Comparo: 2009 Hyundai Elantra Vs. 2009 Kia Spectra

Anthony Erickson
by Anthony Erickson
comparo 2009 hyundai elantra vs 2009 kia spectra

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 **

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2 of 30 comments
  • Cobase Cobase on Dec 01, 2008

    I guess that's the bargain-priced GLS, whereas the SE trim handling is better, and was Consumer Reports #1 compact car, i.e. top of the barrel. Car and Driver similarly rated the SE #4, above the Corolla and Sentra (they also picked $18,500+ cars as #1 and #2) Edmunds rated the Cobalt close to last place, even the old (2005) Elantra was ranked higher, and the Spectra was #3. There's always comments like "for a few thousand more you can get a Mazda 3 or Civic." Well, for a few thousand more you could get an '09 Sonata too. It stickers at $16,700 (MSRP-rebate) right now, but no, it won't out-handle the Mazda 3 either.

  • Ponchoman49 Ponchoman49 on Jan 29, 2009

    I am not impressed at what they did to the new style Elantra. It just looks wrong to me and my friends eyes. Very dull plain and lumpy with those strange curves on the sides and the never ending removal of all exterior trim and bodyside molding protection.. The Kia looks better IMO but it's interior isn't as nice as the Elantras. SO if they could put the interior of the Elantra into the Spectra, I would buy it as a small commuter car.

  • Probert Wow - so many digital renders - Ford, Stellantis. - whose next!!! They're really bringing it on....
  • Zerocred So many great drives:Dalton Hwy from Fairbanks to the Arctic Circle.Alaska Marine Highway from Bellingham WA to Skagway AK. it was a multi-day ferry ride so I didn’t actually drive it, but I did take my truck.Icefields Parkway from Jasper AB to Lake Louise AB, CA.I-70 and Hwy 50 from Denver to Sacramento.Hwy 395 on the east side of the Sierras.
  • Aidian Holder I'm not interested in buying anything from a company that deliberately targets all their production in crappy union-busting states. Ford decided to build their EV manufaturing in Tennessee. The company built it there because of an anti-union legal environment. I won't buy another Ford because of that. I've owned four Fords to date -- three of them pickups. I'm shopping for a new one. It won't be a Ford Lightning. If you care about your fellow workers, you won't buy one either.
  • Denis Jeep have other cars?!?
  • Darren Mertz In 2000, after reading the glowing reviews from c/d in 1998, I decided that was the car for me (yep, it took me 2 years to make up my mind). I found a 1999 with 24k on the clock at a local Volvo dealership. I think the salesman was more impressed with it than I was. It was everything I had hoped for. Comfortable, stylish, roomy, refined, efficient, flexible, ... I can't think of more superlatives right now but there are likely more. I had that car until just last year at this time. A red light runner t-boned me and my partner who was in the passenger seat. The cops estimate the other driver hit us at about 50 mph - on a city street. My partner wasn't visibly injured (when the seat air bag went off it shoved him out of the way of the intruding car) but his hip was rather tweaked. My car, though, was gone. I cried like a baby when they towed it away. I ruminated for months trying to decide how to replace it. Luckily, we had my 1998 SAAB 9000 as a spare car to use. I decided early on that there would be no new car considered. I loathe touch screens. I'm also not a fan of climate control. Months went by. I decided to keep looking for another B5 Passat. As the author wrote, the B5.5 just looked 'over done'. October this past year I found my Cinderella slipper - an early 2001. Same silver color. Same black leather interior. Same 1.8T engine. Same 5 speed manual transmission. I was happier than a pig in sh!t. But a little sad also. I had replaced my baby. But life goes on. I drive it every day to work which takes me over some rather twisty freeway ramps. I love the light snarel as I charge up some steep hills on my way home. So, I'm a dyed-in-the-wool Passat guy.