2017 Hyundai ElantraEnlarge Photo
It's true that economy cars are no longer boring. They haven't all caught up with the taste of today's buyers or with the times, though.
The latest Toyota Corolla has taken a leap, in both design and features. Has it advanced enough to tackle one of the most expressive compact sedans you can buy--the Hyundai Elantra?
The Elantra stood out in its class when it was completely redesigned, for 2011, but it's been redesigned with a more subtle shape and a subdued cabin for the 2017 model year. Meanwhile, the Corolla has been nicely updated. It's now a tossup in styling, design, and even functionality standpoint.
Which one is the winner? In our eyes, it's nearly a draw. The Corolla gets points for a major upgrade in safety tech for 2017, but we think the Elantra is ultimately the more enjoyable to drive. The Corolla is a narrow winner if you go by the book. (Read more about how we rate cars.)
While the Elantra was a standout in its class for its appealing take on Hyundai's "fluidic sculpture" design direction, its new shape now blends in a bit better with its competitive set. It has a nicely arranged cabin that, again, drops some of the more adventurous styling notes for a plainer, straightforward look. The stylish hourglass center console is gone, for example. It's been replaced by a European-influenced shape with a horizontal layout and instrument binnacle.
The Corolla is no longer the purest vanilla. In its last redesign, Toyota gave it a fresh look that's much more daring and edgy than its previous iteration. Inside, especially, the Corolla takes some of the space-efficient sensibilities of the current Camry cabin and adds more flair. LED headlamps and running lamps on the outside add a nice finishing touch, while a sporty Corolla S stands distinct, with a blacked-out look and sportier details.
In most Corolla models you'll find a 132-horsepower 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, while the Elantra comes with a 147-hp, 2.0-liter. The Elantra includes a six-speed automatic transmission, while most Corolla models get a CVT that isn't so bad and responds well in most cases. Performance between the two is comparable. For those seeking maximum fuel efficiency, the Corolla LE Eco trim holds the upper hand, with a specially tuned version of the engine and mileage of up to 42 mpg on the highway. The Elantra Eco, with its 128-hp turbo four and seven-speed dual-clutch, is rated at 37 mpg highway.
Keep in mind that these are both commuter devices and low-cost transportation above all, and driving excitement isn't the first priority...or the second one. On a curvy road, neither the Corolla nor the Elantra feel quite at home; both are sprung quite softly, with the Corolla's steering simply too light and the Elantra a bit uneven in its transitions. The Corolla S, with its stiffer suspension tune, is the better pick if curvy roads are in your daily-driving reach; these models feel more buttoned-down, and the CVT pretends that it has seven simulated gear ratios and steering-wheel paddle-shifters. However, the redesigned Elantra has a very good body structure that delivers excellent ride quality for the class, and it's much quieter than the Corolla, almost across the board.
The much-improved Corolla interior no longer puts the Elantra's cabin at a strong advantage. We'd actually call it a tie in terms of materials and trims—both impressive for such low-cost cars. Both are mid-size cars in terms of real, usable seating space, and back-seat legroom in particular has been boosted in both to make them commodious enough for adults.
Both cars are reasonably good performers for safety, but the Corolla has a full set of crash test scores, while the new Elantra does not yet. Toyota earns a five-star overall score from the federal government, and there's little doubt the Corolla's improved body structure makes it safer than the previous version. However, it earns a 'marginal' score on the IIHS' new small-overlap test.
The Elantra, meanwhile, comes in at just four stars overall from the federal government—but the IIHS disagrees, awarding Hyundai's compact its Top Safety Pick+ rating.
One thing to note between the two is that the Corolla for 2017 comes standard with automatic emergency braking and adaptive cruise control, important features that require spending extra (and opting for specific trim levels) on the Elantra.
Equipment used to look sparse in the Corolla compared to the Elantra, but Toyota's really stepped up its game here, too, with a feature and option set that's competitive to the Elantra. Most Corollas include the automaker's latest Entune infotainment system, featuring navigation and apps in some models. Both the Elantra and Corolla include standard Bluetooth connectivity, while navigation, push-button start, heated front seats, and automatic climate control are available on upper trims. The Elantra, however, can be optioned with rear heated seats and ventilated front seats, and we do like its infotainment interface better.
In all, you can't go wrong with either of these frugal compact sedans. The pricing and features are now comparable. The Elantra arguably might still have the edge in style and flair, with its very well-coordinated design—and it's worth keeping in mind that the Elantra is also offered as a sportier hatchback, called the Elantra GT. (The GT is due for a replacement in the 2017 model year as well, but it hasn't been shown yet.) But with a roomier interior, quieter ride, and better fuel economy, the Corolla has narrowed the gap significantly.
It's a close call, this one.