Some ten years ago, the Korean giant was teaching old dogs lessons with its Hyundai Elantra. The old dogs learned a lesson or two.
Credit must be given where credit is due. By the late 90s, Hyundai had crossed the line between being a novel alternative to being a serious contender. By the mid-2000s, they’d kick some butts and taken some names. The Hyundai Elantra was at the forefront of this onslaught which continues to this day. Thing is that the once beaten-butts took notes and are back with a vengeance.
I love to set up comparison tests. There is no better way to make out the great cars from the good ones. The week I was testing a 2020 Hyundai Elantra Ultimate, I also happened to have a 2019 Mazda3 GT. Well, it was no coincidence but the fact that both were top-trim units was and I am thankful for it. What this week of back-to-back driving these two cars did was further cement the fact that affordable compact cars have never been more substantial, complete and satisfying. What it also was demonstrate that Mazda looked over all the homework and only skipped a page or two.
The keys to Hyundai success
Much of the notes taken during the beatings originated from Hyundai. The key elements then were efficiency and affordability mixed in with value. Let’s look at them individually.
Efficiency, without a doubt, remains key. The Elantra sedan is powered by an Atkinson 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine that produces 147-horsepower and 132 lb.-ft. of torque. The base $17,099 Elantra Essential is set up with a 6-speed manual transmission as standard with an Intelligent Variable Transmission (IVT), or CVT in Hyundai/Kia speak, as an option.
A good CVT, sorry, IVT…
Although the Elantra is anything but quick, the IVT actually has a considerable impact on the driving experience. The transmission’s programming enables it to get the most out of the 2.0-litre’s power and this, without negatively impacting fuel economy. All week, I average 7L/100km with little effort. In the same driving conditions, the Mazda3 managed 8.5L/100km. In regular drive modes, throttle and powertrain response is classic rubbery CVT-like but in Sport, the effect is nearly removed.
While on the road, the Hyundai Elantra’s vocation as a simple means to get around is evident. Ride quality is good, steering is light with a mild dose of vagueness on center, the brakes are responsive and overall cabin noises are kept under control.
Now, it could easily be argued that affordability and value are the foundation on which Hyundai built its reputation. Today, this statement is only partially true.
Value has evolved
The base Elantra sedan is still one of the most affordable compact cars you can buy, so long you keep equipment and trim levels to a minimum. There was a time not that long ago when features such as heated seats and steering wheel, a USB port, satellite radio and more were unheard of in this category of cars. What’s more, many of these elements were included in cars priced lower than the Japanese and, at the time, American alternatives.
Fast-forward to 2020 and all of these features and so many more are not available in the Mazda3, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla but the latter are priced very competitively. My tested 2020 Hyundai Elantra Ultimate retailed for $27,549 while the 2019 Mazda3 GT was priced at $28,700 with the Premium Package.
The difference in price is justified by the 3’s bigger 18-inch wheels, 2.5-litre engine, larger 8.8-inch screen, and niceties such as auto up/down window switches. The Elantra does include a wireless charger and heated rear seats but the point is that the Hyundai does not hold an advantage here.
Feels so solid
Hyundai and Kia have developed an expertise in seducing potential buyers with a once unparalleled initial impression of superior quality. For years, it served the company well and still does today. As I strapped into my Elantra tester, I was immediately impressed with how sorted and together the car felt. When I jumped into the Mazda3, was even more velvety and solid – this one will last past the “initial” part of the ownership experience.
For 2019, the Elantra underwent a facial and a nip-tuck. I do enjoy the conventional interior and the dashboard’s layout. I appreciate what was done to the car’s rear quarters as well however I think Hyundai went a little too far with the front fascia. The triangular headlights have instantly dated the car. When Hyundai introduced its highly expressive “fluidic sculpture” design, it did the same thing. It’s no wonder the design theme is no longer.
Pick the right trim
In closing, the Hyundai Elantra endures as an excellent way to get into the compact car segment. The key element is to stay away from the higher Luxury and Ultimate trims and stick with the base Essential or the interesting $20,549 Preferred. At these price points, you are benefitting from Hyundai’s legendary value. Above this, you are getting a lesser car than a Mazda3 or Toyota Corolla with the same kit for a similar price.