different were they?


so basically, if you are in the market for a small sedan:

Look at the Cruze and Elantra for sure, and the Forte if you are on a budget and want alot of features for the money. You can look at the Civic if you want, since it is a bit more efficient and a bit roomier than the leaders, but you'll soon come to see that the quality of the vehicle is lower. The Focus should be forgotten; its more expensive, smaller, and more complicated than the other cars in the class, and has even less features than the rigid-package Civic.


So the slight acceleration lag in the Chevy Cruze was concerning, but the terrible suspension in the Elantra should be overlooked?

The Elantra gets worse than expected mileage (especially when disregarding the biased trip computer), looks like a Mazda clone and developed visibility and rear room complains like the Cruze. Whereas the Cruze actually handles well, looks like it's own product and well... gets better than expected economy.

Why did the Elantra win again?


trip computers should provide the exact fuel economy, down to the tenths of a mile. the car's computer knows exactly how much fuel has been pumped and exactly how far the car has gone. the fact that auto manufacturers fudge the numbers in their favor is blatant dishonesty.

Derrick G

Well let's see. The Cruze's overall average acceleration score was lower than the Elantra's. The cars actually tied for ride. And I don't think expected economy was a factor. Real economy was. And the Elantra beat the Cruze. Drivers reporting to the EPA are reporting the same result: better numbers from the Hyundai.

As for any trip computers fudging, who's proved any are? This was a 161 mile trip. The difference between the Civic and Elantra would be less than 3/10 of a gallon. Since pumps are designed to accurately measure flow and not cut off all the same time at the same pressure, it's quite conceivable that differences in evaporative control design could cause a specific pump to cut off at different volume of fuel in the take on two different fill-ups depending on how many other pumps are using the same pick-up in the well.

Derrick G

tank, not take.


What tires, and their cold/hot inflation pressures?
The 2012 Cruze gets taller gearing, better mileage, slower acceleration.

All cars have their 'fatal flaws'
The Focus tries to get away with only 6 gears with a dry double clutch transmission. VW uses 7.
The minivan style wipers are also a deal killer.

The dual beam headlights [H13 bulbs] of the Cruze are a deal killer. The 'ECO' Cruze gives up its Watt's linkage (the key to optimizing integral trailing arm rear suspension; which the KIA Forte & Hyundai Elantra have), and also has a smaller gas tank, and only comes with a manual shift transmission.
The Cruze is also the heavyweight of the class.

The Civic retains the terrible windshield wipers, and headlights of the previous generation (still better than Cruze). The Civic has a taller top gear than all but the KIA Forte. The 5 speed automatic will leave you high and dry if you floor it at 60mph (you don't get 2nd, so you are left with 3rd, which goes to 105mph)

The KIA Forte uses a big bore [GEMA] 2.0, instead of a 2.0 liter derivative of the Nu, and uses a 'large' transmission. [6F26 versus 6F17] There goes your mileage!
The wheelbase is tied for shortest, with Focus, but does not have the sophisticated multilink that the Ford does. At least the KIA Forte has decent sized brakes.

The Elantra engine is underwhelming. It is almost a perfect Korean copy of the Honda engine-almost identical bore x stroke. There are no powertrain upgrades for 2012 beside an 'eco' button, disappointing.

So pick your flavor.


Surprising results considering the family was obviously pro import. I thought the focus and cruze were going to bring up the rear. They should try to get real shoppers who are actually opened minded and have a history of owning something other than japanese brands.

Doug G

Wow, the Focus gets smashed. I had heard nothing but good about it so far.


The Focus (especially in hatch form) is the closest to the WV Golf TDI experience at less money and more tech.

The Golf family has always attracted a certain type of person or a certain type of couple in comparison to the Toyota Carolla and I'd put this new Focus in the same league.

You'll see this Focus outside of ad agencies, graphic design studios, and out on the streets in some of the biggest cities in America, driven by at most a young couple with at most a young baby.

The others are better suited for a family of 5 which is what this comparison test was mostly about so I'm not surprised.

The Focus is a handling beast though, gets good gas mileage and is best equipped for navigating city traffic with solid acceleration when one needs it.

They're all good cars this year though. It's been a long time since the consumer had so many great choices.

The Greekness

Bottom line is even if there is a slight differnece in each car. At 36000 miles almost every Brand exept kia Hyundai will be out of warranty. Kia Hyundai will still have 64000 miles of warranty. At this point whos saving money now :-)

The Greekness

Here is another good one for you.....

10 Years 100,000 Mile Warranty

5 Years 60,000 Mile Warranty

5 years UNLIMITED MILES! Road Side Assistance

7 Years UNLIMITED MILES! Anti Corrosion Warranty

8 Years 80,000 Miles Exaust System Warrenty!

Hyundai Assurance!

Just sayin if your out of breath just saying an automakers warranty. You should buy it.


Are you buying a warranty or are you buying a car?


All cars required regular maintenance regardless who makes em. Civic, corollas, mazdas etc. not going to last long without proper maintenance or manufacturer recommended maintenance.Is civic going to last long if you don't change the oil every 3000miles!! It cost quite a bit of money to maintain and fix the car. so why not buy car from manufacture who offers long warranties on their, in case something major work required than you won't have to worry.


Some Notes -

- The scorecard for the Chevy Cruze was given a Family Subtotal rating of 50, but yet received a Family Adjusted score of 100 in the total sum. If I did the math correctly, the Honda Civic won 2nd place by numbers.

- Handling given by the Family for the Ford Focus was given a 1.5. However all other reviewers said that the handling was 8-9.

- MP3 subjective reviews simply accounted for menus, but did not account for voice recognition convenience, if provided by the manufacturer (I sure would be using voice commands instead of punching buttons if I was on the road).

- I like the selection of auto reviewers given for the scoring. However, I agree with Sheth, a second (or third) family (or buyer niche / preference for imports-domestics) to make a better study would have made this a much better review / representation of the auto buying market.

Even with the notes above, thanks a bunch for putting this together,!

Derrick G


Did you see JT's comment about the Cruze score? It does appear to be wrong.

Jack Leyton

Having just been through the same exact buying process I'd put them in this order:
5. Cruz
4. Forte
3. Focus
1 (tie) Elantra, Civic.

We ended up buying the Elantra because it was $900 cheaper and the dealer is 15 mins away vs 40 for Honda. I can't fault anyone buying any of the cars but the three things that really stood out after a dozen test drives: 1. Focus feels like a very good quality European car, 2. Cruz is under powered, 3. Civic feels like the best overall engineered car.

The thing is the American based auto companies are right there in the faces of all. There are a lot of so called Americans that hate the fact the Big 3 are making better quality autos. The Cruze or Focus are the top 2.

Mike S

Too bad about the low marks for the Forte. Have been seeing them on the road of late, and like its looks best of all. I believe its styling will prove to stand the test of time better than the rest. Now, if KIA could just work out the kinks in the next year or two, I may just trade for one.


I have a 2003 Beetle...diesel engine/manual transmission. It gets 40 in the city & 50 mpg on the highway. In 9 years, I had hoped for more progress. I keep off buying a new car because not much is comparable to what I already have.


Kathy, a PHEV like the new Prius seems to be selling very well.

But you have to remember to plug it in every night, or you'll be just running on the gasoline engine with the battery low.

They're priced around $20K, and up.

Post a Comment 

Please remember a few rules before posting comments:

  • If you don't want people to see your email address, simply type in the URL of your favorite website or leave the field empty.
  • Do not mention specific car dealers by name. Feel free to mention your city, state and brand.
  • Try to be civil to your fellow blog readers. This blog is not a fan or enthusiast forum, it is meant to help people during the car-buying process and during the time between purchases, so shoppers can keep a pulse on the market.
  • Stay on topic. We want to hear your opinions and thoughts, but please only comment about the specified topic in the blog post.
view posting rules

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In

Search Results

KickingTires Search Results for

Search Kicking Tires

KickingTires iPhone App