Look back about five years and you'll remember a time when the upper C segment was a segment that commanded desire. People would dream about and work towards one day owning, say a Honda City. A constantly growing economy since means more money for everyone and those dreams have gradually evolved to bigger and better cars. Which makes the entry level D segment with cars at around Rs 15 lakh rupees pretty hot property. Demand naturally results in supply and we've had quite a bit of it. There's a big choice of cars from Skoda, Toyota, Renault and Chevrolet at the price point though all of which are now growing long in the tooth and Hyundai couldn't have chosen a better time to launch the new Elantra. We've already driven it and came back impressed, but is it good enough to be the car that you and I would want to buy someday? To find those answers we pit the top of the line diesel variants of the entry D-segment cars against each other.
Design and engineering
Let's start with what the Elantra does best - style. It's very erm, fluidic. This design theory has been accepted very well and I'm clearly among the minority who thinks it's a bit overdone. That being said the Elantra is definitely the nicest result yet and perhaps my only real issue with the design is the squat, gaping grille up front that reminds me of a gasping goldfish... Nevertheless, the stretched back head lamps liven up the mood and they're complemented by two creases in the hood that run into the A pillar. There's a strong shoulder line that runs along the side all the way to the tail lamps. There's also the very nice, almost coupe like sloping roofline that's one of the best aspects of the fluidic concept. The tail lamps stretch quite a bit into the body work along the side but actually look best when viewed straight on from the rear. Sculpted wheel arches keep the swoopy design theme going and envelope 16-inch wheels. The Elantra might be flashy but she is easily one of the best looking cars in the segment.
It happens far too often - a car is simply stunning on the outside but the interiors just don't match up. Fortunately, that's not that case here. The attention grabbing flowing centre console starts wide at the top, tapers towards the aircon controls and widens again as it wraps itself around the gear lever. You get a smart looking four spoke steering wheels strewn with buttons that control the stereo, cruise control, trip meter, mobile connectivity and the instrument cluster menu. There's a cooled glovebox and auto headlamps but no auto wipers, which would have been nice in the constantly on-off rains around Mumbai. The quality of materials used in the cabin feels good in most places except for the indicator stalks that felt a bit tacky. There's plenty of space all around and the Elantra's cabin is a comfortable place to be. Especially at the rear with a comfy bench and stereo controls on the arm rest. Not to be left out, the front passengers also get cooled seats, a segment first.
The only other 'new' so to speak car in this comparison is the Chevy Cruze. Surprising then that the outside is exactly the same as the old car - the changes are mostly mechanical. That's no bad thing because the Cruze is still a very handsome car. You've got to love the fact that the Cruze is also a very successful (and good looking contender) in the World Touring Car Championship. It's like Halley pointed out, having a Cruze lurking in your rear view mirror on the highway is a wonderful but slightly intimidating sight!
The interiors have a funky layout which contrasts with the cleaner well cut exteriors. The silver and black theme looks great and it's nice to see that Chevrolet have refrained from going beige solely for the sake of looking 'premium'. That being said the quality of materials used isn't exactly the best in this group, plastic items for instance don't feel as high grade as in the Elantra. However, the Cruze is the only car here that gives you a sun roof. That's a good thing because I feel it gives the cabin a perceived sense of airiness and space, something which the Cruze lacks in reality when compared with say the Corolla or Fluence. Great seats though - the most supportive of the lot.
The Corolla has got to have one of the most common faces around what with it being the highest selling car in the history of time. It's not a bad looker at all but it is a bit dull. Nevertheless, the recent facelift has made it more contemporary and thus able to fit in with its younger peers. It's an inoffensive design but one that won't really get a second look.
The insides are pretty much the same - functional but not very pretty. Nevertheless you get a spacious and comfortable cabin with the best rear bench especially with respect to knee room and shoulder space. There's also plenty of kit. The top of the line D-4D G gets auto headlamps with HID bulbs and washers, a 6.1 inch touch screen DVD player, steering mounted audio controls and more. For a dull car it's got a rich enough gizmo list.
It's been two years since Skoda gave the Laura a facelift and its starting to show. The car looks dated and the wrinkles are starting to surface. Thankfully Skoda's eloquent new design language will work its magic on the Laura pretty soon. Those changes are still in the future so until then get over the age factor and you'll notice the Laura's strong points. This is still a very solid looking car with an imposing front end and a no nonsense side profile. It's a big, commanding vehicle and that's a large part of its appeal. Did I like it? No, and I think Skoda needs to freshen the exterior design quickly.
The old school feel continues on the inside. The quality of materials is great and you get a nice leather wrapped wheel, a chunky gear knob and plenty of wood garnish on the centre console. But things like the simple AC knobs and the absence of steering mounted audio controls constantly remind you of the car's age. It's still got quite a comprehensive features list that includes auto wipers, a great sound system and heated seats (pointless in India). My issue with the Laura is that it feels very large from the driver's seat, larger than it actually is. The small rear view mirrors and limited rear visibility thanks to the high boot doesn't help either.
So far we've had a car from South Korea, an American ride (actually another Korean by its roots), one from Japan and one representing the Czech Republic, or Germany if you consider the parent company. Of course the Renault Fluence isn't just here to keep the multinational theme going - honestly! Jokes aside it's actually a very underrated player in this segment. Unlike many of Renault's over the top international designs, the Fluence can very easily classify as a conserved, even understated design. But she's still a pretty car whose design you'll really appreciate on the second look.
The E4 diesel gets the exact same interiors as the top of the line petrol so you get a smart looking beige and black interior offset by wood and brushed aluminium trim. The centre console layout is simple but functional and I quite liked the unusual audio controls that are mounted behind the steering wheel and are unique to this car. Yet it isn't the most convenient system and takes a while to get used to. The Fluence is best experienced from the rear seat. It's comfortable, spacious and is the only car on test with window blinds. Make no mistake; this is a car for the back seat customer. Still, the only car better in this area is the Corolla.
Engines and driveability
You pay five lakh more than the Verna and you get the exact same diesel engine. Power, torque - identical figures. But you don't feel shortchanged. 128PS and 260Nm is overkill in the Verna but it's plenty enough in the Elantra - still the second most powerful car here. The engine feels great - it's refined and quite free revving. Turbo lag does demand a downshift now and then but you can easily work around it with the slick gearbox and light clutch. Power delivery is linear and the six speed box has well spaced ratios. Despite the Elantra's 100 odd kilo weight disadvantage to the Verna the 0-100kmph time of 10.83 seconds is impressively just 0.21 seconds slower. We hit a top speed of 189kmph although the Elantra could creep into the 190s given the space. It's frugal too with an impressive overall figure of 14.4kmpl.
166PS and 380Nm in the Cruze is more propulsive force than a Laura RS. Add in the running costs of a diesel and this should be the perfect car. It's unfortunately it's all a bit too good. The Cruze sadly just can't put all that power down to result in powerful performance times. Massive low down torque, JK Vectra tyres and tall gearing result in a disappointing 10.22 second run to the ton. Even though it's quicker than the Elantra by a fraction we were expecting much more. The Cruze is still the only car here to cross 200kmph but the overall experience is quite underwhelming. Even on full bore shifts the wide gearing results in the engine taking almost a second to spool up and give you all that power. Positively the engine is quite refined, there's very little clatter and it actually sounds quite nice on the move. Overall though the Cruze seems to have lost out on its potential to be an astounding performance car thanks to the company's quest to balance out efficiency. It hasn't worked and the Cruze still returns the lowest overall efficiency of 11.43kmpl.
The Corolla makes the least power here - just 88PS and 205Nm. Decent low-end torque comes to the rescue and despite being the slowest to 100kmph (14.68seconds) you never feel frustrated by a lack of power. The engine is refined, quiet and highly efficient returning a very credible 18.72kmpl. That's 3.4kmpl higher than all of these cars. Impressive.
The Laura we tested produces 110PS, the more powerful 140PS variant is only available with a DSG auto. It's adequately quick, hitting 100kmph in 12.7 seconds and going on to a high 189kmph. The 5-speed manual has typically precise Skoda shift quality and well spaced ratios but it's the only car here with just five cogs. Power delivery is linear and the strong bottom end makes this is an easy car to drive in packed city conditions. In comparison the Elantra does come pretty close to the linearity and low speed driveability of the Laura. The 2.0-litre engine of the Laura is refined and good sound deadening keeps most of the clatter outside. It's efficient as well going 13.7kmpl on a litre. Not an exciting motor then but very up to the job.
The K9K in the Fluence been recently worked over and now produces a 110PS, 4PS up from earlier. The 240Nm of peak torque stays the same but is produced lower in the rev range. Despite the seemingly small changes driveability is significantly improved, roll on performance is better and acceleration times have dropped. 0-100kmph takes 12.73 seconds, nearly 2 seconds slower than the Elantra. The Fluence hits its limit at 181kmph. Efficiency has taken a small hit of about 0.5kmpl and the car returns 15.3kmpl, better than the Elantra clearly indicating that the bias is more on efficiency and not as balanced out as the Elantra. A heavy clutch spoils what would otherwise be an excellent car to drive in the city.
Ride & handling
Almost every Hyundai today makes a great first impression with the styling, keeps you interested with its feature list and continues to impress with strong, efficient engines. And the bubble bursts as soon as you throw it around a corner. Soft suspension, wallowy handling and dead steering have been a painful Achilles heel on most Hyundais. Try as it might the Elantra can't break free from the typecast. The suspension that pampers you in slow city conditions kills confidence when pushing the car to its limits. Weight transfer is very evident and the car doesn't like dealing with crests at speed. The steering feedback is vague though not as light in the Verna, especially on the twisties and feels disconnected from the front wheels. A little better damping would have really helped matters. It is however an improvement over the Verna and the suspension doesn't hit its bump stops quite so easily. The result is great ride at slow speeds, a comfortable feel at highway speeds, but it is quite a letdown when the going gets fun.
The Cruze has a stiff but pliant feel to it. The steering has a heaviness to it that feels good but not cumbersome. There isn't much actual feel and feedback from the wheel and you get the impression that the whole car is trying to feel sporty but isn't quite getting there. The Cruze then finds itself in that awkward position between a rock and a hard place. It's neither very sporty to drive nor is it the most comfortable car here. It still is a bit more engaging than the Elantra scoring more marks in this aspect.
Ride quality is where the Corolla excels. It's comfortable, quiet and quite frankly rides better than all the cars here, although the Fluence runs it close with the Elantra following a little further behind. The Corolla's steering is light, but with an inert feel. It isn't much of a driver's car and the plush suspension translates to early understeer. This car is very clearly designed to keep its back seat occupants happy and not the man behind the wheel.
The Fluence has an extremely light steering system, even lighter than the Elantra but it weighs up well with speed. It's not the best system around but it works well in all conditions. Ride quality as I mentioned is excellent and just short of the Corolla's level. This is not a car inherently designed to put a smile on your face on a winding road but it will do what you ask of it. There's enough grip, body roll doesn't get out of hand and good high speed stability. Comfort is the priority here but the Fluence will respond safely if you absolutely demand it.
So let's not beat around the bush. The Laura is simply the best car to drive of this lot. There's no doubting the fact that it's stiffly sprung, but not to the extent of being uncomfortable though it can't match up to the ride quality of the Elantra, Corolla or the Fluence. Jump in after driving the previously mentioned cars and the steering will suddenly feel excessively stiff. But give it a few minutes and the sensation of stiffness transforms to feeling perfect weighted. Get over the long travel clutch and you'll enjoy slicing through the gearbox as you throw the car around. High speed composure is excellent and the chassis invariably starts to demand more than the engine can offer.
To arrive at a decision with this segment isn't easy. Five different cars from five different parts of the world behave very differently from each other. In insolation they have their strengths, put them together and the chinks in the armour begin to show.
This segment demands luxury, comfort, value and image above all else and performance is never on the top of the mind. In that respect the Corolla and the Laura are the two biggest beneficiaries. While the Corolla has an indelible reputation for being the choice of wheels for the well heeled, the Laura earned its stripes with those looking for a bit more flash. As for the Cruze you'd think she'd just be this powerhouse but her performance or lack of it left us dismayed.
But the question is of the Elantra and while Hyundai have definitely given it an upmarket air and made significant improvements to the car it, as you would have read, does not have a single outstanding trait that trounces the competition. If anything the Elantra can only claim to possess the best and most well thought of features. It is also probably the best looking car in this segment and if style is your substance the Elantra would be your outright winner. What is significant here is that the last time the Elantra stepped into India it was the best specced car offering the best and most state of the art features. The new Elantra in that regard does not disappoint! That is however not sufficient to get it to the top of the podium.
We'd like to read the situation a little differently. To us the Corolla still makes the most sense. It's an accomplished car, has fantastic build, space, comfort, refinement, efficiency and value. The Elantra runs it a close second because the Laura just demands too much money and with the change coming up makes little sense for such large investment. Would the equation have changed if the Jetta had been included here, we will never know. So for today the Corolla is your best bet!