Compact Car Buying Guide

By Zac Estrada
Last Updated 05/05/2015

Compact cars are not for cheapskates. They’re for first-time buyers, people who want great fuel economy and those who just don’t want to put up with taking up more space on the road than they need.

There are a lot of compact cars on the market, representing one of the largest segments of new cars. That means there are also lots of different models with different equipment for different needs. You should have plenty of choice, but keep a few things in mind when you go shopping.

Reliability Ratings

Pick something with a good reliability record. There’s little reason a small car should cost big bucks to fix, but that could be exactly what happens if a lot of things that go wrong.

Organizations such as Consumer Reports conduct surveys that show simple is usually best when considering a compact car, as high-fashion cars like the Mini Cooper and Fiat 500 have consistently yielded poor ratings, while the Toyota Corolla and Subaru Impreza regularly top the rankings for reliability. Forgoing cars that have turbocharged engines and dual-clutch transmissions has also contributed to better long-term reliability.

Cost of Ownership, Fuel Economy and Insurance

When you buy a compact car, you’re buying an inexpensive car. There’s no reason it should be expensive to own.

Aside from reliability, consider fuel economy. Just because a car is small doesn’t mean it’ll be fuel efficient. In fact, plenty of compact sedans, for example, get worse fuel economy than midsize ones. Consider how much parts and service will cost when it’s time to maintain the car. Some models can go up to 10,000 miles between oil changes, but others might need fluids changed more regularly, meaning you could be stuck with hundreds of dollars in repairs just as you get out of warranty.

Then there’s the sticky matter of insurance. Compact cars, especially performance-oriented models, can be expensive to insure for young drivers. If you settle on a car, shop around for insurance quotes to make sure you can really afford the car.

Standard and Available Features

Just because you’re buying a small car doesn’t mean it has to be barren. These days, plenty of small cars are loaded with features typical of larger models. Many built in the last few years come with USB ports and Bluetooth connectivity, while most should have power windows and air conditioning – unless you’re looking at models from the early 1990s or before.

But it’s also the little things that can make a compact car more livable, such as a split-folding rear seat, or a cargo cover on hatchbacks and wagons, or alloy wheels so that you’re not constantly losing plastic wheel covers. Some, more upscale, models also include niceties like auto on/off headlamps and automatic climate control, even at this size of the market. Take a look at a few models that are your style and see what’s out there.

Easy to Drive

A compact car had better be easy for you to drive – it has no excuses, because it’s compact, after all. Make sure the seats, steering wheel and mirrors can be adjusted to your liking. Many newer models offer features like a telescoping steering wheel and a height-adjustable driver’s seat to help you find a good driving position, so make sure you’re able to get comfortable. Most modern cars have power steering, but it’s worth double checking if you’re shopping for an older compact car.

It’s also important to make sure the car is easy to see out of. Wide pillars and short windshields could make parking or looking up at stoplights a problem, which is a huge pain in city driving and dangerous in some high-speed lane change maneuvers.

Vehicle History

If you’re shopping for a used compact car, there’s a chance it was owned by a newer driver who may have had a few bumps here and there, or someone who may have ignored regular maintenance or recalls stemming from being a new car owner.

Try to find models with one previous owner or lots of service records and no history of accidents. But hey, this is CARFAX. Take a look at our used car listings, where you can search and sort based on a vehicle’s history. Shop smart and you’re much more likely to find a car that’s led an easy life.

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