There have been some big rivalries in the world of cars over the years, but the Hyundai Elantra versus Mazda 3 battle is probably one that hasn’t stood out to most people.
This is not a thrilling pairing. I mean, I bet you haven’t been suffering sleepless nights waiting for this comparison…
But a lot of people buy small sedans – sure, not as many as buy small hatchbacks, but when you consider the sales of just the (previous version of the) Hyundai Elantra and the sedan version of the Mazda 3 in 2015 tallied about 20,000 units, this segment clearly has some appeal with buyers.
So how small are they? Nearly as big these days as Commodores and Falcons were back in the 1990s, so, not really that small.
But they’re so much more cleverly packaged than the old Aussie clunkers that they make plenty of sense for potential buyers – their boots are big enough for a couple of large suitcases, and their back seats easily fit a couple, or even three, adults.
So, we have the biggest-selling small sedan on the market – the Mazda 3 – and the new-generation version of the Hyundai Elantra, which is now bigger and better-equipped than ever.
Which will be the best small sedan? Read on to find out…
Pricing and specifications
Talk about closely matched. These two have so many areas in which they are nearly identical it’s pretty spectacular.
Let’s start with price.
The Mazda 3 Touring automatic sedan we have here starts off from $26,790 plus on-road costs. The Hyundai Elantra Elite automatic costs $26,490 plus on-roads.
As for equipment, they’re similarly, er, similar.
The pair both has leather interior trim – the Mazda with black cowhide and red stitching; the Hyundai with plain black or tan trim, if that’s your thing – and both have 7.0-inch colour media screens with Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. The Mazda has two USB inputs; the Hyundai has one.
The Hyundai’s screen has Apple CarPlay connectivity, which the Mazda misses out on. Both are touchscreen units, but the Mazda also has a clever – and brilliantly intuitive – rotary dial controller that allows you to switch between menus on the move. If you prefer to chat with your car, both have voice control – the Mazda’s is an own-developed system, where Hyundai’s version relies on the Apple interface.
For mapping, the Mazda has an in-built satellite navigation system, where the Hyundai only has maps through a connected iPhone – which could be a pain if you’re an Androider. But, a free update later in the year will also provide Android Auto functionality too.
The pair has dual-zone climate control, automatic headlights and wipers. The Elantra has a couple of extra goodies over the 3, including LED daytime running lights, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror and a digital speed readout.
While both have push-button start with smart keys, the Elantra has keyless entry buttons on the front doors – great for when you’ve got your hands full – but the Mazda misses out on that extra.
The Mazda has smaller 16-inch alloy wheels, where the Hyundai has 17-inch alloys.
Both cars have six airbags – dual front, front side and full-length curtain coverage – and electronic stability control as standard. Both also have rear-view cameras and rear parking sensors.
But if you’re really into safety equipment, the Mazda can be had with items that the Elantra cannot be equipped with. The Mazda 3 safety pack costs $1500 and adds blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and Mazda’s Smart City Brake Support, which can autonomously brake the car at speeds between 4km/h and 30km/h if it predicts a collision is imminent.
If value is your thing, the Hyundai takes the win in this part of the test.
Sizing them up
Let’s talk dimensions. Guess what? There’s not much in it.
The Mazda 3 sedan is slightly longer than the Elantra, spanning 4580 millimetres from nose to tail where the Hyundai is 4570mm long. The 3 is taller, 1455mm compared with 1440mm, but the Hyundai is wider, 1800mm versus 1795mm.
The biggest differentiator, though, is boot space.
Hyundai claims the Elantra has 458L of cargo capacity, which is a full 50L more than the 3 (408L).
As you can see in the above images, the Mazda can still fit a regular sized pram and a large suitcase without much hassle, but the larger boot aperture of the Elantra makes loading big items in and out a lot easier, and there’s more space from top to bottom as well as from side to side.
Both have levers to drop the rear seats, though you need to pull them down from the cabin – they don't simply drop.
Speaking of the cabin…
There’s a marked difference between these two.
The Mazda has a level of luxuriousness to it that makes it feel a bit special. The red stitching on the steering wheel, handbrake, gearshift surround, seats and doors really ties the cabin together nicely.
The knurled metal knobs for the media system and climate controls add a quality look and feel, and while the ambience is decidedly dark, it is, quite simply, an inviting place.
The Hyundai is more... more… well, there’s really no other way of putting this: it’s more boring.
Yes, the layout is extremely logical. Yes, it feels more spacious as soon as you sit in the driver’s seat. And yes, it’s hard to fault the quality of the fit and finish inside.
But the Hyundai doesn’t feel as premium as the Mazda – everyone in the CarAdvice office concurs.
What the Hyundai does do better than the Mazda is offer a level of space and storage that pragmatic buyers will love. The 3 can make larger occupants feel hemmed in, particularly in the driver’s seat, where the Elantra gives the impression that there is a lot of space on offer, which is in part due to its larger glasshouse.
The Elantra’s cabin storage includes much bigger door pockets in the front and the rear, and more loose-item storage up front.
Both have cupholders between the seats and covered centre consoles. The Hyundai has its USB inputs in front of the gearshifter, which is a bit of a pain if you own one of the bigger smartphones. The Mazda’s twin USB inputs are in the centre console, which is big enough for a smartphone.
The back seat battle between these two is an interesting one, too.
The Hyundai has notably better leg and shoulder room, and it’s flatter seats mean fitting three across the back seat will be much easier than in the Mazda.
That said, the 3 has much better headroom, and its more sculpted seats are great for two, but not for three – though you’d be hard-pressed to fit three (me-sized) adults in the back comfortably.
There are rear air-vents in the Hyundai Elantra Elite (not in the base Active), but the Mazda misses out on air-vents no matter which specification model you buy.
Each car has two ISOFIX child-seat anchor points, and both models have three top-tether points, too.
Under the bonnet
The similarities continue under the bonnet, with both models here powered by 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol engines.
The Hyundai’s engine produces 112kW of power at 6200rpm and 192Nm of torque at 4000rpm. The Mazda’s mill has 114kW at 6000rpm and 200Nm at 4000rpm.
Both are front-wheel-drive, both have six-speed automatic gearboxes – though the Mazda is also offered as a six-speed manual version in this specification, where the Elantra Elite is auto only. Oh, and the Mazda has paddle shifters, where the Hyundai doesn't.
Those paddle shifters make for a more involving drive experience in manual mode in the Mazda than you’ll find in the Elantra. If you care about taking matters into your own hands, the Mazda’s shifts are much quicker – particularly when downshifting – but both cars allow you to explore the range of engine adequately in manual mode.
If you leave the car in auto mode – and, let’s face it, you probably will 99 per cent of the time – the Elantra is by far the more responsive drivetrain, with the Mazda aiming to choose high gears at every opportunity to help it save fuel.
That means the Mazda can regularly react with dullness when you accelerate. It’s almost like there’s a dead spot below 2000rpm when you’re applying moderate throttle, but if you push the pedal a little further it will drop back a cog or two to gather some pace and momentum. The problem is that you have to do this a lot, and it gets tiring – particularly for passengers, especially those who may be trying to do make-up using the vanity mirrors.
The Elantra’s drivetrain is entirely different. It feels peppy from a standstill, with much more urgent throttle response and liveliness as it builds revs.
The gearbox is also more user-friendly, being that it doesn’t upshift to the highest gear possible at the soonest convenience. It holds gears longer, allowing you to use more the engine’s available torque. As such, changes at around 4000rpm aren’t uncommon.
The six-speed automatic’s shifts are smooth, though, and it certainly makes for a lot less frustrating experience around town than the Mazda, which buzzes and hunts for gears.
The claimed fuel use of these two models, though, shows what impact the Mazda’s efficiency focus has.
The Elantra – which has multi-point injection and a lower engine compression ratio – claims fuel use of 7.2 litres per 100 kilometres; the Mazda has higher compression (13.0 versus 10.1 in the Elantra) and it has direct injection, and stop-start technology – which works a treat, being quick to refire when you’re ready to get moving again. As a result, it claims a miserly 5.7L/100km.
On test, we saw higher than both claimed figures. The Mazda 3 used 7.8L/100km, or 37 per cent more than its claim, while the Elantra used 8.7L/100km, which is 21 per cent more than the sticker on the windscreen says.
For those who do a lot of long-distance touring, the, er, Touring’s smaller fuel tank may present a problem: it has a capacity of 51L, where the Elantra’s tank is a 62L job.
On the road
These two small sedans may not be the sportiest offerings in the small car segment, but neither disappoints in their driving dynamics.
There’s a bit of a gap between the two in terms of their kerb weight (another contributing factor as to why the Hyundai uses a bit more fuel), with the Elantra Elite is tipping the scales at 1355 kilograms, while the 3 Touring sedan weighs 1301kg.
The strange thing is that the Australian suspension tune of the Elantra means it feels lighter on its treads than the Mazda.
The Hyundai feels more willing to be chucked around in corners, if that’s your thing, where the Mazda feels more tied down, with its firmer suspension tune helping it hold the road securely.
That’s not to say the Elantra is insecure in its handling. It corners with plenty of grip and the front end is bitey when you change directions in the bends. The thing is, that while there is some body roll to the way the Hyundai changes direction, that makes it feel a bit more involving from the driver’s seat.
The Elantra’s steering has a lot to do with that. When you’re applying lock in the twisty stuff it is quick and reacts well, though in the straight-ahead position it require more adjustment than the Mazda.
The 3’s steering is perhaps more natural in its linearity, though it can be a little slower to react in corners. That said, it feels better on-centre, meaning you can comfortably cruise on the highway without having to think too much about holding a straight line.
The Mazda’s steering has more feel to it, too, whether you’re tootling around town or massing miles on the motorway; the Elantra’s steering doesn’t offer the driver the same level of connectedness.
Under hard driving the Mazda’s brakes felt more assured than the Elantra’s.
If you’re driving more sedately – like pretty much everyone who will buy one of these cars will – the Elantra offers a more mature drive experience and a much more comfortable ride.
It doesn’t pitter-patter over small bumps and inconsistencies like the Mazda 3 does, with its softer damper tune making for easier and more comfortable progress at city speeds.
The Mazda’s suspension is firmer, throwing more of the lumps and bumps of the road surface into the cabin, though it can feel more settled over rippled surfaces.
Both are decent when dealing with larger bumps, such as speed humps, and neither car crashed into potholes though the front-end suspension in both cars was noisy over sharp edges.
The Hyundai offers a better ownership program than the Mazda, hands-down.
The Elantra comes with a five-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, and has capped-price servicing for the life of the car. Maintenance is due every 12 months or 15,000km, and over a period of five years or 75,000km, the average fee is $269 per annum.
Further, if you service your car at a bona fide Hyundai dealer, they’ll give you roadside assistance for up to 10 years, for $0.
The Mazda has a shorter three-year, unlimited kilometre warranty, and has capped-price servicing for up to 160,000km, but requires maintenance more regularly than the Hyundai, with services due every 10,000km or 12 months (whichever occurs first). Over a five year - or 50,000km - period, the Mazda's annual average would be a minimum of $306.20, and then if you were to do the maths over 75,000km during the same period, the cost would be at least $429.80 per annum.
Further, there’s no complimentary roadside assistance plan with the Mazda. You can subscribe for a minimum cost of $68.10 per year if you so choose.
So, which is the victor in this new rivalry – this battle between well-priced, well-equipped small sedans?
There’s no doubt the Mazda 3 is popular for a reason. It feels special inside, and it has plenty of equipment for the money. This Touring sedan is particularly well specified, though the 2.0-litre engine could prove difficult to live with in the long run.
Look, if you’ve got a Mazda 3 on your shopping list – and clearly, plenty of new car buyers do – you could certainly do a lot worse.
But the thing is – it seems you could do better, too.
The Hyundai Elantra is simply a more rounded – if plainer – small sedan. In Elite specification you get the majority of the goodies you could want, safety extras aside.
But with its perkier engine, more forgiving road manners and better packaged small sedan body, it takes the win in this test.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos