Hyundai Elantra GT
Base price: $19,149
As tested: $22,549
If Hyundai's winning Elantra GT feels like a European car in terms of solidity and handling, there's good reason. It's my hunch that it was the GT's Euro edge that earned it first place in the small cars over $21,000 category.
Competitors in this class are generally more refined than those in the small cars under $21,000 segment. Refinement is a characteristic of the Elantra GT.
The GT's body and suspension were engineered at Hyundai's European Technical Centre at Russelsheim, Germany, specifically to compete against the Volkswagen Golf, the best-selling vehicle on the continent.
The North American version of this design may be manufactured in South Korea, unlike its European i30 counterpart that is made in the Czech Republic, but the character of the car is certainly distinct from Korean-made Elantra sedans.
It looks like a two-door coupe, but is a four-door – or a five-door if you count the hatchback – with the practicality of a wagon. The rear-seat folds flat right to the front seats for a generous cargo bay of 1,444 litres capacity.
With the rear seats vertical, there's reasonable room for three – two makes more sense – passengers, so the Elantra GT scores points for practicality whether carrying adult friends, a growing family or furniture.
Not particularly powerful, it's still a rewarding drive. The TestFest handling course revealed the GT's nimble cornering, and the impressive ride over bumpy sections of a nearby road earned extra points. Oh yes, the fuel consumption rating of 5.0 litres/100 km highway (with the automatic, 4.9 with manual) was icing on the cake.
MAZDA3 SKYACTIV HATCHBACK
Base price: $16,995
As tested: $21,895
The most comfortable car in this class, with the lowest as-tested price, this Mazda lacked the Sonic's touch screen and the Elantra's fresh styling. The rear seat is by far the most usable with generous leg and foot room and three headrests, rather than two in some competitors. Lively, if not powerful, performance.
FORD CMAX HYBRID
Base price: $27,199
A rating of 4.0 litres/100 km city and 4.1 highway. Ugly is in the eye of the beholder, but beauty is in the details and Ford has most of them right in this breakthrough hybrid. Front seats are a great place to be with good visibility, and everything is where it ought to be. Fuel consumption rated at 4.0 city/4.1 highway.
CHEVROLET SONIC LTZ HATCHBACK
Base price: $14,155
The Sonic has the same powerful engine as the larger Chevrolet Cruze but weighs less. So it feels lively, and strong brakes also mark Sonic as a driver's choice. Bluetooth connectivity, USB port and Sirius XM standard on LTZ. Less roomy than other contenders, rougher ride.
VOLKSWAGEN BEETLE TDI
Base price: $25,575
As-tested price: $25,825
I loved the Beetle: How a car steers, shifts gears and responds to the right foot count for a lot. The new diesel engine is a stormer. In objective scoring, however, Beetle scored low in convenience/entertainment features, visibility, ride comfort and mid-pack in measured stopping distances.