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.
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.