In the last ten years or so, Hyundai decided it’d be fun to build things that resemble cars that people want to buy. In the process, the Korean automaker acquired struggling brother Kia. As you’d expect, the company offers the now-essential model in any current car range: the budget-priced, fuel-efficient compact car. In fact, American buyers hunting in that market segment can choose between Hyundai’s Hyundai Elantra and the Kia Spectra. Is it a distinction without a difference, in the not-so-grand tradition of General Motors? Let’s have a look to each model’s respective brochures…
The Elantra’s brochure is surprisingly substantial, printed on premium paper stock and bound with an actual binding. The Spectra’s brochure is just standard gloss paper with two staples. The Elantra brochure is full of “black pearl,” “captiva” white, and “quicksilver” Elantras posing in front of fountains and driving through jewel-like cityscapes. The Spectra brochure has “spark” blue and “spicy” red cars racing along winding roads between keggers and climbing walls. Clearly, the Elantra is aimed at the sort of people that pretend to have stock options, while the Spectra is aimed at the sort of people that pretend to have social lives. But does the reality match the marketing dream?
The Spectra pulls off its hipster looks to a much greater degree than the Elantra pulls off the Lexus thing. Neither car takes any sort of chances; the Spectra manages to be almost handsome in that simple and clean sort of way that makes a Cobalt coupe acceptable. The Elantra, sadly, misses the point. Sure, it has smooth curves and little accents and complex head lights and all that jazz. But while the cars the Elantra attempts to roughly emulate look sleek and feminine, the Elantra itself comes across as heavy and dumpy. The Elantra is the ill-fitting designer knockoff hanging in Hyundai’s closet next to the Spectra’s denim jeans.
The socially-awkward manager-in-training and the wannabe skater chick show their sisterhood in their interiors. The Spectra carries it’s sort of respectable simplicity inside the cabin, feeling exactly like a Cobalt and looking only slightly nicer. The switchgear feels… functional, the controls are intelligently laid out, the steering wheel is (thankfully) bereft of buttons, and the plastics don’t get too depressing until you start hunting them out.
The Elantra’s interior, however, can’t cash the check the exterior attempts to write. Leather may be available, the automatic gearstick may zig-zag through the gates to get to each selection, and the center console may have an interesting two-tiered shape to it. But the seats and controls underneath are Spectratastic. Which is to say craptastic. The Elantra’s interior is only close enough to “premium” to make its similarities to the Spectra jump out at you all the more.
Engine-wise, the Elantra and Spectra are twins under the skin. The same two-litre four cylinder engine motoivate both transportation devices, pumping out 138hp at 6000 rpm, and 136 lb.-ft. of torque at 4500 rpm. Fortunately, the corporate four-banger is as tasty as bi bim bop. The powerplant revs freely, produces entirely adequate thrust, and makes a decent noise higher up in the rev range. There’s a four-speed automatic available, but the gear ratios just don’t mesh with the engine characteristics. Keep the standard five-speed manual, though, and you’ll be humming Johnny and the Sprites in no time.
I repeat: economy cars need three pedals. The five-speed transmission Hyundai supplies with this engine is a perfect fit with the mission of the car, allowing you to exploit every bit of the engine’s performance when you’re feeling talented and adventurous while still managing acceptable gas mileage when you aren’t. As you’ve probably guessed by now, its better in the Spectra; the SX trim level includes a “sport-tuned” suspension not available on the Elantra, whose handling characteristic seem specifically designed to discourage such good-natured hoonery. Finding an Elantra with the five-speed on the lot is difficult, which is a shame since the four-speed automatic trades all the relative fun of the five-speed in exchange for a marginal increase in fuel economy.
The standard suspension in both the Elantra and the Spectra feels identical from the driver’s seat, which is to say a little too soft for the Spectra to feel sprightly, yet not quite plush enough for the Elantra to keep up the premium-car pretenses. The levels of grip are acceptable for the mission of either car, especially considering that prodigious body lean will spoil the handling long before the eventual understeer kicks in. Hyundai’s quality may be on the fast track to the top, but judging from their respective driving dynamics, the Elantra and the Spectra are still playing the discount rental game.
So, here’s some truth about cars for you: the Hyundai Elantra is an uglier Kia Spectra that costs a grand more in exchange for four-wheel ABS, power windows and locks, and an alarm. Neither car handles, accelerates, brakes, appears or feels superior than anything else in the compact car category. Deciding between the two is roughly akin to cross-shopping oatmeal or wallpaper paste brands. One may be slightly more expensive and have a different package design, but the actual product inside is more or less identical.
If I had to recommend either of these cars to someone, I would direct them towards the Spectra. It’s slightly cheaper and slightly better looking than the Elantra, and those are the only two hairs worth splitting. If they prefer the lumpen styling and the blippy key fob that comes with the Elantra, it’s only a thousand greenbacks more. This, of course, assumes the Elantra and the Spectra are the two vehicles under consideration.
Were the theoretical undecided economy car buyer operating with a wider lens, I would recommend just about anything else above either of these vehicles. The Cobalt is a better drive, gets significantly better mileage (in XFE trim), and GM’s selling it at bargain-bin prices (for ominous reasons, but there you go). The Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla both get superior mileage to the Elantra and Spectra while looking considerably better and (in the case of the Civic) sporting an interior heads and shoulders above the Koreans. The Mazda 3 only loses out to the Elantra and Spectra on price, and anyone that sits in a 3 will happily pay the premium it demands. Need I continue?
Saying all that, there are no truly terrible compact cars available in the United States market any more. However, there is still a barrel, and there are still cars to be found at the bottom. And here they are.
Hyundai Elantra – Price as Tested $14,545 – **
Kia Spectra – Price as tested $13,385 **