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By Brady Holt @BradyHoltAutos
When you’re looking for an extra-affordable compact car, there’s bound to be something you sacrifice. Most likely, that means you’ll get less interior space or a less-refined driving experience than a pricier competitor.
Among today’s compact sedans, the Honda Civic stands out for its balance of ride, handling, power, fuel efficiency, roominess and safety. Because of that, it tends to cost a few thousand dollars extra than some of its competitors.
Two popular value-priced alternatives are the Toyota Corolla and the Ford Focus. Both have appealing qualities beyond their affordable prices, but also have notable drawbacks.
Let’s start with the Corolla, which joins the Civic at the top of the class’s sales charts.
For 2019, there are actually two entirely different cars wearing the Corolla name. One is the infinitely more popular Corolla sedan, reviewed here. It dates back to 2014 and will be fully redesigned next year as a 2020 model. There’s also a Corolla five-door hatchback that’s already based on the 2020 sedan’s design.
If the hatchback is any indication, the sedan’s redesign will bring a welcome upgrade to the Corolla’s driving experience. Today, the Corolla sedan suffers from lethargic acceleration, vague and unnatural-feeling steering, and a lack of composure to its ride quality. It doesn’t meet the standards of contemporary compact cars.
But if you don’t consider yourself picky about those areas, consider the 2019 Corolla sedan’s strengths as a value leader. It comes well equipped at its base price of $19,620, including with a generous suite of advanced crash-avoidance technology that many competitors don’t even offer as options. Factor in the Corolla’s strong crash-test performance, and the Corolla becomes particularly desirable for a young driver or an elderly one.
That said, younger drivers might not appreciate the Corolla’s dated infotainment system. The Corolla was an early pioneer of including a touchscreen as standard equipment, but it hasn’t changed much since 2014. You can’t use your smartphone’s apps through the screen the way you can in competitors that support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and there’s just one USB port.
The Corolla’s interior also feels downscale, and the high dashboard is more claustrophobic than those in most small cars. But the good news is that it’s spacious, with comfortable front and rear seats. Even cheap small cars don’t have to feel small.
The Corolla’s 2020 redesign arrives just in time, as the outgoing model faces a fresh challenge from two Korean models: the redesigned 2019 Kia Forte and the updated 2019 Hyundai Elantra.
The Kia shares the Corolla’s standard safety equipment and low prices, along with superior refinement, a wider selection of optional equipment and more up-to-date infotainment technology. Overall, at least based on a brief preview drive, the Forte offers most of the Corolla advantages without its flaws.
The 2019 Elantra now provides the Corolla’s advanced crash-avoidance technology on all but its base trim (a model that’s cheaper than the Corolla anyway). Based on a tested 2018 model, the Elantra is also more pleasant to drive than the Corolla while feeling less resignedly cheap — if perhaps a little more basic than a Forte.
Neither the Forte nor the Elantra is much fun to drive, though. Pleasant – yes, fun – no. For a cheap car that’s also endearingly sporty, check out the 2018 Ford Focus, priced from $18,825. Ford is discontinuing this compact sedan and five-door hatchback to steer customers toward more expensive (thus, more profitable) crossover SUVs, but dealerships still have them in inventory — and with big discounts.
The Focus was designed back in 2012 for the European market, where customers expect a sporty, refined driving experience. True to form, the Focus has engaging steering that’s quick to respond and nicely weighted, feeling easy at low speeds and inspiring confidence at higher ones. And unlike some sporty cars, the Focus doesn’t sacrifice a smooth ride to achieve its agile handling.
However, other aspects of the car help explain why it’s so inexpensive. While the driver’s seat is comfortable, the rear seat is especially cramped for a modern four-door vehicle, with minimal knee clearance behind anyone but a short-legged front-seat occupant. Even the front-passenger seat is confined, with a large center console intruding on left-leg space.
Meanwhile, the once-lauded interior opulence has slipped behind some competitors. The available touchscreen infotainment system works well and supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and most controls are user-friendly. There are also some nice materials on the dashboard, and fit and finish have improved over the years.
But there are still cheap touches. The tested Titanium trim, ostensibly the luxury car of the Focus lineup, had sturdy but un-fancy leather upholstery and an extra-clunky sunglasses holder. And a sharp edge on the tested sedan’s trunk hinge was enough to damage some cargo, a vestige of the 1990s.
Also, Ford hasn’t retrofitted the aging Focus with crash-avoidance technology like lane-keeping steering assistance or automatic emergency braking (both standard equipment on the Corolla and Forte).
However, it’s harder to make a fun-to-drive car than a generally pleasant one. So while the Corolla faces serious challengers in its niche of spacious, safe and affordable, buyers looking for something as sporty as the Focus would have to pay extra for a Civic, Mazda3 or Volkswagen Golf.
And the Focus also offers all-out performance cars with stiffer suspensions and more horsepower: the zesty Focus ST and the all-out insane 350-horsepower Focus RS.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.