What we have here is an international compact car showdown.
Hailing from three different countries, the Hyundai Elantra, Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf represent the best that the compact segment has to offer.
Refreshed for 2016, the Elantra GT continues Hyundai’s tradition of value for money with an added dollop of refinement. The Mazda3 is a favorite around the AutoGuide office, having won our 2014 Car of the Year Award. The Volkswagen Golf was all-new last year and has been gobbling up award after award all over the world.
Needless to say, this is a strong group of competitors. But which one is the best compact car?
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Handling, Ride Quality and the Death of the Shimmy
The Golf and the Mazda3 are easily two of the best driving cars in their segment. The chassis, steering and brakes are set up in both cars to deliver a responsive and sporty drive. Even though they’re so fun to drive, though, neither car rides overly rough. The Golf does hold a bit of a refinement edge while the Mazda is better damped for comfort over rough pavement.
The Elantra’s suspension delivers a balanced ride, which is a marked improvement over past versions of the car. No longer does the rear-end shimmy over uneven pavement imperfections, but it’s still outclassed here by the other two, always feeling a little less polished. As well, more wind and road noise makes its way inside the cabin of the Elantra GT compared to the other two cars.
Sorting Out the Balance of Power
Both the Mazda and the Hyundai use 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines, but based on differing philosophies. The Elantra is focused on power and packs 173 HP – 18 more ponies than the Madza3. Both cars use a six-speed automatic transmission and although the Mazda is sometimes too quick to upshift, it feels smoother and more refined than Hyundai’s automatic.
Still, neither car can compete with the Golf’s drivetrain. Outfitted with a 1.8-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the Golf makes 170 HP and nearly 200 pound-feet of torque. That’s almost 50 lb-ft. more than either the Mazda3 or the Elantra GT. And all this power and torque is very usable. The Golf always feels like it’s in its sweet spot, ready to power away from the other two at a moment’s notice. It too uses a six-speed automatic that, like the Mazda’s, can be hesitant at times.
Efficient, Efficienter, Efficientest
With the least amount of power, it’s no surprise the Mazda3 comes with the highest rated fuel economy numbers at 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. SkyActiv is more than just a catch phrase — it really does work at making Mazdas quite efficient. During our testing, it returned the best observed fuel economy average of 33.6 mpg.
Surprisingly, the turbocharged Golf was the next most efficient in this trio, clocking in an observed average of 31 mpg. The Elantra GT may have been the worst in this test, but it’s no slouch either, averaging a more than respectable 30.1 mpg average.
How Far Compact Interiors Have Come
All three cars have attractive, quality feeling interiors. The Golf’s is the most premium looking and feeling, which makes sense, as it has the highest starting price. The Elantra offers a more stylized layout that mimics the larger Sonata’s while the simpler Mazda3 has a few Audi and Mercedes design elements blended in.
When it comes to the driver, the Mazda3 and Elantra GT offer good comfort and a well situated driving position. But neither can offer as much as the Golf does. It appears Volkswagen designed the interior of the Golf around the driver first and foremost, achieving a great setup that has all the primary controls perfectly placed.
The Elantra and Mazda3 can be had in a choice of body styles, hatchback or sedan. The Golf has two body styles of its own, but both are hatchbacks with either two or four doors. As a hatchback, with 23 cubic feet of cargo capacity, the Elantra GT is slightly better at carrying gear compared to the Golf with a capacity of 22.8 cubic feet. Both trounce the Mazda3 Sport, which can only haul 20.2 cubic feet of junk. Opt for a sedan and the story stays the same, with the Elantra offering around two and a half more cubic feet of storage space than the Mazda3.
Things are a bit different in the back seat though, as with 35.8 inches, the Mazda3 offers the most rear legroom. But during our real world testing, we didn’t notice the space advantage of the Mazda3 and were not fans of the hard plastic arm rests. The Elantra should have the most headroom, but the optional panoramic sunroof in the GT hatchback takes it all away, causing even moderately tall people to kink their necks when sitting back there. Although it’s far from perfect, the Golf offers the most livable all-around rear seat experience of this trio.
But It All Comes Down to Value
So far you might have noticed that the Golf appears to be winning this comparison test and, honestly, it really is the best car here. But in terms of value, it’s possibly the worst. Maxed out with the diesel engine, the Golf can break $32,000. Mind you, the Mazda can also be that expensive, but it comes full of features that the Golf lacks. Adaptive cruise control, head up display, blindspot monitoring, lane departure warning, rear cross traffic alert and real leather seats are available on the Mazda and not the Volkswagen. Yup, $32,000 and the Golf still has fake leather seats.
SEE ALSO: 2015 Ford Focus vs Mazda3
But the real value champ, as always, is the Hyundai Elantra. It maxes out at just more than $28,000 and can come with some exclusive features like a heated steering wheel, heated rear seats and ventilated front seats. And of course, there is Hyundai’s five-year comprehensive and 10-year powertrain warranties.
While on the topic of value, it’s important to point out that the Mazda3 is the only car here to earn an IIHS Top Safety Pick+ rating.
The Verdict: 2015 Mazda3 vs Hyundai Elantra GT vs Volkswagen Golf
This trio is like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The Golf drives great and feels premium, but can get quite expensive. The Elantra is full of value and style, but lacks some of the polish and refinement of the other two.
That leaves the Mazda3 as the baby bear of this comparison. It blends everything well in an attractive, livable package that’s just right. It really is a fantastic car and when it comes to compacts, really is the best of the best.
2016 Hyundai Elantra GT
2015 Volkswagen Golf