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.