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We're pitting the 2014 Mazda3 against the 2014 Hyundai Elantra GT

I am faced with buying my very first car at 51 – exciting and very daunting. I love the feel of driving, although I am only familiar with the automatic transmission, and have enjoyed renting the Honda Civic and Mazda3. I need to stay between $10,000-$15,000 all in. I love bells and whistles (heated seats, moon roof, etc.) but will forgo them to keep down the price. Is there anything fun/stylish/dependable that would fit my needs – and my awkward parking space? – Anne, Toronto

Buying your first car is daunting at any age.

And it's not an easy choice. There's a pack of quality, relatively peppy compact cars, including the 2014 Hyundai Elantra GT (with an average asking price of $13,260, according to Canadian Black Book), 2014 Hyundai Elantra ($12, 258), 2012 Honda Civic ($11,788), 2014 Mazda3 ($11,719) and 2014 Chevrolet Cruze ($10,338).

We left the widely liked 2014 Ford Focus ($10,682) off the list because Consumer Reports gives it a one out of five for reliability – mainly because of reports of trouble with the dual-clutch automatic.

Whatever you choose, before you buy get it inspected by a mechanic you trust – costs typically range between $120 and $200.

"Having a prepurchase inspection done will not guarantee a risk-free purchase as it is only a visual process," said Eli Melnick, owner of Toronto's Start Auto Electric Ltd. "However, it is likely that obvious issues such as serious previous collision damage, leaks, abnormal wear, rust or other faults can be identified and the cost of repairs estimated."

Since you're seeking style, we're pitting the 2014 Mazda3 against the 2014 Hyundai Elantra GT.

2014 Mazda3

2014 Mazda3.

  • Third generation: 2014-present
  • Average asking price for base: $11,719 (Canadian Black Book)
  • Original MSRP for base: $15,900
  • Trims: GX, GS, GT
  • Engine: 155-hp 2.0-litre four-cylinder (GX, GS) or 184-hp 2.5-litre four cylinder (GT)
  • Transmission/Drive: Six-speed manual, six-speed automatic/front-wheel drive
  • Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.0 city, 5.8 highway (2.0-litre manual), 7.9 city, 5.7 (2.0-litre automatic)

Zoom-zoom. Stories about Mazdas tend to use that slogan way too much. But for the fun-to-drive 2014 Mazda3, it definitely applies.

"It's the right size. It looks great inside and out. It's frugal, but also spunky," Edmunds said after its 32,000-km long-term road test. "It's well built with quality materials. It can carry a decent load. It satisfies with engaging handling, yet still rides smoothly."

New for 2014, it came in a sedan and in a sportier-looking hatchback (called the Sport; $12,479) – and came standard with Bluetooth and USB connectivity, push-button start and keyless entry.

Edmunds had a couple of gripes – the base engine could get noisy when pushed hard and the touchscreen looked like an aftermarket add-on – but they said the 2014 Mazda3 wasn't "just a car for 20-somethings any more."

Consumer Reports gave it one of the top spots in their compact-car ratings, but said other small cars were roomier inside.

"While not as sharp as it was in previous Mazda3s, it's still among the most fun small cars to drive, just behind the (less reliable) Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus," it said.

Consumer Reports gave the 2014 Mazda3 five out of five for reliability – but there were reports of hassles with the infotainment system.

There were three recalls, including a fix for a potential gas tank leak.

2014 Hyundai Elantra GT

2014 Hyundai Elantra GT.

  • Second generation: 2013-2017
  • Average asking price for base: $13,260 (Canadian Black Book)
  • Original MSRP for base: $19,149
  • Trims: L (manual only), GL, GLS, SE
  • Transmission/Drive: Six-speed manual, six-speed automatic/front-wheel drive
  • Engine: 173-hp 2.0-litre four-cylinder
  • Fuel Economy (litres/100 km): 9.8 city, 7.0 highway (manual), 9.8 city, 7.2 highway (automatic)

Everywhere else but here, the Elantra GT isn't an Elantra – it's the Hyundai i30, and it was engineered in Germany.

"It feels like a European car. In a sense it is," Globe Drive said. "Simply put, the i30/GT contains more high-strength steel than other lower-priced Hyundais, ergo the body is stronger. The dividends are clear: an extremely smooth ride over bad pavement, effortless cornering on twisting two-laners."

While the Elantra GT, which also came in a coupe, is based on a different platform than the Elantra sedan, it had the Elantra's 143-hp engine – until 2014. That year, the Elantra got an optional 173-hp engine – and it became standard in the GT.

Got all that? What matters is, even though it's not quite as athletic as hot hatches like the Volkswagen Golf GTI, the GT is no slouch on the road.

If you want an automatic, the base trim is the GL, which came with air, heated front seats, cruise, Bluetooth, a cooled glove box and driver-selectable steering modes.

Edmunds liked the spacious and well-built interior and well-equipped base model but said there were more fuel-efficient rivals.

Consumer Reports said the GT didn't do as well as the Elantra sedan in their testing, "mainly because of its stiff ride and tight rear seat."

It gave the 2014 five out of five for reliability. There were no recalls.

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