If you saw my second most recent post. I got a spam email from Nissan “inviting” me to test drive the new Sentra SR Turbo. After reading y’alls recommendations on that post I decided to do a comparo of other compact cars in the 20k price range. Not to hype things up too much, but I seriously learned some very interesting stuff about the cars I test drove.
First of all. The Nissan dealer I visited didn’t actually have the new SR Turbo in stock. I still took the time to check out the SV and test drove the base S (mechanically identical, but the salesmen had the keys for it on him). The other cars I tested that day were. The Honda Civic LX (non-turbo, but I’ll explain why), Chevy Cruze Premier, and Nissan Leaf.
Methodology: My only car currently is a ‘95 Acura Integra. I make a point about this to show that I have little experience and real world knowledge of new cars, because as I learned there’s a lot reviews and spec sheets don’t tell you. I’m ranking the cars competitively versus scoring them on a scale for this reason too.
Also I’m approaching this as a hypothetical buyer who will be looking at owning one of these cars as my only one. So the best car must have a balance of convenience/interior, performance/fun factor, and practicality. With a slight focus on performance and fun factor versus the other categories. With all that said lets begin.
Tied for 3rd- Nissan Leaf.
As Mr. Regular said in the Tesla review. “The future is gonna be Oookay”
Don’t let the tied for last ranking fool you. It speaks more to the quality of cars I tested rather then any flaws with the Leaf.
General Info- The one I drove was a 2016 model with 6k miles on the clock, on sale for slightly under 18k. It was a base model S too.
Convenience/Interior- I’ll admit. I didn’t test the leaf as thoroughly in this category as the other cars, because my decision to test drive it was rather spontaneous and I didn’t wanna waste to much of the kind salesman’s time. Since he was the same one who helped me with the Sentra.
Even though it was the base model it came with heated seats and steering wheel. As well as Bluetooth IIRC. Power windows, locks, and seats as well. One thing I was curious about was the A/C. From a quick glance under the hood it was a traditional compressor powered by an electric motor and on my test drive it kicked in just as fast and powerful as you’d expect in an ICE car so no complaints there. I’m sure I’m missing on some other features it has, but it’s 2016. Google it fool!
Practicality- First of there’s ample leg room in the back for adults. It might not be terribly pleasant on a road trip, but you won’t hear many complaints for most journeys. The storage space was rather impressive with the 60/40 rear folding seats. Plus the large hatch allows for plenty of storage space, because it’s actually a legit hatch like a minivan. Rather then the almost token hatchbacks on the Cruze or Civic.
Of course there’s all the benefits of an EV, but there’s not really anything I can tell you that you haven’t heard before.
Performance/Fun Factor- First I wanna talk about the regenerative braking. For those who don’t know. There’s two drive “gears” on the Leaf. A regular D and B for brake mode which uses the regenerative brake more aggressively. I did the entirety of my short test drive in B and truly loved it for city driving. I massively underestimated how much braking force it “applies”. It’s very similar to heavy engine braking in a manual transmission, however the neat thing about the leaf is you can actually modulate the the regen braking with the throttle. On the dash of the Leaf you’ll find an arc of bubbles with a leaf on the 4th or 5th one from the left. That one with the leaf is coasting. When the throttle is applied below that mark, so to speak, it’s regen braking. So you control deceleration very well without even having to put your foot on the brake pedal.
The promise of 100% torque from zero rpm was honestly a bit of a let down. It did have a slight edge on the other cars I drove, but it isn’t really fun by any stretch. You still have to keep an eye on the speedo though, because around town you’ll still easily get up to 40mph without realizing it. To be fair to the motor, I don’t think it’s the motor’s fault for not feeling very fast. I think it’s the higher driving position and overall it’s the insulated driving experience that numbs the sensations of the Leaf’s acceleration. I have the typical complaints for the electric power steering as nearly every automotive journalist. It’s direct and accurate, but with zero feedback coming through the wheel.
Despite poor performance in the fun category I’m more optimistic about the future of affordable EVs than before I drove the Leaf. With the electric steering tune of another vehicle I drove that day and a lower seating position and more sporty suspension this would be a very good car for it’s class performance wise.
Overview- If I was looking for a second car and keeping my Integra as a weekend warrior. This would be tied for 1st with the same car it’s tied for last with now. It’s an excellent city car that has more than enough power for effortless city driving and enough can’t be said about how convenient the regen braking is for city driving. I hardly ever used the actual brakes except for when it was time to come to a complete stop which really does make the task of city driving much less tiring.
Tied for 3rd- Chevy Cruze
The baby Caddy. Seriously, I can explain.
The Cruze also ranks low because of the one vehicle paradigm. Like I said with the Leaf. If I was shopping for a DD and had a weekend warrior. This would be tied for first.
General Info- 2016 Premier IIRC (Shoot me I don’t remember) I’m think it was a 2016 though, because although the MSRP for the ‘17 premier is 24k. This one was priced at 19k so I think it was a ‘16 they were trying to get off the lot. I can guarantee it was a premier though :)
Convenience/Interior- Holy molly. Chevy hit this one out of the park. First of all it comes with a leather interior. I prefer cloth from my experience, but this completely changed my mind. This leather is sooooooo soft and comfortable. It’s like comparing a memory foam mattress to a traditional one. Sure the traditional one is great, but it can’t come close to the memory foam. Not only do you get the best material I’ve ever experienced. But you also get the full shabang infotainment. Although I didn’t use it myself the salesman easily scrolled through the well labeled menu with a arrow pad on the steering wheel and was easily able to pull up dobbler weather radar, traffic, music, and setting for the remote start and other stuff this thing has. Like I just said, this comes with remote start as well as 3 level front AND REAR heated seats. I’m not yanking you’re chain, rear heated seats. The premier also comes standard with Apple and Android car play. And all kinds of electrical nannies like lane keep assist, rear view camera, and front (maybe rear too) collision early detection warning. The front detection warning has a picture of a green car that turns yellow when you follow a little too close and I’m assuming turns red and beeps when you’re dangerously close. It also comes with the premium sound system. Although I wasn’t able to test it out really, it sounded great to me with a top 40 station on quietly in the background. Plus IIRC it has a little phone cubby that wirelessly charges your phone (In fairness I may have gotten that mixed up with another car, but I’m 85% sure it’s the Cruze). There’s probably even more stuff I’m forgetting, but seriously. The Premier Cruze has a stupid amount of luxury for the money. Also one negative thing worth mentioning is that the Premier is only available in automatic, but like I said. This thing is really a baby Caddy. Not a Chevy.
Practicality- I drove the sedan version because the only hatchbacks they had on the lot were Premiers priced at over 30k so they were out of the review. Not really anything noteworthy in space. The rear seats have OK leg room and the trunk is a good size, but nothing to write home about. Gas mileage is good at 30 city and 40 highway. With the lower trims getting 1mpg more in both categories IIRC. Which is a little odd since they all have the same 1.4 turbo motor. I guess the weight of all the premier goodies makes the MPG take a small hit.
Performance/Fun factor- Just like the Leaf the Cruze falls flat here, actually a little harder than the Leaf. The only transmission available is an automatic which is very mediocre. The shifts are smooth, but not luxury car smooth. It’ll willingly give you a downshift instead of holding out on you, for the sake of fuel economy. Compared to the other cars, the engine is mediocre as well. You won’t have trouble accelerating onto Highway on-ramps, but it won’t tickle your bottom either. The biggest let down is the exceptionally numb and boring steering. During cornering the wheel makes no effort to return to center as well as giving you no feedback as to what’s going on with the front wheels. Further dulling the driving experience is that the Cruze seemed to have the highest ride height of all the vehicles I drove. Although to it’s credit it rode very smooth and handled bumps and rough roads very well. This will sound weird and keep in mind my DD is an Integra. But the overall driving experience felt like a truck to me. The high isolated driving position and obliviousness to the road in conjunction with the capable, but not exciting, engine very much made it feel like a baby Silverado to me.
Overview- Like I said. It’s an insane value for the goodies. If you want a cheap stealth luxury car I highly encourage you check this out. However the dull driving experience makes this a CP at any price, for someone who’s after any kind of fun or performance.
2nd Place- Nissan Sentra
Decent affordable car with two personalities.
An exceptional car at being a jack of all trades master of none. Especially for the price point.
General Info- I checked out a 2017 mid-level SV. But spent most of my time, and test drive, with the base model S. I’ll refer to the S for the review, but the SV is closer to the 20k target price. The only features I can think of off the top of my head that separate the two are. The rear backup camera, infotainment, and some extra info you can display on the dashboard.
Convenience/Interior- The Sentra (remember we’re on the base model somewhat below 20k now) has a mediocre, but acceptable interior/features. First of all you get some nice chrome plastic accents through out, that keep the styling from being depressingly boring. You also get noticeably more storage up front than any of the other cars I tested. It also comes with bluetooth standard, pretty impressive. As well as the usual power window, locks, seats and A/C, Cruise Control, and intermittent wipers. Although none of those are impressive, for an absolute base model it’s very respectable and would make life with it much easier. As much as us Jalops like to circlejerk over rolly windows they’re a pain when you’re by yourself.
Practicality- One thing that stood out with the Sentra was the noticeably bigger trunk opening than the other cars, Leaf excluded. All though the trunk’s size was about the same. Economy wise, it fairs somewhat worse than the Cruze. The 1.8 NA motor getting 29 city and 37 mpg.
Performance/ Fun Factor- The Sentra has a slight edge here. It’s seating position is significantly lower than the Cruze and Leaf. Giving you a much better sense of speed and road feel. The electric power steering lacks feedback, but is notably better than the Cruze or Leaf. Giving you a vague idea of the road texture and has some will to try to return to center during cornering. The NA 1.8 is acceptable at getting the Sentra along nicely, but without any flair. However I’d like to make note that I was driving the CVT version.
It’s useless to talk about the CVT without mentioning the drive modes. Despite what some journalists say about them making no difference. I whole-heartedly disagree. Now whether that difference is good or bad is up to individual preference. I’ll start with eco mode first. In eco mode the CVT is obviously striving for the best fuel economy. It’s pretty smooth, but once or twice on the test drive I felt a definitive “shift” during coasting or cruising. Of course it’ll still “shift” during hard acceleration, like the kick down in an automatic. Eco mode also dulls the throttle response. I can’t speak for any MPG gains, but eco mode does smooth out throttle inputs without being frustrating.
When the mode is changed to sport two things happen. First, the throttle becomes much more responsive. Seriously, in sport mode throttle response is just as good as the mechanical throttle in my Integra. I drove it on eco mode first and after switching to sport, actually found it a little difficult trying to accelerate smoothly. This speaks greatly to how smooth eco mode is and how responsive sport mode is. As for the CVT in sport mode. The best way to describe it is, it behaves like an auto in sport mode. Whether this is actually faster than if it acted like a CVT I have no idea. But it’s certainly more enjoyable.
Overview- Although it’s not a luxury car the Sentra offers enough features to make living with it, void of any major complaints. The electric steering isn’t awful, but still has room for lots of improvement. I think both driving modes are equally great. The eco mode offers a comfortable and smooth ride as if a chauffeur was driving and the sport mode gives it enough pep to be enjoyable. If the steering were better it would certainly be close with the number one car.
1st Place- Honda Civic
I honestly wanted to jump on the Honda-hate bandwagon and rant about how they lost their way. But it wouldn’t let me.
By far the best drivers car I tested and with an awesome underrated feature. I tested the base model LX with the 2.0 NA motor and CVT transmission. Because the 1.5T bumps the price up to almost 25k, but I was far from disappointed with the LX. It was a 2017 and the price was set at 19k although after the test drive the salesman lowered it to below 18k.
Convenience/Interior- First of all, the Civic had the best interior styling by far. It has a nice (assuming fake) aluminum piece going across the entire dash breaking up the blob of BLAAAAAAAACK. There was also a variation of visual textures to the cabin material making it much nicer to look at than the other cars I reviewed. Also it has this bridge, sort of thing, between the shifter and the center of the dash with a area underneath it to keep your phone, snacks, or checkbook in. It has a small display screen with bluetooth and a rear back up camera as standard along with power locks, window, and cruise control.
Practicality- It has a decent trunk and acceptable legroom in the rear. And possibly one of the most underrated features on a modern car. First it’s worth mentioning the electronic park brake, that’s been getting a lot of negative press recently, because it’s (what I’m pretty sure) enables this neat feature.
Drum roll please! dumdumdumdumdumdumd tisssh!
Brake hold. Essentially it’s a button you push on the center console and whenever you come to a complete stop a light on the dash will show up saying hold. This brakes the wheels (I think with the E-park brake) so that you can take your foot off the brake pedal and the car will stand still! On my test drive we got stuck in traffic on the highway and this feature payed off big time. It may sound simple, but it really does relive quite a bit of the stress from stop and go traffic.
Performance/ Fun Factor- I’ll get the steering out of the way first. The electric power steering is, I dare say, a perfect compromise between the wonderful steering I’ve come to love on 90's Honda’s, yet muted enough to avoid the slightly unnerving twitchiness that plagued them on rough roads. It will let you know full well what the texture of the roads you’re driving on is and by far had the best on center feel of all the cars I tested. Even though I’ve come to love the steering on my Integra. I could certainly be happy with the steering of the Civic. Furthermore the Civic had the lowest seating position, giving a very enjoyable sporty feel to the car.
Now for the 2L NA motor and CVT transmission. Both are excellent, but not in the traditional sense. This may be surprising, but the motor and trans combo actually felt a lot like the power delivery of the EV Leaf. The engine and CVT work together beautifully to accelerate the car. It doesn’t even feel like a throttle controlling the engine in the literal sense. As it feels like a giant is pushing the car itself, proportional to how deep you are into the throttle. When we got stuck in traffic in the left lane. The seemingly instant power made changing lanes into less than ideal gaps an absolute stress-free breeze. Out of traffic the CVT will let the engine rev up, accelerating the car fairly briskly all under the illusion of a single gear. Exactly what the CVT was claimed to do when it was introduced.
Now, as great as the CVT is. It won’t replace the whole in your heart from the lack of a manual. If I was looking to buy a manual I’d make sure to take a hard look at the 1.5T. Although I sing the praise of the 2.0. I don’t know how well it would go with the manual. However, I’ll say the 2.0 and CVT combo leaves little to be desired apart from a 3rd pedal and stick, but only for the sake of a 3rd pedal and stick.