A good compact car can easily fit many lifestyles.
It’s affordable to buy and operate. Yet, it has enough refinement, technology, and style that you don’t have to feel like you've settled for the most basic way to get around.
To be clear, not every compact car fits this description. Some pursue a niche segment, perhaps adding performance or luxury at a higher price. Others simply trail their competitors.
But the Hyundai Elantra sedan checks every box in the above definition of a good compact car. While it’s unlikely to evoke strong desire, it offers fuss-free, wholly unobjectionable transportation at attainable prices, particularly if you can take advantage of its frequent incentives.
The Elantra is already well-equipped at its base price of $17,835, and even for a sticker price of less than $20,000, you can add such upgrades as hands-free Bluetooth connectivity; a touchscreen infotainment system with a backup camera and Android Auto and Apple CarPlay smartphone integration; dressy alloy wheels; and even a radar-based blind-spot monitoring system.
Hyundai also offers extra-long warranty coverage: five years or 60,000 miles bumper-to-bumper, and 10 years or 100,000 miles for the engine and transmission. That’s welcome protection against unforeseen repair expenses for the foreseeable future.
Unlike compact cars that try to look sporty and aggressive, such as the Honda Civic, the Elantra presents cleanly handsome styling. Slim headlights and taillights bookend a modern, aerodynamic silhouette, and the rectangular chrome grille evokes an Audi without seeming like a garish luxury pretender.
Inside, the Elantra is plainer, and not all of its trim pieces fit with impeccable attention to detail. But the overall ambiance is pleasant, with an airy feel, comfortable seats, and high-quality materials. The car also boasts user-friendly ergonomics, with straightforward gauges, buttons, and knobs, along with the touchscreen infotainment system. Rivals like the Honda Civic and Mazda3 aim for a more dramatic interior design, but the Elantra is easier to operate.
Note that the Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback, tested earlier this year, shares little more than its name with the Elantra sedan. It has a flashier, fancier interior, and an entirely different — though still not overdone — exterior design theme.
Most Elantra sedans come with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque, which is on the low side for the class. The car is adequately peppy, but this engine doesn’t sound as smooth as that of some rivals.
The car tested for this review was the Eco model, with a turbocharged 1.4-liter engine featuring just 128 horsepower but a healthier 156 lb-ft of torque. So equipped, the Elantra is punchier, quieter, and more fuel-efficient.
Elantra sedans with the 2.0-liter engine and a six-speed automatic transmission have EPA ratings of 32 to 33 miles per gallon in mixed driving, depending on the trim level; the Eco, with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, reaches 35 mpg. The tested car averaged an outstanding 43 mpg during a weeklong test. However, only the hard-to-find Eco trim offers the 1.4-liter engine.
The Elantra’s driving dynamics are generally pleasant but unremarkable. You won’t get the sporty handling of a Mazda3 or Honda Civic, but the car is quieter and more composed than a Toyota Corolla or Nissan Sentra — perhaps the Elantra’s two closest rivals as budget-focused economy cars.
The Elantra has one primary weak point: The best safety gear is offered only on the top-of-the-line Limited model with the available Ultimate Package. Its total sticker price is more than $27,000. The same technology — radar-based cruise control with emergency automatic braking, a lane-departure alert, and automatic lane-keeping steering corrections — is standard equipment on every Corolla, and no more than a $1,000 option on any Civic trim.
But otherwise, the Elantra is a compelling option among affordable compact cars. It’s classy without being pretentious, and comfortable and well-built without being expensive.
Overall, it offers the up-to-date technology, modern appearance and confidence-inspiring quality that make a new car so appealing — and it doesn’t overcharge for the benefit. If maximum luxury or sporty performance isn’t your top consideration, be sure to check out the Elantra.
Brady Holt is a member of the Washington Automotive Press Association.