Dodge Dart vs. Honda Civic vs. Kia Forte vs. Mazda3 vs. Nissan Sentra
...we picked the 2014 Kia Forte as the best all-around car here and the winner of this test
According to the old maxim, Americans don't like small cars. We buy trucks by the truckload and midsize sedans more than any other car segment. But because of gas prices, the tough economy, or both, the compact segment is growing. In 2012, it accounted for roughly 13 percent of the U.S. car market, with most entrants registering sales increases over 2011. With frugality in vogue, automakers expect the segment to keep growing during the next several years.
Last year, the Mazda3 went bumper to bumper with the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, and Volkswagen Jetta in a battle of 40-mpg-capable cars. The Mazda won because we framed the conversation thus: Is there a 40-mpg car you'd want to own? The question was directed at the enthusiast who wants a high-efficiency car that's also fun to drive. In that measure, the Mazda was without question the Goldilocks car. It finished mid-pack on fuel economy, but it was far and away the driver's choice.
Since then, three new pretenders to the throne have arisen, and a fourth made an emergency update to better position it against the competition. More important, we're no longer asking which is the best sports car, but which is the best all-around car for the average consumer. We're looking for the car that offers the best value, content, fuel economy, and safety in addition to performance. It's a whole new ballgame.
Ride and Handling
In claiming its previous victory, the Mazda3 dazzled the judges with its crisp, natural steering feel; responsive, unshakable chassis; and sport sedan handling. It led this competition with the same trump card, at least in the dry. As it happened, rain struck during our evaluation loops, and opinions of the Mazda changed quickly. Those who drove it in the dry were again smitten with its excellent handling on the winding road portion. Those who drove it in the wet, however, told a different tale. Editors found it breaking loose at both ends on wet roads when pushed hard, eroding confidence. One point we all agreed on was the ride quality, which was among the best in the group.
Another car that divided the judges was the Dodge Dart. Opinions were mixed on the thick, meaty steering wheel -- while it felt direct, the steering was surprisingly heavy. Also heavy was the car itself, outweighing the nearest competitor by more than 300 pounds, and it felt heavy from behind the wheel. The Dart threw its heft into a corner, but once the weight transferred, it was a smooth and stable handler. The weight made the car feel planted on the road, but it also hurt the ride quality, though it wasn't the worst in the group.
In terms of ride and handling, the worst was the Nissan Sentra. There wasn't a large difference in ride quality among the group, but the Sentra was at the bottom of the spectrum. Where it really disappointed was in handling. The Sentra received constant complaints of terminal understeer, egregious body roll, and lifeless steering, and it lacked grip. Said associate online editor Karla Sanchez: "This car handled so terribly, I couldn't wait until the loop was over."
…the Kia Forte surprised everyone
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Kia Forte surprised everyone. In general, we've known Kias to have rough rides and elastic-feeling steering, but not this car. The ride was pleasantly firm, almost sporty, and the steering felt naturally weighted and responsive, though it still provided no feedback. Many editors found it the second-most fun car to drive behind the Mazda.
Somewhere in the middle was the Civic. The lightest of the group, it felt that way on the road. Ride quality and handling both fell in the middle of the pack, though the steering took some hits. Editor-in-chief Edward Loh found that the "light steering feels artificial and requires jerky inputs. Initial input doesn't seem to do much, so I kept dialing in more and more steering. Hard to be smooth."
The Kia surprised us at the track. It was the quickest to 60 mph by half a second and stopped the shortest from the same speed by 2 feet. On our skidpad, it put up respectable grip numbers and was the quickest around our figure-eight course. Out in the real world, we found the power strong compared with the rest of the group, and the transmission shifted quickly and smoothly and seemed to never select the wrong gear.
Less surprising was the poor showing from the Sentra. It was the slowest to reach 60 mph and needed the longest distance to stop. The car also was slow to accelerate and lacked brake bite. The primary culprit in drivetrain complaints was the continuously variable transmission, which all agreed was slow to respond and then provided insufficient additional leverage when it did. Despite its poor handling on the road and lowest average g on the figure-eight test, the Sentra did manage to tie the Dart for the highest average g on the skidpad.
The Dart was a disappointment. Its raspy exhaust and turbocharged engine seemed to promise performance, but its jog to 60 mph fell right in the middle of the pack, as did its stopping distance. As noted above, it posted the highest average g on the skidpad and the figure eight, but tied the Mazda for second in figure-eight lap time. Where the Dart really fell down was in everyday driving. The dual-clutch transmission was jerky and often seemed confused in automatic mode, whether dicing in the city or carving a canyon. The only remedy was to manually shift using the gear stick, which delivered fairly quick and crisp shifts, though it upshifted automatically at redline.
We were likewise disappointed in the Civic. The engine felt weak at low rpm, but like the Sentra, the fault lies squarely with the transmission. The aging five-speed gearbox was slow to shift and had no manual mode. This carried over to the track, where it was the second slowest to 60 mph and the slowest around the figure eight. Its low curb weight contributed to the second shortest stopping distance, but it posted mid-pack average g numbers.
The Mazda3 was a curiosity rather than a disappointment. Despite its stellar dry performance on the road, it didn't post the big numbers at the track. It was the second quickest to 60 mph and around the figure eight, but dead last on the skidpad. It also finished third in braking. Somehow, though, it all came together on real-world roads, making the Mazda3 the clear driver's favorite.
The two cars with the most overt technological approaches to fuel efficiency performed the poorest. An accelerating trend in the automotive industry today is to replace a larger engine with a smaller, turbocharged one that, in theory, provides the same power while using less fuel. This was not the case for the Dart. Its turbocharged 1.4-liter engine was the smallest and offered the most torque and second-highest horsepower rating, but it returned a dismal 19.5 mpg on our evaluation loops, well below its EPA estimates of 27/37 mpg city/highway. It was also the only car that required premium fuel, adding insult to injury.
Likewise unimpressive was the Sentra's continuously variable transmission, which should theoretically always be at the optimum gearing for fuel economy. With the least horsepower and tied for the least torque, you'd expect it wouldn't burn much fuel, but it returned the second-lowest observed fuel economy at 21.2 average mpg. With ratings at 30/39 mpg city/highway, it was a long way off. "Nissan might be on to something," quipped senior features editor Jonny Lieberman. "No one will drive this car quickly and in an inefficient manner, as it actually sounds like you're injuring the car with your right foot."
As much as we knock the Civic for its old five-speed transmission offering no manual control, it still gets the job done. The Civic was the second-least powerful car present and it felt like it, but that little engine and old gearbox know how to use fuel wisely. The Civic returned 23.5 mpg, which, while not stellar, was at least closer to its 28/39-mpg city/highway ratings.
Kia had a rough go of it last year after the EPA unceremoniously lowered the fuel economy ratings on a number of its cars. The Forte was unaffected, but the new car has struck back with a vengeance. Despite having the most horsepower and second-highest torque rating, as well as an conventional six-speed automatic, the Kia returned 24.4 mpg -- falling nicely within the estimated EPA city/highway ratings of 24/36 mpg and good for second best in this comparison.
The big winner, though, was the car that won the fuel economy comparison on handling rather than mpg. The Mazda3, with its funny-sounding Skyactiv badging and no obvious technological tricks (they're all deep inside the engine), was the longest running model in this test and by far the fuel-sipping champ. It handily bested the competition by returning 25.3 average mpg against its 28/40-mpg city/highway ratings.
Many people put a lot of stock in how a car looks, but the truth is, you'll spend far more time looking at the inside of it than the outside, and it greatly shapes your perception of the vehicle. In this category, the Sentra clawed back some favor with the judges. The rear seat and trunk are cavernous for the class, and the navigation and entertainment systems are simple and intuitive to use. Some editors found the design dull, likening it to a doctor's waiting room, but others pointed out that it barely feels down-market from the larger, more expensive Altima, a nice treat for a value-conscious buyer.
The Forte received similar praise for being second to the Sentra in rear seat space. It was also dinged, albeit less so, for being cold and dark with some odd ridges on the dash. Those gripes were quickly overlooked, however, in light of the segment-busting list of features, such as heated and cooled front seats and power-folding mirrors.
Also feature-rich was the Dart, with its massive touchscreen infotainment system and high-resolution, reconfigurable gauge display. We appreciated the clear, easy-to-use UConnect infotainment system, even if it did seem a bit cluttered compared with Kia's UVO system. Editors also liked the front-and-back steering wheel controls. Where the Dart struggled was in seating, with hard perches front and rear and compromised rear headroom. The editors complained about the grainy, low-resolution back-up camera.
Riding mid-pack was the Civic, whose bi-level instrument cluster and funky shapes divided editors. It was given high marks for being a strong improvement over the poorly received 2012 model, and we appreciated the better materials and quieter cabin. We took issue, though, with the old, low-resolution navigation system and its tiny buttons, and rear seat space ranked smallest among the competitors.
Receiving some of the harshest criticism was the Mazda3. While we liked its sporty, supportive seats overall, many were disappointed with its small, cramped rear seat. The dashboard also drew fire for looking the oldest and appearing to be made of the cheapest materials. "The split screens are at least well-organized/executed," wrote Loh. However, "none of the screens matches in background colors, fonts, or font colors, not in the instrument panel, infotainment screen, or the two tiny screens above." We were disappointed with the lack of a back-up camera, but equally delighted by the preferred manual shifting orientation of forward for downshifts and backward for upshifts, which the Dart shared.
With safety a key concern among buyers, it's no surprise all these competitors performed well in crash testing. They were not, however, all created equal. For example, Honda found out about the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's new small-offset crash test and designed the new Civic accordingly. As such, the Civic is the only car here to be named a Top Safety Pick+ after receiving a Good score in all tests. (None of the others has yet completed the small-offset test.) The 2013 Civic hasn't been tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration yet, but the 2012 car received 5-star front and side ratings and a 4-star rollover rating for 5 stars overall.
Like the Honda, the 2014 Forte hasn't been crash tested yet. In this case, though, the Kia is a thoroughly redesigned car and not a refresh, so it's difficult to say how it will fare. The old Forte, for what it's worth, received 4 stars and Good ratings in all tests and was named a Top Safety Pick.
It's a similar story with the 2013 Sentra, which also has yet to be fully tested. NHTSA has crashed it, and gave it a 5-star side impact rating, 4 stars for front and rollover tests, and 4 stars overall. IIHS hasn't tested it, but the old model was not a Top Safety Pick because of an Acceptable rating in the roof crush test.
There is plenty of information, however, on the oldest car in the test. The Mazda3 is an IIHS Top Safety Pick thanks to Good ratings all around, but it didn't fare quite as well at NHTSA. It's a mixed bag, with a 5-star front impact rating, 4-star rollover rating, and 3-star side impact rating, combined for a 4-star overall rating. Editors also noted and appreciated the optional Blind Spot Warning system.
We appreciated the Blind Spot Warning and Rear Cross Path Detection systems on the Dart as well, not to mention the only Driver Knee Bolster airbags in the group. That car fared better in crash testing, earning a 5-star overall rating on 5-star front and side impact ratings and a 4-star rollover rating. It is also a Top Safety Pick with Good scores across the board.
In a price-conscious segment like this, value is a major consideration. That's especially true in this test, where all the competitors were heavily equipped with pricey options such as navigation systems, leather seats, keyless entry, and more. None was more heavily loaded than the Mazda3, which rang in just above the Dart at $26,420. Being the oldest model in the test and lacking a back-up camera hurt its value argument, though we enthusiasts found quite a lot of value in its handling and performance.
...the Forte offers all that and more for $805 less
The Dart also became something of a tough sell at $26,415. It was feature-rich with its big display screens, automatic headlights and wipers, heated steering wheel, and more. The problem is, the Forte offers all that and more for $805 less. With by far the worst observed fuel economy, the Dart's value appeal dropped precipitously in the eyes of the judges.
That Forte, though, blew us away.
That Forte, though, blew us away. Power front seats that are both heated and cooled, heated rear seats, power-folding side mirrors, a heated steering wheel, multiple steering modes, and more, all for a mid-pack price of $25,610. Add to that the second-best fuel economy in the test and far and away the best warranty, and the Kia makes a serious value proposition.
The Civic was a tougher case to make. It offered many of the features the others did, but the clunky navigation system and poor observed fuel economy hurt it. On the other hand, it was very nearly the least expensive car here at $24,555, and it got high marks for its quality interior materials.
The Sentra fell into the same trap as the Civic, offering the lowest as-tested price by just over a hundred dollars at $23,715. While that appealed to our wallets, the second-worst observed fuel economy and the poor handling made us reconsider how our hypothetical money was being spent.
Some comparison tests are blowouts, and those are easy to judge. Then there are tests like this, where the field is closely matched in nearly every category. Each car had strengths and weaknesses and none completely ran away with the award. There wasn't a "perfect" car in the bunch, but several that would be very good choices depending on your priorities.
If, for example, you're an enthusiast like us, you'll be happiest with the sporty Mazda. It would also appeal to those who value fuel economy above all else. If safety is your priority, you'll be comforted by the Honda's class-topping crash test scores. Those who love features will be very happy with the Dart and Forte, and the buyer shopping on price will find the Sentra's low as-tested price very appealing.
After weighing the contenders in each category against what would best serve the average compact car buyer, we picked the 2014 Kia Forte as the best all-around car here and the winner of this test. Its combination of performance, fuel efficiency, reasonable pricing, and endless feature list had our judges agreeing it's the car we'd recommend to our friends and family.
5th Place: Nissan Sentra
Poor handling, poor fuel economy, and a shorter feature list outweigh a low price and big back seat.
4th Place: Honda Civic
A weak drivetrain, poor fuel economy, and frustrating nav system sank a solid entry.
3rd Place: Dodge Dart
Sport handling and a long list of features weren't enough to overcome a high price and terrible gas mileage.
2nd Place: Mazda3
An enthusiast's special and fuel-sipper to boot, weighed down by a heavy price tag and missing features.
1st Place: Kia Forte
Handles well, sips fuel, loaded with exclusive features, and priced just right. What's not to like?
Dodge Dart: The only car rolling on chromies made the Dart stand out amongst all the alloys.
Honda Civic: Not just a back-up camera, the Civic gives you multiple camera angles including panoramic and straight down for maximum visibility.
Kia Forte: Power-folding mirrors on a $25,610 car? We love it when features trickle down.
Mazda3: We think this is the proper way to orient a manual shifting feature, and we're glad Mazda (and Dodge) agree.
Nissan Sentra: There was no question, the Sentra had the most rear seat room by far, with more than some midsize sedans.