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.