4th Place (Tie): 2012 Hyundai Elantra Limited

If you’re wondering what happened to 5th place, note that the Elantra and Focus were dead even on points, and were even tied with one vote each as personal favourites, giving us a tie for 4th.

It’s a wonder the Elantra’s generous standard equipment list doesn’t include a trophy shelf in the back window: this car was picked as AJAC’s Best New Small Car over $21,000 (beating the Focus and Impreza in that category), then proceeded to win both Canadian (AJAC) and North American Car of the Year awards in 2012.

Compact car comparo
Compact car comparo
Click image to enlarge

There are many reasons why it deserves recognition, not the least of which is that it injects so much style into a class of car dominated by utilitarian-looking snooze-mobiles.

It also won those awards partly because, as is Hyundai’s way, this car is a value leader in the compact segment. Our Limited trim tester costs a little less than $25,000 (including destination), which is about mid-pack, and yet it rivals the most expensive Focus (at nearly $30,000) for having the most kit.

Our drivers noted how quiet the Elantra’s engine is at cruising speeds, but there were a few comments on how thrashy it can get when pressed. Most testers found this car’s 1.8L engine felt strong enough, but was not particularly impressive in any respect. Our observed fuel consumption figure of 8.6 was better than just two other cars here, in spite of its impressive Natural Resources Canada ratings.

Demerits were issued for touchy brakes and throttle, a suspension easily upset by rough pavement (we suspect our tester’s big, heavy 17-inch wheels and low-profile tires had something to do with that) and steering described as feeling “loose” and “sloppy” by some, while others countered with “light and accurate.” Go figure.

The driver’s seat was polarizing: some thought it the most comfortable in the group, while one found it too firm. Same with the styling, which a few drivers loved and others thought was overwrought.

It seems everything about this car was designed to appeal to as broad a cross-section of small-car shoppers as possible. It’s a good approach when big sales numbers are your goal, but the result is a car that won’t generate much excitement among enthusiastic drivers. This car is the stainless steel refrigerator of this group of cars: it looks sharp, but is still nothing more than an appliance.

Pricing: 2012 Hyundai Elantra Limited
Base Price: $22,699
Options: none
A/C Tax: $100
Freight: $1,495
Price as tested: $24,294

4th Place (Tie): 2012 Ford Focus SEL

The Focus was designed in Europe, and it shows; this car beats the Jetta at the game Volkswagen invented, by bringing a small car with superior handling and a premium feel to the compact segment.

Several testers thought the Focus felt underpowered, though its 160 horsepower was second highest among these cars. Using the transmission’s manual shift mode made that better for one driver, but another commented that the manual shift control — a toggle on the side of the shift lever — felt “like a cheap video game control, and an answer to a question nobody asked.”

Compact car comparo
Compact car comparo
Click image to enlarge

Most of our drivers also disliked the PowerShift twin-clutch automatic transmission for its jerky and occasionally indecisive behaviour in normal driving. The way the clutch shudders as first gear is engaged from a stop is off-putting, too. Interestingly, this gearbox seems to perform better the worse you treat it: without fail, aggressive acceleration rewarded the driver with smooth, crisp upshifts, though it remained lazy about downshifting.

The Focus was well liked for its eager handling, accurate, well-weighted steering and good brake feel, all of which were voted by many to be best in this test. This is a nicely sorted chassis that finds a good balance between a compliant ride and sharp responses, makes for a car that feels unflappable at legal highway speeds, and that would remain so well above those velocities.

Testers were nearly unanimous in praising how easy it was to pair Bluetooth devices with Ford’s Sync system. The front and rear parking sensors helped mitigate iffy sightlines in parking manoeuvres, and the convex spotter mirrors were a bonus, too.

The other thing going against our test car was its price. At almost $30,000, it was far and away the priciest in this comparison. To be fair to Ford, they didn’t equip this car specifically for the comparison, where other manufacturers had vehicles on fleet that better represented what the majority of buyers choose in the compact segment.

But along with the highest price came the most tech options, like navigation and those parking sensors, and it was in the minority with its automatic climate control; the stereo was one of the best, too. These are all items that will find appeal among many younger compact car shoppers. But for 30 grand, more than one tester remarked that the lack of a sunroof and leather seats seemed like serious omissions.

Pricing: 2012 Ford Focus SEL
Base Price: $22,399
Options: $5,430 (Audio Interface Package, $1,500; six-speed automatic transmission, $1,450; Parking Technology Package, $600; Engine block heater, $100; Navigation, $700; 17-inch polished wheels, $650; Stewardship Ontario environmental fee, $30)
A/C Tax: $100
Freight: $1,500
Price as tested: $29,329

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