2003 Economy Sedan Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests
  • Comparison (1)
  • Long-Term

2003 Suzuki Aerio Sedan

(2.0L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

  • Comparison Test
  • Editors' Evaluations
  • Data and Charts
  • Top 10 Features
  • Consumer Commentary
  • Final Rankings and Scoring Explanation
  • Stereo Evaluation

Sure, luxury sedans and sports cars get all the glory, but when all you need is a car that's simple, affordable and hassle-free nothing beats an economy sedan. Unfortunately, this no-frills formula often yields thoroughly unappealing cars that most buyers settle for rather than get excited about.

After driving eight of the latest economy four-doors for the better part of two weeks, however, we found that the days of the drab and diminutive economy sedan may be long gone. The latest crop of competitors offers surprising levels of quality, performance, features and space — all while maintaining prices that leave them well within reach of almost any new car buyer.

Our field was determined by a few simple rules. First, the winner of our 2000 Economy Sedan Comparison Test, the Nissan Sentra was invited back to defend its title. Second, only models that have been fully redesigned or received significant updates since the last test could participate this time around. Usually this narrows the field, but in this case we were still left with seven qualifying vehicles: the Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Mazda Protegé, Mitsubishi Lancer, Saturn Ion, Suzuki Aerio and the Toyota Corolla.

In order to divide the truly exceptional from the merely adequate, we scored each car in six different categories: price, performance, features, a 23-point evaluation and each editor's own personal and recommended choices. Although our winner represents what we feel to be the best economy sedan for the money, with so many competitors any of the top three or four cars are worthy of consideration. As we said before, none of these cars will get the blood flowing the way a low-slung sports car or an open-top convertible can, but when it comes to taking the worry, hassle and cost out of car ownership, these cars are hard to beat.

Eighth Place - 2003 Saturn Ion 2

As it was the newest entrant in the test, we expected the new-for-2003 Ion to stack up a little better against its slightly older competition. But even with its all-new underpinnings, powerful engine and impressive cargo room, the Ion failed to impress our editors. Between the low-grade interior materials, uncomfortable seats and vague steering, the Ion always felt a notch or two below the standards of the class. If you absolutely have to have an American-engineered and -built sedan, it might do the trick, but otherwise it's outclassed by its equally affordable competition.

With three trim levels (designated 1, 2 and 3) and both sedan and coupe body styles, the Ion offers a wide range of options. Our four-door automatic was a midgrade "2" model with an as-tested price of $16,620, making it the second most affordable car in the test.

With that said, we found the Ion's standard 2.2-liter Ecotec the least objectionable aspect of the car. Rated at 140 horsepower, it provides adequate, if not completely refined power and noise levels are acceptably low. Although it's the only sedan in the class to offer a five-speed automatic transmission, the Ion doesn't seem to benefit much from it — the Saturn was neither the fastest car in the test nor the most fuel-efficient. Its mileage ratings of 24 city/32 highway are slightly above average for the class but are still well behind the Civic and the Corolla.

Built on a completely different platform than its S-Series predecessor, the Ion displays commendable ride and handling characteristics. It's soft enough to soak up rough roads, yet it still handles itself well in tight turns and freeway off-ramps. If there's any weak spot, it's surely the steering, which delivers almost no road feel and never seems to have the right amount of assist.

The Ion's real problem isn't so much what's underneath as it is what's inside. Its ratings in the interior design and materials quality categories were abysmally low. None of our editors were impressed with the Ion's center-mounted gauge design or flimsy plastic trim. Comments ranged from "Are we sure this is the new model?" to "Thank God they moved the gauges to the center; now I have a clear view of all the cheap plastic dash trim."

As if that wasn't bad enough, the Ion made out even worse in the seat comfort categories, where it was once again lambasted for poor design and materials quality. The most common complaint was a near total lack of contour that left one editor complaining, "I was uncomfortable in less than an hour behind the wheel — so much for its road trip potential." The vinyl-covered headrests did little to help matters, while the upholstery reminded one editor of "cheap polyester pants rather than the neoprene I think they were shooting for."

Rear-seat accommodations were deemed equally oppressive, as the rear bench lacks acceptable support while forcing riders to sit too upright to be comfortable. When it comes to legroom, the Ion offers two inches less than the Civic despite the fact that the car's overall length exceeds the Honda's by 10 inches. Most of the space must have gone into the trunk — the Ion leads the class with 14.7 cubic feet of available capacity.

For anyone who thinks we're being too harsh on the fledging Saturn sedan, consider that in addition to earning the lowest scores in the previously mentioned areas the Ion was also ranked last in the following categories: visibility, braking, fun to drive, rattles and squeaks, secondary controls, exterior design and overall build quality. Although it's always easy to pile on the stragglers with condescending scores, each editor ranked the car after independent test-drives without any knowledge of the scores their peers were given.

While we would have liked to have seen the Ion fare better in this competitive class, there's little doubt in our minds that it needs some major-league improvement before it can effectively compete. Its engine and suspension are competent but when it comes to the overall package, the Ion fails miserably. We just hope we don't have to wait another decade for the new version.

Second Opinions:

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Nobody was showing love to the Ion, myself included. The positives of the Ion are the peppy powertrain and respectable handling (though the power steering assist at low speeds is too much, giving it all the feel of a video game). But the negative aspects are too much to keep the Ion from getting me charged up. How is it that a carmaker can get criticized for mediocre cabin materials and then bring out a redesigned car whose interior is worse than the car it replaces? Certain elements of the Ion's design were appealing; I was one of the few (the only one?) who liked the center-mounted instruments that offered unobstructed viewing. However, the abundance of hard plastic, along with seats that felt as if they were three-fourth scale, assured the Saturn the indignity of last on my list.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
This is exactly why comparison tests are so helpful — judged on its merits without comparison, the Ion isn't half bad. But, jump into a Honda Civic right after driving the Ion and you quickly realize why everyone and their brother (and sister, too) has a Honda.

One thing the Ion really has going for it is value. The Ion 2 comes with such standard features as a 140-hp engine and a remote trunk release on the key fob. Even with "extras" such as a sunroof, ABS, auto-dimming rearview mirror and OnStar, the price is still under $17,000.

Unfortunately, the Ion falls far short of import sedans in its price range in terms of interior quality and handling. Features and size-for-the-money ratio are really the main selling points of the Ion. For me, the Ion is squarely in the middle of the pack — it does some things well, and others not so well.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Considering that it's the newest design of this group, the Ion is shocking in its mediocrity. Where to start? Designers made poor use of interior space — for a car that looks big on the outside, the Ion offers small, flat and uncomfortable seats front and rear, and has no center console armrest or storage. The materials used throughout are of incredibly low quality, compared to those of every other car in this test. And a persistent rattle from an overhead light fixture did little to persuade me that this Ion was any better constructed that other Saturns I've driven. The engine makes decent power, but its potential is cut short by an automatic transmission that doesn't downshift when it should and gets confused when climbing grades. I did like the Ion's soft ride quality, though this translated to floaty handling characteristics around corners. The only reason I can think of to choose the Ion over the other cars in this test would be the friendly Saturn dealer experience, but since you'll be living with the car and not the salesperson, I'd urge prospective buyers to think long and hard before signing the deal.

Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Saturn Ion 2

System Score: 5.0 (tie)

Components: For a car in this price range, we were very disappointed with the stereo inside this vehicle. However, it should be noted that the vehicle we got for our road test had the entry-level stereo offered by Saturn. Consumers can add additional speakers, more power and a six-disc CD changer as options. Be that as it may, we had to report on the system we tested, and its results were not impressive.

On the plus side, the head unit in this system was very well designed. Surprise-and-delight features included excellent button spacing, a logical and simple topography and an attractive amber display. The head unit offered both cassette and a single-play CD, and all in all, the setup in this vehicle rivals anything in its class. There were no steering wheel controls for the stereo in this vehicle.

Speakers were pretty bare-bones, with a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers on the rear deck, plus an identical pair in the front doors. There were no separate tweeters in this system, but again, a step-up option gives you separate tweets and a bigger amp for a few hundred dollars.

Performance: Not impressive. Other than the fact that this system plays loud enough to blast your eardrums, it's lacking in any kind of quality sound. The whole system sounds reedy, thin and watered down, as though they started with a good system and removed components until it sounded lousy. Lower frequencies were just fair, highs lacked definition and spaciousness and mids were not nearly as detailed as we've found in other cars in this class.

Best Feature: Great ergonomics on the head unit.

Worst Feature: Very poor sound quality.

Conclusion: If we were judging on sound quality alone, this system would have scored much lower. However, its rating was somewhat elevated by the excellent head unit. If you're interested in buying an Ion but want a more complete system, we suggest looking at the options menu, where you can add a changer, more power and more speakers. — Scott Memmer

Seventh Place - 2003 Suzuki Aerio

As one of the few newcomers to the economy sedan crowd, the Aerio enters at a time of some pretty stiff competition. It didn't show up empty-handed, however, as it was the only vehicle in the test with available all-wheel drive and its 145-horsepower engine is also one of the most powerful in the class. But exclusive features don't guarantee success, and in the end the Aerio's odd interior design, vague handling, lack of storage space and relatively high sticker price relegated it to a seventh-place finish.

Our GS AWD test model represented the top-of-the-line in the Aerio model mix. The addition of antilock brakes and floor mats pushed our final sticker price to $17,794. If you don't feel the need for all-wheel drive, you can shave $1,000 right off the top, while the base S model starts at just over $15,000 with the same engine and an automatic transmission. There's also a wagon version if you need a little extra room in the back.

Distinctive styling inside and out was intended to set the Aerio apart from the typical offerings in its class. Whether it succeeds in this regard is purely subjective, but when it came to assigning points in the "interior design" category, our editors rated the Aerio near the bottom. One editor commented, "The digital gauge cluster is too small and all the multicolored warning lights clutter it up," while another summed up his distaste with, "It may look funky and cool now, but in a year or two it will just look old."

Interior materials quality and storage space were also sore spots for the Aerio, as it received bottom of the pack scores in both those categories as well. The various dash plastics are a step below what you find in the competition; although, a couple editors gave it credit for good consistency between the various panels. They were less conciliatory when it came to the Aerio's total lack of interior storage space with comments ranging from, "I guess I'll just go ahead and keep all this junk in my pockets," to "Not much of a road trip car. Where are you supposed to put all your maps, keys and assorted junk food — in the best-in-class trunk?"

Comments regarding the Aerio's front seats were considerably more positive, as the car ranked just behind the first-place Civic when it came to driver and passenger seat comfort. Plenty of firm support, a comfortable seat back contour and a seat height adjuster were the most often cited reasons for the high scores. Additionally, the Aerio's slightly taller stance made it the easiest car of the eight to get in and out of. The rear bench seat wasn't so highly regarded, but its ample head- and foot room earned it a midpack finish in the category.

With its 14.6-cubic-foot trunk, the Aerio is second only to the Saturn Ion (14.7) when it comes to available cargo space. A wide opening combined with a light, easy-to-open lid makes loading and unloading effortless. The folding rear seats release with simple latches, but the seatbelts tend to get in the way and the pass-through opening isn't as large as some of the others.

Frontal crash protection is excellent as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave it a "Good" rating in the 40-mph offset test and named it "Best Pick" in the category. The Aerio has not been tested by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Safety-conscious buyers should note that the Suzuki is the only car in this test that can't be purchased with side airbags.

Although the 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine in the Aerio boasts 145 horsepower, the added weight of the all-wheel-drive system in our test car slowed it down to a crawl as it only managed a 0-to-60 time of 10.3 seconds — fifth out of the eight cars. Passing on the highway requires plenty of patience, and the noise levels at higher rpm can become annoying. Fuel economy isn't the Aerio's strong point, either, as its EPA ratings are only 24 city/28 highway.

The tall stature that gives the Aerio its generous headroom and ease of entry works against it when it comes to handling turns. Combined with the soft suspension, there's plenty of body roll, and vague steering only adds to the sloppy feel. Rough roads are smoothed out well, so the Aerio would probably be a good companion for those who have to deal with lumpy streets in the winter.

As a new entrant in this crowded category, the Aerio does add a few new twists, but taken together, they're not enough to push it above the already established competition. With sharper handling, a higher-quality interior and a few more places to put your belongings, the Aerio would compete more favorably in the class. Its available all-wheel drive may make it attractive to drivers in the snowbelt looking for cheap transportation, but it needs a little more refinement before it can become equally popular everywhere else.

Second Opinions:

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Like the Ion, the Aerio was one of the last kids picked for the team by most editors. But I kind of like this quirky car. It felt more energetic around town than the performance numbers may suggest, thanks in part to the quick-thinking automatic tranny. And the handling for this tallish econobox should be fine for most folks. Let's be serious, most people shopping in this class are not car enthusiasts; things like space, comfort and practicality are bigger considerations than sporty handling dynamics.

Although it may look somewhat dorky (the tall body section makes the wheels look small), the tall roof allows for higher seats which translates into more under-thigh support. The generous amount of passenger room in the Aerio makes it seem like it belongs in a larger class, so if space is your priority (which is perfectly reasonable), then you won't go wrong with the Suzuki. And the long warranty should allay any fears about a long-term commitment to this left-of-center sedan.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The Aerio is nothing less than a monumental leap forward for Suzuki — the ranking of the Aerio shouldn't be taken as a slap in the face but rather confirmation that it is a real midpack contender in the bargain econocar market.

The Aerio is a credible effort but the bottom line is that the car lacks the solidity of the Civic and/or Protegé. Those charmed by the Aerio's funky looks will not be sorry if they choose to take one home — the 1980s digital dash can go away in my opinion but a fair stereo and miles of headroom make the Aerio a car that offers many pluses in a very contentious segment.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
In this test the Aerio seemed average. It had a number of shortcomings, but I found it to be a more comfortable commuter car than several of the others in the group. The Suzuki's 145-hp four-cylinder felt weak carrying the burden of an all-wheel-drive system and an automatic transmission that was somewhat unresponsive when the accelerator was pegged on the highway (this car feels much quicker with front-wheel drive and a manual gearbox). Ride quality wasn't bad, though the suspension lost some of its composure on roads that weren't perfectly smooth. Handling is adequate for everyday driving, though numb steering and considerable body roll will discourage anyone from racing around corners. The real advantage to the Suzuki is its tall cabin, which makes you feel like you bought more car than you did. The front seats are roomy and supportive, and the faux suede seat upholstery is downright attractive. The backseat is also comfortable, though it can't match the Civic's or Corolla's on legroom. Surprisingly, visibility isn't very good, as wide C-pillars make it hard to check the blind spots. And the storage and cupholders situation needs improvement. Should you buy an Aerio? Maybe, especially if AWD on the cheap is a must. Just be sure to try the leaders in this test first.

Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Suzuki Aerio

System Score: 5.0 (tie)

Components: The Aerio GS sedan comes with a six-CD changer mounted very high in the dash. (The S trims come with a single disc player.) All Aerios are equipped with six speakers, including tweeters mounted near the base of the windshield. The other four drivers are full-range speakers with two mounted in the front door panels and a couple of wimpy 25-watt units in the rear shelf.

Performance: The CD changer in the test vehicle was easy to reach and the simple controls and large orange display make operation as painless as can be expected from an in-dash shuffler. The tweets reflect sound off the front glass and create a nice soundstage with the left and right channels well separated from each other. These speakers sound nice at moderate volumes but get messy, with some vocals developing a lisp, as the left knob is twisted. Guitars and other midrange tones are fairly loud and also sound bad as the volume increases. The bass gets loud, too, but interferes with the midrange and sounds sloppy with complex recordings.

Best Feature: Reflecting tweeters.

Worst Features: Weak speakers.

Conclusion: The speakers on the dash are a nice treat, but the rest of the drivers leave much to be desired. — Trevor Reed

Sixth Place - 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer

Like the Corolla, the Mitsubishi Lancer is a sedan that does many things well but lacks any one characteristic that sets it apart from the crowd. We found its cleanly styled interior comfortable and functional and its road manners agreeable for most types of driving, but in the end, the Lancer's relatively high price and weak engine performance left it trailing the class leaders.

Our LS test model came in at just over $18,000 after adding ABS, side airbags and a sunroof. Available with a four-speed automatic only, the LS is the midlevel grade of the Lancer lineup. The base ES starts at around $15,000, while the sporty OZ Rally model with its special wheels and body kit goes for just slightly more than the LS.

With its broad strip of faux wood trim and subtle two-tone dash, the Lancer earned solid marks for its interior design despite our usual disdain for such trim in economy cars. Soft-touch materials are placed in just the right spots; although, a few editors noted some cheap plastics mixed in with the higher-quality stuff.

Driver and front-passenger seat comfort earned mixed reviews as some editors found the seats acceptably comfortable, while others thought they could use more lateral support and separate lumbar adjustment. There were no such complaints when it came to space, however, as the Lancer's front leg-, head- and shoulder room are second only to the Elantra's.

In terms of interior functionality, the Lancer registered a few minor gripes. The three-dial climate control setup is easy to use but its smallish dials aren't as easy to grasp as the Corolla's and lack a solid feel. The gauge cluster is readable but bland-looking, and the radio faceplate consists of too many small buttons that are hard to decipher without looking away from the road.

Storage space up front consists of a two-tiered center console, an open dash compartment and small door bins that placed the Lancer about midpack in that category. The cupholders are a bright spot, as they're well placed and large enough to handle even the biggest soft drink cups.

Most editors found the rear seat comfortable, as it offers a good seat back contour and plenty of room for feet under the front seats. The fold-down armrest is not only softly padded but it includes two cupholders as well. When folded, the seat backs don't sit perfectly flat and the pass-through opening is on the small side. With just 11.3 cubic feet of cargo room, the Lancer had the smallest trunk of all the cars in the test.

The Lancer has earned solid crash test scores from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In NHTSA testing, the Lancer received four out of five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in frontal impacts. Side-impact testing resulted in a two-star rating for front passengers (without the optional side airbags) and a four-star rating for rear passengers. The IIHS gave the Lancer a rating of "Good" (its highest) and named it a "Best Pick" in the category.

Out on the road, the Lancer struggles alongside its competition. With just 120 horsepower from its 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine, there's not much grunt under the hood. The power delivery is smooth, but the noise-to-acceleration ratio isn't very satisfying, and with EPA mileage ratings of 24 city/31 highway, the Lancer isn't the most frugal of sedans, either. (A new model dubbed the Lancer Ralliart with a 160-hp engine will be available in the fall of 2003 for those seeking better overall performance.)

The Lancer's ride quality leans toward the soft side, as most editors found it extremely forgiving on city streets. This translates into considerable body roll in corners, but for day-to-day driving the Lancer is comfortable if not fun to drive. Steering feel is largely absent and the brakes earned low scores for their soft feel. In a simulated panic stop, however, the Mitsu managed a 123-foot braking distance from 60 mph — second only to the Protegé.

While its sixth-place finish might indicate a less than ringing endorsement, the Lancer doesn't need all that much to become more competitive. More power would do wonders for the Lancer's fun-to-drive factor while a larger trunk and a slightly less intimidating price would surely help out as well. In the meantime, the Lancer may do well thanks to its well-appointed interior and generous accommodations, but if you want the most for your money we would suggest looking at a few others first.

Second Opinions:

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Like the Corolla, the Lancer seemed to belong in a higher class. The formal Lexuslike grille, neatly tailored body styling and elegant cabin trim endowed the Mitsu with a gratifying richness. The powertrain is likewise refined, full-throttle acceleration doesn't bring forth any ugly vibration from the engine and the tranny shifts as smoothly as the Toyota's.

But although peppy at low revs, the Lancer's engine ran out of breath when asked to perform higher-speed duties such as passing laggards on a two-lane road. And for the price of our admittedly loaded Lancer, I expected more. Next year brings the 160-horsepower Ralliart Lancer; hopefully, Mitsubishi will make that engine available in the more mainstream trim levels as well.

Most of my cohorts looked upon the Lancer as a nonentity, dismissing it for its lack of handling or performance strengths, and for the most part, I have to agree. If it had a list price or some performance advantage over the Honda or Toyota, it would've placed higher on my list. Chances are, though, that a dealer will discount a Lancer more than one would a Civic or Corolla, so it may be worth scanning the Mitsubishi ads in the Sunday paper before you make the rounds at the car dealers.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
This is the first Lancer I've driven, and I think it should get a special award. The award would be for exceeding expectations or perhaps the "not as bad as I first thought" category.

The interior is rather upscale-looking, and all the bits and pieces fit together well. Both the Toyota Corolla and Mitsubishi Lancer succeed with regard to interior look and feel. While it is obvious cars like the Honda Civic and Mazda Protegé utilize higher-quality materials inside, it's the Lancer's execution that left me with a certain upscale impression.

Equally impressive is the Lancer's open-highway demeanor — I found the suspension to be too soft for fun or aggressive cornering, but once on the highway the Lancer really impresses with its big car character.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Mitsubishi could do so much more with the Lancer. It's an attractive car inside and out; interior materials are mostly high in quality; and build quality is impressively tight anywhere you look. But with only 120 horsepower, it feels slow once you're out of city traffic — Mitsubishi should dump this engine and equip all Lancers with the 160-hp motor slated for the '04 Lancer Ralliart. Our test car did offer a soft ride that most drivers will appreciate, though in consequence, I didn't find it especially rewarding to push the car around the tight turns on our driving route. Inside, the driver seat was too flat to be comfortable, and the backseat, while better than the Sentra's or Ion's, was lacking in thigh support. Meanwhile, the control layout, storage and cupholders were all above average for this group, and Mitsubishi has even thrown in an auto-open feature for the sunroof. So what's the big problem besides a weak engine? Well, it's the fact that the asking price for the LS is over $18,000. For $3,000 to $4,000 less, I'd be willing to recommend the Lancer, but as it is, it falls near the bottom of the pack.

Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Mitsubishi Lancer

System Score: 5.0 (tie)

Components: It's encouraging to see speakers mounted in the A-pillars of a low-budget model. This feature is usually reserved for sports cars and luxury vehicles, while economy models are commonly equipped with a simple head unit and four low-powered speakers. Unfortunately, the tweeters up top are the only difference between the Lancer LS stereo system and the standard template. The single CD player is mounted high in the front console, and its simple controls are easy to use, but the volume knob is too small and the radio preset buttons feel flimsy. The head unit is responsible for powering the tweets, a small midbass driver low in each front door and two wimpy 15-watt Mitsubishi speakers in the rear deck.

Performance: The aforementioned high-frequency drivers near each end of the dash help construct a soundstage that tells you this system is at least one step above what's found in rental cars. The tweeters are clear at high volumes thanks to good crossover settings that keep the lows going to the other speakers. The midbass drivers in the front doors are mounted very low, causing some sound to get blocked by the shins of the driver and the front passenger. These small speakers try to reproduce everything from vocals to bass drums and are easily overwhelmed. Along with rattling the door panels, hip-hop songs reveal the hollow and often distorted bass output. This is partly due to the grainy signal produced by the system's amplifier under high volumes. Folks in the backseat get no special tweeters and are blasted by the small speakers in the hat shelf, that is, if 30 watts max can be considered blasting.

Best Feature: A-pillar speakers for good imaging.

Worst Feature: Backseaters get shortchanged.

Conclusion: Three words can sum up this mediocre audio system: it's not bad. — Trevor Reed

Fifth Place - 2003 Toyota Corolla

Fully redesigned for the 2003 model year, the Corolla is a much improved car over its predecessor. The previously uninhabitable rear seat is now one of the roomiest in the class and the interior was freshened up to near Camrylike standards. So why the fifth-place finish?

To put it simply, the Corolla didn't have a "catch." It wasn't the cheapest car in the test nor was it considered the most upscale-looking. It didn't accelerate the quickest or display the sharpest handling in the turns. It fell victim to the changing environment of the economy sedan class where being a reliable, well-rounded car is no longer good enough to be considered "class-leading."

That being said, there are certain areas where the Corolla did in fact score at or near the top. Interior design and materials quality were two such areas, as the latest redesign gave the Corolla a more refined look that reminded most editors of the more expensive Camry. Instead of cheap, glossy plastics, the interior is covered in matte-finished pieces that look good and are fitted together snugly. Plush seat upholstery and a grippy steering wheel further enhanced our LE model's upscale look.

The dashboard features a well-spaced layout that places the radio almost at eye level while the large climate control dials were considered to be on par with those in the Civic for ease of use. Most editors agreed that the faux wood trim looked out of place in an economy sedan, while one went so far as to say that compared to the Civic the Corolla looks "like something your grandparents would drive."

While room for the driver and front passenger is about average for the class, the Corolla tied with the Civic when it came to rear-passenger comfort. Editors cited the generous leg- and toe room as well as the soft, well-contoured seat backs for the high marks. Although the seat backs are split 60/40 to allow for more cargo-carrying capability, we did notice that they don't fold quite as flat as some of the others, and the trunk-mounted release levers are more of a nuisance than they are an appreciated security feature.

The Corolla trunk measures 13.6 cubic feet, placing it toward the top of the class in this area. A large opening and easy-to-open lid make loading and unloading easy, but the pass-through opening is on the small side.

Crash protection is one of the Corolla's strong points, as it has earned top scores from both the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In tests conducted by NHTSA, the Corolla earned five out of five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in a frontal impact and four out of five stars for front and rear passengers in a side-impact collision. The IIHS gave the Corolla a rating of "Good" (its highest) and named it a "Best Pick" in the category.

All Corollas come with a 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 130 horsepower. We found it adequate in most situations, as it provides good punch around town and enough power on the highway for safe passing and merging. A few editors noted that it was less refined than typical Toyota power plants but that it compared favorably with most other cars in the test. EPA gas mileage estimates of 30 city/38 highway rank the Corolla right up there with the Honda Civic for the best mileage in the test.

While certainly not as sporty as some of the other sedans in the test, the Corolla offers an appealing compromise between handling and comfort. Initial impressions labeled it a fine commuter car for its compliant ride while subsequent runs on twistier pavement surprised a few editors. One remarked that it "handles itself quite competently when pushed," while another said, "You can have more fun in this car than I would've expected."

Looking at the Corolla by itself, you would be hard-pressed to find much wrong with it. It's comfortable and well-laid out on the inside, inoffensive on the outside and capable around town and on the highway. But as we said before, the Corolla's middle-of-the-road demeanor makes it hard to get excited about it. If a rock-bottom price, sporty performance and youthful looks aren't on your list of economy sedan must-haves, the Corolla could be the sedan for you after all.

Second Opinions:

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
This is the Lexus of small cars. Put a blindfold on the average consumer, cover up the Toyota logo on the steering wheel and place them in the car and chances are they'll think they're in something more upscale than a Corolla. The two-tone cabin features fake wood that's fairly convincing and the fit and finish of the various plastic, cloth and vinyl trim is exceptional. And on the road, the polished demeanor continues with a smooth powertrain, light steering and well-cushioned ride.

The general public is well aware of the stellar reputation for quality and reliability that both Toyota and Honda have, and inevitably I am asked, "Should I buy the Corolla or Civic?" Of course, there are now other cars that deserve consideration, but there is no arguing against a pair of econocars that can each boast over two-decade-long histories of staunch trustworthiness. That said, driving enthusiasts would be better served by the Civic, which has a more athletic feel when running through the curves. But for those who place refinement above sporting dynamics, the Corolla is the way to go.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I really like the Corolla's interior look and feel — it reminds me of a Camry. The warm colors and soft-touch surfaces combined with the wood grain trim and sturdy switchgear give the Corolla a luxury car feel that is clearly lacking in most other compact sedans (the Mitsubishi Lancer is an exception). Even the Civic's interior is drab-looking by comparison.

The Corolla isn't bad-looking on the outside either — if we could install the Civic's drivetrain and the Protegé's handling abilities into the Corolla, we'd have the perfect compact sedan.

I was a little disappointed with the Corolla's engine performance — there is enough power, but I was expecting more "Hondalike" qualities with regard to smoothness and noise. Still, the Corolla is light-years ahead of other sedans in its class, and it certainly belongs on the shopping list of anyone who is looking for a small sedan.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Driving the Corolla in this test was a relatively pleasant experience, and I came away from it convinced that the current generation is much improved over the 1998-2002 Corollas. While it may not be my favorite economy sedan, it's definitely one that I would recommend to potential buyers, especially in light of the fact that Toyota has gotten the price down and standard equipment up. I wouldn't call the driving experience exciting, but the engine is peppy, refined and good on gas mileage, and the Corolla feels planted to the road at highway speeds (not something you could say about its predecessor). Ride quality is soft for commuters' benefit, but you can take a curvy road at a brisk clip without overwhelming the suspension. Inside, the controls are large and easy to reach, and the backseat is quite roomy, thanks to the tall cabin design. My objections to the Corolla center on the driver seat, which consistently gave me a backache after 30 minutes behind the wheel, and the excessive road noise at highway speeds (next to the comparatively silent Civic and Elantra). If these aren't issues for you, the Corolla makes a fine choice in this segment.

Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Toyota Corolla

System Score: 5.0 (tie)

Components: The Corolla LE comes with a huge tape/CD player mounted high in the dash and six speakers. There are tweeters mounted in the doors near the side mirrors, circular full-range drivers in the bottom of the front door panels and 17.5-watt oblong speakers in the rear shelf.

Performance: The head unit has a large display and big controls, making it easy to use. The tweeters sound smooth and natural, especially with acoustic music, but develop a lisp at high volumes. Vocals and guitars are loud, but sloppy. The bass suffers from the same problems, but that's no surprise with such weak speakers in charge of the strong sounds. Also, the bass revealed numerous rattles in the rear shelf and driver-side door panel of the test vehicle.

Best Feature: Silky tweeters.

Worst Feature: Rattles.

Conclusion: Good tweets and a big tape/CD combo are nice, but the weak speakers and interior rattles are a bummer. — Trevor Reed

Fourth Place - 2003 Nissan Sentra

The Sentra's fourth-place finish shows just how competitive the economy sedan segment is these days. A full redesign just three years ago earned it a first-place finish in our 2000 Economy Sedan Comparison Test, but since then nearly all of its competitors have undergone redesigns of their own leaving the Sentra a few steps behind.

Our particular test car was a Limited Edition model that features a larger, more powerful engine, four-speed automatic transmission, antilock brakes and side airbags as standard equipment. Despite this high level of equipment, our car's as-tested price was just $17,218, making it the third most affordable car in the test.

The added power of the 165-horsepower four-cylinder makes the Sentra LE a real speed demon as it turned in a 0-to-60 time of just 7.7 seconds — a full two seconds faster than the next quickest sedan. Quick throttle response and snappy shifts from the four-speed automatic add to the sport sedanlike feel; although, most editors found the drivetrain far less refined than most other competitors'. Mileage also suffers, as the LE is rated at just 23 city/28 highway, the lowest numbers of any car in the test.

The suspension turns in a similarly one-dimensional performance as its road-holding skills were deemed excellent while its ability to handle rutted roads was less than exemplary. "Too jarring for a daily driver," was the most common complaint, while one editor went as far as to say "you might as well just upgrade to the SE-R performance model; as least then you would have a well-tuned suspension to go along with the strong engine."

Braking distances from 60 mph came in on the short side of the group at 129 feet, but the feel through the pedal could use some improvement. Likewise, the steering was most often cited as one of the best setups in terms of road feel but a little too heavy for everyday driving.

As much performance as the Sentra LE offers, there's more to it than just horsepower and handling. Despite its relatively low sticker price, the Limited Edition model is packed with features, most of which landed in our "Top 10 Features" category. Some of the items include a driver-seat two-way tilt and a center armrest that gives you somewhere to lean when you're just cruising. There's also a CD player, steering wheel-mounted cruise controls and keyless entry with a handy trunk button that pops the lid.

Drab colors and average-quality plastics are the only aesthetic drawbacks to the Sentra's otherwise well-laid-out interior. Climate control functions are directed through a standard three-dial setup, and the stereo is placed high for a short reach.

Space and seat comfort are two areas in which the Sentra could use some improvement. The driver and front-passenger seats earned bottom-of-the-pack scores for short seat cushions and a limited range of adjustment, while the near total lack of legroom for rear passengers landed the Sentra near the bottom of that category as well.

Convenience features like a small change drawer, dual power outlets and a dash-top storage bin make the Sentra a good commuting partner, but make sure to leave that extra-large coffee mug at home as the cupholders are well placed but small. Trunk space is tight at just 11.6 cubic feet, the second smallest of the eight, but the 60/40-split rear seat folds almost completely flat to add more usable cargo space.

Crash test results for the Sentra indicate that it protects passengers well in all types of accidents. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) gave it four out of five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in a frontal impact, while the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave it an "Acceptable" rating (its second highest) in its 40-mph offset frontal impact tests.

Other than the cramped backseat, the Sentra is a well-rounded economy sedan that offers numerous safety and convenience features for a reasonable price. Although we grew weary of its taut suspension, the pull of its powerful four-cylinder was hard not to like. If you're looking for a budget sedan that can still remind you of what it's like to have fun behind the wheel, the Sentra Limited Edition is hard to beat.

Second Opinions:

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Being a muscle car fan, I was immediately won over by the Sentra's tire-spinning power. While pulling out of the office garage's inclined exit, even a part-throttle jab to the gas resulted in some wheel spin. Yes, this car is quick and that quality still gladdens my heart. But the Sentra struck me as one-dimensional; the handling wasn't as dialed in as the class leaders. With all that power, it seemed too easy to overcome the chassis as the Nissan felt nervous when the car was pushed in the twisties. Nor was the ride that great; some impacts seemed to come into the car unfiltered. Factor in bland exterior and interior styling, and in my book, the Sentra loses out to less powerful but more refined rivals.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
The Sentra's got it where it counts — under the hood. It offers plenty of point-and-shoot power, and it's always available and always ready to sprint to the next stoplight. Handling is tight and controlled, but it may get some rookies in over their heads by inspiring false confidence. The ride is also too harsh for everyday driving. Anyone looking to buy a compact car with the intention of hot-rodding it should consider the Sentra; it's a great blank canvas.

While the engine is certainly impressive, the Sentra is somewhat lackluster in other areas. The dash area is clunky-looking and there are too many different lines and surfaces intersecting. The materials are cheap and flimsy, and the overall execution inside is just plain boring. Rear-seat room is virtually nonexistent, and the overall exterior style reminds me of a rental car. I'd rather have an Aerio than a Sentra.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
I came into this comparison expecting to really like the Sentra, and who wouldn't have, given our 2.5 Limited Edition's 165-hp engine? Alas, I was sorely disappointed, primarily due to the car's strange suspension tuning. Cruising on the freeway, the Sentra floated along, suggesting that it was going to provide a soft, commuter-friendly ride. Then, the tires found a rut in the pavement, and the impact was transferred directly to the cabin in the form of a harsh jolt. This continued over every successive road imperfection, and when I arrived home from my 30-mile commute, I knew this was not a car I'd want to drive everyday. In fact, I'd even suggest that interested buyers (no matter what their driving style) opt for the sportier SE-R, which costs only a few hundred dollars more and delivers a much more composed ride. There were other things I didn't like about the Nissan, namely the uncomfortable driver seat, cramped backseat and high level of road noise. Since I spend a lot of time on the road, these shortcomings are critical and would preclude me from buying a Sentra of my own, at least in 2.5 Limited trim.

Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Nissan Sentra

System Score: 6.0

Components: The Limited Edition test vehicle came with a tiny head unit with a single CD player and seven speakers. Tweeters are mounted in the pillars on each side of the windshield, and a pair of full-range drivers can be found in the front door panels. A pair of weak 20-watt drivers is in the rear shelf along with a small separate subwoofer on the driver side of the panel.

Performance: Along with a tiny head unit come tiny buttons, so operation is not as easy as in some of the other cars. The tweets sound crisp and help create a lively soundstage. The left and right channels are well separated and distortion does not interfere at moderate volumes. The small drivers in the front doors are fine for electric guitars and rock vocals, but bass tones often invade the speakers and cause problems at high volumes. The subwoofer helps add some decent bass, but the small driver has shortcomings, with higher bass tones getting too much attention and not much happening with the very low end.

Best Feature: Two good tweets.

Worst Feature: Midrange bothered by bass.

Conclusion: An above-average performance thanks to some quality tweeters. — Trevor Reed

Third Place - 2003 Mazda Protegé

Economy sedans aren't supposed to be fun to drive, but apparently no one told Mazda. Although the Protegé is much like its competition in terms of size, price and features, it also adds a hint of Miatalike sportiness to the mix. Add in a stylish design inside and out and it's easy to see why a few of our editors said this would be the economy sedan of their choosing if they were spending their own money.

Available in three trim levels, the Protegé stretches from the DX base model at around $14,000 all the way up to the top-of-the-line ES that starts at $16,400. Our test model was an ES with a few added options that brought the final tally up to $18,480, making it the second most expensive car after the Civic.

The standard 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine is rated at a mere 130 horsepower, so the Protegé's sporty demeanor certainly isn't a result of overwhelming acceleration forces. Most drivers described the engine as "adequate" but in need of some refinement to bring it up to class-leading levels of smoothness. Mileage is also a weak spot, as the Mazda's EPA estimate is only 25 city/30 highway, placing the Protegé sixth out of the eight in that category.

The key to the Protegé's fun behind the wheel is its combination of a tightly tuned suspension, excellent steering feel and powerful brakes. Thread this car through a twisty canyon road and you'll experience very little body roll and sharp reflexes usually associated with cars with two less doors. The quick steering offers terrific road feel, while the brakes give you the confidence to go a little faster knowing there's plenty of power available to rein in the fun if necessary.

If there's any drawback to the Protegé's sporting nature, it's revealed during less enthusiastic driving when the car's taut suspension results in a somewhat jarring ride on rough city streets. To its credit, most editors agreed that the Protegé's stiff underpinnings did a better job of soaking up the bumps than did the Nissan Sentra's similarly sporty setup.

The very "uneconomy" feel of the Protegé continues to the interior where the Mazda earned high marks for its sharp cabin design and high-quality materials. White-faced gauges and extensive use of metallic trim brightened up the otherwise all-black interior of our test car. Editors described the setup as "snazzy" and "contemporary" while one remarked that "Toyota could learn a thing or two from Mazda about how to liven things up a little."

With its two-way tilt adjustment and firm lateral support, the driver seat does a good job of holding you in during flings through quick corners. The thick steering wheel feels great in your hands no matter what kind of driving you're doing, and the extensive use of soft touch materials throughout the cabin gives the car an upscale feel. Simple three-dial climate controls, a large radio faceplate with easy-to-read buttons and steering wheel-mounted cruise controls earned the Protegé high marks in the ergonomics department as well.

Rear-seat comfort was deemed above average, as the Protegé's rear quarters measure toward the top of the class when it comes to head-, leg- and shoulder room. The bench seat is positioned high enough off the floor to provide adequate thigh support, and although the seat features less contouring than some of the others, most of our editors agreed that it was one of the more comfortable backseats of all the cars in the test.

Interior storage space is one of the Protegé's few design flaws as the small center console and lack of dash storage leaves you with few choices for storing miscellaneous items. Small cupholders and noticeable road and wind noise were other areas where our editors thought the Protegé could use some improvement.

The Protegé is much like the Civic in that it provides a driving experience above and beyond what you would expect in an economy sedan. The difference is that the Protegé trades in some refinement and ride quality for improved handling and road feel. Its interior is equally as upscale and spacious as the Civic's but as with the Honda, you have to pay a little more to get such high-quality surroundings. If having some fun and looking good doing it factors in to your economy sedan equation, Mazda's Protegé should be at the top of your list.

Second Opinions:

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Handsome looks, an athletic chassis and controls that have just the right amount of weighting and response are the primary reasons why the Protegé was the pick of the litter for me. Whereas the Sentra possesses a great motor that deserves a better chassis, the Protegé has top-notch suspension tuning that deserves more motor. Yes, there is the Mazdaspeed Protegé with its turbocharged engine and Nissan has the Sentra SE-R with its performance suspension tuning. But this is an econocar shoot-out and in the realm of day-to-day commuting, the Mazda does just fine and is more refined than the muscle-bound Sentra. A well-finished cabin, a firm yet comfortable ride, supportive seats and a decent stereo make the well-rounded Mazda a fine choice even for those who don't feel the need to strafe apexes when conditions allow.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
If I were considering the purchase of a compact sedan, the Protegé is the one I'd buy. I just love its well-balanced handling and pleasant road manners. The engine is powerful enough, but I really wish it had a bit more of a Honda quality with regard to smoothness and refinement.

The Protegé looks great inside and out — the styling is fresh and contemporary without looking too trendy. The great thing about the Protegé (especially the ES) is that Mazda has managed to inject that little commuter car with what is truly the essence of Mazda. Mazda makes great cars. The company has an obvious performance edge and a little something special that is noticeable in all its cars — that it can achieve that with a low-priced car like the Protegé is a testament to all that the company can do right.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
The Protegé was by far the most fun-to-drive car in this test. It more than made up for its modest horsepower, compared to the 175-hp Sentra, with a properly tuned suspension, which yielded tight, sporty handling around corners and a tolerable ride on the freeway. And its steering was certainly the quickest, best-weighted setup of the group. Meanwhile, the driver seat provided excellent comfort for any kind of driving; its two-way height adjustment should allow just about anyone to find the right position behind the wheel. As a prospective commuter car, the Mazda lost some points with me for its engine — which drones at highway speeds (sometimes grating on my nerves) — and its considerable levels of wind and road noise. And I wouldn't have minded a couple of usable cupholders, either. But along with its superb road manners, the Protegé offers sharp styling inside and out and a user-friendly control layout. This together was enough for it to finish a strong second on my personal picks list. For the average economy sedan buyer, though, I'd recommend checking out the Elantra, Civic and Corolla first.

Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Mazda Protegé

System Score: 5.0 (tie)

Components: The Protegé comes with a double-size CD player and six speakers. An in-dash six-disc changer is optional. Nice tweeters can be found near the side mirrors, full-range drivers are mounted in the bottom of the front door panels and fairly strong Pioneer-brand speakers are in the rear shelf.

Performance: The head unit is easy to use thanks to its high placement and large buttons and knobs. The tweets help keep the high end bright and do a good job, but can't handle high volumes. Guitars and other midrange sounds are strong, but distortion creeps in at moderate volumes and gets worse as the level is increased. The bass is fairly full-bodied, but distortion can be heard at the edges, especially when the system is pushed.

Best Feature: Crisp tweets.

Worst Feature: Messy midrange performance.

Conclusion: A decent sound system as long as the left knob is left alone. — Trevor Reed

Second Place - 2003 Hyundai Elantra

If you're looking for basic transportation at a great price, the Hyundai Elantra is hard to beat. Our GLS test car stickered at just over $14,000, yet when all the points were tallied up, the Elantra finished less than one point behind the first-place Honda Civic. But there's more to it than just the low price, as the Elantra earned plenty of praise for its solid build quality, numerous standard features and comfortable, uncluttered interior. If upscale style and a top-tier nameplate aren't high on your priority list, the Elantra makes perfect sense.

Available in both sedan and five-door hatchback form (GT only), the Elantra comes in just two trim levels — GLS and GT. The GLS is the standard model, while the GT offers a firmer suspension, improved brakes and a leather-trimmed interior. Our test model was a GLS sedan with an automatic transmission and no options other than the required California emissions controls ($100). Thankfully, even base models come well equipped with power windows, mirrors and door locks; air conditioning; a height-adjustable driver seat; an AM/FM cassette stereo; and side airbags for the driver and front passenger.

Unlike the upscale-looking cabin of the Civic, the Elantra's interior is a little more subdued in its use of standard-issue black and gray plastics. The gauges are clear but unremarkable, while the climate and stereo controls are clustered in a panel that's slanted toward the driver for easier access. The quality of the materials is a step below that of the Civic or the Corolla, but numerous well-placed soft-touch surfaces give the cabin a cozy look and feel.

Finding a comfortable driving position is easy thanks to a standard height-adjustable driver seat that also features two-way tilt and manual lumbar adjustment. With the most leg- and shoulder room of all the cars in the test, the Elantra can accommodate even the biggest drivers, while the firm cushions "would make the Elantra a fine car for long trips," according to one editor.

Unfortunately, the rear seats aren't quite as accommodating as toe- and headroom are at a premium while the seat itself is flat and on the short side for those with longer legs. The rear door openings are also a little narrower in back than on the Civic making getting in and out that much more of a squeeze.

With just 12.0 cubic feet of trunk space, the Elantra is on the small side in this area as well. The split-folding rear seat does allow easy expansion of the available cargo space but even the pass-through opening is smaller than most. On the flip side, the Elantra did earn top marks for interior storage space as it features a small felt-lined dash compartment, two-tiered center console, flip-down sunglasses holder and good-size door bins with flared openings to accommodate water bottles. The cupholders are also well placed in the center console and are different sizes so you can secure a cup of coffee or a 32-ounce fountain drink without a problem.

Although the Elantra was one of the few sedans in the test with standard side airbags, it has earned mixed crash test results. In tests conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Elantra earned four out of five stars for driver protection in a frontal impact and five stars for front-passenger protection. In side-impact tests, it earned five stars for front-occupant protection and four stars for rear-occupant protection. Offset crash testing conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), however, resulted in a "Poor" rating (its lowest).

All Elantras come standard with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine rated at 135 horsepower. Performance is above average for the category in terms of acceleration and mileage. With a 0-to-60 time of 9.8 seconds, the Elantra was third quickest of the eight cars. Its EPA ratings of 24 mpg city/33 mpg highway are well below the Civic and Corolla at 30/38, but higher than the remaining five cars.

Around town, the Elantra feels nimble thanks to its light steering and punchy engine. The suspension does a good job of soaking up bumps, and there's very little wind and road noise. When it came to handling, some editors found the Elantra nearly as well composed as the Civic, while others thought it rolled too much in corners and floated excessively on the highway. Performance-minded drivers would likely find the GT model a worthwhile upgrade.

While there may have been some dissension regarding the Elantra's handling, there were no such arguments when it came to assessing the Hyundai's overall value. The fact that it could score well in so many categories while coming in with a sticker price $2,300 less than the next cheapest competitor was hard to ignore. Add in the Elantra's 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and it's easy to see why this sedan is so well regarded by our staff. When it comes to economy sedans that place value above all else, the Hyundai Elantra is in a class by itself.

Second Opinions:

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
With a price tag some $3- to 4,000 less than comparably equipped rivals, one may assume that the Elantra must be cut-rate. Simply put, it's not; it's just a great deal. We had a great experience with our long-term Elantra and the same qualities that we raved about, such as the nicely finished interior, smooth and responsive engine and a nice ride and handling balance were mostly present with this tester. But our long-termer was a manually shifted car and this one was an automatic, which seemed to blunt the performance more than we thought it should. And in the real world, most people shopping in this class buy automatics. I've recommended the Elantra to a number of friends and relatives, and the praise doesn't get any higher than that. But for me, a certified car nut who places performance above more practical considerations, the Hyundai places midpack.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
Hyundai has certainly come a long way in the past 10 years or so. Even though there is much to like about the Elantra; price, power, highway ride. I'm really not all that crazy about this car — the GLS looks too frumpy, my pick would be an Elantra GT with a five-speed. The interior leaves me a little flat, as well; everything just seems so drab.

Even though the suspension is a little on the soft side, the Elantra really feels like a nice, well-built car. This car offers plenty of pep, and the engine doesn't seem to thrash away when pressed. The transmission shifts nicely, too. Yes, it's all there, but for me, the Elantra lacks that certain something that both the Civic and Protegé seem to have in abundance. What it does have plenty of is value. The Elantra's low price combined with that still unbelievable warranty make it a great choice for anyone on a budget.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
The Elantra is the value leader in this group, and if I had to buy a new car right now, this is the one I'd buy. And, based on my experience with this test car and the '01 Elantra that spent 12 months in our long-term test fleet, I have no qualms about recommending it to others. In terms of its design and driving demeanor, the Elantra is a lot like the Civic and Corolla: It has a smooth, quiet ride and would make an ideal commuter car. Handling isn't really its strength, but the Hyundai gets around twists and turns as easily as any economy sedan needs to, and I preferred its dynamics to those of the Aerio, Ion, Lancer and Sentra. Its engine is less refined and less fuel-efficient than some but offers reasonable spunk (though the automatic transmission definitely saps its strength — get the manual tranny if you can). Inside, the Elantra offers comfortable two-way height-adjustable seats, ergonomically sound controls, fully usable cupholders and a generous collection of lined storage areas that takes every other sedan in this group to task. Overall, a likable car, even if it's not the most satisfying to drive.

Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Hyundai Elantra

System Score: 4.5

Components: This car is such a good value, perhaps we shouldn't complain too much about the stereo. It's a pretty bare-bones system, and yet in spite of this it puts out some decent sound.

The head unit is pretty basic. It offers a cassette player, tone controls, AM/FM presets and all the necessary functions. Although some of the buttons are on the small side, they're well spaced and logically placed. This makes for a friendly layout that is easy for the user to navigate. Unfortunately, our test vehicle lacked a CD player, an item that Hyundai buries in a pricey $1,400 option package.

Things get better on the speaker side. Front speakers include a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers in the front doors, coupled to an excellently positioned pair of tweeters above. The rear deck houses a surprisingly beefy pair of 6-by-9s that puts out a lot of sound.

Performance: This system is very much in keeping with the value equation of this car. Although it doesn't rank up there with the leaders in the class, it puts out respectable sound for the money and represents a good value. In particular, the front tweeters present a lively soundstage and better-than-average stereo imaging. Overall, though — mainly because of weak amplification — the system never gets up and dances. But again, what do you expect for such a reasonably priced car? Bass notes are muddled and diffused, and most instruments have a tinny, artificial sound, but to even have a stereo in such a feature-laden vehicle is a bonus.

Best Feature: Excellently positioned tweeters.

Worst Feature: Needs an amp.

Conclusion: This one won't win any awards, but it's another example of the excellent value of the Elantra. You won't buy this car for the stereo, but most owners will get a lot of enjoyment from this little sound system. — Scott Memmer

First Place - 2003 Honda Civic

As it was the most expensive car in the test, it might seem as though the Honda should've won, but even after points were deducted for its lofty price tag, the Civic EX still managed to come out on top. What made the difference? Refinement, build quality and a well-trimmed interior were the most often cited reasons for the Civic's first-place finish. If you're looking for an inexpensive sedan that doesn't look or feel that way, the Civic is the one.

With an MSRP of $18,570, our top-of-the-line Civic EX (with side airbags) test model wasn't dirt cheap, but there are less expensive trim lines (LX, DX) available for those who can do without all the high-line features. There's also a hybrid model for maximum mileage, a GX version that runs on natural gas and the Si hatchback for performance-minded drivers.

Regardless of which trim level you choose, the Civic's straightforward interior design results in immediate familiarity as soon as you get behind the wheel. The firm, supportive seats were rated the best in the test and even our tallest editor had plenty of room to get comfortable. The stylish chrome-ringed gauges are easy to read day or night and the steering-wheel-mounted cruise control buttons help keep your eyes on the road. Clearly marked climate control knobs reside close to the steering wheel for easy adjustment while the stereo system earned only average marks for its sound quality and smallish buttons.

Interior material quality was another category in which the Civic earned top scores. From the seat upholstery to the steering wheel to the sun visors, nearly every surface in the Civic has a high-quality look and feel to it. Build quality was equally impressive as every trim panel was firmly secured and perfectly aligned.

With only a small dash bin under the stereo and a slim center console, storage space isn't one of the Civic's best attributes. We also found fault with the cupholders that are placed in front of the transmission shifter, as this forces you to wedge your drinks under the dashboard and over the shift lever.

The Civic's rear-seat accommodations received top marks as it offers plenty of leg-, head- and footroom for adult passengers. The typical floor "hump" found in most sedans was removed in the latest redesign, a change that results in a more spacious feel for all rear-seat passengers. Firm cushions, a comfortable seat back contour and usable headrests further contributed to the Civic's strong scores for rear-seat comfort.

With 12.9 cubic feet of trunk capacity, the Civic is only slightly above average for the category, but a wide trunk opening allows for easy loading. The split-folding rear seats feature trunk-mounted release latches for increased security, but we find this setup more trouble than it's worth.

Performance from the 1.7-liter four-cylinder is not overly powerful but strong enough to get you up to highway speeds without much trouble. The four-speed automatic shifts smoothly at all speeds; although, we did notice a few instances of abrupt downshifts on downhill sections. Engine noise is kept well under control except for the upper-rpm ranges where the engine gets noticeably loud and buzzy. Oil change intervals extended to every 10,000 miles and EPA mileage estimates of 30 city/38 highway translate into a very low-maintenance and frugal sedan.

The Civic's ride and handling are two more areas where it earned high marks from our editors. It's more tightly controlled than the Elantra and Corolla, yet more forgiving than either the Protegé or the Sentra. In other words, the Civic strikes the best balance between ride comfort and road feel. Heavy insulation makes for a quiet cabin, while the solid steering feel keeps you well apprised of the road conditions below.

Safety is yet another strong suit for the Civic. In tests conducted by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), the Civic earned five out of five stars for driver and front-passenger protection in a frontal impact and four out of five stars for side-impact protection for both front and rear occupants. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) gave the Civic a "Good" rating (its highest) in 40-mph offset crash testing and named it a "Best Pick" in the category.

Apart from just the raw numbers, the Civic consistently delivers a driving experience above and beyond what you would expect in this class. It's not the fastest, the biggest or the cheapest, but it always manages to make you feel like you're getting more than just an economy sedan. If you're willing to spend a little more to get a car that you'll love, the Civic is the sedan you want.

Second Opinions:

Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Nike or Adidas? You can't go wrong with either big name choice as far as running shoes are concerned. And so it is with the Civic and Corolla. But even though their engines and transmissions are similarly refined, I'd have to give the nod to the Civic for its sportier personality. The Civic's steering has a meatier feel, and the firmer suspension has a near perfect balance of handling prowess and ride comfort. I also prefer the seating position of the Honda, with its lower cowl and slimmer A-pillars that make for an airier cabin. On that note, the Civic's front seats had more lateral support, making for a more secure "sitting in" versus "sitting on" feel when I was belted in.

Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
Wow! It's hard to believe this car is in the same class as some of the others. Stellar build quality, combined with on-road perfection, makes the Civic a clear leader among small cars. The Civic so far out-performs every other car in this test that it almost seems unfair to include it.

The electric blue dash lights combined with high-quality interior pieces give the car a look and feel that belies its price. Yes, the Civic is rather bland-looking, and yes, any owner will see his/her car on every other street corner, but the Civic's value cannot be overlooked when shopping for a new compact sedan.

I only have one complaint about the Civic; Honda needs to get with the program as far as warranty is concerned — 3/36 just doesn't cut it in this segment anymore. Everyone knows Hondas are incredibly reliable, so what could it hurt to add a little extra warranty coverage? Most customers will never need it anyway.

Road Test Editor Erin Riches says:
Of all the cars in this comparison test, the Civic is the one I'd most want to park in my own driveway. Our EX test car did just about everything right. Power from the engine was good but not great for this group — any doubts were offset by its refined delivery. On the highway, the ride was smooth and quiet, and around the occasional curve, the suspension held on surprisingly well — not as well as the Protegé's, mind you, but well enough to make decent time on the two-lanes. The Civic's nicely weighted steering was also a plus. Inside the car was a shapely dash with a sharp set of gauges, and unlike previous Civics, a soft, supportive driver seat with two-way bottom cushion tilt. The controls were easy to use, and the only thing I wished for was a better set of cupholders. Well, that and a lower price — with an MSRP in the mid 18s, it's almost hard to call the Civic an economy car, and that's why I'll continue to recommend the mostly capable Elantra to anyone who asks.

Stereo Evaluation - 2003 Honda Civic

System Score: 4.0

Components: The EX comes with a single-CD player and four speakers. The head unit is mounted high in the dash and the speakers can be found in the front door panels and the shelf under the rear window. All of the drivers are small and weak full-range units.

Performance: The CD player is easy to reach and the controls are not difficult to understand. Unfortunately, there's not much good to say about the sound produced by the speakers. High tones such as guitars and vocals are dry and distort when the bass hits. That's the problem with full-range drivers — everything runs together. Certain bass tones resonate and create an uneven playing field, with other sounds getting shortchanged. Overall, bass output is weak and includes distortion at almost any volume.

Best Feature: Good head unit placement.

Worst Feature: Full-range speakers.

Conclusion: A simple sound system with poor sound quality. — Trevor Reed

Conclusion

You really can get a lot for a little when it comes to economy or small sedans these days. What surprised us most after driving all the various competitors was how refined, fun to drive and well-appointed economy four-doors have become these days.

At the top of the heap rests the Honda Civic. Between its impeccable build quality, unmatched refinement and generous interior space, there's little reason to go looking much further — unless price is your overriding factor. If that's your situation, then we would encourage you to head for the Hyundai dealer without hesitation. The Elantra is one of the best deals on the market today thanks to a rock-bottom price that still manages to include solid build quality, plenty of features and an enjoyable driving experience. If you're still not convinced, check out our long-term test of a 2001 Hyundai Elantra.

You wouldn't think that sedans in this price range could be fun to drive but the Protegé and the Sentra dispel that notion. The Protegé's well-trimmed interior, ultraprecise handling and ample interior space earned it the nod in this test, but if you want the most speed for the least amount of the money, you can't do much better than the Sentra 2.5 Limited Edition.

While the Corolla and the Lancer placed a bit further down the list, don't immediately cross either sedan off your list. The Corolla has a top-notch interior that uses high-quality materials and offers excellent rear passenger space. Mitsubishi's Lancer also offers a cleanly styled interior that will make you feel like you spent more than you really did. It may not have the speed and handling to keep up with the big boys, but for those who want nothing more than an urban runabout, the Lancer would rarely disappoint.

Coming in seventh out of eight might not be much of an endorsement, but the Aerio still has a few things going for it. As the only vehicle in the test with available all-wheel drive, it would make for an inexpensive winter car and its slightly taller stance allows easy entry for those who might have trouble stooping to get in some of the more compact sedans. It's also covered by a lengthy 7-year/100,000-mile drivetrain warranty.

Saturn's latest entry may have fallen a bit short in this crowd, but its low sticker price might be enough to justify a look if you're considering less expensive models.

Evaluation - Drive
Evaluation - Ride
Evaluation - Design
Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space

Evaluation - Drive

Engine Performance
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Sentra
9.0 1
Honda Civic
7.5 2
Saturn Ion 7.3 3(t)
Toyota Corolla
7.3 3(t)
Hyundai Elantra 6.8 5
Mazda Protegé
6.3 6
Suzuki Aerio 5.5 7
Mitsubishi Lancer
5.0 8
Transmission
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda Protegé 9.0 1
Honda Civic
8.5 2
Nissan Sentra
8.3 3(t)
Toyota Corolla
8.3 3(t)
Mitsubishi Lancer
7.3 5(t)
Suzuki Aerio 7.3 5(t)
Hyundai Elantra 6.3 7(t)
Saturn Ion 6.3 7(t)
Braking
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda Protegé 9.0 1
Honda Civic
8.8 2
Toyota Corolla
7.8 3
Suzuki Aerio 7.3 4
Nissan Sentra
7.0 5
Hyundai Elantra 6.5 6
Mitsubishi Lancer 6.0 7(t)
Saturn Ion 6.0 7(t)
Suspension
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic
9.5 1(t)
Mazda Protegé 9.5 1(t)
Toyota Corolla
8.0 3
Saturn Ion
6.8 4
Mitsubishi Lancer
6.3 5
Hyundai Elantra 6.0 6
Suzuki Aerio 5.5 7
Nissan Sentra
5.3 8
Tires
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda Protegé 9.0 1
Honda Civic
7.5 2(t)
Toyota Corolla
7.5 2(t)
Hyundai Elantra 7.0 4
Saturn Ion
6.8 5
Nissan Sentra
6.5 6(t)
Suzuki Aerio 6.5 6(t)
Mitsubishi Lancer
6.0 8
Steering
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda Protegé 9.3 1
Honda Civic
9.0 2
Toyota Corolla
7.8 3
Mitsubishi Lancer
6.8 4(t)
Nissan Sentra
6.8 4(t)
Hyundai Elantra 5.8 6
Suzuki Aerio 5.5 7
Saturn Ion
4.5 8
Visibility
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic
7.8 1(t)
Mitsubishi Lancer
7.8 1(t)
Mazda Protegé 7.5 3
Suzuki Aerio 7.3 4
Hyundai Elantra 6.3 5(t)
Nissan Sentra
6.3 5(t)
Toyota Corolla
6.3 5(t)
Saturn Ion
5.8 8
Fun to Drive
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda Protegé 8.8 1
Honda Civic
8.0 2
Nissan Sentra
7.8 3
Toyota Corolla
6.8 4
Hyundai Elantra 5.0 5
Suzuki Aerio 4.5 6
Mitsubishi Lancer 4.0 7(t)
Saturn Ion
4.0 7(t)

Evaluation - Ride

Seat Comfort Front
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic
9.0 1
Suzuki Aerio 8.0 2
Hyundai Elantra 7.8 3(t)
Mazda Protegé 7.8 3(t)
Toyota Corolla
7.5 5
Mitsubishi Lancer 6.5 6
Nissan Sentra
6.3 7
Saturn Ion
2.5 8
Seat Comfort Rear
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic
8.5 1(t)
Toyota Corolla
8.5 1(t)
Mazda Protegé 8.3 3(t)
Suzuki Aerio 8.3 3(t)
Mitsubishi Lancer 7.5 5
Hyundai Elantra 6.8 6
Nissan Sentra
4.0 7
Saturn Ion
2.8 8
Wind & Road Noise
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic
8.8 1
Hyundai Elantra 8.0 2
Mazda Protegé 6.8 3(t)
Toyota Corolla
6.8 3(t)
Saturn Ion
6.5 5
Suzuki Aerio 6.0 6
Mitsubishi Lancer 5.8 7(t)
Nissan Sentra
5.8 7(t)
Rattles & Squeaks
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic
9.8 1(t)
Hyundai Elantra 9.8 1(t)
Mitsubishi Lancer 9.8 1(t)
Suzuki Aerio 9.8 1(t)
Toyota Corolla
9.8 1(t)
Nissan Sentra
8.5 6
Mazda Protegé 8.0 7
Saturn Ion
5.5 8

Evaluation - Design

Interior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda Protegé 9.8 1
Toyota Corolla 9.5 2
Honda Civic 8.5 3
Mitsubishi Lancer 7.5 4
Hyundai Elantra 6.3 5
Nissan Sentra 5.5 6
Suzuki Aerio 5.0 7
Saturn Ion 4.3 8
Interior Material
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic
9.3 1
Toyota Corolla 8.8 2
Mazda Protegé 8.5 3
Hyundai Elantra 7.0 4(t)
Mitsubishi Lancer 7.0 4(t)
Nissan Sentra
5.8 6(t)
Suzuki Aerio 5.8 6(t)
Saturn Ion
3.3 8
Climate Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic
9.8 1
Toyota Corolla 8.8 2
Mitsubishi Lancer 8.5 3
Hyundai Elantra 8.3 4(t)
Suzuki Aerio 8.3 4(t)
Nissan Sentra
8.0 6
Mazda Protegé 7.8 7(t)
Saturn Ion
7.8 7(t)
Audio System Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Nissan Sentra 6.0 1
Hyundai Elantra 5.0 2(t)
Mazda Protegé 5.0 2(t)
Mitsubishi Lancer 5.0 2(t)
Saturn Ion 5.0 2(t)
Suzuki Aerio 5.0 2(t)
Toyota Corolla 5.0 2(t)
Honda Civic
4.0 8
Secondary Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Toyota Corolla 9.0 1
Mazda Protegé 8.8 2
Honda Civic 8.5 3(t)
Hyundai Elantra 8.5 3(t)
Mitsubishi Lancer 8.0 5(t)
Nissan Sentra 8.0 5(t)
Suzuki Aerio 7.8 7
Saturn Ion
6.3 8
Exterior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
Mazda Protegé 9.0 1
Honda Civic 7.8 2
Mitsubishi Lancer 7.5 3
Toyota Corolla 7.3 4
Hyundai Elantra 6.3 5
Suzuki Aerio 5.8 6
Nissan Sentra
5.0 7
Saturn Ion
4.3 8
Overall Build Quality
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic 9.5 1
Toyota Corolla 8.8 2
Mitsubishi Lancer 8.3 3
Hyundai Elantra 8.0 4(t)
Mazda Protegé 8.0 4(t)
Nissan Sentra 8.0 4(t)
Suzuki Aerio 7.3 7
Saturn Ion
5.3 8

Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space

Entry/Exit
Vehicle Score Rank
Suzuki Aerio 8.3 1
Toyota Corolla 7.8 2
Honda Civic 7.5 3
Hyundai Elantra 7.0 4
Mazda Protegé 6.5 5
Mitsubishi Lancer 6.3 6(t)
Saturn Ion 6.3 6(t)
Nissan Sentra 5.8 8
Expanding/Loading Cargo
Vehicle Score Rank
Suzuki Aerio 8.5 1
Mazda Protegé 8.3 2
Hyundai Elantra 8.0 3
Honda Civic 7.8 4
Toyota Corolla 7.5 5
Mitsubishi Lancer 7.0 6(t)
Saturn Ion 7.0 6(t)
Nissan Sentra 6.8 8
Storage Space
Vehicle Score Rank
Hyundai Elantra 8.3 1
Nissan Sentra 8.0 2
Toyota Corolla 7.8 3
Honda Civic 7.3 4(t)
Mitsubishi Lancer 7.3 4(t)
Saturn Ion 6.0 6
Mazda Protegé 5.3 7
Suzuki Aerio 3.5 8
Cupholders
Vehicle Score Rank
Mitsubishi Lancer 8.8 1
Hyundai Elantra 8.3 2
Toyota Corolla 8.0 3
Honda Civic 7.0 4
Nissan Sentra 5.8 5(t)
Saturn Ion 5.8 5(t)
Mazda Protegé 5.3 7(t)
Suzuki Aerio 5.3 7(t)

Dimensions
Engine & Transmission Specifications
Performance
Warranty Information

Dimensions

Exterior Dimensions & Capacities
  Honda Civic Hyundai Elantra Mazda Protegé Mitsubishi Lancer
Length, in. 174.6 177.1 175.3 177.6
Width, in. 67.5 67.7 67.1 66.8
Height, in. 56.7 56.1 55.5 54.9
Wheelbase, in. 103.1 102.7 102.8 102.4
Curb weight, lbs. 2,500 2,698 2,634 2,734
Turning circle, ft. 34.1 33.2 34.1 33.5
Exterior Dimensions & Capacities
  Nissan Sentra Saturn Ion Suzuki Aerio Toyota Corolla
Length, in. 177.5 184.5 171.3 178.3
Width, in. 67.3 67.2 67.7 66.9
Height, in. 55.5 57.4 60.8 57.7
Wheelbase, in. 99.8 103.2 97.6 102.4
Curb weight, lbs. 2,592 2,766 2,805 2,590
Turning circle, ft. 34.7 35.4 32.8 35.2
Interior Dimensions & Capacities
  Honda Civic Hyundai Elantra Mazda Protegé Mitsubishi Lancer
Front headroom, in. 39.8 39.6 39.3 38.8
Front legroom, in. 41.3 43.2 42.2 43.2
Front shoulder room, in. 53.1 54.7 53.9 54.1
Rear headroom, in. 37.1 38.0 37.4 36.7
Rear legroom, in. 35.4 35.0 35.4 36.6
Rear shoulder room, in. 53.5 53.5 53.4 53.3
Luggage capacity, cubic ft. 12.9 12.0 12.9 11.3
Interior Dimensions & Capacities
  Nissan Sentra Saturn Ion Suzuki Aerio Toyota Corolla
Front headroom, in. 39.9 40.0 40.6 39.1
Front legroom, in. 41.6 42.2 41.4 41.3
Front shoulder room, in. 52.5 53.7 53.7 53.1
Rear headroom, in. 37.0 37.0 37.6 37.1
Rear legroom, in. 33.7 33.3 36.0 35.4
Rear shoulder room, in. 52.6 52.8 52.9 53.5
Luggage capacity, cubic ft. 11.6 14.7 14.6 13.6

Engine & Transmission Specifications

Engine & Transmission
  Honda Civic Hyundai Elantra Mazda Protegé Mitsubishi Lancer
Engine type inline four-cylinder inline four-cylinder inline four-cylinder inline four-cylinder
Displacement, liters 1.7 2.0 2.0 2.0
Horsepower
(SAE) @ rpm
127 @ 6,300 135 @ 6,000 130 @ 6,000 120 @ 5,500
Max. Torque,
lb-ft @ rpm
114 @ 4,800 132 @ 4,500 135 @ 4,000 130 @ 4,250
Transmission 4-speed auto 4-speed auto 4-speed auto 4-speed auto
EPA Fuel Economy
City/Hwy, mpg
30/38 24/33 25/31 24/31
Engine & Transmission
  Nissan Sentra Saturn Ion Suzuki Aerio Toyota Corolla
Engine type inline four-cylinder inline four-cylinder inline four-cylinder inline four-cylinder
Displacement, liters 2.5 2.2 2.0 1.8
Horsepower
(SAE) @ rpm
165 @ 6,000 140 @ 5,800 145 @ 5,700 130 @ 6,000
Max. Torque,
lb-ft @ rpm
175 @ 4,000 145 @ 4,400 136 @ 3,000 125 @ 4,200
Transmission 4-speed auto 5-speed auto 4-speed auto 4-speed auto
EPA Fuel Economy
City/Hwy, mpg
23/28 24/32 24/28 30/38

Performance

Performance
  Honda Civic Hyundai Elantra Mazda Protegé Mitsubishi Lancer
0-to-60-mph acceleration, sec. 10.5 9.8 10.4 10.8
Quarter-mile acceleration, sec. 17.2 17.3 17.7 17.9
Quarter-mile speed, mph 77.0 80.6 78.5 76.9
60-to-0-mph braking, feet 129.3 133.3 121.8 123.3
600-ft slalom, mph 62.7 62.0 62.1 62.7
Performance
  Nissan Sentra Saturn Ion Suzuki Aerio Toyota Corolla
0-to-60-mph acceleration, sec. 7.7 9.9 10.3 9.5
Quarter-mile acceleration, sec. 16.1 17.4 17.7 17.1
Quarter-mile speed, mph 85.1 79.5 78.0 82.9
60-to-0-mph braking, feet 128.5 135.9 129.0 130.8
600-ft slalom, mph 60.5 61.0 61.0 63.3

Warranty

Warranty Information
  Honda Civic Hyundai Elantra Mazda Protegé Mitsubishi Lancer
Basic Warranty 3 years/ 36,000 miles 5 years/ 60,000 miles 4 years/ 50,000 miles 3 years/ 36,000 miles
Powertrain 3 years/ 36,000 miles 10 years/ 100,000 miles 4 years/ 50,000 miles 5 years/ 60,000 miles
Roadside Assistance N/A 5 years/ Unlimited miles 4 years/ 50,000 miles 3 years/ 36,000 miles
Corrosion Protection 5 years/ Unlimited miles 5 years/ 100,000 miles 5 years/ Unlimited miles 7 years/ 100,000 miles
Warranty Information
  Nissan Sentra Saturn Ion Suzuki Aerio Toyota Corolla
Basic Warranty 3 years/ 36,000 miles 3 years/ 36,000 miles 3 years/ 36,000 miles 3 years/ 36,000 miles
Powertrain 5 years/ 60,000 miles 3 years/ 36,000 miles 7 years/ 100,000 miles 5 years/ 60,000 miles
Roadside Assistance 3 years/ 36,000 miles 3 years/ 36,000 miles 3 years/ 36,000 miles N/A
Corrosion Protection 5 years/ Unlimited miles 6 years/ 100,000 miles 3 years/ 36,000 miles 5 years/ Unlimited miles

We asked the editors who participated in the test to pick the top 10 features they would want if they were buying an economy sedan. We only picked features that were installed on at least one of our test vehicles. Any feature that was standard equipment on all eight vehicles was thrown out. Points were awarded based on whether each feature was standard or optional and whether our particular test vehicle was equipped with that feature.

Top 10 Features

Top 10 Features
  Honda Civic Hyundai Elantra Mazda Protegé Mitsubishi Lancer
Antilock brakes S O O O
CD player S O S O
Center armrest S S S S
Cruise control S O S S
Driver lumbar support N/A S N/A N/A
Keyless entry S O S S
Side airbags S S O O
Traction control N/A O N/A N/A
Trunk release on remote N/A N/A N/A N/A
2-way driver seat cushion tilt N/A S S N/A
Top 10 Features
  Nissan Sentra Saturn Ion Suzuki Aerio Toyota Corolla
Antilock brakes S O O O
CD player S S S S
Center armrest S N/A N/A S
Cruise control S O S O
Driver lumbar support N/A N/A N/A N/A
Keyless entry S O S S
Side airbags S O N/A O
Traction control N/A O S N/A
Trunk release on remote S O N/A N/A
2-way driver seat cushion tilt S N/A N/A N/A


Key:
S: Standard
O: Optional
N/A: Not Available

Antilock brakes: Otherwise known simply as ABS. These brakes won't lock up no matter how hard you stand on the pedal, providing valuable control and shorter stops in panic situations.

CD player: Without this must-have device, you're left listening to endless commercials and dopey djs on the radio without recourse.

Center armrest: Probably not a feature you would think about too often, but when you get into a car and it doesn't have one you'll be thinking about it every time you get in the car and have no place to rest your elbow.

Cruise control: A nice feature to have on long drives when lack of attention to your right foot might result in an "inadvertent" speeding ticket.

Driver lumbar support: Being able to adjust how much support is provided to your lower back can be invaluable on longer trips where fatigue is often a problem.

Keyless entry: This remote control device locks and unlocks your doors at the push of a button. This is handy when you're in a hurry — or a downpour.

Side airbags: While nearly every car made these days had dual airbags up front, having additional protection in the event of a side-impact collision is always a comforting feeling. The only car in the test not to offer side airbags even as an option was the Suzuki Aerio, but without official government side-impact tests we were unable to discern whether this affects its crash test scores.

Traction control: This computer-actuated system can reduce engine power in slippery situations to keep the tires from spinning out of control and losing their grip on the road.

Trunk release on remote: Much like keyless entry, this feature allows you to open the trunk without having to fumble for the keys.

Two-way driver-seat cushion tilt: This handy feature allows the driver to adjust the seat bottom cushion in two directions — a real plus for finding just the right seating position.

2003 Honda Civic

"This is a fantastic car … I had a Mazda Protegé for three years and really liked it — before I drove the Civic! I spent one month test-driving every conceivable small car and the Civic Sedan LX is miles ahead of them all. My wife drives a Nissan Maxima and the front passenger legroom in the Civic is almost the same as in our Maxima! Incredible space for a small car. I love the dashboard and gauges. Favorite features: The automatic gearshift lever is amazingly sporty — very few cars have a gearshift lever like that. The body shape is really sleek and the seat fabric is much better than on most cars. Suggested improvements: More horsepower would be good. And foldable outside mirrors." — ISD, Jan. 30, 2003

"I bought my '01 Civic EX sedan 20 months ago, and it is my daily driver. It took some getting used to, coming from a car with almost 100 more horsepower, but it is a very spirited little car. It's got great road feel and a great suspension. Interior design is sophisticated, but the exterior, specifically the rear view, needs some work. Seats are adequate, but don't plan on taking this car on long trips. The stereo is above average for factory. The automatic transmission is sloppy, especially going into second. Favorite features: Stereo, suspension (tight in the curves), mileage and power (strange combination, eh). Suggested improvements: sloppy automatic transmission, exterior rear view." — redly1, March 13, 2003

"I switched from my Dodge to a Honda mainly because of its reputation. The car's mileage is only slightly better and as far as ride and performance. I sacrificed design for reliability. There is a very minor rattle somewhere in the dash which kept me from giving it a 10 in both the 'Build Quality.' I also gave it a 9 in 'Reliability' since I haven't owned the car for too long, but my neighbor did have problems with her brakes when she first got her Civic two years ago. For the higher price I paid, I really didn't want to hear any rattles. I'm satisfied with my purchase and I'm expecting it to pay off in the long run since it holds its value well. Favorite features: Fuel economy. Suggested improvements: Plain cookie-cutter design. Take off the exterior badges and this car could pass as any import. Excessive ride and engine noise." — RC101, Oct. 9, 2002

2003 Hyundai Elantra

"Downsized from luxury vehicles (Mercedes, Infiniti) due to financial necessity. I never expected to love this car so much! One of the most surprising things to me is the ride — it feels heavy and solid on the road, surprising for such a small (and inexpensive!) car. It handles well, has good pickup and doesn't generate a lot of noise on the highway. And it's loaded with features which would have cost thousands more in other makes. Favorite features: Price, ABS and traction control, cruise. Suggested improvements: Offer CD player as a stand-alone option." — Happylynn, March 13, 2003

"I wasn't intending on getting a Hyundai but my father-in-law convinced me to go take a look. I test-drove several different cars in this price range (Honda, Saturn and Ford) and was very surprised at how well the Elantra test-drove. The Elantra was as good and cheaper than the Civic, and has a better interior than the new Saturn Ions (in my opinion). The five-year basic warranty is what sealed the deal." — Kaman, March 17, 2003

"What a great little car. I drive this car 130 miles a day minimum. I have close to 50K on it in less than a year and a half and haven't had so much as a hiccup. At 65 mph it still has passing gear left. I find it comfortable during my daily drive and certainly enough power. This same car with all the options in a Toyota or Honda would have cost me another $3,000 easily. Favorite features: Comfort and power for this size car. Suggested improvements: Headlight alignment after changing the bulbs." — Cskywalker, Jan. 30, 2003

2003 Mazda Protegé

"I had a 1999 Corolla. It was a great car, but it was more vanilla than the Breyer's ice cream factory. No excitement, no fun! If you're looking for all the pluses of the Toyota Corolla's build quality and reliability, but want something much more fun to drive, much more stylish, the Protegé is it. I put every single option on this car, from the auto-dimming rearview mirror to the cargo net in the trunk. If it was an option, I put it on this car. Friends with much more expensive cars, actually like driving my car and draw comparisons to their much more expensive cars like the Audi A4. What's that tell ya? Favorite features: Excellent tight steering feel, great handling and cornering, excellent overall road stability. Attention to fit and finish, great interior fabrics/colors as well as feel. Nothing about this car says cheap. Suggested improvements: Biggest gripe: The ride does get stiff/jiggly at times on secondary roads. Soften it a bit without compromising the excellent handling. Also make standard glovebox light, passenger-side door lock control, more speakers with six-disc CD and keyless remote trunk release." — SouthlandHB, Jan. 26, 2003

"My wife wanted a 'small' car to replace her '97 Civic EX. With that in mind, we found this to be the best car available. I love the way the Protegé handles. It's not as fun as my Miata, but much more fun than [other economy] cars. More power would be welcome, but I'm willing to trade off some power for the excellent handling. While I would prefer to have the 170-hp Mazdaspeed model, it was going to cost close to $6,000 more (dealer markups) and we couldn't have got the zero-percent interest loan. Bottom line…if you prefer sports cars but need a sedan, and if your budget is under $20,000, get this car. You won't regret it. Favorite features: excellent handling, good brakes, great reliability history, sporty exterior styling, buttery smooth shifter, not a million of them on the road like the Civic or Corolla. Suggested improvements: Please give it 20 more hp, fix the factory alarm…it is going off at random and we're going to have to get it adjusted by the dealer." — Mike in St. Louis, Jan. 4, 2003

"I like the drive the Protegé offers, (but I) have a million complaints about the gas mileage. The car has 12,000 miles on it and still does not give me good mileage in the city. It does not go beyond 23 miles to a gallon. The overall build is pretty OK, it is definitely fun to drive. A few creaks have developed on the front doors, but the dealer said that was how these cars were built. The Accords give better mileage and I feel a little shortchanged on that front, maybe I should have got a bigger car. The engine is now far noisier, for 12,000 miles I am a little disappointed at that. Favorite features: The audio system is pretty good, the braking is good, interiors. Suggested improvements: Mileage, mileage, mileage…cannot say it enough. Fix it, Mazda!!" — sunrup, Dec. 27, 2002

2003 Nissan Sentra

"There's no doubt about it, the SE-R is a supercool car. There is another option though. I have a medical condition (head injury) which makes it very hard to drive a standard. The same condition also makes me want a car with the latest safety features. The LE comes with AT, ABS and side airbags standard. The SE-R was impossible to find with this combination, at least for me. However, the LE comes with the same 2.5-liter engine as the SE-R. It provides the same grin-inducing forward motivation as the near legendary SE-R. The LE is great for driving around town with its abundant low-end torque. Favorite features: Definitely the engine. Stepping on the gas gives me warm fuzzies everytime. Suggested improvements: Lumbar support as the seats can get uncomfortable on long trips." — mossimo, March 3, 2003

"I purchased a limited edition Sentra in Oct. 2002. Overall, I am pleased with the performance of the car — good acceleration, and for the price there is no other car in its class that can compete with all the features that this model provides (ABS/side airbags/165 hp, etc). I am upset, however, because no more than a month after I had the car, I discovered that I had a pinhole-size leak in one of the lower radiator tubes. I am surprised at this and did not really anticipate experiencing this type of problem from a company such as Nissan. However, all in all the car is a good buy for commuting. Favorite features: This model is superior in power and interior styling to that of a car such as the Civic. The sound system is great. Suggested improvements: It might as well be a two-door because there is absolutely no legroom in the rear. Gas mileage is decent, but doesn't compare at all to what Honda/Toyota vehicles offer." — nissanbuyer, Feb. 2, 2003

"This car is truly a find — great engine, wonderfully executed interior and many safety features at a great price! Car handles well if not very sporty, interior materials feel great, fuel economy (about 27 mpg in a mix of city/hwy) is very respectable given the 165 hp. If you're looking for value, forget the Ion or the Elantra — get the 2.5 LE. Favorite features: 165 hp engine, excellent interior materials, leather-stitched steering wheel, side airbags/ABS standard, clean exterior design, good fuel economy. Suggested improvements: Cupholders are old school, headlights don't turn off automatically, rear seat not as large as competing vehicles'." — alpha01, Feb. 2, 2003

2003 Toyota Corolla

"I love my new Corolla LE. The car drives wonderfully; smooth, solid and reasonably quiet. The styling is great; looks like a baby Lexus. It is so roomy inside. The mileage is incredible; I have calculated that I have gotten over 35 mpg in mixed driving. I had been car shopping for well over a year, test-driven all sorts of cars, seriously considered treating myself to a much higher-priced car. I did my homework and I am so happy that I went with the Corolla LE, a GREAT car for the money (or more). I would much rather have my money in the bank and the Corolla will help keep it there! Favorite features: Too many to list! Great safety and reliability ratings; super quality and comfort; auto trans is smooth; auto headlights great; dash is beautiful and very easy to read; A/C, heat and defrost work instantly. Suggested improvements: ABS and side airbags should be standard; strange smell occasionally; disc brakes on all four wheels; poor location of cruise control, hits my leg when turning; needs trunk release on the keyless remote. The horn sounds terrible, so wimpy!" — BATgirl, March 25, 2003

"I bought it a few months after it came out. It has power! The interior is very roomy for an economy car. I'm 5'9" and I have plenty of room. On cold, sunny days I go for rides because I love this car so much and it takes forever to go through a tank of gas. The LE model is gorgeous with wood interior and plush-feeling seats. I adore this car and am truly grateful Toyota updated this car. It doesn't drive, look or feel like an economy car except for my insurance rates, my car payments and my gas usage! Favorite features: wood interior; CD player; gas mileage; style; roominess; sunroof; electric doors and windows; I could truly go on forever. I love EVERYTHING about this car! Suggested improvements: Ummm? Side airbags and ABS would be good." — Matrix, March 23, 2003

"As a single parent and college student, I just wanted a car that would take me from A to B safely and worry-free. I got more than I bargained for. The dash and front panels are made with quality material. This car can really get around. I do 99 percent city driving in Manhattan and sometimes the Bronx. I put this car to the test against serious automobiles. It handles very well in traffic that demands maneuverability. It could stand better shock absorption, faster pickup and a quieter engine. But considering the price, the car drives like a dream. Plus, my daughter loves the space in the back. Favorite features: Front panel and dash, gas mileage. Suggested improvements: better shock absorption, quieter engine, faster pickup." — Love2drive, Dec. 9, 2002

2003 Mitsubishi Lancer

"The Lancer is not as refined as the 2001 Sentra (engine/road noise, plush materials). It's a lot like the Honda and Protegé in terms of refinement but a small notch below both in terms of quality of materials. The Protegé has larger HVAC controls and better plastic. Interior space-wise, this car is the roomiest. Gas mileage — right now I am averaging 32 mpg — 90 percent highway." — Asa0526, Jan. 6, 2003

"I bought this car in November '02 and I love it. The interior quality is excellent, better than others in its class. Ride on the highway is smooth and handles great. Overall excellent quality and a great value. Favorite features: European-style door handles, roomy interior, great mileage. Suggested improvements: More interesting taillights, and sunroof on ES model." — mpeters, Dec. 23, 2002

"This is a great car; perfect for our family of three. Performs better than expected and at a good price. I bought mine in October of 2001, and have logged around 40K miles already. Not a prob yet! Favorite features: Wood grain dash, nice interior, GREAT gas mileage. Suggested improvements: Don't put it in the Indy 500…gets the shakes after 80 mph (not that I've broken the speed limit or anything…)." — clownie94, Feb. 4, 2003

2003 Suzuki Aerio

"I travel all over the Houston and surrounding areas, putting on an average of about 250 miles per day. I drive this car hard. For the most part, this car has outperformed my expectations. It has handled well in the rain, and has stood up to gridlocked traffic in 100-degree weather. I have taken turns around freeway corners at up to 85 miles an hour with ease. Favorite features: Digital console, standard power mirrors. Suggested improvements: Bigger gas tank, better paint, euro lights, more range to the tilt steering." — philip bart, Dec. 19, 2002

"I'm finding my '02 Aerio SX (wagon) to be a very pleasant companion so far. I have the five-speed that lets me scoot past most of the behemoths on the road. It's incredibly maneuverable, and the handling is OK if a little bit too softly sprung. Interior design and space management are excellent — with cargo space matching that of small to midsize SUVs like the Saturn Vue and Nissan Xterra. The seats are comfortable and supportive, controls are well placed and the digital dash is terrific for visibility and speed of comprehension. Overall, I really like this car. Favorite features: Performance and utility, expected reliability, great warranty, fun to drive, low price. Suggested improvements: more cubby space for sunglasses, cell phones, change, softer armrest surfaces. " — ontyrees, Dec. 9, 2002

"Bought the car through the Internet, best car purchase ever…saved $ and was in and out in 1.5 hours! Great value for the dollar! Great room (I'm 6'1" and there is plenty of room, even for the backseat passengers) and features. The ABS and AWD are a great team for the price. I just love this car, yes the style is different, but I like being different! Favorite features: The AT is great, it does its job and doesn't hunt for a gear by shifting back and forth. The air conditioner cools the interior space down fast during the hot months and the heater defogs those steamy windows fast. Good acceleration and good mileage 28 mpg, city/hwy. Suggested improvements: Make available a sunroof, side airbags, and four-wheel discs. " — traisjag, Dec. 5, 2002

2003 Saturn Ion 2

"I absolutely love this car! I wasn't even looking to get a new car but the people at Saturn of Orlando were so wonderful and the payments are so affordable that I couldn't say no! My new car has so many wonderful features and it looks so stylish, too! I have never had power everything on a car…and the trunk is huge. I love the way it rides and how funky it looks. It's very unique-looking." — echofariee, Feb. 17, 2003

"Why does everyone hate this car? I just got mine about a month ago and I love it! I didn't have a lot of money so when it came time to replace my old car my options were limited. I looked at all the new and used cars I could find. One day I went by the local Saturn place and saw the new Ion and went in for a test-drive and felt that it was the right car for me. I ended up with my Ion 2 (decided to splurge for more options). So far it's great and this from a former Honda owner. Is the Ion perfect? Not by a long shot but no car is. Besides for those of us who can't afford all the flashy cars out there, the Ion offers a reliable option for a great price. " — avariel, March 20, 2003

"My experience with this car so far has been great as expected. The car-buying experience at Saturn was not intimidating in any way. There are many convenient features with this car and it is much safer than many cars in its class, I was also looking into buying a Hyundai Elantra until I realized through research how much of a death trap they are. My Ion is speedy with quick pickup (I commute on the interstate), and is very roomy and comfortable for five passengers. I couldn't have made a better decision! " — bstu, April 14, 2003

Final Rankings
Final Rankings
  Honda Civic Hyundai Elantra Mazda Protegé Mitsubishi Lancer
Personal Rating (10% of score) 90.6 53.1 93.8 50.0
Recommended Rating (10% of score) 93.8 65.6 68.8 46.9
23-Point Evaluation (20% of score) 81.1 70.0 78.0 67.2
Feature Content (20% of score) 60.0 56.7 63.3 50.0
Performance Testing (10% of score) 62.0 62.0 63.0 61.0
Price (30% of score) 70.4 100.0 71.0 73.3
         
  74.0 73.4 72.1 61.2
Final Ranking 1 2 3 6
Final Rankings
  Nissan Sentra Saturn Ion Suzuki Aerio Toyota Corolla
Personal Rating (10% of score) 37.5 21.9 28.1 32.0
Recommended Rating (10% of score) 37.5 18.8 31.3 87.5
23-Point Evaluation (20% of score) 64.8 54.6 65.4 77.3
Feature Content (20% of score) 80.0 50.0 46.7 50.0
Performance Testing (10% of score) 92.0 58.0 58.0 71.0
Price (30% of score) 79.8 84.0 75.8 75.8
         
  69.6 56.0 56.9 67.3
Final Ranking 4 8 7 5


2003 Nissan Sentra

System Score: 6.0

Components: The Limited Edition test vehicle came with a tiny head unit with a single CD player and seven speakers. Tweeters are mounted in the pillars on each side of the windshield, and a pair of full-range drivers can be found in the front door panels. A pair of weak 20-watt drivers is in the rear shelf along with a small separate subwoofer on the driver side of the panel.

Performance: Along with a tiny head unit come tiny buttons, so operation is not as easy as in some of the other cars. The tweets sound crisp and help create a lively soundstage. The left and right channels are well separated and distortion does not interfere at moderate volumes. The small drivers in the front doors are fine for electric guitars and rock vocals, but bass tones often invade the speakers and cause problems at high volumes. The subwoofer helps add some decent bass, but the small driver has shortcomings, with higher bass tones getting too much attention and not much happening with the very low end.

Best Feature: Two good tweets.

Worst Feature: Midrange bothered by bass.

Conclusion: An above-average performance thanks to some quality tweeters. -- Trevor Reed


2003 Mazda Protegé

System Score: 5.0 (tie)

Components: The Protegé comes with a double-size CD player and six speakers. An in-dash six-disc changer is optional. Nice tweeters can be found near the side mirrors, full-range drivers are mounted in the bottom of the front door panels and fairly strong Pioneer-brand speakers are in the rear shelf.

Performance: The head unit is easy to use thanks to its high placement and large buttons and knobs. The tweets help keep the high end bright and do a good job, but can't handle high volumes. Guitars and other midrange sounds are strong, but distortion creeps in at moderate volumes and gets worse as the level is increased. The bass is fairly full-bodied, but distortion can be heard at the edges, especially when the system is pushed.

Best Feature: Crisp tweets.

Worst Feature: Messy midrange performance.

Conclusion: A decent sound system as long as the left knob is left alone. -- Trevor Reed


2003 Toyota Corolla

System Score: 5.0 (tie)

Components: The Corolla LE comes with a huge tape/CD player mounted high in the dash and six speakers. There are tweeters mounted in the doors near the side mirrors, circular full-range drivers in the bottom of the front door panels and 17.5-watt oblong speakers in the rear shelf.

Performance: The head unit has a large display and big controls, making it easy to use. The tweeters sound smooth and natural, especially with acoustic music, but develop a lisp at high volumes. Vocals and guitars are loud, but sloppy. The bass suffers from the same problems, but that's no surprise with such weak speakers in charge of the strong sounds. Also, the bass revealed numerous rattles in the rear shelf and driver-side door panel of the test vehicle.

Best Feature: Silky tweeters.

Worst Feature: Rattles.

Conclusion: Good tweets and a big tape/CD combo are nice, but the weak speakers and interior rattles are a bummer. -- Trevor Reed


2003 Mitsubishi Lancer

System Score: 5.0 (tie)

Components: It's encouraging to see speakers mounted in the A-pillars of a low-budget model. This feature is usually reserved for sports cars and luxury vehicles, while economy models are commonly equipped with a simple head unit and four low-powered speakers. Unfortunately, the tweeters up top are the only difference between the Lancer LS stereo system and the standard template. The single CD player is mounted high in the front console, and its simple controls are easy to use, but the volume knob is too small and the radio preset buttons feel flimsy. The head unit is responsible for powering the tweets, a small midbass driver low in each front door and two wimpy 15-watt Mitsubishi speakers in the rear deck.

Performance: The aforementioned high-frequency drivers near each end of the dash help construct a soundstage that tells you this system is at least one step above what's found in rental cars. The tweeters are clear at high volumes thanks to good crossover settings that keep the lows going to the other speakers. The midbass drivers in the front doors are mounted very low, causing some sound to get blocked by the shins of the driver and the front passenger. These small speakers try to reproduce everything from vocals to bass drums and are easily overwhelmed. Along with rattling the door panels, hip-hop songs reveal the hollow and often distorted bass output. This is partly due to the grainy signal produced by the system's amplifier under high volumes. Folks in the backseat get no special tweeters and are blasted by the small speakers in the hat shelf, that is, if 30 watts max can be considered blasting.

Best Feature: A-pillar speakers for good imaging.

Worst Feature: Backseaters get shortchanged.

Conclusion: Three words can sum up this mediocre audio system: it's not bad. -- Trevor Reed


2003 Suzuki Aerio

System Score: 5.0 (tie)

Components: The Aerio GS sedan comes with a six-CD changer mounted very high in the dash. (The S trims come with a single disc player.) All Aerios are equipped with six speakers, including tweeters mounted near the base of the windshield. The other four drivers are full-range speakers with two mounted in the front door panels and a couple of wimpy 25-watt units in the rear shelf.

Performance: The CD changer in the test vehicle was easy to reach and the simple controls and large orange display make operation as painless as can be expected from an in-dash shuffler. The tweets reflect sound off the front glass and create a nice soundstage with the left and right channels well separated from each other. These speakers sound nice at moderate volumes but get messy, with some vocals developing a lisp, as the left knob is twisted. Guitars and other midrange tones are fairly loud and also sound bad as the volume increases. The bass gets loud, too, but interferes with the midrange and sounds sloppy with complex recordings.

Best Feature: Reflecting tweeters.

Worst Features: Weak speakers.

Conclusion: The speakers on the dash are a nice treat, but the rest of the drivers leave much to be desired. -- Trevor Reed



2003 Saturn Ion 2

System Score: 5.0 (tie)

Components: For a car in this price range, we were very disappointed with the stereo inside this vehicle. However, it should be noted that the vehicle we got for our road test had the entry-level stereo offered by Saturn. Consumers can add additional speakers, more power and a six-disc CD changer as options. Be that as it may, we had to report on the system we tested, and its results were not impressive.

On the plus side, the head unit in this system was very well designed. Surprise-and-delight features included excellent button spacing, a logical and simple topography and an attractive amber display. The head unit offered both cassette and a single-play CD, and all in all, the setup in this vehicle rivals anything in its class. There were no steering wheel controls for the stereo in this vehicle.

Speakers were pretty bare-bones, with a pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers on the rear deck, plus an identical pair in the front doors. There were no separate tweeters in this system, but again, a step-up option gives you separate tweets and a bigger amp for a few hundred dollars.

Performance: Not impressive. Other than the fact that this system plays loud enough to blast your eardrums, it's lacking in any kind of quality sound. The whole system sounds reedy, thin and watered down, as though they started with a good system and removed components until it sounded lousy. Lower frequencies were just fair, highs lacked definition and spaciousness and mids were not nearly as detailed as we've found in other cars in this class.

Best Feature: Great ergonomics on the head unit.

Worst Feature: Very poor sound quality.

Conclusion: If we were judging on sound quality alone, this system would have scored much lower. However, its rating was somewhat elevated by the excellent head unit. If you're interested in buying an Ion but want a more complete system, we suggest looking at the options menu, where you can add a changer, more power and more speakers. -- Scott Memmer


2003 Hyundai Elantra

System Score: 4.5

Components: This car is such a good value, perhaps we shouldn't complain too much about the stereo. It's a pretty bare-bones system, and yet in spite of this it puts out some decent sound.

The head unit is pretty basic. It offers a cassette player, tone controls, AM/FM presets and all the necessary functions. Although some of the buttons are on the small side, they're well spaced and logically placed. This makes for a friendly layout that is easy for the user to navigate. Unfortunately, our test vehicle lacked a CD player, an item that Hyundai buries in a pricey $1,400 option package.

Things get better on the speaker side. Front speakers include a pair of 6.5-inch midbass drivers in the front doors, coupled to an excellently positioned pair of tweeters above. The rear deck houses a surprisingly beefy pair of 6-by-9s that puts out a lot of sound.

Performance: This system is very much in keeping with the value equation of this car. Although it doesn't rank up there with the leaders in the class, it puts out respectable sound for the money and represents a good value. In particular, the front tweeters present a lively soundstage and better-than-average stereo imaging. Overall, though -- mainly because of weak amplification -- the system never gets up and dances. But again, what do you expect for such a reasonably priced car? Bass notes are muddled and diffused, and most instruments have a tinny, artificial sound, but to even have a stereo in such a feature-laden vehicle is a bonus.

Best Feature: Excellently positioned tweeters.

Worst Feature:Needs an amp.

Conclusion: This one won't win any awards, but it's another example of the excellent value of the Elantra. You won't buy this car for the stereo, but most owners will get a lot of enjoyment from this little sound system.-- Trevor Reed


2003 Honda Civic

System Score: 4.0

Components: The EX comes with a single-CD player and four speakers. The head unit is mounted high in the dash and the speakers can be found in the front door panels and the shelf under the rear window. All of the drivers are small and weak full-range units.

Performance: The CD player is easy to reach and the controls are not difficult to understand. Unfortunately, there's not much good to say about the sound produced by the speakers. High tones such as guitars and vocals are dry and distort when the bass hits. That's the problem with full-range drivers ż everything runs together. Certain bass tones resonate and create an uneven playing field, with other sounds getting shortchanged. Overall, bass output is weak and includes distortion at almost any volume.

Best Feature: Good head unit placement.

Worst Feature:Full-range speakers

Conclusion: A simple sound system with poor sound quality. -- Trevor Reed

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