Third Place: 2009 Toyota Corolla

26 City/35 Highway || Free Price Quote

his 2009 Corolla is something we've almost never seen, a Toyota so naked it had crank windows and manual locks; $250 for stability control was the only add-on, lifting the sticker to $16,160.

This is a new model in its first C/D comparison. We like the styling -- an expressive, feminine shape, following the theme advanced by the current Camry. We also like the fuel economy, best of the group whether you're looking at the window sticker or the results of our test trip in which it covered 28 miles for each gallon.

The top-of-the-class mileage is consistent with Toyota's reputation these days, and so is the hospitality of the Corolla's interior. No other here came close. Annoyance-free and verve-free, you might say; competence is the only flavor we detected.

Conveniences include seat-height adjustment, a tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel, two glove boxes, an auxiliary input jack, a center console with a bin under the armrest and two drink holders, plus one more and a large pocket on each front door, all rendered in low-excitement gray.

Almost to a man, we fit well in this sedan, on soft but comfortable seats. Exception: One of our sequoia-sized testers felt the driver's seat was too small.

The Corolla, along with the Rabbit, was on 15-inch tires, easy-riding Continentals in size 195/65 on both. The Toyota was slightly slower than average in acceleration and road grip and notably poorer in braking, although well within the test's extremes. Our one major complaint: The new electric-assist power steering has a herky-jerky feel, the result a nonlinearity in the assist curve that amplifies small corrections. The Scion, with a similar system, was less objectionable but not great.

Extremely hospitable, this new Corolla, with no risk to your blood pressure.

Second Place: 2008 Subaru Impreza 2.5i

20 City/27 Highway || Free Price Quote

Subaru as a style leader? Right, and gravity expires tomorrow. But we've seen it, the wedgy hatchback silhouette fashionably accented in chrome, the swoopy dash with broad, titanium-hued accents sweeping onto the extravagantly sculpted doors, and the plush flannel upholstery in delicious French vanilla. The entertainment center is high, just a short drop in the driver's gaze from the road ahead, and the three HVAC knobs are up where you can see them. This car knows how to work with its driver. We can see out of it in every direction. And it fits all of us with no grumbling.

Still a Subaru underneath, though, with the signature grunting engine, tingling vibrations, and standard-equipment all-wheel drive with its attendant weight penalty -- at 3080 pounds, the Impreza outgroans the others at the scale, but by only 20 pounds over the duded-up Lancer.

The performance numbers cluster around the average in every test. Fuel economy on our road trip tied with the Rabbit at 22 mpg, 1 mpg up from the last-place Lancer. The engine is weak off idle; give it some revs as you let out the clutch. The ride is quite smooth. The suspension feels soft, serviceable rather than sporty. Yet control in the twisties is secure, even fun. The seat cushion is shaped to keep the hips from sliding about.

Foot space is a bit tight in the rear, limited by the back of the front seat at ankle height. The cushion is short and less resilient than those of Mitsubishi, Saturn, and Suzuki, but the shape of it is just right for three-across seating, where it pushes the center passenger forward and out of shoulder alignment with the other two. We give the Impreza top marks as a five-seater. The seatback easily folds forward to make a flat cargo floor, too. Except for its fuel economy, the Impreza impresses.

First Place: 2008 Volkswagen Rabbit S

22 City/29 Highway || Free Price Quote

So the Rabbit repeats, once again topping the small-car ranking just as it did in "Sensible Shoes." And for the same reasons -- it's a brisk performer that's serious about covering miles.

If fuel economy were the top priority, the VW's 22-mpg showing on our road trip, 6 mpg behind the Corolla's, would probably knock it from contention. Our test results -- a tie with the Subaru for sixth place -- closely track the EPA's relative placement of the models presented here. We're willing to trade a bit of frugality for driving enjoyment.

The Rabbit was a close match with the Mitsubishi for the acceleration prize, 0.4 second behind in 0 to 60 but 0.1 ahead to 100 mph. Braking was just a bit better than average; cornering was exactly average.

It's in the subjectives that the Rabbit pulls ahead. The upright driving position is excellent, there's no nonsense in the controls, path accuracy is reassuring, the clutch strokes easily, and the shifter has a trusty, mechanical feel. Torque pours forth from small motions of your right foot.

The Volkswagen's cockpit has a stern, businesslike appearance, a froufrou-free zone at this $16,435 price-leader level. There's no center armrest for driver or passenger, and the seat fabric looks seriously thrifty.

We won't gloss over the shortcomings. The tires read road textures loudly into the interior, passenger comfort with two in back ties the Ford's at the bottom of the ranking, and some of our thinly upholstered drivers object to the contour of the front buckets where the cushion meets the backrest. We aren't too enthusiastic about the blue dials at night, either.

Still, two highly subjective categories figure strongly in our final results: "fun to drive" and "gotta have it." This VW outscored the others in both.

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