Automakers are clamoring to snag entry-level buyers, but make no mistake — these consumers are far from being low-hanging fruit.
It's a lesson hard learned by Honda this year after members of the media ridiculed what was, by most statues, a very good car. It wasn't so much that Honda struck out with its fifth-generation Civic, as it was that other brands like Hyundai were swinging for the fences.
So here it is, a shootout between the old stalwart and new-school compact coupes that lit the market afire in 2012.
Most people looking seriously at either the Honda Civic or Hyundai Elantra coupes are less than worried about performance. Instead, it's about looking cool without breaking the bank.
That's something Hyundai nailed with its fluidic design language that leaves the Elantra Coupe looking streamlined and slick. It works especially well in coupe form where the car's short deck lid complements the car's organic lines.
The Civic's exterior won't surprise you. Far from a shocker, it's doesn't get any attention — though a redesigned model is on its way to dealers soon.
Even still, it's hard to look at the 2012 Civic and think it's bad looking. It's just isn't particularly sexy. Regardless, the sharp lines and chiseled rear end have an aesthetic of their own that some might prefer over the Hyundai’s styling.
As the old saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. That stands for the exterior of both cars, though step inside and it’s hard not to be more decisive in judgment. It’s hard not to have an opinion that leans heavily in Hyundai's favor.
That's because the Civic has an interior loaded with cheap looking — and feeling — plastic parts. The dashboard is similarly unappealing as it its center stack. Then again, it's easy to understand how it works, which might not be true in the Elantra for drivers coming off an older car. It's something you'll quickly overcome, but worth noting nonetheless.
The differences between the Hyundai Elantra Coupe and Honda Civic Coupe are myriad, but the biggest is one you can't see and might not notice unless you're driving.
Both cars make almost the same power from 1.8-liter inline four cylinder engines with the Civic making 140 hp and 128 lb-ft of torque while Hyundai's powerplant offers 148 hp and 131 lb-ft.
Fuel economy is about the same between the two as well. Honda claims the better estimate with 28/39 mpg in the city and on the highway while Hyundai quotes 27/37 mpg.
The handful of extra horses and mpgs doesn't mean much, though. What is meaningful, on the other hand, is how both cars feel.
True to form, Honda's VTEC four-cylinder is perky at high rpms and the car handles with all the light-and-tight poise you would expect. The steering wheel is thin and easy to direct, but not to the point of flaw. Likewise, the gas pedal just feels good to step on, like the satisfying feeling you get after crushing a Coke can with your heel. Crisp.
Meanwhile, the Elantra has little in common with the Honda's handling. They might weigh about the same; they might even have the same power, but the Elantra feels porky and unwilling to move in comparison.
A thicker wheel turns, but not without a degree of protest. Unwieldy by comparison, there's nothing wrong here but it's hard not to think it could still be more right. Steering response feels slower, be it on highway lanes or city thoroughfares. Perhaps the thickest nail in this car's coffin is the throttle response. There's no denying that “crunch” is America's texture of choice, but press down on the pedal and it’s more of a squish.
Aggravating for a cantankerous car snob, perhaps, but the truth is that most people will never care deeply about the differences in driving dynamics.
Instead, the status quo is more likely to leer at equipment lists, which is where Honda languishes.
Liken Hyundai to a high school keener here. Spotting an opportunity, the Korean carmaker swooped in to offer a compact coupe for 2013 with generous standard equipment.
Pick the Hyundai and you get all this in the basic “GS” trim: heated seats, Bluetooth connectivity, power locks and heated mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels, an external temperature gauge and more.
With Honda? Well, you don't get any of that. In fact, the base “DX” model doesn't give you much of anything... at least not without stepping up to the “LX” trim which costs about $2,000 more. Even then, many of the sought-after goodies like Bluetooth are still absent, which will likely disappoint the tech savvy crowd.
Hyundai's price for entry is almost as much as the mid-level Civic, yes, but it's also equipped a lot like the premium model.
So here’s the breakdown: the Civic starts at $15,755 before delivery in base trim. Meanwhile, the Elantra will set you back $17,445 but beats Honda’s equipment list hands down.
Should you care to consider both cars at their best, those prices rise to $24,055 for the Civic and $20,745 for the Elantra.
Both provide ample space in the front buckets for you and a friend, but small numbers get big points in a game of inches. Hyundai takes the win here, hands down. There's an extra 1.7 inches of headroom and 1.4 inches of legroom in in front and almost three inches of extra headroom in the back. There's also 2.5 inches of extra legroom for passengers three four and five.
That trend continues in the trunk, where Honda buyers get 11.7 cubic feet of space and an annoyingly small porthole into the cabin with the 60/40 split rear seats folded. The Elantra coupe offers 14.8 and a less restrictive opening.
If you had to have a compact coupe a few months ago, there wouldn't have been any question in the matter. Hyundai would be the place to go. It would have been, but not so much anymore.
That's because Honda cracked under the pressure and is offering a refreshed version of the car only a year in. It fixes most of our complaints, though a dealer may try and sway you into a 2012 with some serious incentives.
While the 2013 model only costs a little bit more on paper, you might be wise to think about how much those features really mean to you. While the year-old Civic is still as good or bad as it was a year ago, venturing into a Honda dealer is less an exercise in numb and dumb buying and more a shrewd decision.
But what about Hyundai? Between the two coupes, this is what it breaks down to. Hyundai offers a more luxurious, better-appointed package. It looks fresh and will feel good to most drivers.
The Civic is a more engaging drive, yes, but that doesn't change the fact that even Honda agreed its 2012 effort was the loser when pitted against new guns in the market like the Elantra Coupe.
2012 Honda Civic Coupe
2013 Hyundai Elantra Coupe