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8 of the Best 2021 Compact Cars

The Best Small Cars of 2021

Subaru WRX STI rendering

It’s no secret that traditional cars are losing ground to crossovers and SUVs year in, year out, and compact cars aren’t exempt from that trend. Will model year 2021 compact cars manage to offset this apparent downturn in small cars’ fortunes – it’s still too early to tell? My two cents say they won’t, as small crossovers are evidently becoming a number one choice for families all over the world.

Global compact car market had shrunk by 7.8 percent between full year 2017 and 2018, and now accounts for only 16.8 percent of total global car market share (down from 18.2 in 2017). A total of 14.2 million traditional compact cars have been sold throughout 2018 of which around 2 million were Volkswagens, 1.8 million were Toyotas, 1.4 million were Hyundais, and 1.1 million were Hondas (Chevy is in fifth spot with only 621,000 compacts sold).

Things are even worse in the U.S. where traditional commuter car sales (sedans, hatchbacks, and an occasional wagon) fell by 12.3 percent and came to a stop at exactly 1,548,650 units at the end of 2018. Only 2009 was worse in that regard, but global economic recession back then had impacted overall sales as much as it did compacts, whereas the total number of vehicles sold in 2018 actually grew.

The Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla sedan are the best-selling compact cars in the U.S. with 325,760 and 280,886 units sold throughout 2018 respectively. However, both have seen a significant decline in sales of 14 and 9 percent respectively compared to 2017. Nissan and Hyundai have also managed to deliver north of 200,000 of their compact cars (Sentra and Elantra) in the U.S. during 2018, but the remainder of the pack hasn’t been so lucky.

Let’s now take a look into the future and see what MY 2021 is about to bring as far as compact (and subcompact) cars are concerned. We will take both the affordable and luxury badges into consideration, but only traditional passenger cars are eligible as crossovers and SUVs have already been covered in a separate article. We’ve also covered hybrid cars and EVs separately, hence only good old fashioned cars with internal combustion engines will be considered here.

08. 2021 Toyota Corolla

Fully redesigned for model year 2020, the twelfth-generation Corolla is arguably better than ever. It’s still an affordable sedan or hatchback that prides itself on reliability and efficiency, but the new models finally deliver in entertaining drive department. The new Corolla is far from being an enthusiasts choice in that regard, but is still definitely an improvement over its predecessor thanks to the Japanese company’s new TNGA platform which improves rigidity and sports a multilink suspension instead of torsion-beam setup.

The next-gen Toyota Corolla is also better appointed than the old models, with cheap materials kept to a minimum. Apple CarPlay capability is now standard throughout the entire range, while Android Auto integration is expected to arrive by 2021.

As far as driving aids are concerned, every model including the entry-level $19,600 Corolla L trim now gets standard adaptive cruise control, automatic emergency braking, and active lane control. That’s something very few of Corolla’s competitors are able to counter. What’s more, even the $450 upgrade LE models get blind-spot monitors, while the range-topping models get even more. And they won’t set you back further than $25,500.

The next-gen Toyota Corolla can be obtained with two conventional and one hybrid powertrains. Base models make 139 horsepower thanks to a 1.8L 4-cylinder engine formerly available in the Corolla Eco trim. These are limited to sedans, however, as all Corolla hatchbacks rely on a more powerful 169-horsepower 2.0L 4-cylinder engine, and so do higher-tier sedans. Both can be paired with either a 6-speed manual or a fuel-conserving CVT transmission.

The Toyota Corolla hybrid pairs a 1.8L 4-cylinder with a 71-horsepower permanent-magnet synchronous AC motor, and a nickel-metal hydride battery pack for a combined power output of 121 ponies. More importantly, the new Corolla hybrid returns as much as 52 miles per gallon combined which is unparalleled figure in its segment.

2021 Toyota Corolla is being mostly carried over as 2020 represents its first full model year in current state. However, there are some talks about the hot-hatch version of the car which would apparently use a 2.0L hybrid 4-cylinder and could arrive as soon as in 2021.

Toyota Corolla sedan

07. 2021 BMW M3

The all-new seventh-generation BMW 3 Series codenamed G20 has its work cut out for it trying to recover what’s now tarnished reputation of its mode distant predecessors. The last couple of generations have grown a beer belly and let themselves go, but the G20 has gotten back in shape and its M version should finally show us what arguably the most popular Bimmer ever made can do.

The 2021 BMW M3 is scheduled to arrive during mid-2020 as 2021-year model but we’ll get to see much earlier than that as the official auto show debut is scheduled for the 2019 Frankfurt motor show in September.

Compared to current conventional models, the M-badged 3 Series will boast more pronounced fenders, air intakes, front splitter and rear diffuser, and other usual performance-enhancing bits. Its price tag will reflect all that, hence you shouldn’t be surprised if BMW starts asking as much as $70,000 for their latest M3 variation.

The engine behind the most powerful BMW compact car generates as much as 503 horsepower in the more powerful Competition models. The 3.0L twin-turbo S58 inline-six will, however, come with “only” 473 horsepower when basic M3 is concerned.

These entry-level M3 units will be the purists’ dream as they’ll apparently be offered exclusively with a manual transmission and rear-wheel drive configuration. The more powerful models, on the other hand, will utilize company’s newest all-wheel drive system from the M5 where rear-wheel drive can still be selected on demand. This will be M3’s first time relying on all-wheel drive.

We’ll know more after the Frankfurt auto show, and hopefully, the news will only get better from now on.

2021 BMW M3 test mule

06. 2021 Volkswagen Golf Mark 8

The most popular compact hatchback in the world is entering its eighth generation, and while Volkswagen has pushed its official reveal date further from initially promised Frankfurt debut, base models should still be ready for MY 2020. The performance-oriented Golf GTI and R versions will, however, arrive at a later date for MY 2021.

Design-wise, very little will change. The next-gen models follow what’s already an established design language based around the updated MQB platform. Numerous advanced driving aids, wi-fi hotspot, and modern device integration are expected to be standard across the range.

Mark 7’s powertrains have already been revamped a few years back, and the next-generation is expected to fully utilize company’s 48-volt mild hybrid system. A 2.0L turbocharged 4-cylinder petrol engine is the only real option on the U.S. market knowing how Volkswagen and diesel are forbidden from appearing in the same sentence after the dieselgate scandal.

What’s more, there’s an off-chance that the GTI will actually become the entry-level model in the U.S. with conventional units never arriving here. The Mrak 7 Golf GTI makes 228 horsepower, and its successor is expected to develop around 250 ponies. The most powerful Golf R iteration should be able to produce north of 300 horses.

The VW Golf GTI currently goes for around $28,000, and that’s expected to remain unchanged. We’ll have to wait and see the German brand’s strategy regarding entry-level models in order to find out more. Regardless of what happens, they’ll be some of the best compact cars 2021 will have to offer.

Volkswagen Golf Mark 8

05. 2021 Cadillac CT4

Basically a renamed and reworked ATS, the CT4 sedan (together with its slightly larger CT5 sibling) aims to transform the way Cadillac competes with its German rivals. Instead of taking on the entire German arsenal at once like the ATS did, the CT4 will leave the job of competing with the BMW 3 Series to the CT5, and instead tackle the likes of Mercedes-Benz A Class and Audi A3 (including their performance iterations).

The all-new Cadillac CT4 is debuting for MY 2020 but 2021-year models should carry over virtually unchanged. Although it can be considered as an evolution of the ATS in terms of overall design and shape, the CT4 sports a few chassis upgrades like standard magnetorheological dampers for rear-wheel drive models and a limited-slip diff for both the rear and all-wheel drive versions.

Price-wise, the CT4 significantly undercuts its predecessor which used to start from just under $40,000. The entry-level models shouldn’t be more expensive than $35,000 or thereabouts, but there’s plenty of room to spend money on the newest entry-level Caddy thanks to the performance V-badged models.

Speaking of which, there’ll be more than one V-badged Cadillac CT4 variation, but let’s start from the beginning. The entry-level CT4 uses a 2.0L turbo four mill worthy of healthy 237 horsepower. It’ll likely be paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission as its only choice.

The mildest CT4-V uses a 2.7L turbocharged 4-cylinder engine capable of putting up 320 horsepower and 369 lb-ft of torque which are being routed to the ground via a 10-speed automatic transmission. Finally, by the time MY 2021 arrives, the range-topping CT4-V Plus will have provided as much as 355 horsepower via a 3.0L twin-turbo V6.

We’ll know more soon enough as both the CT4 and CT5 are expected to arrive to dealerships this fall.

Cadillac CT4

04. 2021. Alfa Romeo GTV

The iconic Alfa Romeo GTV nameplate’s return should be a great boost for the luxury Italian brand that’s currently experiencing difficulties sales-wise, as 23,800 units sold in the U.S. during 2018 apparently won’t be replicated in 2019 the way things stand at the moment. The iconic nameplate will be donned by an all-new sports coupe that might just reverse this negative trend when it finally arrives.

And arrive it will for MY 2021 apparently, although initial reports suggested it might make it even sooner. The 2021 Alfa Romeo GTV’s strongest suite is undoubtedly its mesmerizing design of which the FCA division can be justly proud. However, modern Alfas are more than just a pretty face as their reliability issues are now a thing of the past. What’s more, all the U.S. market models are marketed as upscale vehicles, and what should be a $50,000 compact executive sports coupe, won’t stray from that path.

Using the same platform as the Giulia sedan, the GTV will be pitted against the likes of BMW 4 Series, Audi A5, and Mercedes-Benz C Class coupe. Later on, the Italians should also offer a convertible, but probably not in time for MY 2021.

The powertrain lineup of the forthcoming GTV coupe will be identical to that of the Giulia sedan. Most units will thus draw inspiration from a 2.0L turbo four making 280 horsepower, but the most interesting units will, of course, don the famous four-leaf clover  Quadrifoglio badge. These will utilize a 2.9L twin-turbo V6 mill for 505 ponies and 442 pound-feet of twist.

What’s more, Alfa has been working on a high-output hybrid setup for a while now, and GTV should be one of the models utilizing that particular setup. A 600 horsepower or thereabouts is the figure circulating right now. With a perfect 50:50 weight distribution and standard rear-wheel drive setup, GTVs promise to be some of the best MY 2021 compact cars we’ll see.

Alfa Romeo GTV rendering

03. 2021. Honda Civic

As already mentioned above, the Honda Civic is the second best-selling compact car in the U.S. and one of the best-selling compacts in the world. Currently in its tenth generation, MY 2021 promises a lot of changes for one of Honda’s best sellers.

The 2021 Honda Civic should be a fully redesigned eleventh-generation model with a completely overhauled interior and exterior alike, but that’s not all. Apparently, the Japanese have already put a plan in motion that’ll move the entire compact lineup’s production to the U.S. The Civic sedan is already being produced in Greensburg, Indiana and Alliston, Ontario, but the hatchback is being imported from the U.K. When the current generation finally expires after 2020, company’s Swindon plant will be shut down and Civic hatchback’s production will be moved here.

The next-gen Honda Civic is, however, expected to remain similar to the current generations as compact cars rarely go through dramatic changes. Prices too are expected to remain in place with sedans being available from just under $20,000. With no import taxes and shipping costs, the Civic hatchback too should be priced similarly instead of requiring $2,000 more.

Civic’s powertrain lineup is already rather diverse for the segment it competes in, and it’s set to become even more colorful after 2021. It’s still too early to speculate whether the current lineup of engines will carry over, but a 174-horsepower 1.5L turbo four (205 ponies in the Si range) looks like a fine choice going forward. A 158-horsepower 2.0L 4-cylinder base engine might get axed by then.

Expansion is expected to come via electrification as compact car is set to adopt some kind of a hybrid technology when the next-gen arrives. A 300-plus-horsepower Type R is also part of Civic’s future, and so are sedan, coupe, and hatchback body styles.

Honda Civic Type R test mule

02. 2021. Subaru WRX STI

With its arch rival Mitsubishi Lancer Evo in the ground, there’s nothing to push the iconic Subie towards bettering oneself, and that’s never a good thing in the auto world. Come to think of it, very little was done even while the WRX STI still had the Lancer breathing down its neck. After all, Subie’s horsepower ratings have only been improved by 10 ponies in the past 15 years.

All this has been rectified thanks to the first S-badged Impreza ever to be offered in the U.S. – the WRX STI S209. This special edition uses a larger turbocharger and tweaked 2.5L engine for a total of 241 horsepower and might be a precursor for the entire new generation of Subaru’s performance cars in the U.S.

By the time 2021 arrives, the Subaru WRX STI will have gone through a major overhaul and next-generation models could end up being the best ultimate Impreza cars ever made. They are also expected to start from close to $30,000.

It’s nigh time for the Japanese to do something about the WRX’s 310-horsepower EJ25 engine. The next-gen models are rumored to adopt a hybridized powertrain with a lot more firepower, but that’s unlikely to happen if you ask me. Instead, the new 2.4L turbocharged flat-four that made its debut in the Ascent SUV might be the way to go. That or an entirely new FA-Series-derived Boxer engine.

It’s still too early to speculate on which course of action the Japanese will take so we’ll have to lay back and patiently await for some official info to cross our path. That probably won’t happen prior to 2020 as there’s still plenty of time for the next-gen models to arrive.

Subaru WRX STI rendering

01. 2021 Mercedes-Benz C Class

The fourth-generation (W205) Mercedes-Benz C Class hasn’t been properly updated since 2014, and with BMW 3 Series being completely overhauled, and Audi A4 getting a facelift, there’s very little the Stuttgart-based automaker can do but finally provide us with the next-gen of its compact luxury lineup of models.

The 2021 Mercedes-Benz C Class is bringing exactly that evidenced by numerous test mules that have already been spied all over the place. Most details about the W206 are still unknown, but they’ll become apparent as 2020 starts to wind down. Design-wise, it’s probably best to take hints from the recently introduced A Class and CLA Class. As always, the new C Class will bring an abundance of tech upgrades but most of them will only be available at extra cost.

Speaking of which, the lineup will initially consists of entry-level sedans which currently start from around $42,000. Coupes and convertibles will be available later on, with range-topping AMG models arriving by the time MY 2022 starts knocking at the door.

It’s still unclear what kind of a powertrain lineup the Germans are preparing for the new C Class, but we can certainly say it won’t lack any diversity. A 2.0L turbocharged inline-four will likely be the only engine available at launch, but expect it to provide a little bit over 255 ponies and 273 lb-ft of torque that current models make.

Apart from offering standard 48-volt mild hybrid technology, the new C Class could also offer a dedicated hybrid model, but we’ll have to wait and see what happens in that department. More powerful models will utilize a new 3.0L straight-six mill, while the most powerful AMG units remain betrothed to the good old V8.

More should be known after the Paris motor show, when one of the best 2021 compact cars is scheduled to make its first official appearance.

2021 Mercedes-Benz C Class test mule

Nikola Potrebić
About Nikola Potrebić

Despite driving a piece of junk, Nikola still manages to survive the harrowing experience called "A road trip in a Yugo," day in, day out. On the other hand, precious few things move him as muscle cars do. Especially those from the bygone golden era, which makes him wonder why wasn't he born a few decades earlier? Well, at least he's been given the opportunity to enjoy the likes of the Pontiak Aztek, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Fiat Multipla, and other lovely millennials, right? Come to think of it, I'll stick with my Yugo. Thank you very much!