By Luke Vandezande, October 18, 2012. Photography by Luke Vandezande.
Hatchbacks are a tough sell in America, but a swath of the population still appreciates the added practicality a fifth door brings. For those few and proud who don't care for sedan styling, there are some spectacular, budget-minded options and topping the list are the Mazda3 hatchback and Hyundai Elantra GT.
Both cars are fuel efficient, practical choices that merit consideration. And while they might seem remarkably similar on paper, a little time behind the wheel proves otherwise.
The Mazda has a more powerful engine with 155 hp compared to 148 for the Hyundai, but strangely it doesn't feel that way around town. In fact, the Elantra will fool you into seeming like the more powerful of the two. Much of the reason for this is the Hyundai’s touchy throttle, meaning it wants to lurch forward at the slightest touch, though lacks any real power beyond that. The Mazda is the opposite and begs to be strung out in order to have any fun.
In every other way, the Mazda feels better. It's more nimble. Step on the gas pedal and you'll see the tach leap to meet a downshift. And those shifts feel buttery smooth next to the Hyundai's imprecise gearbox. Grinding gears is darn near impossible in the Mazda, which isn't the case with the Hyundai.
In fact, finding first gear from a stop sign was strangely difficult on more than one occasion in the Elantra. The stick gets stuck sometimes and doesn't want to shift smoothly — a problem further aggravated by the fact that, like the gas, the clutch is extra touchy.
That, combined with a comparatively sky-high seating position and long gear throws mean driving the Hyundai feels more designed for the average commuter than for anyone who enjoys driving.
In the past we praised the Elantra GT’s gearbox, though when tested head-to-head with the Mazda3, which employs one of the best units in the business, its faults show through.
What the Elantra GT does offer is a three-mode driver selectable steering system, with settings for comfort, normal and sport. Perhaps more of a gimmick that people won’t actually use, the Sport setting is an improvement, and along with making the Elantra more responsive, also makes steering feel more consistent.
Neither car is fast enough to feign any real sports performance, but at least the Mazda will hit its limits with glee during a highway cloverleaf. It's just not the same in the Hyundai.[vs-comparsion-table]
If you're really considering a homely hatchback like one of these, you don't have any business expecting thrills. Still, equipped with a six-speed, both cars can keep their drivers feeling engaged.
Where the Mazda wins with youthful energy in the driving experience, it’s the opposite when it comes to the interior and in-car technology. Rife with mundane plastic that looks a decade-dated at least (the monotone look isn’t doing Mazda any favors), there aren't any surprises in how the Mazda3's button-rich center stack works. People picking the Hyundai get a more styling and technologically apt experience, but one that takes a little getting used to, especially for anyone transplanting from an older vehicle.
Despite being less inspiring to drive, the Hyundai's seats are better bolstered and more lower back friendly. Hopping from one to the other, the difference is impossible to ignore. The optional panoramic moon roof also lends the Elantra a more expensive feel. Its cloth cover opens from both the front and back to reveal a massive glass roof that lets light flood in much better than the Mazda.
Some, however, will feel less bullish on the new-school Hyundai's faux-fancy feel. With the Hyundai doing a better job at looking higher grade than actually being higher grade, the Mazda’s components might not have much flare but are quality bits. And their simplicity lets you feel at home quickly.
Regardless, the fact remains that you'll be able to grow accustomed to either car quickly. Buying a hatchback means more than caring about how the car feels. You probably care about cargo capacity, and that's where Hyundai shines brightest.
Both have plenty of space to store a solid haul from Wal-Mart, but the Elantra offers 23 cubic feet with the seats up and a whopping 51 with them folded. Mazda buyers have to make do with slightly less at 17 cubic feet with back seat passengers and only 42 with the rear seatbacks folded.
Apart from cargo hauling, taller drivers will enjoy an extra inch of headroom in the Hyundai. An important factor, depending on how you intend to use those rear seats and who you put back there, rear seat passengers in the Mazda3 will actually enjoy more legroom with 36.2 inches to the Hyundai’s 34.6.
Drivers aren’t likely to notice any difference between the Mazda’s 27/38 mpg (city/highway) and the Hyundai's 27/39 in the same test cycles. Differences in individual driving styles are easily enough to negate that difference. However, during our testing the Mazda3 delivered superior fuel economy numbers with an average of 33 mpg compared to just 28 mpg in the Elantra GT.
Of note, our test cars both came equipped with manual transmissions. With each car equipped with an available six-speed automatic both are rated slightly higher at 28/39 mpg.
What drivers will notice is that the Mazda3’s 14.5-gallon fuel tank has a half a gallon advantage on the Mazda, meaning during highway driving it delivers roughly 20 extra miles of range.
What Hyundai can offer is a more attractive starting price. At $18,395, you'll be able to save almost $1,000 over the Mazda3 hatchback, which costs a minimum of $19,300. Of note, base Elantras also get a significantly different suspension setup that is certain to further detract from the level of driving enjoyment.
With minimal differences on paper, testing these two high-mpg hatchbacks together brought to light significantly different driving experiences. While nearly identical in functionality, a week spent testing both cars showed the Mazda to have superior real world fuel economy while also being more fun to drive.