New Car Reviews

Comparison: 2011 Hyundai Elantra vs. 2012 Ford Focus

Change has been a constant in our nation’s capital over the past few years, as relative unknowns have swept into the halls of power. The very same might be said of compact cars, particularly the Ford Focus and Hyundai Elantra. For years, these two cars have campaigned in relative obscurity as more established and better-funded offerings dominated the segment. Now, thanks to thorough redesigns, they’re both frontrunners, promising more features and better fuel economy than we once thought possible for a compact car. But which deserves your vote? That’s what we aimed to determine by journeying in both cars from still-chilly Michigan to cherry-blossom-lined Washington, D.C. As politicians haggled over the dollars and cents in our national budget, we put the Focus and Elantra through their paces and found which car brings change we can believe in.

Looking presidential

The right look doesn’t count for everything – just ask John Edwards and Mitt Romney – but it sure helps. The Elantra and Focus both score big points here. They’re stylish enough to stand apart from the bland appliances in the segment (Toyota Corolla, Chevrolet Cruze, Volkswagen Jetta) while avoiding weird design elements that turn off potential constituents (Mazda 3, Honda Civic). In fact, we were surprised by how similar the two cars look in person, even though our Focus was a hatchback. They share a sleek, sloping profile and feature similarly slanted head and taillights. Each has a few distinguishing details – we love how elegantly the Elantra’s rear window flows into the trunk and were wowed by the Focus’s hidden gas cap (once we found it). No doubt about it, these cars would look plenty comfortable in a televised debate — no makeup required.

A chicken in every pot and Bluetooth for every phone

Well-equipped compact cars, once a novelty, are now de riguer. And so our test cars both ride on seventeen-inch wheels and pamper occupants with satellite radio, iPod connectivity (both via hard wire and streaming), heated seats, and redundant steering wheel controls. Bluetooth? You even have to ask? The Elantra, in Limited trim, adds a navigation system identical to what you get in the more expensive Sonata, leather seats, and a sunroof for a price of $22,860. Ford offers a similar trim for the Focus, called “Titanium,” but our particular SE model, listed at $21,945, hews more toward performance with a sport package that adds the aforementioned rear disc brakes, sixteen-inch aluminum wheels (the seventeens are extra), and unique interior and exterior trim.

Clearly, both candidates are making some lofty campaign promises. However, there are a few areas where they underdeliver. Take, for instance, the much-hyped Sync voice-recognition system on the Focus, which has a learning curve steep enough that we often gave up and relied on the busy assortment of buttons on the center stack. The optional MyFord Touch cleans up the center stack with a large touch screen, but our recent experiences with the system on other Fords have left us frustrated with its less-than-intuitive function and occasional glitches.

Hyundai’s system, in contrast, works very smoothly and easily but can be overwhelmed in very demanding situations such as, say, providing directions in a chaotic city. We wish Hyundai offered something akin to the Google maps option available with Ford Sync, whereby directions can be calculated via Google and beamed to the radio or nav screen.

In fact, we at one point wound up staring at Google maps on an iPhone, as the Elantra’s in-dash nav-screen wasn’t detailed enough to show us how to negotiate a particularly confusing loop near the Kennedy Center of Performing Arts. Similarly, Hyundai’s voice-recognition technology is easier to use than Sync at first, but can become tiring with its multilayered command structure, leading us to believe real owners will find more utility in the Ford system over the long haul.

Hyundai is also the more earnest in following through on its fuel-efficiency claims. Both Ford and Hyundai are heavily touting their small cars’ ability to achieve 40 mpg on the highway, but the Focus only does so when equipped with a dual-clutch automatic transmission and a special fuel economy package. Our test car, equipped with a five-speed manual — no six-speed is offered — is rated at a still impressive, but less sensational, 26/36-mpg city/highway. The Elantra, on the other hand, is rated at 29/40 mpg regardless of trim level and with either the six-speed automatic that was in our test car or the standard six-speed manual. Over the course of our three days of mixed city and highway driving (including the round trip to D.C. from Ann Arbor, MI), we observed an indicated 36 mpg in the Elantra, versus 33 mpg in the Focus.

It’s a similar story when it comes to interior space. On paper, the two cars have nearly identical interior dimensions. In real life, the Elantra feels noticeably more spacious, especially in back, where its flat floor allows for easy pass-through and tolerable legroom even for a middle passenger. The Focus feels a bit crowded in front and positively cramped in back, though it scores some points with nicely bolstered front seats and excellent materials quality overall.

The right experience

Is it better to be the experienced Washington bureaucrat who knows the ins and outs of legislating or the fresh-faced outsider who isn’t tainted by years of backroom dealings? The Elantra and Focus are mostly able to balance the best of both worlds thanks to their size: They’re small enough to slice through the snarling urban traffic and negotiate the bizarre intersections that make up D.C.’s “grid,” and yet they have no issue flying at 80 mph on dangerously congested highways. Steering in both cars is quick, but not nervously so.

There are a few holes in the Ford and Hyundai’s commuter car resumes, though. Both cars, for instance, suffer in stop-and-go traffic due to their fuel-economy-focused, numerically low gearing. It was especially noticeable in the Ford, despite the power advantage afforded by its 2.0-liter four-cylinder (159 hp compared to 148 hp from the Elantra’s 1.8-liter), as we were constantly working the manual gearbox to keep up with traffic. The saving grace here is that the Focus has one of the best stick-shifts we’ve experienced in a domestic compact, with linear clutch take-up and smooth shift action.

The Elantra has a harder to dismiss issue in its ride quality. We expected the Elantra, with the longer wheelbase of the two cars, to be the more mature cruiser. Alas, its suspension crashes over potholes and jitters across highway expansion joints. Here’s where Ford’s experience comes into play. Blue Oval engineers perfected the art of small-car suspension tuning more than a decade ago with the first Focus and have demonstrated that acumen as recently as last year with the smaller Fiesta. The new Focus follows the same theme. Its four-wheel independent suspension calmly absorbs road imperfections that had the Hyundai’s torsion-beam rear axle pitching about the contents of its trunk.

That experience shines even more brightly when we finally escape the Beltway and find some winding rural Maryland roads. The Elantra is no slouch at cornering, taking fast turns with reasonably little body roll and little complaint from its Continental all-season tires. But it’s never much fun, which is where the Focus really distinguishes itself. Through quick switchbacks, its back end feels noticeably more planted, and its overall limits feel slightly higher even though it wears slightly taller-profile Continental all-seasons. More important, we enjoy the Focus more because it supplies that now rare commodity known as steering feel. The steering wheel in the Focus is a communicative, lively, naturally weighted driving tool. The Elantra’s tiller, in contrast, is much more typical of modern small cars – it gets the job done accurately enough but relates very little of what’s happening to the front tires.

Conclusion: Serving special interests

Our candidates have a lot in common. They achieve good fuel economy, offer lots of electronic goodies, look quite good inside and out, and drive well in just about any environment. We hear they want lower taxes and support the troops, too. But as with most campaigns these days, the choice comes down to special interests. If you value interior packaging, user-friendly controls, and getting the absolute maximum fuel economy for your dollar, go ahead and support the Elantra – thousands of young families will likely agree with you. We, however, happen to be vocal backers of the enthusiast lobby, complete with membership cards that read “No Boring Cars.” Ford has unabashedly pandered to those of us who care about driving by designing an efficient, comfortable mainstream car that absolutely nails the finer points of steering feel, suspension tuning, and overall driver involvement. Our vote goes to the Focus.

2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited

Base price (with destination): $19,980
Price as tested: $22,860

Standard Equipment:
1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine
6-speed automatic transmission
17-inch alloy wheels
Electronic stability control
Traction control
4-wheel disc brakes with ABS
Tire pressure monitoring system
Power sunroof tilt & slide
Fog lights
Air conditioning
AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 audio system with 6 speakers
iPod/USB and auxiliary audio input
Power windows/locks/mirrors
Remote keyless entry
Tilt/telescoping steering column
Leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob
Leather seating surfaces
60/40 split rear seats
Options on this vehicle:
Premium package — $2000
Navigation with high-resolution 7-inch touch screen
Rearview camera
Premium audio system with external amp
Automatic headlights
Proximity key entry with push-button start
Carpeted floor mats — $95
iPod cable — $35
Key options not on vehicle:

Fuel economy:
29 / 40 / 33 mpg

1.8L I-4
Horsepower: 148 hp @ 6300 rpm
Torque: 131 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm


6-speed automatic

Curb weight: 2877 lb

Wheels/tires: 17-inch alloy wheels
215/45R17 Continental Contiprocontact all-season tires

2012 Ford Focus SE

Base price (with destination): $18,790
Price as tested: $21,945

Standard Equipment:
2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine
5-speed manual transmission
16-inch steel wheels with covers
Power windows, mirrors, locks
Anti-lock brakes
Electronic stability control
Driver and passenger air bags
Tire pressure monitoring system
Fog lamps
AM/FM stereo single CD/MP3
Auxiliary audio input jack
Air conditioning
Tilt/telescoping steering column
60/40 split rear seats
Options on this vehicle:
Convenience package — $1385
Cruise control
Perimeter alarm
MyFord & Sync systems
MyFord tech, 6 speakers, Sirius satellite radio
SE Sport package — $1130
16-inch painted aluminum wheels
Piano black grille
Rear disc brakes
Rear spoiler
Cloth sport seats
Sport tuned suspension
Leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob
Winter package — $570
Heated seats
Power and heated mirrors
Turn signal mirrors
17-inch machined and painted alloy wheels — $495
Key options not on vehicle:
6-speed automatic transmission — $1095
Moonroof — $795

Fuel economy:
26 / 36 / 31 mpg

2.0L I-4
Horsepower: 159 hp @ 6500 rpm
Torque: 146 lb-ft @ 4450 rpm


5-speed manual

Curb weight: 2920 lb

Wheels/tires: 17-inch alloy wheels
215/50R17 Continental Contiprocontact all-season tires

Buying Guide
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2012 Ford Focus

2012 Ford Focus

MSRP $39,200 Electric Hatchback

0-60 MPH:

7.6 SECS


26 City / 36 Hwy

Safety (IIHS):

Best Pick