The compact sedan segment is such a practical bunch of cars. According to Hyundai, about half of buyers choosing one of these cars are downsizing -- and their number one reason is fuel economy.
This is clearly a thrifty group of people. And while all of the cars in this segment get good or great fuel economy, the Elantra beats them all. It does so without a downsized, turbocharged engine (Chevrolet Cruze), twin-clutch automatic (Ford Fiesta), or direct fuel injection -- but instead with smart aerodynamics, a small four-cylinder with dual continuous variable valve timing, and six-speed transmissions (automatic or manual). Importantly, all Elantras achieve the same EPA figures (29 mpg city, 40 mpg highway). No "eco" package is needed (as in the Cruze and Fiesta.)
There's another area in which the Elantra has all of its competition beat: styling. With apologizes to Toyota, no self-respecting young person could get excited about the Corolla. The Civic, now at the end of its life cycle, has a futuristic design that went one step too far -- and seems to appeal to George Jetson more than it does to Elroy. The Chevy Cruze is a good car, but it carries the baggage of a lifetime of crappy compacts from the General. The Mazda 3 is fun to drive, but its silly smiling face is a deal-breaker for many. And the Volkswagen Jetta may look grown-up and elegant, but it can't compete on price here. When it tries, it's equipped with an engine from the 1940s and an interior of Play-Skool quality. (Slight exaggerations, if only.)
In fact, if it weren't for the forthcoming Focus (and the new Fiesta, both of which compete with the Elantra) we could go so far as to say that this Hyundai is so far ahead of everything in its class, it's playing by itself. There is no longer a single compelling reason to buy a Corolla. The Civic is just fine, if you love the way it looks. The Mazda remains a fun choice, but it looks and feels like a toy by comparison. And the Jetta? If you want the real German car, you need to pony up the extra money for the wagon or forthcoming GLI, both of which have high-quality interiors, but neither of which can compete on price.
Hyundai has cracked the code of the compact economy sedan. This category of car isn't about making a sport sedan, and it's not rocket science to make a car that's nice to drive, well-equipped, reliable, and price-competitive. To its benefit, Hyundai seems to be the only player that understands how important styling is.
And the Elantra delivers that in droves. Inside and out, there's not a cheap part and not a single bad angle. It looks elegant, expensive, and well-built. And it's more of the same from behind the wheel. The steering is path-accurate. The brake pedal feels positive, with immediate bite and response. Handling is excellent on smooth surfaces. The ride quality is surprisingly supple, with excellent body control. The cabin is quiet. The 1.8-liter engine produces 148 hp, but only 131 lb-ft of torque, so it needs lots of revs to keep up with traffic. That's no problem, since it's relatively quiet, smooth, and unobtrusive (under 6000 rpm, anyway-the highest couple hundred rpm on the tach are accompanied by a determined, somewhat harsh note). The six-speed automatic is ready, willing, and able to pull off big downshifts with the utmost of smoothness-and redline upshifts are similarly well executed. Unfortunately, the six-speed automatic has an unacceptably long first gear, making off-the-line getaways far slower and more labored than in, say, the Jetta or Cruze, both of which squirt off the line with short first gears.
The only cheap touch in the Elantra's interior is the hard plastic on the backs of the fold-down rear seats; it's easily scratched and will show its age quickly. Otherwise, every touch point is padded, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel on uplevel Elantras feels great. (So do the heated leather seats.) The climate controls are not only easy to use, but far better looking than anything else in this class (and the vent fan is surprisingly quiet.) The infotainment interface is merely okay unless you order navigation-some of the functions require multiple steps to access.
The back seat of the Elantra offers suitable amounts of space, but the sloping roof really cuts into headroom -- a problem that the other expensive-looking car in this class, the Jetta, doesn't have. But the Hyundai's interior materials are a world better than the VW's. And the Jetta's base 2.0-liter 8-valve engine is no match for the Elantra's 16-valve 1.8-liter, not in power or economy or refinement. The optional 2.5-liter five-cylinder is a far better match for the Jetta. Of course, it comes at a price -- in additional MSRP and diminished fuel economy
You won't mistake the Elantra for a Volkswagen GTI or a BMW 3-series from behind the wheel, but as a practical commuter, there's not much to complain about. And that's what this type of car is about -- comfortable, economical, and practical. Right now, it's without question at the top of its class, and until the next Ford Focus goes on sale, we have no doubt that it'll remain there.