Best Small Car over $21,000:
Hyundai Elantra GT
Price (base/as tested): $19,149/$22,549
The GT, which replaces the Elantra Touring, isn’t just a hatchback version of the Elantra sedan. Rather, it’s based on a model that’s known as the i30 in overseas markets.
It uses a 1.8L four-cylinder that makes 148 horsepower, and the tested vehicle was optioned with a six-speed automatic transmission. It isn’t the quickest to accelerate, but it’s very quiet and smooth when cruising. A button lets you switch the steering feel between three settings, but the Comfort mode is unsettlingly vague.
It’s roomy and comfortable, and the interior is nicely designed, but it should be easier to fold the rear seats flat, especially in a hatchback where cargo often takes priority.
AJAC members named the Elantra GT the winner of this segment.
Chevrolet Sonic LTZ 5-door Hatch
Price (base/as tested): $14,155/$22,910
Subcompact cars used to be GM’s weak spot, but the Sonic has changed that. The base model uses a 1.8L four-cylinder, but the tested LTZ has a turbocharged 1.4L engine that takes this good little car and makes it better. Its 138 horsepower rating doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough for peppy acceleration.
It’s sporty, with tight handling and quick steering, but has a practical side: it’s very roomy both in front and back, those rear seats fold flat with one pull of a lever, and there’s a dual cargo floor. But I really hate a stereo touch-screen that I have to keep tapping to adjust the volume, rather than a dial.
Ford C-Max Hybrid
Price (base/as tested): $27,199/$29,949
Sold only as a hybrid, the C-Max uses a 2.0L four-cylinder engine that’s mated to an electric motor and lithium-ion battery pack. It’s intended as a replacement for the defunct and far more expensive Escape Hybrid.
Under the right conditions, it can run on its battery alone at speeds of up to 100 km/h. The gas/electric system working together generates 188 horsepower, and the car’s combined city/highway fuel consumption rings in at 4.0 L/100 km. It’s quiet, has strong acceleration when you need it, and the steering feel is good. The interior is handsome, and the seats fold flat for more cargo space, but it definitely needs more storage cubbies up front for small-item storage.
Mazda3 Sport Skyactiv (hatchback)
Price (base/as tested): $16,995/$21,895
The least expensive in the group, the Mazda3 did enough right to earn my top choice. On the handling course, it took curves better than any of its competitors, had the best steering feel, and the most confident-feeling brakes (although with the longest stopping distance of the group).
At 155 horsepower, it’s more powerful than Sonic or Elantra, but thanks to Mazda’s Skyactiv technology, which optimizes the engine, transmission, and chassis for efficiency, its published combined rating of 6.2 L/100 km is better. Surprisingly, it’s virtually the same as the diesel Beetle’s 6.1 rating. It can’t touch the C-Max Hybrid, of course, but it’s $8,000 less.
The rear seats fold flat in a single motion, and although it has the smallest cargo capacity among the hatches, it’s a well-done, well-priced, nice-to-drive package.
Volkswagen Beetle TDI
Price (base/as tested): $25,575/$25,825
The Beetle was reborn into its third generation for 2012, and receives a new diesel engine for 2013. It’s a beauty, too. The 2.0L engine makes 140 horsepower and — this is the important part — 236 lb.-ft. of torque starting at just 1,750 r.p.m. It’s delightfully smooth and powerful, especially with its slick-shifting six-speed direct shift gearbox, an automatic that shifts almost instantly between gears.
Although it lacks the funky charm of the last Beetle, it is handsome, and its shiny painted dash looks fantastic. It handles beautifully, but couldn’t quite top the Mazda’s performance, and lacked several features found on some of its lower-priced competition.
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