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Compact sedan comparo: Focus, Lancer, SX4

John LeBlanc compares the Mitsubishi Lancer, Suzuki SX4 sedan and the Ford Focus.

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Hockey players, comedians, universal health care and real beer – these are four reasons Americans line up behind us Great White Northerners.

Mid-size family sedans have perennially topped new car sales’ charts in the U.S. But as our friends to the south are suffering economic woes, maybe it’s time they also took our lead in our appreciation of more financially practical compact cars.

Take these three new-for-2008 compact four-door sedans. All evenly matched with 2.0 L four-cylinder engines powering the front wheels, air conditioning, anti-lock brakes and automatic transmissions – all for less than $20,000.

But which one can deliver the biggest driving thrills? And for our U.S. readers who may need more room, we’ve also included compact sport-utility vehicle alternatives:

THIRD PLACE:

Ford Focus SE

Stickering at $19,354, Ford’s done an excellent job refreshing this year’s Focus in the mold of a mini-me Taurus. The ride quality over potholed pavement is baby-bottom smooth. And inside – shhhh! – it’s big-car quiet, with the most rear headroom of this trio as well.

Despite a refreshed interior, ergonomic relationships are straightforward. Too bad the steering wheel adjusts for rake only, or that the front seats are as flat as a runway.

The only compact here with traction control, the Focus’s driving experience is highlighted by light and accurate steering. But the softened suspension means its handling characteristics are benign; there’s little for driving enthusiasts to get their string-back gloves wrapped around.

With only 140 hp on tap, the Focus is the slowest from rest to 100 km/h, at 10 seconds. No surprise, then, it’s also the most miserly, with a combined city and highway rating of 8.0 L/100 km.

Comfortable and quiet, all that’s missing from the matured Focus is a fedora perched on its rear shelf.

Why Buy? Big car ride; accurate steering, miserly fuel economy, quiet interior.

Why Not? Droning performance; unsupportive seats; lacklustre handling.

Cute-Ute Alternative: Ford Escape XLS $23,999

SECOND PLACE:

Suzuki SX4 Sedan

Like the Lancer, with its 291 hp Evolution performance model, the $18,295 SX4 Sedan’s bones were built to handle more than the 143 ponies its sweet revving four guts out.

How about 320 hp, as in the SX4 World Rally Car?

Priced like a subcompact, the Suzuki never felt like one.

On the road, the Focus was no match for the SX4’s quicker steering, livelier handling, and more supportive seats, though its bowler hat profile does affect at-the-limit cornering, feeling top heavy in sharp manoeuvres.

It might look like a subcompact, yet the tall SX4 is only tinier than the Focus in rear hip room. However, Suzuki sacrificed folding rear seats in favour of structural rigidity. At least its trunk is the largest here. And it has the tightest panel gaps and most expensive feeling trim inside.

With its 8.5 L/100 km rating, the four-banger’s rev-happy nature adds to the sedan’s “feel good” factor. With an optional four-speed auto box, it splits the Focus and Lancer with a 9.5 second 0-to-100 km/h run.

Why Buy? Price; ergonomics; sweet engine; interior build quality.

Why Not? No folding rear seats; high centre of gravity.

Cute-Ute Alternative: Suzuki Grand Vitara $25,595

FIRST PLACE:

Mitsubishi Lancer DE

Although adding anti-lock-brakes and air conditioning made the Mitsubishi the most expensive compact sedan here at $19,498, its chiseled looks, driver-oriented cockpit, crisp handling, and composed ride mimics a mid-1990s BMW 320i.

Compared to its contemporaries, the Lancer’s wider track not only means it feels the most planted on the road, but also its cabin is the roomiest. Rear seat hip room is more than 100 mm wider than the Suzuki’s. But Lancer has the smallest trunk.

Similar to the Suzuki at 9.0 L/100 km, the Mitsu’s 152 hp four makes it the powerhouse of this group, and the quickest to 0-to-100 km/h at nine seconds. Its optional continuously variable transmission aids in keeping the engine in its optimal rev range, 3500 to 5000 r.p.m.

Granted, the FWD Mitsubishi’s steering can’t match a rear-drive Bimmer’s. But it’s nicely weighted, with excellent off-centre feel. Cornering is always a balanced affair, with minimal understeer.

And like a good German sports sedan, all this is accomplished in the Lancer without a punishing ride.

Easily the nicest driving of this trio, the Mitsubishi’s real competitors are more cosmopolitan, like the Volkswagen Jetta or Mazda3.

Why Buy? Driver-focused ergonomics and handling; roomy inside.

Why Not? Small trunk; no telescoping steering wheel.

Cute-Ute Alternative: Mitsubishi Outlander ES 2WD $24,998

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