The Hyundai Elantra arrived in its current form through trial and error. Thankfully, the error part is over. What remains is a sophisticated small sedan that appeals to a broad range of buyers. Hyundai piles on the standard equipment and offers an outstanding warranty to reassure those who might remember the Elantra's inauspicious beginnings.
The sprightly Mazda3 is a relatively new model, but gets so many things right it feels like a car that's been refined over decades. With spot-on performance and tight construction, it sends a compelling product message to shoppers in the market for an inexpensive sedan or hatchback.
Both cars present a strong case, but which does more to win over buyers?
Where the Elantra Excels
It's hard to overstate how far the Elantra has come in terms of quality and convenience. Buyers don't have to make any sacrifices when choosing the current model. It delivers commendable fuel economy at a bargain price, but you also get a roomy cabin, distinctive styling inside and out, and surprising standard features like heated mirrors and satellite radio. In short, the Elantra is more car than its market position suggests.
Standard power comes from a 1.8-liter four-cylinder with 148 horsepower, and an optional 2-liter four-cylinder injects 173 horses. Buyers have a choice of manual or automatic transmissions, both offering six speeds.
The Elantra also tops the Mazda3 in terms of cargo room in both the sedan and hatchback form, making it a more capable people and cargo hauler.
The Mazda3 carries out the brand's mission to provide some fun for the driver in all of its models. The Mazda3 excels in terms of performance thanks to its standard 155-horsepower 2-liter four-cylinder and optional 184-horsepower 2.5-liter four-pot. Firm suspension tuning and communicative steering provide athletic handling that's easy to appreciate in everyday driving.
The Mazda also wins out in fuel economy across the board, as the sedan gets up to 41 mpg highway, while the hatchback gets up to 40 mpg highway.
Mazda deploys quality materials throughout the interior, so there's little evidence you're riding in an economy car. Buyers with things to carry can opt for a rather attractive hatchback variant.
The Bottom Line
The Elantra attempts to add some flair to the economy car formula with sophisticated styling and an engaging interior. The result is a well-rounded, economical sedan with a dose of sophistication.
Not to be outdone, the Mazda3 is one of the few economy cars that offer engaging road manners combined with a civilized environment inside. It's not as smooth over the road as the Elantra, but pays you back in the form of sweeter handling.
Our Verdict: Mazda Mazda 3
We're fans of the classy Elantra, but the Mazda3 stands out by virtue of its impressive performance and outstanding fuel economy.