Was 2011 the Year of the Compact?

By Jason Davis | January 06, 2012
Conventional wisdom held that 2011 would be the year of the compact car. Instead, it was a year of disaster, frustration, and not atypically—hope. But everyone already knows 2011's great story: tsunami, earthquake, floods, and burying the past. It's that last part, plus summer's annual focus on the next production year that marks 2011's best as little more than anticipation for 2012. The hope for 2012 is something revolutionary, a definitive answer or a singular solution to CAFE without sacrificing a goat to the American god of horsepower. But as the automotive world has been driving model year 2012 cars for much of the past six months, we can conclude that 2011's best has been more reactive than proactive. Yes, 2011 was another year of downsizing, and we know the next six months of 2012 will be, too. You see, 2011 wasn't just supposed to be the year of the compact car, it became the catalyst of a coming decade of smaller cars and smaller engines and alien technologies. What this means is that 2011 was another year of compromise, a goat to the almighty mpg.
Snarky opinery aside, the recent market shift was profitable for many. And many of those who profited did so because of compact and subcompact cars. So, without further adieu, a list of numbers that may or may not support the claim that 2011—supposed year of the compact car—was the year of compromise and downsize. Here are the best and worst of 2011's small cars.
  • The Toyota Corolla was the best-selling small car in 2011. Which is a shame, because it was the 8th best compact sedan in Motor Trend's last 8-car compact sedan shootout. Does anyone read anymore? Perhaps not the 240,259 people who bought a Corolla.
  • Did anyone expect the Chevy Cruze to be the second-best selling compact of 2011 with 231,732 models sold? Chevrolet was probably pleasantly surprised, and can attribute the Cruze's success to, well, helping make Chevy profitable again.
  • The third best-selling compact car of 2011 managed to sell 60,000 fewer vehicles in 2011 than in 2010. Reread that sentence. 60,000 fewer people bought a Honda Civic in 2011 than in 2010, and yet it was still the third best-selling compact car of the year. Wow.
  • Maybe 54,000 of those lost 60,000 Civic buyers moved on to the Hyundai Elantra. Motor Trend named it the best in segment, ahead of the Civic.
  • Almost too close to call, but the Volkswagen Jetta beat out the Ford Focus by 2,000 to land fifth on 2011 best-selling compact cars list with 177,360 models sold. Ironic how the two became what each used to be: one cheap, and one sophisticated.
What does the rest of the list look like? A mixture of good-selling badness (Nissan Sentra, Kia Forte), bad-selling badness, which coincidentally, also gave up (Dodge Caliber), and bad-selling pretty-goodness (Subaru Impreza, Mazda Mazda3). All of these cars, including the top five, more or less, offer good fuel economy for relatively little of your finance-able dough. All of them are also, more or less, a compromise from their bigger brothers. Perhaps they are gutless. Or lack refinement, or the latest in technology. Some of them are just old, and weren't good to begin with. But even for the consumer crowd (as opposed to those who just want performance at any cost), it's hard to argue that anyone ever aspires to own a compact car. Fortunately, for those who relegate themselves to this no-longer frowned upon segment, it is also no longer the bottom of the barrel. For that, we turn to the best-selling sub- and micro sub-compacts for 2011, sacred cow to the almighty mpg!
  • The best-selling sub-compact for 2011 was the Nissan Sentra. Wait, no, the Nissan Versa, which came close to outselling the Sentra's 114,991 number with 99,730. Interestingly, the Versa practically matched its 2010 sales number, outselling the year before by a mere 25 vehicles.
  • The second best-selling sub-compact in 2011 was the Ford Fiesta, an awesome little car that gets even more awesome in 2012. The 2011 model sold 68,574, more than doubling its 2010 numbers.
  • Perennial sub-compact All Star—the Honda Fit—was the third best-selling sub-compact in 2011 with 59,235 models sold.
  • Hyundai's Accent was the fourth best-selling sub-compact with 55,601 models sold.
  • The "It's a Car!" sold 8,000 models fewer in 2011 than 2010. For that kind of money, the Toyota Yaris better be…
The biggest winner to not make the winner's list is the Mazda2, a recently introduced sub-compact that sold 10,000 more cars in 2011 than in 2010. The rest of the list includes the Chevy Sonic, Kia "not an Accent" Rio, and the Fiat 500. And the Smart car, but we're pretty sure it's not a car, or as "car" as the Yaris.
An exciting bunch of cars, right? Never before has counting miles per gallon been so… profitable. Sources: Every automaker listed