Lukewarm? Not on your life. This trio proves that small sedans need not be dull econoboxes.
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Remember when a zero-to-100km/h time in the seven-second bracket was quick?
I mean really quick? In the ’80s you needed either plentiful displacement or a turbo to get there, and in the Noughties a proper hot hatch or a home-grown warm sedan with at least six pistons under the bonnet.
Now that the domestic four-door is living on borrowed time, what will value-focused sedan buyers turn to if they like performance with their boot? Possibly a Honda Civic RS, Mazda 3 SP25 or Hyundai’s freshly baked Hyundai Elantra SR Turbo.
According to Hyundai Australia’s research, small sedan buyers are active rejectors of hatchbacks and SUVs, hence why the Korean brand’s local outpost has invested so much effort into tuning the chassis of its spicy new Elantra SR, the first sporting Elantra in six generations stretching back 25 years.
This is no ordinary sedan-warming, however. Gone is the boggo Elantra’s torsion-beam rear suspension and underwhelming 112kW 2.0-litre atmo four, replaced by a brand new multi-link independent rear, a seven-speed dual-clutch auto (or a six-speed manual if you appreciate the art of changing gears) and a 150kW 1.6-litre direct-injection turbo four pinched from the Veloster SR coupe.
The Elantra SR also brings huggy perforated-leather seats, a neat little flat-bottomed steering wheel clad in similar leather, trick-looking lights at both ends, a mild bodykit, a modest set of shiny-spoked 17s, a grille-mounted ‘turbo’ badge and a twin exhaust. On the scale of visual chest-puffing, the Elantra SR is no Dwayne Johnson, and many people will like that. If you weren’t aware of the above, you’d think the SR was an optioned-up Elite with an aftermarket tip.
Despite the goodness lurking within, the warm sedan category is hardly a hot-bed of Snapchat-worthy eye candy. Chief rival for the $31,290 Elantra SR dual-clutch is Honda’s bodykitted $31,790 Civic RS, complete with the Japanese brand’s first mainstream forced-induction donk since the City Turbo, though producing the same 127kW as it does in lesser Civics, slugged with a one-transmission-fits-all CVT unlikely to attract enthusiasts.
The Civic’s warmed-over styling is also on the “really, did you have to?” scale of why bother, saved by the RS’s aggressive, blacked-out nose and the seductive quality of its engineering. Finally, after 15 years in the doldrums, the 10th-generation Civic is back in the game, proving once again that Honda has what it takes to compete with long-time rival Mazda.
The immensely popular Mazda 3 SP25, now in its third generation, has crafted itself an enviable (and deserved) premium-mainstream image over the past 13 years. Recently updated with some new trim finishes, improved refinement and the addition of G-Vectoring Control (GVC) to enhance its reputation as a driver’s car, this SP25 is as aspirational as warm sedans get. Especially the range-topping $35,490 Astina with six-speed SkyActiv-Drive auto, which mirrors the $31,990 SP25 GT for mechanical spec, but loads on the trinkets for a class-busting level of spec.
What hasn’t changed in the updated SP25 is its perky atmo drivetrain. In this era of small-capacity turbos and alternative transmission choices, Mazda’s big-bore four adheres to conventional engineering ideas on paper, but the reality is a high-compression, hyper-efficient engine tied to a decisive six-speed auto that is the definition of driveability.
While the SP25 can’t quite match its boosted rivals at the strip (clocking 7.7sec to 100km/h and a 15.5sec standing 400m time), its drivetrain is deliciously responsive. Sweetly spirited and blessed with immaculate gear changes, the SP25 has an effervescent personality that frequently compensates for its ultimate lack of muscle compared to the grunty Elantra.
Right foot flat, the Mazda upshifts prematurely from first gear at just 6000rpm, and thereafter kisses 6200-6300rpm, but it’s almost like the engine could use a 7000rpm ceiling to really capitalise on its free-revving nature. And in manual mode, regardless of which gear the wheel paddles select, the SP25 hits 6400rpm and uncharacteristically (for a Mazda) grabs a taller gear. The only way you’ll get it to hold a ratio these days is if stability control is switched off.
On paper, the new turbo Civic doesn’t quite have the Mazda’s measure. Less power (127kW), a lower torque threshold (220Nm from 1700-5500rpm compared to 250Nm at 3250rpm) and a CVT transmission imply lazier, less-flustered performance that’s all about wafting. And that’s mostly true. But there’s a disconnect between the Honda’s almost raucous engine and its economy-focused transmission.
Unlike the Mazda’s faultless operation, the Civic’s drivetrain has its moods. Flatten it and the CVT will settle on a rev point as it briskly gathers speed (reaching 100km/h in 7.4sec) before throwing in a bunch of artificial ratio steps that dampen the head of steam it was gathering. And this accelerative process isn’t consistent; sometimes the Civic will maintain a rev point, other times it ‘gear shifts’.
But it’s the drivetrain’s ‘rubber band’ effect that undermines the new Civic’s excellence. Nail the accelerator to plug a gap in traffic and you get a combination of engine and transmission lag before the drivetrain finds boost. Then, if you quickly lift your right foot, there’s a delay before the Civic lets go of both revs and throttle, in an almost reverse effect. Shifting the Civic’s gearlever into ‘S’ minimises lag, but the rubber-band feeling remains.
Thing is, we’re talking about a Honda drivetrain here. The one-time ‘Japanese BMW’ has been (rightly) panned for many wrongs this century, but drivetrains have rarely been among them. Yet the turbo Civic lacks both the induction sweetness for which Honda is renowned and a decent transmission to leverage what it can muster when the chips are down.
It does have its good points. On hilly country roads, Civic’s drivetrain is excellent – quiet, torquey and effortless – but the more you ask of it, the greater its deficiencies. You know what would (mostly) save it? A manual gearbox, with which Honda used to excel.
Both the Civic’s rivals offer six-speed do-it-yourself options, and the Hyundai backs that up with a decent seven-speed dual-clutch alternative primed to make the most of its 150kW/265Nm turbo donk. It’s a tightly geared unit, with fourth often proving the ratio of choice when channelling the engine’s chubby mid-range on twisty roads. But it won’t allow you to grab a lower gear if the downshift equates to more than 5000rpm, and without any dedicated launch protocol, the Elantra SR’s standing-start numbers don’t truly reflect its pace.
Off the line, it momentarily pauses before hitting its stride, meaning the sixes and 14s this drivetrain is capable of simply don’t materialise. Once on the move, though, the Elantra SR is a wolf dressed in a sheep’s coat with a pair of Onitsuka trainers.
Boasting an unburstable mid-range and a level of throttle response that eludes the boosted Civic, the Elantra smashes through the 80-120km/h increment in a rapid four-dead, beating its rivals by close to a second. And if you stick to its pleasure zone – a meaty, thrusty and satisfying 3000-5500rpm – then it doesn’t really matter that anything above six grand sounds all a bit strained and intrusive.
Much as Hyundai’s seven-speed DCT is generally excellent at doing what it does, we noticed the occasional hiccup. A fluffed shift here and a dose of neutral before settling revs and discovering a ratio proves that VW and Ford aren’t alone in not quite matching torque-converter-auto slickness with their dual-clutch transmissions. But the Elantra ’box showed no signs of fatigue in hard driving, and neither did its upsized brakes, performing two 34.7m stops from 100km/h in succession.
And you might want to sit down before you read this: the Elantra SR Turbo loves hard driving. In this iteration, with a sophisticated rear suspension system and an all-new platform designed and developed in Europe, the Elantra finally has the hardware to compete head-on with the best Japan (and Europe) can muster. And let’s not forget the months of exhaustive testing by HMCA’s local crew in refining the set-up even further.
The result is a warm sedan that gets better the longer and harder you drive it. Steering connection could be crisper at straight ahead, and off-centre response a bit more decisive, but once you have a quarter-turn of lock wound on, the Elantra SR’s chassis really hooks into corners. It feels fluid and progressive as it adjusts its balance, and once you’re at (or beyond) that quarter-turn wheel position, the Elantra squats onto its outside rear tyre and fires itself through bends carrying serious speed. It’s beautifully neutral but also impressively adjustable, and if you pin the nose into a tight corner under brakes then lift off, it’ll even serve up some oversteer, all without spoiling its dynamic flow. And (incredibly for a Korean car) without disturbing its benign and subtle stability control.
But Elantra’s steering isn’t quite on the same page. A faster rack would certainly suit the chassis better, but there’s also a Sport setting (via the centre console’s Drive Mode button) that adds too much weight to the helm unless you’re really pressing on. Even then, somewhere between Normal and Sport set-ups would be ideal, though Sport’s enhanced throttle response gives the SR terrific thrust out of corners.
Up to about seven- or eight-10ths, the Civic is arguably sportier. There’s a connection between its fast-geared steering and the alertness of its chassis that makes it feel more naturally poised than the Hyundai. It wants to dive towards apexes and delivers terrific adjustability from its rear end. You sit low and ensconced in the Honda, too, with a proper sporty driving position and a marvellous view ahead, making fast country running an undeniable pleasure. But at the outer reaches it’s a very close fight with its Korean nemesis for the driver’s-car title.
In really tight corners, the Honda’s rapid steering doesn’t load up enough to feel natural, meaning you need to be super-focused on being precise with your inputs. And its drivetrain is a letdown in performance driving. You can blame that CVT transmission again because it’s all a bit too rubbery and lacking in crispness to feel satisfying.
The Mazda’s drivetrain is much more linear and entertaining than the Honda’s, though its dynamics tread a different path. Despite the subtle enhancements achieved via G-Vectoring Control, the 3 feels relatively disinterested much of the time. Steering inputs from straight ahead at steady speeds simply don’t achieve the instant poise, precision and response that define the new Civic, but if you corner the SP25 harder, it brings its back end into play and suddenly becomes the sporty sedan everyone assumes it is.
Like the Elantra, the SP25 loves to be driven hard, but it has a more pattery ride and, despite recent improvements, still transmits more road noise. The Hyundai can also become a bit pattery over corrugations, but it’s quieter and more consistently controlled, without the almost switch-like changes in road-noise pitch between smooth and coarse surfaces that is so evident in the Mazda.
The Honda shines in this department, owing to the most supple ride of the group and the least road noise. It can be punished over rough surfaces and all you get in return is some rocking around of its passengers, all of whom are lounging in the most accommodating interior here. The Civic’s strong suit is definitely making a determined stab at a rolling country road. With its chassis engaged and the best aspects of its torquey donk and infinitely geared transmission deployed, the Civic RS is a brilliant mile-eater.
The Elantra SR comes close, though it doesn’t feel as all-of-a-piece. Its higher driving position (on a nicely bolstered bucket) feels a bit more econocar, yet there isn’t the toe-room beneath its electric front driver’s seat to compensate. And while the rear bench offers both space and support, its decent level of vision is eclipsed by the Civic’s near-opulence in this department.
Alongside the other two, the Mazda 3 feels smaller and narrower. With styling taking precedence over packaging (to the benefit of everyone’s eyes – the SP25 is easily the most elegantly styled car here), the Mazda can’t hope to deliver taxi-like space in the rear, or the Honda’s expansive aspect up front. Its seats are also not quite right, particularly the front pair, and why does this $35K range-topper only get height adjustment for the driver when a base Volkswagen Golf or 308 offer it on both front seats? Ditto a driver-only one-touch power window.
So, likeable and fizzable as it is, the Mazda 3 SP25 is definitely starting to show its age. We’re not advocating for a second that it should offer limousine levels of interior space (like the Honda does), because there’s an intimacy about the 3 that many people will appreciate, but it’s now clearly an old-gen Mazda. Alongside the quiet, supple, nuanced and sophisticated new CX-9, the 3 feels slightly raw, a bit not-quite-there, a bit dated even. But it still has the cabin quality, the driveability and the styling appeal to keep reeling in sports-focused Aussies like a season pass to the G.
The Elantra and Civic are somewhat harder to separate. The Oz-tuned Hyundai is more overtly sporty, with a really fun chassis and loads of meaty, accessible grunt. But it does look a bit like someone’s dad in a race suit, and it doesn’t have the holistic design approach of the Honda. You can tell the Elantra SR is a deeply conservative car that’s been given the Cinderella sporting treatment whereas the new-gen Civic was designed like that from the get-go.
So where does that leave the Civic RS? It’s unfortunate that this car doesn’t have a sweet Honda manual or even a decent six-speed auto because its drivetrain is such a missed opportunity, and the main reason why the Civic’s star rating doesn’t have an ‘8’ in front of it. But the rest of it is so deeply impressive that it’s hard not to give the gong to the Honda. Learn to drive around some of its flaws and the Civic improves with exposure, but in its current form it’s incapable of delivering the same thrills as the Elantra SR on a great piece of road.
If it were us, the solution is simple: either an Elantra SR (manual or dual-clutch) with optional dealer-fit 18s, or a lower-spec 1.5 turbo Civic (the $27,790 VTi-L) that drives exactly the same as the RS but without the implication of an inappropriately applied badge.
HONDA CIVIC RS
Price as tested: $31,790/As tested $32,365 *Includes metallic paint ($575)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (US)
Fuel economy: 7.5L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 7.4sec (tested)
Plus: Fine chassis; quick steering; polished ride; vast interior; driving position
Minus: CVT spoils the fun; turbo donk’s raucousness and lack of linearity
HYUNDAI ELANTRA SR
Price as tested: $27,940 *Includes metallic paint ($450)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Aus)
Fuel economy: 7.9L/100km (test average)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 7.0sec (tested)
Plus: Mid-corner balance and pace; tons of grip; strong engine; slick gearbox
Minus: Core engineering not as holistic as the Honda’s; bland core design
MAZDA 3 SP25 ASTINA
Price as tested: $30,940 * Includes metallic paint ($450) and ‘Skyview’ glass roof ($1500)
NCAP rating: 5 stars (Aus)
Fuel economy: 0-100km/h: 7.7sec (tested)
Acceleration: 0-100km/h: 10.0sec (tested)
Plus: Peachy drivetrain; excellent quality; hard-driving handling; styling; image
Minus: Pattery ride; not-quite-there seats; much less room than its rivals