The best compact cars: There's no better way to get to work

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For our money, a compact sedan is the smartest new car you can buy.

Our favorites for 2009 -- the Honda Civic, Mazda3 and Subaru Impreza -- are roomier and more comfortable than ever inside and sportier than ever outside.

You can no longer think of these as "starter" cars, "second" cars or "the kid's after-school car." The best compact cars have evolved into the perfect commuting car. They'll ensure that your daily drive doesn't become a daily grind.

All cost around $19,000 -- a bargain when you consider that the median price for a new car is around $30,000. All come with four-cylinder engines, front-wheel drive, five-passenger seating and spacious trunks.

Honda Civic LX-S
The steeply raked windshield presents a strong, stylish profile that is uniquely Civic, the best of the best compact sedans.
It comes with a choice of two great engines -- 1.8 liters and 140 horsepower or 2.0 liters and 197 h.p. Both will get you onto a freeway, or away from a stoplight, with ease.

Yet the Civic delivers the best fuel economy of our favorites -- 25 miles per gallon in the city, 36 on the highway.

If sublime hard-corner handling tops your list of must-haves, then perhaps you belong in a Mazda3. But if an elegant balance between ride and handling summons you to your best, one-with-the-universe driving self, then let a Civic sedan be your guru.

Standard antilock brakes -- not a given in this class -- and a host of standard air bags, including front side-impact air bags and head-protection curtains, give the Civic sedans a deserved reputation for occupant protection.

We lean toward the LX-S version with the five-speed automatic transmission. It costs $600 more than the Civic LX, but you get snazzy 16-inch alloy wheels and some fine interior upgrades for $19,425, including destination charge.

All LX models include such primal necessities as MP3 playback capability, remote locking/unlocking, air-conditioning and cruise control, plus power windows and door locks.

Mazda3 i Touring

If you want to find yourself staring at the owner of an affordable sport sedan whenever you look in the mirror, then by all means slip into a Mazda3 and be done with it.

The Mazda3 almost feels purpose-built to the tasks of accelerating, cornering and braking. Its 2.0-liter engine produces 148 h.p. and lots of torque for great acceleration, especially when working with the standard five-speed manual transmission.

But untwisting twisted asphalt is the Mazda3's specialty, with the car's precise steering, firm suspension and superb balance working in harmony to ensure handling poise that's the envy of many cars costing thousands of dollars more. And when the time comes to drop anchor, big four-wheel disc brakes call the car to a halt, clean and even every time.

Mazda designers have a way with small-car styling, and the Mazda3 sedans reinforce that reputation. Even five years after its introduction, the 3 still looks modern and edgy in a way that exactly fits the image of an economy sport sedan. Inside, the theme continues with intuitive controls and front sport seats with lumbar adjustment.

That's not to say that the Mazda3 isn't human. The car is bound to Earth by so-so fuel economy (22 m.p.g. city/30 highway with the four-speed automatic), so-so standard safety features on the lower-end models and a rear seating area that can be a half-size too tight for some adults.

While it's tempting to recommend the $14,530 Mazda3 i Sport, you'll be exponentially happier stepping up to the $18,465 i Touring Value model, which lays on an extra-thick coating of comfort and convenience with features such as power windows, door locks and outside mirrors, remote keyless entry and MP3 compatibility. It also includes the vital safety features of antilock brakes and traction control.

For almost $1,000 less than the Civic, the Mazda3 is a sportier-handling compact and, many argue, equally stylish. Yes, the Mazda3 will be totally redesigned for 2010, but the '09 model is a great car with fine equipment at a very competitive price.

Subaru Impreza 2.5i

If you have one of those lives into which a little rain (or snow) must fall, Subaru's slick new Impreza has a solution: standard all-wheel drive.

We don't usually advocate AWD unless you live in a region where inclement weather is a way of life. But you don't have to spend most of your year in snow to appreciate the way AWD lends a sense of stability and iron-clad purpose to the handling of a compact car.

Where many front-wheel-drive compacts spin their wheels and wring the steering wheel in your hands even in a hard rain, the Impreza sails through with an imperial disdain and calm.

It's also the only one of our favorites to come with stability control, a valuable safety feature that also can keep you from skidding on slick roads.

Of course, AWD costs more, making the Impreza the most expensive of our favorites, but only by a couple hundred bucks.

Having all of the wheels driving all of the time (along with the Impreza's not-particularly-frugal 2.5-liter, four-cylinder engine) also saps your fuel economy. The Impreza 2.5i manages a meager 20 m.p.g. in the city and 26 m.p.g. on the highway.

Inside, the Impreza isn't out to impress. The interior is functional but decidedly basic, holding true to Subaru's reputation for stressing safety and durability rather than showy features. At least the amenities most drivers want, such as power windows, locks and a nice stereo, are standard equipment.

If you can live with those compromises, we recommend the unique styling and enhanced utility of the Impreza 2.5i, 5-door hatchback, which starts at $17,995.

Add $1,000 if you prefer an automatic transmission (stick-shift Imprezas have a sweet hill-holder feature, though, that makes it a breeze to work the clutch) and $665 for destination, totaling $19,660 for the best thumb-your-nose-at-the-weather compact-car value in the land.

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