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Comparing Canada’s top-selling passenger cars

All have their strengths and weaknesses, so here's a closer look to sort out Canada's top-selling passenger cars.

Published April 27, 2011
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If you’re in the market to buy a new car, one easy check is to look at the top of the sales charts. There, you’ll find that the top-selling passenger cars in Canada are all compact front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, four-door sedans.

But which of these best-sellers is the best value?

For our comparison, we specified cars with base engines. But added ‘basics’ like air conditioning, electronic-stability control (which becomes mandatory for 2012), and automatic transmissions.

Related: What to look for when choosing your next car

We then measured each in the categories of price, interior design, room, ride and handling, “city” fuel economy ratings, and power:

Sixth Place: 2011 Toyota Corolla CE ($18,525) (Pictured above)

Redesigned for 2009, Toyota has applied some minor exterior and interior styling changes, and made previously optional safety kit standard to its 2011 Corolla.

Despite the minor updates, the Toyota compact was No. 2 in Canadian sales in March, behind only the top-selling Civic.

Excellent fuel economy, and an inoffensive driving personality seem to be the keys to Corolla’s continuing popularity.

The Honda, Hyundai and Chevrolet beat the Corolla CE’s $18,525 price, while the Civic and Elantra better its 7.8 L/100 km city fuel economy rating. And the Toyota’s interior and trunk space are relatively small, and its interior feels the least expensive.

Unfortunately, if you want more than just a comfortable highway ride in your new car, the Corolla is the least inspiring car to drive car in this sextet.

The Toyota’s 1.8-litre four with 132 hp is mid-pack in performance. But its slow-reacting autobox has the least number of gears here, with only four to choose from.

Feedback from the steering wheel is eerily absent, and the sedan lists like a tugboat in stormy waters in sharp turns.

Fifth Place: 2011 Volkswagen Jetta Trendline+ ($18,675)

Canadians seem to like the redesigned-for-2011 Jetta. With sales up 181 per cent compared to last year, it was the sixth best selling car in March.

One of the reasons for the Jetta’s newfound popularity is its extra rear legroom over the old model and best-in-class trunk space.

Right behind the Mazda and Chevrolet, the VW offers a European sedan-like balance between a comfortable highway ride and well-controlled handling. But where the VW drops the ball is its price and what’s under its hood.

At $18,675, the Jetta Trendline+ is the second-most expensive best-seller here, only behind the Mazda3. Yet the Cruze and Hyundai Elantra offer richer materials in their cabins.

The Jetta does offer a modern six-speed automatic. But its aging 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine — the only Jetta engine available in this price range — is its biggest offence.

It delivers the least performance (only 115 hp) and worst city fuel economy rating (9.6 L/100 km) of this bunch, and sounds like it’s in pain when in use.

Fourth Place: 2012 Honda Civic Sedan LX ($17,490)

As a perennial best-seller, with sales up more than 38 per cent in March, the Civic held onto to its No. 1 sales position. While those sales were based on 2011 models, a thoroughly redesigned 2012 Civic Sedan is at dealerships now.

As a perennial best-seller, with sales up more than 38 per cent in March, the Civic held onto to its No. 1 sales position.

While those sales were based on 2011 models, a thoroughly redesigned 2012 Civic Sedan is at dealerships now.

For good reasons, for 2012, Honda is touting the new Civic’s value pricing and excellent fuel economy. At $17,490 it’s the least expensive car here. And with a city fuel economy rating of 7.2 L/100 km, only the Elantra is better.

And although its 140 hp 1.8-litre four and five-speed autobox are essentially carryovers, the Honda sits just behind the more powerful Hyundai and Mazda.

There’s a new digital information display. But the 2012 Civics continue with their love-or-hate bi-level instrumentation. Unfortunately, soft-feel plastics are still hard to come by. And in regards to passenger and trunk volumes, the Civic is average.

Despite a slightly softer ride and slower steering ratio compared to last year, the 2012 Civic Sedan still offers a nice balance between ride and handling.

But the Mazda3 is more fun to drive, and the Cruze and Elantra are quieter and more composed at highway speeds.

Third Place: 2011 Mazda3 GS ($19,390)

At times the best-selling car in Canada last year, with sales now off almost 48 per cent, the Mazda3 slid to fifth-place in sales in March.

With fuel prices high again, the Mazda’s ho-hum 8.7 L/100 km city rating hasn’t helped. Nor has the Mazda3 GS’s $19,390 price, which makes it the most expensive best-seller here. And although its passenger volume is only less than the roomier Hyundai, its trunk space only betters the Toyota.

Marketed as a budget BMW, it’s no surprise the Mazda scored firsts in steering, handling and performance. Plus its driving position and cabin controls are spot on and easy to use. And its 2.0-litre four ties the Hyundai for most horsepower (148 hp) yet offers the most torque (135 lbs.-ft.).

The only downside to the Mazda3 GS’s overtly sporty driving character is extra road noise at highway speeds compared to the near-silent Cruze. But overall, if you like to drive, it’s a compromise you won’t regret.

Second Place: 2011 Chevrolet Cruze LS ($18,200)

Less than one year after replacing the Cobalt, Chevrolet’s Cruze sat just behind the more established Civic and Corolla in sales in Canada in March. And that overnight success is warranted.

The Asian-designed, U.S.-made Chevrolet compact offers one of the roomiest and luxurious interiors in this group, with quality materials and excellent fit and finish. Only the more capacious Jetta betters its trunk space. And at $18,200, only the Civic is less to buy.

More surprisingly, only the Mazda and VW are better when it comes to meshing sporty handling, lively steering and a comfortable, quiet highway ride.
But like the Jetta’s main vices, what prevented the Chevy from grabbing first place from the Hyundai was its relatively weak powerplant and city fuel economy rating.

The Cruze LS comes with a 1.8-litre four with 136 hp, but only 123 lbs.-ft. of torque. But because the Cruze is one of the heaviest cars in this group, the mill always feels strained, and even with six gears to use, it scores a second-worst 9.2 L/100 km in the city.

First Place: 2011 Hyundai Elantra Sedan L ($18,608)

Although it fell back to fourth-place in sales in March after being the best-selling car in Canada for the first two months of 2011, the new-for-2011 Hyundai Elantra sedan finishes first in our books. Like an honours student, we almost gave the Elantra straight As.

At $18,608.59, the Elantra L with optional air conditioning is competitive in price. But the Hyundai delivers the largest passenger volume, plus the design and execution of its interior only trailed the more luxurious Chevrolet.

The Hyundai’s 148 hp 1.6-litre four is tops with the Mazda, but its 131 lbs.-ft. of torque is less. At least the Elantra’s six-speed automatic aids in scoring a 6.9 L/100 km city rating – the best of this bunch.

If the Elantra has any shortcomings, it’s in its trunk space and ride and handling.

Both the Jetta and Cruze can carry more junk in their trunks. And we feel the VW and Mazda offer a better compromise between sporty handling and a comfortable ride.

wheels@thestar.ca