2020 Kia Forte GT

Buyers Guide: Best Small Sedans (Updated for 2021)

The small sedan segment has never looked so good.

Best Compact Sedans
Every Small Sedan Worth Driving… Driven!

Sedans get a bad rap these days, and I think that’s unfair. While still the go-to to demonstrate the style standards defined by a brand, sadly CUV’s and SUV’s are hogging all the sales.

If a CUV/SUV just isn’t for you, I’ve got some good news for you: for 2021, you can get your people moving fix from a plethora of truly excellent cars. The fact is that truly bad cars are an oddity these days, and the small sedans called out here represent the best of the best.

Small sedans, in particular, offer the perfect blend of practicality, performance, and price affordability, but there are still some sedans that rise above and stand out from their peers.

This list was hard to write, but numerous test-drives later and I’m ready to round it out. Let’s get on with it.

2020 mazda 3 sedan

1. 2021 Mazda 3 Sedan

Important Info

  • Base Price:$22,500-$26,500
  • Updates: Minor
  • 0-60 mph: 6.9-8.1 sec
  • Fuel Economy: City 24-27 mpg / Hwy 31-36 mpg
  • Basic Warranty: 3 years / 36,000 miles
  • Our Rating: 8.9/10

Our Thoughts: Pros & Cons

Summary: A sharp sedan with a hatchback twin that loves to live in the city. Easily the best small sedan you can buy in 2021.

Pros: Sharp exterior styling, exceptional interior design, gutsy available turbo-four

Cons: Less fun than its predecessors, large blind spots on hatchback

First introduced in the early 2000s, and most recently redesigned in 2019, the 2021 Mazda 3 is an excellent demonstration of how careful distillation of a recipe yields the perfect result. When Mazda reinvented its compact sedan and hatchback for 2019, it deemphasized the 3’s sporting intentions to position the model as a more premium vehicle. The automaker succeeded in some respect; the exterior styling is elegant, and interior fittings feel a class above the rest of the segment.

From the 3’s refined and luxurious exterior to the upscale cabin, Mazda has truly perfected the art of punching above its weight. The Mazda 3 is nearly a luxury car. Many will challenge my assessment, but I stand by it: for most people, the 3 is the perfect small sedan for them.

As with the 2019 model year, the only engine available for the 2021 Mazda 3 is the 2.5L four-cylinder that provides 184 hp and 185 lb-ft of torque. Spritely suspension and compliant on-road mannerisms allow for plenty of driver confidence, and with a fuel-sipping engine that returns north of 35 mpg on the highway, you can’t knock the 3 for its economy.

Oh, and if you really want to amp it up, wait until later this year when the 250 hp Mazda3 GT Turbo is released. 250 hp awd, anyone? Despite what some trendsetters have to say, I believe that the average person will be happiest in a Mazda 3.

2020 Honda Civic Sedan

2. 2021 Honda Civic

Important Info

  • Base Price: $21,000-$38,000
  • Updates: Unchanged
  • 0-60 mph: 5.0-7.8 sec
  • Fuel Economy: City 22-32 mpg / Hwy 28-42 mpg
  • Basic Warranty: 3 years / 36,000 miles
  • Our Rating: 8.3/10

Our Thoughts: Pros & Cons

Summary: The Civic may not be the supermodel of the bunch, but it’s an adept and capable small sedan worthy of your consideration.

Pros: Sharp exterior styling, exceptional interior design, gutsy available turbo-four

Cons: Less fun than its predecessors, large blind spots on hatchback trims

Honda’s Civic is consistently one of the best-selling compact cars, and it’s not difficult to see why. It’s an easy car to love and earns its accolades.

The Honda Civic is a car that has undergone a bit of an identity crisis over the years. It began life is a sensible and practical sedan, turned into a high-revving hot hatchback when it reached middle age, and is now returning to its roots as a sensible and practical sedan. The 10th generation Civic, first released in 2016, feels more athletic to look at, even if it’s sedentary to drive (unless you opt for the Si or Type-R trims). Even in its base trim, the Civic visually stands out from some of its more plain-jane peers.

The Civic comes with your pick of four-cylinder engines – a 2.0L 158hp unit, or a turbocharged 1.5L 175hp four-pot – and three body styles. It’s also loaded to the brim with tech, including remote start, lane-watching sensors, Apple CarPlay, and the like. The base LX comes with Bluetooth hands-free, rearview camera, and Honda Sensing – a suite of sensors and drivers-assist tech, including collision mitigation.

2020 Kia Forte GT

3. 2021 Kia Forte

Important Info

  • Base Price: $19,000-$23,500
  • Updates: Unchanged
  • 0-60 mph: 6.6-8.2 sec
  • Fuel Economy: City 25-31 mpg / Hwy 32-41 mpg
  • Basic Warranty: 5 years / 60,000 miles
  • Our Rating: 7.8/10

Our Thoughts: Pros & Cons

Summary: Kia shows that small sedans are its Forte with its updated model demonstrating the namesake.

Pros: Sharp interior and exterior design, sporty turbocharged GT model

Cons: Unpleasant CVT with the base engine, rough ride over minor road imperfections

First released in 2010, the Forte is relative newcomer to the small sedan segment. Completely redesigned in 2019, the latest Forte is a contemporary, and dare I say, handsome car. The big plastic trim and cladding from the outgoing iterations are dialed down somewhat, and large LED headlights help give the face a staunch but polished presentation.

Abundant style is one of the better reasons to rock a Kia Forte, both in terms of its tidy exterior and its relatively upscale cabin. Tech features are a highlight, too, with a large infotainment screen and standard active safety content, even on the base model.

Most 2021 Fortes will come with an acceptable, if lethargic, 147 hp 2.0L four-cylinder. However, for 2021 you can opt for the GT trim, which puts the 1.6L turbo that outputs 201 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque. Compared to the Mazda 3, the Forte’s suspension and handling are less sporty, but the engine provides more punch than both the 3 and the Civic (non-Si and Type-R trims, of course).

2020 toyota corolla

4. 2021 Toyota Corolla

Important Info

  • Base Price: $20,780-$26,680
  • Updates: Unchanged
  • 0-60 mph: 6.6-7.6 sec
  • Fuel Economy: City 28-53 mpg / Hwy 36-52 mpg
  • Basic Warranty: 3 years / 36,000 miles
  • Our Rating: 7.5/10

Our Thoughts: Pros & Cons

Summary: Toyota’s latest iteration manages the impossible and makes the Corolla cute again.

Pros: Great value (especially the hybrid), standard active safety equipment

Cons: Loud, underpowered base engine, cheap-feeling interior materials

The big news with the new 2021 Corolla is the option for the model’s first-ever hybrid powertrain. It’s an interesting move in an era with increasingly capable (and affordable) electric cars, but that isn’t to say that the hybrid setup doesn’t have merit – even when gas prices are this low.

The Corolla lacks the svelte appeal of the 3, the musculature of the Civic, and the facade of the Forte. Even with recently updated trim and oversized grille, the Corolla looks like it drives: a no-nonsense and predictable ride. But there is nothing at all wrong with being no-nonsense and no surprises, and you can’t deny the Corolla’s well-earned legacy as a reliable and sensible small car.

If sticking with conventional ICE, whether you opt for the base 1.8L 139 hp four-cylinder or the new 2.0L 169 hp engine, you’ll enjoy great fuel economy in the 32-35 mpg range. Opt for the 121 hp hybrid synergy drive model and you’ll enjoy economy north of 60 mpg.

The 2021 Toyota Corolla starts at $19,825 or $23,400 for the hybrid.

2020 VW Jetta

5. 2021 Volkswagen Jetta

Important Info

  • Base Price: $20,000-$27,000
  • Updates: Unchanged
  • 0-60 mph: 6.1-7.6 sec
  • Fuel Economy: City 25-30 mpg / Hwy 32-40 mpg
  • Basic Warranty: 4 years / 50,000 miles
  • Our Rating: 7.5/10

Our Thoughts: Pros & Cons

Summary: Refined German design stands out in a plastic-cladding obsessed segment.

Pros: Roomy interior, fun-to-drive GLI variant, user—friendly infotainment

Cons: Driver-assist tech locked in upper trims, unimpressive braking performance

Powered by a 1.4L turbo four-cylinder that outputs 147 hp and 184 lb-ft of torque, the 2021 Jetta emulates part of the driving dynamics that made the old pre-scandal VW diesel engines so appealing: gobs of torque that made driving slow feel fast. Like the torque monsters of olde, the new Jetta makes full torque down low – 1,400 rpm to be exact – and produces a city/highway combined 34 mpg.

Like the Mazda 3, the Jetta feels refined and on-trend. Clean lines, a tasteful front-end, and classic five-spoke wheels make for an attractive package that, thankfully, is equally as appealing inside. The base trim includes amenities such as LED headlights, air conditioning, and a Bluetooth Apple CarPlay/Android Auto infotainment system. And, like its peers, the Jetta can be had with a full range of drivers aides and assist packages.

The 2021 Volkswagen Jetta starts at $18,985.

2020 Hyundai Elantra

6. 2021 Hyundai Elantra

Important Info

  • Base Price:$20,500-$27,500
  • Updates: Major Update
  • 0-60 mph: 6.9-8.9 sec
  • Fuel Economy: City 26-48 mpg / Hwy 33-53 mpg
  • Basic Warranty: 5 years / 60,000 miles
  • Our Rating: 7.3/10

Our Thoughts: Pros & Cons

Summary: The Elantra is a great small car that is unassuming inside and out. A worthy consideration.

Pros: New model’s sharp design, 50 mpg hybrid model

Cons: Coarse 2.0-liter engine is the weakest link in a strong category

Hyundai has redesigned the Elantra for 2021 with dramatic styling in line with the current generation Sonata. Interior styling gets a major update, too, With available wireless Apple Car Play and Android Auto plus IntelliChoice Value Rating Average dual 10.3-inch screens on higher trims.

In addition to the standard model, Hyundai has confirmed that an efficient 50-mpg hybrid and sporty N-Line variant are on the way. Other than the new hybrid powertrain and discontinued 1.4 liter engines and transmissions from the previous generation carry over.

With its standard active safety tech, knockout design, and new upscale feel, we can’t wait to see if the new model will up its ranking.

2020 Subaru Impreza

7. 2021 Subaru Impreza

Important Info

  • Base Price: $19,500-$20,000
  • Updates: Unchanged
  • 0-60 mph: 9.3-9.7 sec
  • Fuel Economy: City 25-30 mpg / Hwy 32-40 mpg
    Basic Warranty: 3 years / 36,000 miles
  • Our Rating: 7.2/10

Our Thoughts: Pros & Cons

Summary: A sharp sedan with a hatchback twin that loves to live in the city. Easily the best small sedan you can buy in 2021.

Pros: Spacious interior, excellent ride quality, great safety ratings

Cons: Underpowered engine, anonymous styling, excessive noise on Sport models

The Impreza’s standard all-wheel-drive system distinguishes it from the rest of the segment, as do its impressively comfortable ride quality and spacious hatchback variant.

The Subaru Impreza: the car Californians buy when they want to pretend to be Canadian. I’m joking, of course, but the Impreza gets the rib because of Subaru’s fierce and unwavering adherence to the AWD revolution. As ca card-carrying Canadian who has trudged his way through his fair share of snow (and is weirded out writing about himself in third person), the Impreza has always been a model that was on my sedan shopping shortlist.

But the 2021 Impreza has made it on to more than one “best-of” list, and it’s not surprising. With standard AWD, sensible, if not subdued, styling, and excellent safety ratings, the Impreza is a compelling choice for anyone that has to deal with snow and ice on an even semi-frequent basis. With 152 hp and 145 lb-ft of torque from a 2.0 four-cylinder, the Impreza is capable of moving you to where you need to go – just don’t expect much gusto along the way, as even with 152 ponies, the Impreza’s AWD powertrain saps a bit more power from the engine than you’d expect.

Look beyond the powertrain and there’s plenty to appreciate in the Impreza. Its infotainment system stands out because of how responsive and intuitive it is, and the Impreza receives top marks in safety with a five-star NHTSA rating. Like the other entrants on this list, you can get your Impreza tech’d out to the point where it can almost drive itself… almost.

The 2021 Subaru Impreza starts at $18,695.