Top-Rated 2021 Small Cars in Appeal According to Consumers

Liz Kim | Sep 15, 2021

Small cars serve as the worker bees of the automotive world. Whether you live in a city and celebrate their petite proportions to manage traffic and squeeze into parking, find their fuel-sipping ways and affordable prices essential, or simply don’t want a larger vehicle, small cars await to serve your needs in a tidy and efficient manner.

2021 Nissan Sentra Teaser

And if you’re looking for the top-rated small cars to get the most bang for your buck, you’ve come to the right place. The annual J.D. Power Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout (APEAL) Study provides great guidance.

Every year, J.D. Power surveys tens of thousands of verified owners of new vehicles about what they like and dislike about their car, truck, or SUV after at least 90 days of ownership. Then, J.D. Power compiles the consumer-provided data and converts it into an overall index score on a 1,000-point scale. The higher the index score a vehicle gets, the greater its appeal.

Listed below, you’ll find the top-rated 2021 small and compact cars in ascending order by index score, according to the consumers who own them. The highest-ranking model is at the end of the list.

10. 2021 Honda Insight - Find the best Honda deals!

2021 Honda Insight Front Quarter View

Do you want a gas sipper? According to the EPA, the Honda Insight hybrid sedan gives you between 48 mpg and 52 mpg in combined driving. Based on these figures, its 151-horsepower hybrid powertrain can theoretically go more than 500 miles on a single tank of gas. And when you stop, you’ll pay for no more than 10.6 gallons.

If that sounds like your kind of small car, the 2021 Insight is available in LX, EX, and Touring trim levels. This year, the Insight gets a new blind-spot warning system with cross-traffic warning, replacing the previous camera-based LaneWatch technology. It is standard equipment for the EX and Touring trim levels.

The index score for the 2021 Honda Insight is 814.

9. 2021 Volkswagen Jetta - Find the best Volkswagen deals!

2021 Volkswagen Jetta Front Quarter View

The Volkswagen Jetta shines as a compact sedan that feels more like a midsize car when it comes to rear seat and trunk space. It also boasts a wide range of trim levels, and the S, SE, R-Line, SEL, and SEL Premium all include a turbocharged 147-horsepower 1.4-liter engine. There’s even a high-performance 228-hp GLI variant that comes with S or Autobahn trim levels. 

The 2021 model year saw a new infotainment system for some of the top trim levels, along with some juggling of available safety features.

The index score for the 2021 Volkswagen Jetta is 829.

8. 2021 Volkswagen Golf - Find the best Volkswagen deals!

2021 Volkswagen Golf Front Quarter View

The Volkswagen Golf gives you impressive cargo utility without the efficiency, weight, and price penalties of a crossover SUV. But people want crossovers, so after the 2021 model year, the only versions of this car to remain in the U.S. will be the GTI and Golf R. If you still want a standard Golf TSI and its 147-hp turbocharged 4-cylinder, act fast. In its final year of production, the Golf models get a new infotainment system while the GTI receives black side mirrors.

The index score for the 2021 Volkswagen Golf is 832.

7. 2021 Nissan Versa - Find the best Nissan deals!

2021 Nissan Versa Front Quarter View

The Nissan Versa may be small, but it’s full of practical considerations. You’ll get a low starting price with the base S, and you get features like front and rear automatic emergency braking and lane departure warning. The SV and SR trims come with features like a blind-spot warning system. All three versions of the Versa use a 122-horsepower 4-cylinder engine and a continuously variable transmission (CVT). The 2021 model year brought no changes for the Versa.

The index score for the 2021 Nissan Versa is 833. The Versa receives a J.D. Power award in the Small Car segment.

6. 2021 Toyota Corolla - Find the best Toyota deals!

2021 Toyota Corolla Front Quarter View

The Toyota Corolla has long been held in high esteem for its reliability, a reputation earned through its 12 generations of existence. Today, modern Corolla owners find the car appealing, too. 

For 2021, the Corolla comes in 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback body styles. Depending on which one you choose, trim levels include L, LE, Hybrid LE, XLE, SE, SE Nightshade, and XSE. In addition, a sport-tuned Apex Edition of the sedan arrived for 2021, and Corollas gained Android Auto compatibility to go along with Apple CarPlay. 

Most Corollas have a 169-hp 4-cylinder engine, while the 121-hp Corolla Hybrid essentially uses the same gas-electric hybrid powertrain as the Prius, which is good for about 52 mpg. Manual and CVT transmissions are available.

The index score for the 2021 Toyota Corolla is 842.

5. 2021 Mazda Mazda3 - Find the best Mazda deals!

2021 Mazda Mazda3 Front Quarter View

You want a small car, one with plenty of style and features, but you don’t want the price hike of a premium marque. Slip into a Mazda Mazda3, and you’ll swear that it looks, feels, and drives like it wears a luxury badge. 

Available in sedan or hatchback form, the Mazda3 offers three different 4-cylinder engines, including a powerful turbocharged one. You can even get a manual gearbox if you so desire, and all-wheel drive. Know, though, that any example of the Mazda3 will likely put a giant smile on your face each time you drive it.

The index score for the 2021 Mazda Mazda3 is 844.

4. 2021 Kia Forte - Find the best Kia deals!

2021 Kia Forte Front Quarter View

The Kia Forte sedan offers plenty of value in a compact car, and it goes beyond the generous warranty program and standard Kia Drive Wise advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS). 

A 147-hp 4-cylinder engine bolted to a CVT powers the FE, LXS, GT-Line, and EX trim levels. Kia caters to driving enthusiasts with the sport-tuned and turbocharged Forte GT, which offers a manual gearbox and a dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT) with paddle shifters. Kia made only slight changes to the Forte’s equipment lists for 2021.

The index score for the 2021 Kia Forte is 849.

3. 2021 Honda Civic - Find the best Honda deals!

2021 Honda Civic Front Quarter View

No consumer shopping list for small cars is typically complete without including the Honda Civic. In many ways, it defines the genre and still leads the way with its blend of functionality, driving enjoyment, and boundary-pushing styling. 

The 2021 Civic comes in sedan or hatchback form. Sedans come in LX, Sport, EX, EX-L, and Touring trim levels, while hatchbacks are available in LX, Sport, EX, and Sport Touring trim. Sedans with LX and Sport trim offer a 158-hp 4-cylinder, while all other Civics are motivated by a turbocharged 174-hp 4-cylinder. A CVT is standard unless you get a Sport Hatchback, which offers a manual gearbox.

Enthusiasts in the know will wax poetic about the high-performance 306-hp Civic Type R. But for 2021, in addition to canceling the Civic Coupe, Honda dropped the sporty Si models from the lineup. A redesigned Civic arrives for 2022.

The index score for the 2021 Honda Civic is 857.

2. 2021 Hyundai Elantra - Find the best Hyundai deals!

2021 Hyundai Elantra Front Quarter View

For 2021, Hyundai introduced an all-new, daringly redesigned Elantra sedan that won’t be mistaken for any other small car. The new styling puts a bow on Hyundai’s successful formula for mixing practicality, high-tech features, and a surprisingly upscale interior in a value-rich package. 

The Elantra SE, SEL, and Limited have a 147-hp 4-cylinder paired with a CVT. New for 2021, a 139-hp Elantra Hybrid returns about 50 mpg and comes in Blue or Limited trim, each with a DCT. Or you can get an N Line upgrade for a turbocharged 201-hp 4-cylinder and a choice between a manual transmission or a DCT.

The index score for the 2021 Hyundai Elantra is 858.

1. 2021 Nissan Sentra - Find the best Nissan deals!

2021 Nissan Sentra Front Quarter View

Sometimes, simplicity is the best policy. That describes the simple, sensible, and surprisingly roomy Nissan Sentra. The car was all-new for 2020, so changes for 2021 are minimal. They include standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone projection and a standard Wi-Fi hotspot (service costs extra). You can outfit the Sentra in S, SV, or SR trim, and they’re all moved by a 149-hp 4-cylinder engine matched to a CVT. 

The index score for the 2021 Nissan Sentra is 868. The Sentra receives a J.D. Power award in the Compact Car segment.

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