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There are many reasons behind the decision to buy a certain kind of car. You might like the brand, for example. Or prefer a specific nameplate, such as Ford or Toyota. There’s price, of course, and reputation as well. Plus, we all have our personal favorites.
But what makes a car a bestseller? A car that most everyone wants to buy, or at least seriously consider, like a Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla? The answer is more complex than you might guess, taking into account variables such as sales to businesses rather than consumers, production capacity and constraints, and pricing including discounts.
Generally speaking, though, the best-selling models offer a popular blend of equipment, performance, style, comfort, and utility – all at a competitive price. And this latest batch of best-selling small cars offers up a surprisingly satisfying array of features and characteristics that are normally found on more expensive vehicles.
About this list
The vehicles on this list earned best-seller status based on the number of models sold during 2017. Pricing shown is the base sticker price, plus destination fee, and the additional charge for an automatic transmission*. Also noted is any news of upcoming redesigns for the 2019 model year because value shoppers can bargain harder on outgoing models, while people looking for the latest upgrades many wish to wait.
* Pricing accurate as of Feb. 1, 2018
#10: Mazda 3
How did this happen, Mazda? How does the Mazda 3 take tenth place on the best-selling small cars list when it is arguably one of the most fun and put-together vehicles in its segment? Part of the reason may be the dearth of incentives: the Mazda 3 is doesn’t usually come with much money back. Then again, there’s also a new model coming in 2019, so this year might be a good one to get a big discount on an impressive car.
- Total sales: 75,018
- Base model sticker price: $20,035
#9: Volkswagen Jetta
Last redesigned for 2011, this version of VW’s best-selling car is pretty old so it’s time for a change. That change comes in the 2019 model year, so if you’re looking for a great deal and don’t really care about an updated version, add the 2018 Jetta to your list. Or wait for what critics say should be a much-improved sedan. I’d wait.
- Total sales: 115,804
- Base model sticker price: $20,495
#8: Subaru Impreza
How about all-wheel drive in a compact car? The Subaru Impreza offers it, and that’s just for starters. The Impreza checks the boxes for comfort, safety, and features, with a focus on utility. Redesigned for 2017, the Impreza also holds its value pretty well. As such, don’t expect much cash back when you go shopping.
- Total sales: 117,401
- Base model sticker price: $20,355
#7: Kia Forte
The current Kia Forte brings loads of features, a comfortable interior and decent driving dynamics – all for a low price. It’s a strong value that will make you feel smart but may leave you wishing for more fun at stoplights – unless you opt for the turbocharged Forte5 hatchback. For shoppers who want a deal, the 2018 version already has cash back; that’s because there’s a new 2019 model on the way.
- Total sales: 117,596
- Base model sticker price: $18,795
#6: Ford Focus
Whenever I think about the Ford Focus, I think about high-value fun. And so should you, because even though the interior is a little cramped and the current version is pretty old, it’s still one of the most fun small cars on the road – and a darn good buy. With a new version on the way in 2019, there’s already plenty of great incentive offers out there.
- Total sales: 158,385
- Base model sticker price: $19,830
#5: Chevrolet Cruze
Remember the Chevrolet Cobalt? Yeah, this ain’t that. In fact, the Cruze represents a serious and legitimate attempt by General Motors to compete with Honda and Toyota. It’s even a bit surprising that sales in 2017 fell behind the Nissan Sentra. Last redesigned for 2016, the Cruze gets points for a comfortable ride, decent drivability, and ample tech features. It also gets plenty of discounts on a pretty much constant basis – which drops the price into competitive range. There’s also a turbodiesel powertrain, which is a pretty nice option.
- Total sales: 184,751
- Base model sticker price: $21,275
#4: Hyundai Elantra
If you’ve ever rented a car on a business trip, there’s a good chance you drove an Elantra – and a better chance that you liked, or at least didn’t hate it. The current model, redesigned for 2017, offers a blend of style, features, cargo room, and drivability that make it a strong purchase contender. If performance is your thing, keep the Sport model in mind for a test drive. In addition, Hyundai always seems to offer big incentives on this car.
- Total sales: 198,210
- Base model sticker price: $18,835
#3: Nissan Sentra
It seems the Nissan Sentra has spent the past 20 years chasing the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla for sales, only to inevitably fall behind. And that seems about right: among this trio, it’s also a decent third choice when it comes to buying a small car. Redesigned for the 2013 model year and refreshed in 2016, the current Sentra remains low-priced, relatively roomy, but otherwise unremarkable, though the 2018 model does get automatic emergency braking as standard.
- Total sales: 218,451
- Base model sticker price: $19,160
#2: Toyota Corolla
It seems that everyone has a Corolla in their past. Heck, the car has been on sale stateside since 1968. It may even be the car you think of when you think about buying a small car. The reason? The Corolla has a well-earned reputation as a dependable, low-priced and low-fun car. Not a thrill ride, but a good basic ride. This version of the Corolla has been around since 2014, and there are rumors of a redesigned model coming for 2020.
- Total sales 329,196
- Base model sticker price: $19,445
#1: Honda Civic
Even in a world full of crossovers and trucks, the Honda Civic abides. Year after year, it has proven to be a capable, affordable and fun-to-drive choice that holds its value well. It’s no surprise, then, that the current Civic takes the top spot as a best seller, especially given its expansive interior and stylish exterior. If you’re shopping Civic, the car is due for a refresh for 2019, but a redesign is unlikely before 2021. And don’t expect many incentive dollars, either, though there’s always a good lease deal.