Brian Harper: One doesn’t have to look that far back into the 21 st Century to find the time when it was compact sedans and hatchbacks that dominated Canada’s highways and byways, not the now seemingly ubiquitous crossover . The best ones — and there were many to choose from — sold in large numbers, often being the top-selling model for the manufacturer. These days, not so much . And with the Detroit Three giving up on the segment, it’s the Asian manufacturers — along with VW and its Jetta — that remain committed to the small, affordable cars that serve a variety of basic needs.
Honda’s Civic has held the title of Best Selling Car in this country for 23 years. Number two and three are Toyota’s Corolla and Hyundai’s Elantra, which are the subject of this comparo. The 12th-generation (!) Corolla was all new last year, while the seventh-gen Elantra gets a total redesign for 2021. Now, the trim levels of our two combatants are not an ideal match-up but they are very close in price. So, young Clayton, what do we have here?
Clayton Seams: From Toyota we have the 2021 Corolla in sporty Apex trim and from the Hyundai Camp we have the 2021 Elantra in top-spec Ultimate trim. These cars are both front-wheel-drive four-door sedans, both have naturally aspirated 2.0L engines, and they both cost around the same amount. One of the largest differences on the spec sheet is that our Corolla came equipped with a good old-fashioned six-speed manual transmission; a welcome sight in a world of automatics.
We’re out to find which of these two budget-friendly sedans is the better value and which is the better fit for most value-conscious shoppers. Brian, tell me a little bit about the Hyundai.
BH: I once said Toyota could build the Corolla out of pressed cardboard and power it with a Lawn Boy motor and consumers would still buy it, such is the might of the car’s reputation for robustness, efficiency and reliability. And with more than 45 million Corollas sold globally since its introduction in 1966 , its rep is almost unassailable. But, damn, kudos to Hyundai, it came out swinging. Compared with the previous generation, the new Elantra is longer, lower, wider and much prettier, the car’s silhouette mimicking the four-door coupe look, often used to great effect by the German luxury brands.
How effective has been the transformation? Well, good enough for the Elantra to be named 2021 North American Car of the Year as awarded by the North American Car, Utility and Truck of the Year (NACTOY) automotive media jury. That is impressive. And judging by the $28,499 Ultimate, a very sound consensus. Dynamically speaking, the Apex is sportier, but from a luxury aesthetic, the Ultimate is a genuine eye-opener. One of the questions bearing discussion is that, with similar pricing, does the Elantra make a better upscale sedan than the Corolla a sporty one. What has the Apex got going for it, Clayton?
CS: The Apex edition is a sporty limited-edition option package that can be added to the SE trim of the Corolla. It costs $27,430 and includes attractive new front and rear bumpers, side skirts, and a somewhat questionable decklid spoiler. Whether or not the aero mods are functional, they add a nice sporty look to the usually staid Corolla. But it’s not all looks! The Apex focuses on increasing its handling potential. It ships with specially tuned shocks, and springs that are 15 mm lower and much stiffer than those found on standard Corollas. The result is an impressive 47 per cent increase in front roll stiffness and a 33 per cent increase in the rear.
The results are drastic and one can hurl this car into turns at speeds not attempted in a Corolla since Initial D . The cornering prowess, even on winter tires, is dazzlingly impressive. But you still have the same ho-hum 169-hp engine as found in other up-level Corollas and the electric power steering is as numb here as it is in any other Corolla; so, it’s only a halfway convincing sport compact.
And now we need to talk about the trade-off needed for that handling. The ride on the Corolla Apex is dump truck stiff. McLarens and Porsche 911s ride smoother than this. I am only 29 but this gave me the kind of back pain that you probably experience every day because you’re 100 years old. I like sporty cars and I like sport suspensions, but the Corolla is brutal and bordering on unnecessary. Surely anyone willing to submit their spine and kidneys to this much hardship would buy something that is honestly, more sporty than a Corolla. Luckily, the Apex is an option package and for the sake of this comparison we will keep that in mind. In our experience, non-Apex Corollas ride just fine.
BH: Such disrespect from someone who still has training wheels on his bike. But, yes, the $27,430 Apex has a genuinely unpleasant ride on anything other than smooth pavement. More to the point, I found the car to be a half-hearted effort in its attempt to mimic a budget-based sport sedan. Reasonably quick, okay handling, shift effort and precision somewhere in-between the bolt action of my Miata and the vagueness of my Chevy Cruze. This is a model that cries out for some serious TRD development if it is to be taken seriously. I know I’m dating myself, but think GT-S, Toyota! I was far more impressed with the mid-level XLE model I drove last year .
In comparison, other than the middling 147 hp from its 2.0L four-cylinder — I wouldn’t say no to another 20 horses — I was charmed by the Elantra Ultimate. It’s not sporty at all, but it is extremely refined — quiet, smooth and comfortable. And the interior blew me away. Well contented, yes, but it was the complementary materials used throughout the bright, airy cabin that cheered me up every time I sat behind the wheel. You?
CS: The Corolla is a car, while the Elantra is nothing short of a revolution. It has far and away the best interior of the two. The Elantra delights with a supremely comfortable steering wheel (which is heated), heated front seats, and auto climate control with adjustable fan intensity! That means you can have auto-regulation temperature and choose not to have the fans roaring full blast when you start the car. And when the sun goes down, the Elantra cabin gets even better. The dashboard and front doors are highlighted with purple ambient lighting, and the digital dash has a futuristic layout that fans of Cyberpunk 2077 will enjoy. It even has soundscapes! You can listen to the roar of waves crashing onto a beach, birds chirping in a forest, or the crackles and pops of a fireplace as you stay cozy in your heated seats.
The Corolla is a fine motor vehicle but it doesn’t really go above and beyond. Meanwhile, the Elantra impressed me with every single feature I discovered. I honestly can’t believe that such a refined, comfortable, and genuinely pleasant driving experience can be bought for just $28K and change. I am seriously impressed and that’s why it’s my pick to win this comparo. What you do think, Mr. Harper?
BH: Let’s call this a mutual agreement between generations. Look, to be fair, it should have been the top-level XSE ($28,950) tossed into the ring to take on the Ultimate. But timing and COVID make compromises necessary. And I suspect the Elantra would still come out on top. The Corolla will always have its fans, and deservedly so, I must add. The new Elantra, though, is nothing less than a full-on commitment to a segment that, though it has seen better days, still matters to a sizeable cross-section of the buying public.