What's the Most Affordable Compact Sedan?

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Car shoppers want a long list of features in a new car, even if that car is a compact sedan that starts around $16,000. That starting price usually doesn't include what many consider "must-have" features — chief among them an automatic transmission.

We took 11 compact sedans and looked at their prices when equipped with the following features:

  • Automatic transmission
  • Cruise control
  • USB input
  • Remote entry
  • Tilt/telescoping steering wheel
  • Steering-wheel audio controls

It may seem like a simple search, but if you're looking at a new Nissan Sentra, Dodge Dart or Volkswagen Jetta, you'll need to know the specific trim level, options and option packages to ensure you won't regret not having that one missing feature.

We took those as-equipped prices and then added five years of fuel costs to come up with the most affordable compact sedan on the market.

Having recently purchased our long-term Honda Civic that has all of these features in a base model, we thought it had a good shot of scoring well here. But the results were somewhat surprising, especially in terms of what car was No. 1.

Compact-car-affordabilityrevised

Nissan's redesigned 2013 Sentra comes out on top. It wasn't easy to get all the options we wanted on the Sentra. First, you must choose the SV trim level and then the Driver's Package; many competitors deliver them in a specific trim level without the need for options. Configured like this, the as-tested price was actually higher than the Toyota Corolla and Kia Forte. But it bested those two thanks to segment-leading fuel costs.

We originally ran these calculations before Nissan announced a price reduction on the Sentra and other models last week. It still came out on top before the announcement, but the gap widened from a mere $90 to $730 between the Sentra and the next most affordable car, the Forte.

Read the full review of the 2013 Nissan Sentra

Another surprise was the Subaru Impreza. It had all the equipment we were looking for except cruise control in the 2.0i base model. If you don't need cruise, you'd save $1,400 by choosing the base model over the 2.0i Premium trim, and that lower price would have put it in sixth place between the Civic and Ford Focus. It also had surprisingly low fuel costs for an all-wheel-drive car.

The number that stands out is $20,000, and that's the price car shoppers need to remember when shopping this class. There are five compact sedans that are both well-equipped and well-reviewed for less than that price.

If you've got your heart set on a car that costs more than $20,000, make sure there are valid reasons to pick it over the more affordable options.

The Impreza's all-wheel drive is likely the biggest factor that would sway customers, but the as-equipped Dodge Dart has 17-inch alloy wheels and a six-speaker sound system that we think stands out in the class.

If value reigns supreme, it's hard to pass up the Forte, Sentra or Elantra.

2013NissanSentra

Editor's note

  • Fuel ratings based on 45% highway, 55% city driving, 15,000 annual miles and a price of $3.61 a gallon. Via FuelEconomy.gov.
  • The Mitsubishi Lancer wasn't included because it doesn't offer a tilt/telescoping steering wheel on any trim level.
  • Chart revised on May 8 to reflect correct engine associated with Mazda3.

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Comments 

Bowrider

DT, why was the Subaru such a surprise? Your point about the cruise is moot. You could start taking away features from all of the cars to change the price but that would defeat the original parameters of the test.

Lance

It appears you used the SkyActiv version of the Mazda3($20020 for the SkyActiv w/automatic) when it comes to MSRP and then used the old 2.0L version for the fuel usage numbers. The old 2.0L version is much less MSRP. To be fair you should use the SkyActiv MPG numbers which are much higher.

Tony

This article is pile of ... you know what. So untrue. Because:
1. Cars don't sell at those prices
2. Gas Mileage posted on the sticker normally less or more but not exact

Example: 2011 Mazda3 iTouring using this calculation will cost me $26,000. Ok, I give another grand of slack but it is still $2.5K difference from the real world

Re@lity

Everyone is complaining about flaws in their comparison. I'm sure they exist... but can anyone offer a better set of parameters with which to compare by?

Ultimately, car buyers will line up competing models like this and compare features, price and MPG. When I bought a new car I used a similar method as cars.com.

Until you actually buy the car you aren't going to know MPG because it depends on driving style. All you can do at the buying point is compare published MPG estimates.

Lance

@tony
If you were writing an article like this what numbers would you use? The price YOU paid and the MPG YOU get or the price I paid and the MPG I get. Face it, MSRP and EPA MPG estimates may not be exactly what people pay and exactly the MPG they get, but for comparison purposes there is no better way. Unless of course you have a viable and logical alternate solution.

Lance,
You are correct. I'm not sure how we pulled one set of numbers and got the two different valuations. The chart has been updated and you shave off $1,000 in costs thanks to that new engine upgrade. We've made the corrections above.

Bowrider,
I think only the Forte saw a price change and ranking change that significant with just one feature being removed from the list. But I see the point, of those are our own rules we should just stick to them.

Tony

I suggest to walk out of invoice price rather than MSRP. MSRP is definitely not a good measure because many cars sell not only below it but below invoice as well. But generally, invoice price is a good measuring stick in general segment. In the segment of niche cars it is probably different.

Mark

Frankly the Jetta is the only one that when driving it doesn't feel like a Cheap car. Interior materials used to be better, etc etc but the driving experience is much better than any of the rest. You get what you pay for.

Tony

Mark,
so you saying that watered-down Jetta drives better then Mazda3?

www.carsdirect.com/compare/volkswagen-jetta-vs-mazda-mazda3

J

What about resale value?

Tony

J, BRAVO!!

Jeff

Mark,

The Impreza does not feel like a cheap car.

edy

why not include vw jetta turbo diesel?
I tell u why because it beats all other cars including Toyota Prius
vw jetta more horsepower better MPG and outlast any hybrid or gas car and better resale value, DIESEL WINS ALWAYS people use your brains.

starzzguitar

I only listen to people who have ACTUALLY driven a certain car to tell me how it drives or feels. The guy who is claiming that his Jetta is the ONLY one that does not feel like a cheap car just shows to me that he has not driven the others mentioned. Rarely nowadays do I find a car that feels "cheap". That seemed to end around 2003-2004, when I test drove a cheap plastic tinny Camry at the dealer, brand new. Now THAT felt cheap. No, it was not the loaded version. Now people want to know what does each trim level have, fit, finish and engine power to weight ratio, etc. Many cars are just a matter of taste. My brother in law only buys Toyotas, never shops around.

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