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Small car choices improve

The highly anticipated, redesigned Honda Civic LX, whose predecessors have often been Consumer Reports' highest-rated small sedans -- as well as Top Picks in five of the last 10 years -- now scores too low to be Recommended by the leading automotive testing organization.

The redesigned Civic LX's score dropped a whopping 17 points to a mediocre 61 from the previous generation's very good 78. It scored second-to-last in CR's ratings of 12 small sedans, followed only by the recently redesigned Volkswagen Jetta.

Testers found the 2012 Civic to be less agile and with lower interior quality than its predecessor. It also suffers from a choppy ride, long stopping distances and pronounced road noise. On the positive side, the Civic provides decent rear-seat room. It achieved 30 mpg overall, which gives it the second-best fuel economy in its class.

The test group also included sedan and hatchback versions of the redesigned-for-2012 Ford Focus and the hatchback version of the Kia Forte, which both scored Very Good.

The Focus was fun to drive and more polished than its predecessor, with the type of agile handling, supple ride and solid feel expected from a compact sports sedan. But a snug rear seat, complicated controls and annoying behavior by the automatic transmission took a toll on its score.

The 5-Door hatchback is Kia's latest addition to the Forte line, and is well-equipped, relatively roomy and offers a lot for the money. But its noise isolation, ride and interior quality are middling.

Competition in the small-sedan segment is intense with many new or redesigned entries. The redesigned-for-2011 Hyundai Elantra tops CR's ratings with its impressive fuel economy, roomy interior and strong value.

The new-for-2011 Chevrolet Cruze is more refined than previous General Motors small cars but fuel economy suffers from its heavy weight.

Redesigned for 2011, the Volkswagen Jetta, like the Civic, dramatically dropped in overall score in CR's Ratings. Some older-design small sedans, like the highly efficient Toyota Corolla, the roomy and quiet Nissan Sentra and the sporty Mazda3, remain competitive.

Not one model is Recommended. The Focus and the Forte hatchback are too new for CR to have adequate reliability data to Recommend. The Civic didn't score highly enough to be Recommended.

CR only Recommends vehicles that have performed well in its tests, have at least average predicted reliability based on CR's Annual Auto Survey of its more than 7 million print and Web subscribers, and performed at least adequately if crash-tested or included in a government rollover test.

CR's other findings include:

*Honda Civic. The Civic has slid backward with its redesign. Vague steering weakens its agility and robs it of its fun-to-drive feel. The Honda Civic LX ($19,405 MSRP as tested) is powered by a 140-hp, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that provides adequate acceleration and gets 30 mpg overall in CR's own fuel economy tests. Cargo space is good.

*Ford Focus. With sporty handling and a solid-feeling interior, the new Focus drives more like an upscale compact sports sedan. But the new PowerShift automated manual transmission stumbles at low speeds, the radio controls are confusing, and the rear seat is tight.

The Ford Focus SE ($20,280 MSRP as tested) is powered by a 160-hp, 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine that provides adequate acceleration and gets 28 mpg overall. The higher-trim Focus SEL hatchback ($22,185 MSRP as tested) adds a nicer interior and increased cargo flexibility from a hatchback. Cargo space is good.

*Kia Forte. Like the Kia Forte sedan and two-door Koup, the hatchback Forte is a good value. Handling is responsive and secure, but the ride is stiff and jittery. The Kia Forte EX 5-Door ($19,240 MSRP as tested) is powered by a 156-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers average performance and gets 26 mpg overall. The cargo area is generous for this class.

By the editors of Consumer Reports at

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