5 Car Comparison: Economy Sedans With Flair
Today, bigger is usually considered better. But while full-size sport-utes and pickups are big sellers, there’s still a big appetite for small cars. In fact, some 2.3 million small sedans were sold in the U.S. last year. Also, the competition among small cars has never been fiercer, for each brand is trying to cram more and more car into the same small space. So this week we’re taking a break from oversized trucks, and we’re going to sample five of today’s most popular compact front-wheel drive, 4-door sedans. They’re easy-to-drive, easy-to-park, and easy-to-pay for. But, are they easy to like?
Well, that depends on what your needs are. If you need enough cargo room for a refrigerator, the ability to tow a horse trailer, and 4-wheel-drive, these are not the vehicles for you.
But if you just need reliable, economical transportation, with a dash of fun, then one of our crowd of compact sedans could be your next automobile.
We’ll start out with the most eagerly anticipated member of our group, the all-new 2001 Honda Civic. More stylish, but actually a hair smaller outside than last year, the new Civic has significant changes that belie its conservative styling.
A new platform and MacPherson strut suspension push the wheels further out to the corners. This allows the typically efficient, now Accord-styled cabin, to grow. You really notice the extra room in the rear seat with its flat floor and almost 2-inch gain in leg room. Trunk space also jumps, to 12.9 cubic feet.
To motivate America’s favorite small cars are larger 1.7-liter 4-cylinder engines. DX and LX trim ratings are 115 horsepower and 110 pound-feet of torque. Our EX VTEC delivers 127 horsepower and 114 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is excellent at 32 City and 37 Highway. That’s with the slick, new 5-speed manual transmission, that allowed runs to 60 in 8.4 seconds. Handling is typically Civic. Hardly race ready, but quite competent, with crisper steering than before. Ride is much improved.
However, brake feel was not very consistent from run to run, but stops from 60 averaged a stable 130 feet. ABS is standard on the EX. All in all, the roomy Civic, while a bit short on personality, remains a high quality, solid performer.
Civic prices start at $13,400 for the DX sedan. An EX, like our test car, costs $17,350. So Civic is a solid value as well.
To challenge the Civic’s popularity, Nissan has released an all-new Sentra for 2001. Looking much like its big brother the Maxima, the new Sentra is larger and more refined than ever before.
It also boasts more power. Our top-line SE-grade test car packs a 2.0-liter twin-cam 4- cylinder that makes 145 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is rated at 24 City and 31 Highway, the group low. But, with a firm shift 5-speed manual, Sentra hit 60 in 8.3 seconds ö a hair quicker than Civic.
Handling, however, is a full step above the Civic’s. It’s sharp and precise, despite a twist- beam rear axle. Brakes performed well, too, averaging 115 feet from 60. But unlike Civic EX, ABS is optional.
Out on the road, the Sentra, like the Civic, delivers a more refined ride than one expects in this class, feeling far more mid-size than compact.
The Sentra’s interior is trendy, very attractive, and well laid out. But, some of the plastics were low rent. The Sentra is smaller inside than Civic. Most notable is the 2 inches less rear leg room. That’s important for commuters. And the 11.6 cubic-foot trunk also comes up short against the Civic. Pricing, however, beats the Honda hands down. The base Sentra XE starts at $12,169. While our SE test car starts at $15,419.
In sum, the 2001 Nissan Sentra has sharp looks and handling, and the refinement of a larger car, at very reasonable prices.
If, however, you prefer something with real spunk, check out the Dodge Neon R/T. Derived from the Neon ACR production racer, the R/T delivers race-ready hardware in a stylish package that screams youthful enthusiasm.
The R/T’s 2.0-liter Magnum single-cam 4-cylinder pumps out 150 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque, making it the most powerful engine of the bunch. Fuel economy is 28 City and 35 Highway. With its 5-speed manual gearbox ö no automatic is available ö Neon sprints to 60 in 8.3 seconds. The same as the Sentra. It feels more rough and ready than the Asian designs, revving quickly and producing plenty of midrange punch.
In the curves, its nimble feel reflects its race track roots. Steering feel is the best of the bunch, with very quick response. While braking is also best, its 4-wheel discs with optional ABS stopping it from 60 in just 105 feet on average.
The interior, however, is more spartan and crude than its competitors, despite being the largest in our test. The dash layout is clean and direct, although the optional CD changer is somewhat awkward tucked up under the dash. The rear seat is just plain big, as is the 13.1 cubic-foot trunk.
Neon sedan prices start at $13,275. But if you want the fun of the R/T, add another $4,430 for a total of $17,705. Not a bad price for a flashy, if rough, little pocket rocket.
Ford is providing the highest volume domestic small car competition in the form of their European designed Focus, our MotorWeek Driver’s Choice small car pick for the 2000 model year.
Already a hit with buyers, Focus sedans like our ZTS test car have earned praise for their solid feel, brisk performance, and youthful edgy styling.
The ZTS is powered by Ford’s 2.0-liter dual-overhead-cam Zetec 4-cylinder, that makes 130 horsepower and 135 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is 25 City and 34 Highway. And that’s with the somewhat notchy standard 5-speed manual gearbox, that allowed sprints to 60 in 7.8 seconds, the quickest of the bunch.
With its all-independent suspension, the Focus has the same fun-to-toss-around personality as the Neon, but with a more refined feel. While standard ABS equipped brakes stop the ZTS from 60 in an average of 123 feet, with excellent pedal feel and rock solid stability.
Inside the Focus, the emphasis is on the intelligent use of space. It’s roomy, with a standard height adjustable driver’s seat. The dash design is overly trendy, and we could do without the fake wood, but it is well laid out. The front seats feel rather hard and flat, however, when compared to those of its competitors. As in the Neon, rear seat room is generous, as is the Civic-matching 12.9 cubic foot trunk.
Focus sedan prices start at $14,505 for the SE model. If you want a ZTS like our test car, it will run you at least $15,725.
But if you haven’t found your favorite yet, then there’s always the Toyota Corolla in new “S” trim. A sportier-trimmed sedan, with freshened exterior styling, the “S” is trying to shake Corolla’s geriatric image and tune in to the youth that buy small cars.
Inside, however, the “S” is still the familiar Corolla. Competent, but uninspired, with a few sporty accents to perk it up. And the rear seat room is the smallest of the group, while the trunk measures a usable 12.1 cubic-feet.
Power comes from a smooth 1.8-liter twin-cam four, which makes 125 horsepower and 125 pound-feet of torque. Fuel economy is highly rated at 31 City and 38 Highway. But with the standard 5-speed manual, Corolla took 9.2 seconds for the “S” to reach 60, making it the slowest of our lot.
Also, while the S may look sporty, handling is strictly economy car, with lots of front push and body roll. Braking, even with the optional ABS, fares no better, with long stops averaging 143 feet.
Out on the road, the Corolla S has a solid Toyota feel, but the ride was clunky and there was more interior noise than its competitors.
But let’s not forget this car does have legendary Toyota quality and dependability, and at a modest cost. The Corolla CE sedan starts at $13,023. The Corolla S carries a base price of $13,248. But, while it’s one of the cheapest of our group, its standard equipment list is also the weakest.
So while bigger may be better to many buyers, our five compact 4-doors prove that there’s still a lot of good things in small packages. While the new Civic remains strong, the Corolla’s shine is fading. Both the sharper Sentra and well-balanced Focus are real challenger, and the Neon is simply fun.
And, they are all, as we said before, easy-to-drive, easy-to-park, and easy-to-pay-for. And after testing them all, we find that they’re all easy to like as well!