Thrifty little compact cars: they’re sensible, they’re easy on fuel, they’re huge on small running costs, and they’re big business in the small-car marketplace for shoppers after rides that leave more money in their pockets.
Because we care about you, and want you to drive a good car, we’ve compiled a list of popular thrifty compact cars from today’s used-car scene, as well as some tips to shop smart for the ones that interest you. Read on.
2007 to 2012 Nissan Sentra
Standard versions of the last full-generation Sentra got a 2.0L four-cylinder engine with 140 hp and a six-speed manual transmission. Nissan’s CVT gearbox was available for smooth, shift-less operation and improved fuel economy. All models were front-wheel drive.
Sentra 2.0 was the base model, while the 2.0S and 2.0SL amounted to mid- and top-range models, respectively. Several owners taking to the web to share their experiences say that the Sentra’s manners and cabin will surprise folks who don’t like driving small cars.
The Test Drive
Pay close attention to any Check Engine lights, and associated sluggish-performance issues that could indicate a plugged catalytic converter or damaged pre-catalyst. Other signs of trouble here may include exhaust that smells like a terrible fart, or burning oil.
Performance issues that include lugging or bogging under light or moderate acceleration could be caused by a bad knock sensor, which may or may not be accompanied by a check engine light. This part is fairly easy to replace.
The CVT transmission shows no major signs of concern, though shoppers are advised to confirm that any fluid changes relating to the Sentra’s available CVT transmission have been carried out at a Nissan dealer, as improper filling, or use of non-factory fluid, can cause issues.
Other checks should include tire and brake wear, and signs of alignment issues with the rear tires. The latter could be evidenced by uneven wear across the tire treads.
2011 to 2015 Honda Civic
Several updates and makeovers were applied during this generation of Civic, though under the skin, units from 2011 to 2015 are highly similar. Available in two- or four-door models, feature content included Bluetooth, sunroof, navigation, voice command, premium audio and a wide array of safety systems. Honda’s knack for quality, reliability and proven residual values attracted many owners, new and loyal, to this generation. Look for a standard 140 hp engine with five-speed transmission in automatic or manual for most of this generation’s life. Note that 2014 and 2015 models got a slightly-updated interior, new CVT transmission option, and revised central command touchscreen interface.
The Test Drive
Determine where the timing belt of the Civic you’re considering sits within its service life, budgeting a few hundred dollars for a timing belt change if it’s in the model’s immediate future. Your local Honda dealer has the full scoop. Neglecting a timing belt change may cause engine failure and permanent damage. Further, shoppers should keep an eye on oil levels and any oil loss between oil changes, for maximum confidence. If any oil consumption is noted between oil changes, talk to your Honda service advisor and ensure they document it, in case you need to file a warranty claim. Finally, note that excessive buzzing or noise from the climate control fan is likely caused by a bad blend door within the climate control system.
2008 to 2015 Mitsubishi Lancer
With sedan or five-door Sportback models available backed by the best warranty in the compact car business, many a used Mitsubishi Lancer make a solid choice in a second-hand car. Available feature content included automatic climate control, heated seats, sunroof, premium audio, Bluetooth, driver computer, power-adjustable driver’s seat, automatic lights and more. Look for the Sun and Sound package for a motorized sunroof and Rockford Fosgate audio. All units were four-cylinder powered, and manual or CVT automatic transmissions were available, as was all-wheel drive, on select models and years.
The Test Drive
Scrutinize the condition of the paint, and be on the lookout for signs of flaking, peeling, or rust. Note that unwelcome noises or sensations from beneath the car on rough roads are signs of suspension work in the Lancer’s immediate future, so be sure to have a mechanic investigate any you notice. Any binding or clicking sounds or sensations while turning the wheel, lock to lock, while stationary, could be a sign of a bad strut mount. Hard-starting issues could be related to a computer problem, and not the Lancer’s battery, and many owners have had this issue remedied via installation of updated computer software. Confirm proper operation from the Smart Key system too, confirming that both transponders work to unlock the doors and start the engine. A non-functional transponder can be pricey to replace.
2011 to 2016 Volkswagen Jetta TDI
We can’t talk about thrifty compact cars without talking about the Jetta TDI, and its hilariously good fuel consumption and pleasing performance. This compact sedan offered manual or dual-clutch transmission options, delivered heaps of torque, and sipped fuel, thanks to a 2.0L TDI four-cylinder. Feature content included a Fender audio system, heated leather, sunroof, push-button start, automatic climate control, heated mirrors and wiper nozzles, and plenty more. Look for a generous trunk, an upscale cabin, and a comfortable, pleasant all-around driving experience.
The Test Drive
Ensure performance is smooth and seamless, and that on-time oil changes have been carried out throughout the vehicle’s life. Note that white, oily-smelling smoke shortly after startup of a cold engine could be a sign of a worn-out turbocharger, which is more likely (but still fairly unlikely) on a higher-mileage unit. Ask a mechanic to check the fuel lines and fuel delivery system, including the sending unit and fuel pump, for possible signs of leaking. Issues with the available DSG transmission are typically sensor-related and not mechanical in nature, so start with transmission software if the dual-clutch transmission in the Jetta you’re considering is shifting hard, or slipping. Finally, have your local VW dealer check the VIN number of the model in question against a list of recalls, which address latent safety issues for free.
2011 to 2015 Chevrolet Cruze
With plenty of selection, the big-for-its-class Cruze makes an ideal used sedan for a shopper after plenty of space and a pleasant all-around driving experience. Look for OnStar, heated seats, sunroof, automatic lights, and above-average at-hand storage facilities for keeping organized on the move. A full suite of advanced safety systems is on board, too. Most units pack a 1.8L four-cylinder, or a 1.4L four-cylinder turbo engine, and all are front-wheel drive with a six-speed transmission in the owner’s choice of manual or automatic. The available Cruze Eco featured additional implements and tweaks for further improved fuel efficiency, and only came with a manual transmission.
The Test Drive
Start your Cruze test drive with your nose. Unpleasant odours, possibly masked with Febreeze, could be the result of a moisture buildup in the HVAC system, which results in mildew, and may smell like a dirty gym bag. A sweet, burned sugar smell typically evidences a coolant leak, possibly in the heater core itself. If either offending smell is detected, have a GM dealer take a look, especially if the cooling system may be leaking. A special mildew-cleaning kit may be available. Be absolutely certain to check the level and condition of the Cruze’s engine coolant, and note that an uneven idle or stumbling performance, possibly with a Check Engine light illuminated, may be the result of a bad Positive Crankcase Ventilation (PCV) valve that will need to be changed. Weave the Cruze slightly, and when appropriate, at highway speeds, feeLing for any notchiness in the steering wheel, which could indicate a bad steering motor, or a worn bushing in the steering shaft.
2009 to 2013 Toyota Corolla
This was the tenth generation of Toyota’s popular compact, and it was sold to us Canucks with four-cylinder power, manual or automatic transmissions, and front-wheel drive. One of the world’s best-selling cars, this generation Corolla offered alloy wheels, fog lamps, power accessories, remote access, air conditioning, cruise control and sunroof. Other features included telescopic steering, height-adjustable driver’s seat, leather, moonroof and split-folding seats – depending on the model and year selected. Expect to pay top dollar for a quality used Corolla, thanks to consistently high resale values.
The Test Drive
Check for excessive tire wear, and an ABS light illuminated in the instrument cluster, likely caused by a bad wiring connector. Confirm that all remote keyfobs work properly. Ditto the trunk release latch system. A high-pitched squeal at startup often indicates an improperly adjusted belt tensioner, and is easy to fix. Check the footwells for signs of moisture or mildew, possibly caused by a leaky window seal or sunroof drain tube that’s allowing water to run down the inside of the window pillar and onto the floor area. Numerous owners have complained of ‘fragile’ paint, so be sure to inspect the condition of the paint job of the Corolla you’re considering carefully.
For maximum peace of mind from this reliable compact car, budget for a full tune-up and fluid change if you’re unclear of its service history.
2010 to 2013 Mazda3
The 3 is Mazda’s compact car entry to this comparison, and one that focused on sportiness, style and delivery of an upscale driving experience. Engine choices included 2.0L and 2.5L gas units. Base ‘GS’ models will have a five-speed manual or automatic, and six-speed transmissions in manual or automatic were found elsewhere on higher-end GS or GT models. Look for up-level features like a sunroof, automatic lights, rain-sensing wipers, heated leather, navigation, adaptive headlights and more. A four-door sedan or five-door hatch could be specified, too.
The Test Drive
Numerous owners of earlier models from this generation with a manual transmission have reported premature clutch wear, which isn’t covered by warranty. The issue may stem from a faulty clutch master cylinder, and lead to transmission problems. Coax slippage from a worn clutch by applying full throttle at low revs, perhaps at 60 km/h in fourth gear. A full inspection of the 3’s body and paint is also advised, in light of several reports of finishes and panels that are easily dented and paint that’s easily chipped. Other mandatory feature checks should include the cruise control, all steering-wheel mounted controls, and the Bluetooth phone system. Finally, in any car, and especially a used Mazda3, note that squealing or grinding sounds or sensations from the brakes indicates the need for some mechanical attention. Some owners have complained of premature wear of the factory brake parts.
2011 to 2015 Hyundai Elantra
This highly successful generation of Hyundai’s’ Elantra launched for model year 2011 and went on to earn numerous accolades from industry authorities. Four-door versions are popular, and a five-door, upscale Elantra GT was available too. Feature content included Bluetooth, heated leather, sunroof, steering-wheel audio controls, auto-off lights and plenty more, depending on the model selected. Earlier units got a 1.8L four-cylinder engine, good for 148 hp, though it was replaced by a 2.0L unit with direct injection from 2014 and on, with horsepower pushing into the 170 range. All transmissions were six-speed units, with manual or automatic available.
The Test Drive
Fully inspect the used Elantra’s tires, especially if the unit is still rolling on factory-equipment rubber. Check for excessive wear, as well as bubbling on both the inner and outer sidewalls. Activate the air conditioning, put the vehicle in drive, and hold the vehicle in place with the brakes. If you notice any excessive vibration, a software update and / or a new oil-control valve in the engine may be required. Note that non-functionality or sporadic operation of interior electronics (dome light, cluster lighting, radio, etc.) could be caused by improper jump-starting of the car, or failure to follow specific instructions while changing the vehicle’s battery. Have the Elantra’s main electrical distribution panel inspected if this is apparent.
Confirm proper sunroof operation several times, and be on the lookout for hard shifting from the automatic transmission, which could be caused by a bad transmission fluid temperature sensor. Be sure to determine the cause of any hard shifting before your purchase, ensuring the cause isn’t a more expensive (but far less likely) transmission defect.