By on November 19, 2008

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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30 Comments on “Comparo: 2009 Hyundai Elantra vs. 2009 Kia Spectra...”

  • avatar
    John R

    These two were always puzzling to me. Why get either of these when the 4-cyl Sonata gets miserly gas mileage as well. For what? An extra $20-30 per month on a car note?

    Hyundai is in that sweet spot where their cars are actually pretty decent now but the depreciation has yet to catch up. For the cost of one of these new you could get a year old, low mile V6 Sonata.

    Hyundai should get wise and increase the content on both of these but match Japan on price.

  • avatar

    I took a Spectra5 hatch for a test drive a few years ago because I’d read that it drove similarly to the Protege5 I still own and enjoy.

    Well, it didn’t. It didn’t drive badly, but it didn’t feel as agile as the Mazda, and the interior didn’t feel as sporty.

    Factor in a price that didn’t seem all that special–about $1,600 below a Mazda3 before incentives–and I failed to see why I’d get one of these instead of a Mazda.

    On the reliability front, the 2007 and 2008 Elantra are about average, maybe a bit better, based on TrueDelta’s partial results for the model.

  • avatar

    If there is any rags-to-riches story that can serve as an example for Detroit to pull out of their death-spiral and recover past glory, it is the Korean car companies. Their stuff has gone from utter crap (about where GM is now) to damn-near world-class in literally a decade. Korea arrived in 1/3rd the time it took Japan to span the same gap. See Detroit… It Can Be Done. Pull your heads out, quit bitching, start working, and stay focussed!


  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    The only H/K compact that’s ever interested me was the last gen Elantra hatchback. That had a far nicer form than either of these two.

    This review really hit the nail on the head. The Cobalt would be a far better deal and I would expect it to be far more reliable past the 100k mark.

    However… I could see a five-speed Fusion or even an Optima giving a value run for the money in this price range if you really want new. The comparably equipped Civic may be at a different price point, but a low mileage 2008 Fit would absolutely wipe up either of these two models. It wouldn’t even be close. I should know. I had one earlier this year.

  • avatar

    Are both of these manufactured at the same plant? I ask because I hear about Hyundai’s improving reliability, but Kia’s, in my experience, are still horrid.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    That formula won’t work for Detroit. To gain back their bearings they will have to offer technology and customer service that are beyond most of the Hyundai and Kia models.

    H/K don’t really have very good long-term quality. Once they hit the century mark, they tend to get far rougher and defect prone than their Detroit brethren. At least that’s been my experiences at the auctions.

    As for late models, I’m seeing a lot more cost cutting in new models than those from the prior generations. The technology has also improved a great deal, especially with the development of metals. I would say that the greatest benefit of the American marketplace is that vehicles are finally becoming safer without necessarily having to be heavier. Until recently, the pricing pressures on commodities have negated whatever improvements would have been possible in material quality.

    An interesting comparo that would probably highlight this is taking a 1994 Camry and comparing it with a 2009 Corolla. The thickness of the body panels, the technology and maintenance ease (or lack of ease) of the engines, the quality of the interiors… and even the perceived quality of the product vis-a-vis it’s competitors. Despite Toyota’s reputation these days, their older models were the ones that earned the premium for quality. The current models have a far heavier focus on decontenting in order to keep them price competitive.

  • avatar

    I thought the current Spectra was built upon the old Elantra platform, however I don’t believe Hyundai did major upgrades to the new Elantra platform outside of new sheet metal and interior so it may be closer than I think.

    I’m pretty sure they are coming out of different plants, but could be mistaken.

  • avatar
    William C Montgomery

    However, there is still a barrel, and there are still cars to be found at the bottom. And here they are.

    This is poetry. Nice review.

  • avatar

    I can’t speak for the Spectra, but if you buy an Elantra, my guess is that you don’t care much about handling. Seriously sloppy steering and it completely gives up when pushed even slightly. A Corolla is a big step up from the steering and handling of an Elantra.

  • avatar

    I like them both.

    [Hey… Fix your “Hyundai” spelling in the headline.]

  • avatar

    I don’t see any difference with the Kia and the Huyndai sorry I meant Hyundai.

    It’s a typical car for typical people. Nothing to brag abou.

    A car that can take you to work and back.

  • avatar

    …there are no truly terrible compact cars available in the United States market any more…

    Dodge. Caliber.

    Well, ok, maybe it’s not Lada terrible. Or even Kia Sephia/Chevy Cavalier/Hyundai Excel terrible, but it manages to be worse than the Neon, and that takes real effort.

  • avatar

    Against my better judgment, I bought my now ex a Hyundai Elantra instead of a Civic. She thought the Civic was boring, fell in love with the red Elantra’s purple dash lights.

    We purchased the quasi-SAAB model with the hatchback and the knockoff SAAB “waterfall” dashboard. Much to my surprise, the car ended up being really nice. It now has well over 100K miles on it, and has not had any issues.

    My only criticism of the car, was with the auto-transmission gearing, whose second gear would dump the engine into lower revs where no torque existed.

    Otherwise, the Elantra was reliable and returned as high as 37mpg on long trips. No, the car was not Mazda fun, but otherwise it did everything I expect of a car.

    As for the new model, call me crazy, but I really like the new look. I wish it was available with a hatchback, and I admit that at some angles it looks a little weak-kneed. But otherwise, I really like it. I’m constantly confusing it (at a distance) with a Lexus. Which is to say to Hyundai, “mission accomplished.”

  • avatar

    Anyone seen an Elantra Touring yet? According to Hyundai they will have a Sportier/European style ride. I’m looking forward to seeing a review…

  • avatar

    I would seriously question whether the Elantra autobox really produces better real-world mileage than the 5-speed. An unhappy week spent with the last of the previous generation — which I’m pretty sure had the same engine and transmission — returned about 10% poorer fuel economy than my 5-speed Mazda3, despite 300 cc less displacement and 22 fewer horsepower.

    Not only were its gear ratios ill-matched to the engine, it was hyper-sensitive to throttle-induced downshifts. The engine was relatively quiet in around-town driving (to its credit), but I quickly realized that if you didn’t pay attention, the transmission would shift up, then immediately kick down and stay in the next lower gear. That improved throttle response, certainly, but it resulted in less than 20 mpg in city traffic. The only way I got the transmission to behave was to drive like there was an egg under the throttle and make a point of lifting off after every upshift (especially into fourth). My feeling was, “This is a labor-saving device?”

  • avatar

    I don’t think manual and auto EPA #s are directly comparable. The manual is extremely dependent on how you drive, and there are more techniques that you can use to save fuel with a manual. You also have to consider gearing; a manual usually has shorter gearing which will give you more power at the cost of EPA mpgs. In reality you only need to keep the revs low on these short geared manuals to get big gains. The short 5th gear on something like the Fit kills the epa highway mpg, but you get more power without downshifting, and if you drop you speed, you can make massive gains. I get over 40mpg in my Mazda3. Try doing that with the autobox version.

  • avatar

    I find the Elantra and Spectra to be meh. I’m hopeful that the Elantra Touring might be something special.

    It has completely different, but still very bland, sheet metal that distinguishes it from the Elantra Sedan and the Spectra. As a sort of hatchback/mini station wagon thing, it seems to be more on the station wagon side of things where its only direct competition is the crappy Suzuki Forenza and the over-priced VW Jetta.

  • avatar

    William M,

    Speaking of the Forenza, as long as that sack o’ tinfoil is in said barrel, the Hyundai mehmobiles can’t be lining the bottom.

  • avatar

    As the owner of a 2008 Hyundai Elantra SE 5 spd, I can only agree with a few of the shortcomings (less than class-leading MPG, numb steering) in the comparo.

    Now, if you drove the GLS with the 195-65-15 tires, then there was your handling problem right there…

    To somehow say that a bland-ass Cobalt is better than an Elantra shows some sort of bias that defies logic.

    I looked at all of the numbers, and the Elantra is a “Four-Star” car in its segment, while a Cobalt is a solid “Three” (except for the SS, but that’s over 20k).

    The interior of the Elantra is just fine, BTW, whereas the Cobalt just seems stamped out of the same dull plastic. Hyundai actually put rubber moldings around the front windshield, the Cobalt’s looks like it was just dropped in place.

    And despite some initial body roll, the Elantra SE (with 205-55-16) marks a 55.5 MPH run through CR’s “Avoidance Maneuver”, while a Cobalt LT (with the same size tires) manages 51 MPH (The SS does it @ 56.5 MPH, 1 MPH better than the Elantra)

    But the Elantra is NOT a supercar, admittedly, it would be quite boring with an automatic; but to say that it’s “bottom of the barrel” and less than equivalent to a Cobalt is misleading in the face of facts.

    Either the Elantra, the Spectra or the Cobalt would be a solid choice for basic transportation in this segment, but the Korean twins are a bit less bland than the workaday Cobalt — it really depends on who’s rebate is bigger…

  • avatar

    For me in order to save gas on Manual.

    I avoid lower gears and drive nuetral on heavy traffic without tapping the brakes.
    Drive your car like a 10 wheeler no tailgating and avoid excessive braking.

    Bu the most important thing these cars will survive because of the price and fuel economy.

    General Motors Crushed their future when they ended the life of the Electric Vehicle

  • avatar

    fine review, thanks.

    about the cars, i prefer to buy gently used cars for that money. You can get some pretty cool wheels for 14 or 15 large, a few years old.

  • avatar

    Great review!

    Hit the nail on the head when it comes to the Elantra. I have an ’02 model and the engine/auto tranny combo is severely mismatched. I was a bit pissed when Hyundai redesigned the car that the makeover wasn’t more substantial. Same platform, same engines, same transmissions. Same crappy driving dynamics. I can’t wait to get the Mazdaspeed3 and inject some driving excitement in my life.

  • avatar

    Back when Car and Driver was worth reading, they did a great comparison test of economy cars. The previous generation Kia Spectra was in the comparison test, out of 10 cars, it finished 10th.

    From Car and Driver:

    Highs: Sharp-looking alloy wheels, pretty decent front seats, starts every time.

    Lows: Nose-blowing sound from the engine, slack-cable feel of the steering, loosey-goosey handling.

    The Verdict: Why buy used when you can get brand-new ’80s sophistication?

    The Elantra was a good car even back then. It finished 2nd.

    Highs: Gutsy performance; driver-friendly cockpit; satisfying responses from the machinery; and low, low price.

    Lows: Stinky new-car smell, high-speed handling a little queasy.

    The Verdict: If you can find a better portfolio of feels and features at this price, buy it.

    This comparison test sold me alot of Elantras at the Hyundai dealership.

  • avatar

    They’re right on about the smell. The Elantra I test drove really dig stink. I’ve heard that all Hyundai/Kias are like that.

  • avatar

    The Hyundai’s with cloth seats do smell bad when new. I think it is the dye they use for the cloth seats. The Hyundai’s with leather don’t seem to smell as bad.

  • avatar

    Great review. I even read parts of it aloud to my girlfriend.

  • avatar

    As a recent convert to Hyundai, I am impressed but sometimes puzzled by the direction the company is taking.

    In terms of design quality and overall product orientation, Hyundai is clearly aiming to be the new Toyota while Toyota becomes the new GM. But while the Scion/Toyota/Lexus brands are organized hierarchically, Hyundai/Kia suffers from brand confusion much like Chevrolet/Pontiac.

    Just when Hyundai seems to be emerging as the more upscale Korean brand, it goes on a cheapest-car-in-North-America campaign while giving the all-new $40,000 Borrego to Kia. And just when Kia seems to be emerging as the more funky/youthful brand, Hyundai gets the Genesis Coupe. Meanwhile, the core models from each brand are barely differentiated, often competing against, rather than complementing, each other. How do you say “perplexing” in Korean?

  • avatar

    Hyundai has always made cars that look better on paper than they do in real life. This Elantra, or for that matter the Genesis are prime examples. Having driven the Genesis, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the hype surrounding this car came from looking at it on paper and not actually driving it. Reviewers, so mesmerized by the impressive engine output or Hyundai’s claims of superiority over BMW and MB wrote glowing reviews without even stepping foot in the car. Had they done just that (like I did), they most assuredly would be less than impressed.

    W/R/T the Elantra, spending just a few bucks more gets you a supremely better and safer car such as a Rabbit, Impreza, Civic, or Mazda3.

  • avatar

    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.

  • avatar

    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.

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