THE THREE TOP-SELLING SMALL CARS IN AUSTRALIA ARE THE MAZDA3, TOYOTA COROLLA AND HYUNDAI i30. HOWEVER, WHILE THE MAZDA3 AND COROLLA CAN ADD SEDAN SALES TO THEIR MONTHLY TALLY, THE i30 IS HATCH-ONLY.
So the small car segment is big news for Hyundai Australia, which has just released a sixth-generation Elantra sedan featuring greater local engineering input than ever before.
We put the new small Hyundai up against ‘the big’ small sedan sellers, the Mazda3 Touring and Corolla ZR Sedan, each a couple of years old now.
Small sedans don’t enjoy the sales success of small hatchbacks. But because they’re bigger, mostly, and add extra boot space thanks to a longer tail, they offer a good alternative for family buyers.
Petrol four-cylinder engines and automatic transmissions rule the roost in this class.
The entry models of each small sedan start at $22,490 (Mazda), $22,990 (Toyota) and $23,790 (Hyundai) – plus on road costs in each case – but private buyers will likely look a little higher up the food chain to the more up-specced models.
Feature by feature:
The Toyota may be the most expensive car in the field, but the Corolla ZR exclusively gets an electrically adjustable driver’s seat, front parking sensors (to match the rear sensors and camera standard on all cars here) and LED headlights to help justify its pricetag.
It arguably isn’t enough to offset the $4500 surcharge over the Hyundai, particularly given that the Elantra Elite adds exterior doorhandle lights, electrically foldable door mirrors, a dual-zone (rather than single-zone) climate control system and larger 17-inch (versus 16-inch) alloy wheels.
The Mazda3 Touring only gets 16-inch wheels as well, and although it gets dual-zone climate-control, it lacks the auto-dimming rear-view mirror and keyless auto-entry systems standard on both rivals (even the Corolla SX has the latter, in addition to front sensors missing from both the Mazda and Hyundai).
The Mazda3 Touring is, however, the only vehicle here offered with a $1500-optional safety package comprising low-speed autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert system and the auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
When added it still remains more affordable than a Corolla ZR, if not the Corolla SX.
Technologies and Infotainment:
The Elantra is technically the only car here without integrated satellite navigation, but it features an ace up its sleeve in the form of Apple CarPlay technology, standard across the range.
This brilliant system allows you to run maps, music and apps such as Pandora and Spotify through your smartphone, though it will utilize mobile data. It will also soon extend to Android Auto compatibility, meaning that most of the smartphone market will be covered.
Hyundai’s 7.0-inch touchscreen otherwise doesn’t operate quite as intuitively, or look as upmarket in its graphics, as Mazda’s 8.0-inch unit that can be used as a touchscreen at standstill or via a brilliantly-functional rotary dial (flanked by shortcut buttons) mounted on the lower console.
The Mazda3 Touring lacks Apple CarPlay/Android Auto technology, but it triumphs with integrated Pandora and Aha internet radio apps that can even be run via Bluetooth audio streaming – its rival needs a smartphone to be connected via USB.
Toyota’s 6.1-inch touchscreen is the least impressive here, being slow to operate and featuring grainy graphics.
A ToyotaLink app must be downloaded first before access to other apps such as Pandora becomes available. Curiously, its nav won’t let you input an address on the move, but it will let you navigate the map with your finger to select a point to go to. Either way, it’s needlessly fiddly.
Cargo and Space:
Of course many sedan buyers simply want sheer space, and here the Corolla ZR leads.
Starting at the rear, its 470-litre boot volume is the largest here and its bootlid opening is the tallest and widest.
The Elantra Elite isn’t far behind in either case, with a 458-litre boot volume that is only marginally distinguishable as smaller than its gargantuan rival – the cavity is similarly wide but isn’t as deep.
The Mazda’s cavity appears notably narrower and its bootlid opening lacks the entry height of its rivals. It isn’t helped by the fact the boot floor is shallow, making for a difficult fit for taller objects such as bulky prams.
The Mazda3 Touring is the only vehicle here with a space-saver spare tyre, where the others get full-size alloy spares.
All include 60:40 split-backrest folding capabilities, perfect for longer items nabbed from a weekend at Bunning’s.
Passenger Accommodation and Comfort:
The Toyota triumphs for rear accommodation. It opens its case with the widest back doors, and then offers the flattest floor (a boon for centre-rear passenger footroom) and almost double the legroom of its rivals. That said, its bench is ordinarily flat and headroom merely average.
The Corolla ZR is the longest small sedan here, stretching 4620mm from grille-to-bootlid, or 50mm longer than Elantra and 40mm beyond the Mazda3.
For passenger comfort, the Mazda has the most sculpted backrest for outboard rear passengers, providing benchmark shoulder support. It also has Corolla-beating headroom.
Yet its bench sits closest to the floor, crimping legroom for even the moderately lanky.
Conversely the Hyundai has a nicer seat base, firmly tilted upwards to deliver increased under-thigh support compared with the others. Although legroom is similar, leg comfort is demonstrably superior to the Mazda.
The downside is a similar lack of headroom to the Toyota, meaning this 178cm-tall tester was only another centimetre away from brushing the rooflining.
The biggest plus for the Elantra is standard rear air-vents lacking with its rivals. It’s also the only one with a luggage net, which along with the keyless auto-entry that illuminates the doorhandles on approach at night, and electrically unfolds the door-mirrors, hints at a bit more of a ‘premium’ experience than the others.
Style and Feel:
Up-front the Hyundai delivers the most polished design of the field, though some of the lower plastics are hard, as are the upper door trims.
However, the nicely damped switchgear and snug steering wheel all make the Elantra feel like a ‘mini Genesis’ – that being a reference to the brand’s $60,000 large luxury sedan.
The Mazda’s design is slick, but details let it down. The Touring’s leather is more vinyl-like compared with the Elite’s perforated leather, for example, and fake carbon-fibre inserts appear needlessly tacky.
Storage spots are lacking compared with the others, with particular mention going to the shallow centre-console tray and lack of door pockets – there are only single bottle holders in each door.
Even the Toyota is superior to the Mazda3 for storage space and leather trim quality – although you do pay for it in the Corolla ZR. This sedan however dips out with older switchgear than the recently facelifted hatchback.
Otherwise, a high standard of fit-and-finish and a fine driving position are commendable commonalities between this trio.
ON THE ROAD
Ride and handling: Corolla ZR
It isn’t just interior quality that leaves the Corolla ZR sedan lagging behind its Corolla ZR hatchback stablemate. Recent updates to the hatchback model have resulted in smoother, lighter steering and more cossetting ride quality, however this sedan isn’t due to be updated until early next year.
For now, then, this Toyota will have to make do with being merely average in these respects compared with its rivals. Surprisingly, its steering becomes quite direct and tactile at speed through corners and the suspension tackles bigger bumps on rough country roads with easy aplomb.
The downside is dreadfully dull and heavy steering around town and when parking, and a lumpy, unsettled urban ride.
The hints at dynamism only partially extend to its handling performance. The ZR is the most planted and stable car here when cornering, but it is also dull and has an overly aggressive electronic stability control (ESC) system.
The point is, of course, a Corolla should be more comfortable as it doesn’t otherwise prioritise sporty handling. That’s not its game.
Ride and handling: Hyundai Elantra
Hyundai, meanwhile, has clearly placed writing on the wall that goes along the lines of ‘bring it on, rivals’.
The locally tuned suspension of its new small sedan is mostly outstanding. It isn’t as plush as the recently released Sonata or Tucson, both of which utilise a multi-link rear suspension set-up compared with the simple, cheaper and harder-to-tune torsion beam arrangement here.
However the way the Elantra irons out niggling road imperfections, yet maintains fine control of its body mass over big speed humps and other sizeable hits, is the best here by far.
Most drivers will notice its disciplined and refined feel, in particular on secondary roads, and will also notice the quite low road and engine noise. It simply feels premium, like the Genesis large luxury sedan we mentioned earlier.
Ride and handling: Mazda3
Mazda has long been renowned for delivering fine dynamics, and the Touring can still teach the Elantra Elite a thing or two. Its steering is lighter and more naturally linear compared with the Elantra’s system (which is a fraction too artificially heavy at low speed, although it is tighter and more connected than the Corolla ZR’s system).
The Mazda3 also feels lighter on its feet, and has the sweeter and keener chassis overall. It ‘points’ very well into a corner and always feels tight and well-controlled on rougher roads.
However, for handling performance (with a Mazda3 badge), we would direct you to the Mazda3 SP25 with its bigger 2.5-litre engine and a slightly sharper point-to-point feel.
Engine and road noise is a little more intrusive in the Mazda3 Touring than the Corolla and Elantra.
Performance – Engines, transmission and economy
In the battle of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines, the Elantra’s comes out on top. The car is 26kg lighter than the Mazda3, but outputs and overall performance are similar.
The Hyundai is simply quieter, and, when revved hard, the noise it produces is rortier and sweeter. The Mazda can get thrashy and overly intrusive.
The Hyundai feels a little more alert and more willing to run, but each is capable of a quick stamp of speed when accelerating into fast-moving traffic, and neither are lacking on a country run.
Both have six-speed automatic transmissions that are superbly intuitive in picking lower gears early on hills and then steadfastly holding the right ratio.
The Mazda3 Touring adds paddle shifters (matching the Corolla), its tip-shifter is the only one here that is the right way around (push forward to downshift) and it delivers crisp response to match its dynamics.
The Elantra Elite’s manual mode doesn’t work nearly as well, either refusing downshifts or slowly grabbing a lower gear.
The Hyundai also lacks some at-idle refinement, thrumming through the cabin more than the silken Mazda which can become especially “silken” because it is the only vehicle here with stop-start technology.
That clearly contributed to superior on-test urban economy of 9.0 litres per 100 kilometres, versus 9.7 l/100km for the Elantra.
Add country and freeway driving into the mix, however, and the feeling that the Mazda3 Touring was working harder was supported in overall economy of 7.7 l/100km for both cars.
This is despite the combined cycle fuel consumption sticker reading 5.7 l/100km for the Mazda versus 7.2 l/100km Hyundai.
Where is the 1.8-litre four-cylinder Toyota among all of this?
Out in front, that’s where. Its benchmark on-test urban economy of 8.7 l/100km was backed up by overall economy of 7.5 l/100km for yet another win.
Going with the ‘it’s not what you’ve got but how you use it’ theory, the Corolla ZR’s automatic continuously variable transmission (CVT) proves a very good fit with the smaller engine.
The CVT is immediately responsive, using its infinite gearing – rather than having six fixed gears, it uses a variable sliding mechanism – to lower and raise revs effectively.
Rather than chomping down through lower gears as its rivals do, the Corolla ZR’s gearbox subtly bring revs up before the driver needs to add throttle response, holding only moderately higher revs without affecting refinement, then decisively dropping revs to aid economy only when it needs to.
Toyota’s four-cylinder is a gravelly old workhorse, and not overly impressive in isolation, but the auto it mates with is fantastic. Its economy result speaks for itself.
WARRANTY AND SERVICE
The Hyundai Elantra servicing offer ($747 to three years/45,000km, $1096 to four years/60,000km) is the cheapest here. Its five-year unlimited kilometre warranty is also best.
By comparison, the others offer three-year warranties with either no kilometre limit (Mazda), or up to 100,000km (Toyota).
Servicing is required every six months or 10,000km for Corolla ($840 to three years/60,000km), compared with annual or 10,000km servicing for Mazda3 ($981 to three years/30,000km, $2113 to six years/60,000km).
A win to the Elantra then on warranty and service costs.
TMR VERDICT | Who wins the ‘small sedan showdown’?
This small sedan showdown didn’t need to go to a tiebreaker.
Had the results been closer, the Hyundai’s five-year unlimited kilometre warranty and benchmark annual/15,000km servicing intervals could have helped it clinch victory.
But the Elantra Elite didn’t need any further help. The newest model here, it also feels the most premium, yet costs the least and presents the best value equation.
It is also the benchmark for ride and refinement, if not in terms of cabin space or outright handling.
The Mazda3 Touring feels a bit underdone and noisy by comparison, and the 2.0 litre SkyActiv engine doesn’t quite cut the mustard. A better buy is the 2.5-litre Mazda3 SP25 for only $400 extra, but without leather trim.
As for the Corolla sedan, if the value equation were level, we could imagine a family choosing the Corolla ZR sedan over these rivals, such is its space and economy benefits, not to mention the most responsive drivetrain and performance.