If there’s one trait I use to describe myself that I think every one of my friends would agree on, it’s that I’m the decisive type.
So, when I flip-flopped four separate times while trying to decide which of these two cars I’d recommend over the other, it was a clear indication that the competition between them is inordinately tight.
On one side, there’s the completely redesigned 2020 Toyota Corolla, now resting on the Toyota New Global Architecture platform and sporting new looks, new powertrains, and plenty of new features.
On the other is the 2019 Hyundai Elantra. While its updates haven’t been as dramatic, this model year brings a significant mid-cycle refresh that includes a reworked front and rear design, new centre stack and instrument cluster, updated wheel designs, and some expanded feature availability.
If you’re weighing these two cars, it’s worth digging more deeply into the specifics. The ways in which they differ can be dramatic at times, and the reasons I might select one over the other might not be the reasons that matter most to you. Within the compact sedan segment, these are both good-quality, well-priced, highly competitive products.
In the end, though, there can be only one.
Starting with a clean slate has allowed Toyota to craft a winner in the new Corolla. The mean-looking headlights are well-proportioned against the black mesh grille that’s open but not gaping garishly. To my eye, it evokes a mask from traditional Japanese kabuki theatre. And I’m especially grateful that the designers have dropped the rounded notch for the logo badge on the hood that’s used on the Camry and have gone instead for a floating look, which I find to be much more tasteful.
The interior of this XLE model is decked out in a synthetic leather so good that it’s tough to tell the difference – that sound you hear is vegans cheering – and it’s layered with chrome and stitching in a way that’s truly fetching and unusual at this price point. Most automakers cheap out on interiors at this level by doing things like finishing the inside panel of the front seat bases, the side that sits against the centre console, in a lower-grade material than the rest, but that’s not the case here. A great deal of care has gone into evoking quality with the new Corolla, and it shows.
With the Elantra’s updates, on the other hand, Hyundai had an established set of parameters to work around along with an intended direction to help it align with the rest of the product portfolio. With the addition of the cascading grille that’s become a fixture on many of Hyundai’s SUVs, it’s easy to see where they were going. But extending the line of the headlights into that grille’s borders breaks an aesthetic fourth wall for me that I’m not sure I’ll ever quite get used to. Plus, the interior design and material quality, despite this Ultimate being the equivalent top-tier trim, simply isn’t at the same level as the Corolla. That said, the new decklid with Hyundai’s most recent logo and nameplate treatment is quite striking.
Winner: Toyota Corolla
As clearly as the Corolla wins in the looks category, the Elantra pulls ahead in outright usefulness. Not only is its trunk larger at 407 litres versus the Corolla’s 371, but the Elantra also has trunk-mounted pull tabs to drop the rear seats, which saves the hassle of running around to the side doors if you find you need the extra space.
The second row also has quite a lot more leg room, which is easily demonstrated by the pair of photos showing how much room my short legs have when the driver’s seat in each car is in its usual position. Both share an identical 2,700 mm wheelbase, and yet the Elantra has an enormous amount more space to work with, so much so that the contoured rear panels on the front seats are almost unnecessary.
In the real-world fuel economy test, the Elantra wins as well, although this deck is stacked against the Corolla somewhat: to get the Elantra’s nicely low figure of 6.3 L/100 km, I spent roughly 80 percent of my time on the highway, while the Corolla’s 8.3 L/100 km came with a highway drive time that was closer to 50 percent. In both cases, I have to admit that I wasn’t trying especially hard. Perhaps worth pointing out to those who hold fuel economy as a key concern, though, is that the Elantra comes with only the one powertrain configuration, while the new Corolla includes a hybrid option for the first time in North America – albeit not at this trim level, at least for now.
Winner: Hyundai Elantra
Features, Equipment, and Safety
If we were talking about base models here, the Corolla would be far and away the winner with its standard Toyota Safety Sense 2.0 suite of technologies – which includes the pre-collision system with pedestrian and bicycle detection, automatic high beams, lane departure alert with steering assist and road edge detection, lane tracing assist, and active cruise control.
Here at the top of the line, though, the playing field is far more even. By the Ultimate level, the Elantra has forward collision warning and emergency braking with pedestrian detection, active cruise control, lane keep assist and lane departure warning. It doesn’t have automatic high beams, but it does have Hyundai’s safety exit alarm, which when activated keeps the rear doors locked when objects are inbound from the rear so that kids can’t, for example, door cyclists. That could be a big deal for families of a certain demographic (i.e., the ones who could really use a minivan but can’t bring themselves to buy one).
Both cars also have heated front and rear outboard seats and a heated steering wheel, LED headlights, a single-pane sunroof, and a wireless charging pad. The Elantra starts to get a slight leg up on the Corolla by offering 17-inch alloy wheels as opposed to the Corolla’s 16-inch (18-inch wheels are available on the sport trims but not on XLE), although the Corolla gets it back with its shiny new digital gauge cluster, which leaves the Elantra’s latest design looking outdated.
Infotainment is a bigger difference, though, and is the one that pushes the Elantra over the line since it comes with both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality, while the Corolla still only employs the latter. The Corolla does benefit from a very large screen and a button layout that puts functions within easy reach, but the Elantra’s system is so much more fundamentally functional and user-friendly as to render the infotainment aspect of comparison no contest.
Winner: Hyundai Elantra
Performance, Handling, Ride Comfort, and Fun Factor
In every aspect to do with the drivability of the Corolla’s new platform, consider me impressed. Although the figures in this XLE are lower than the Elantra Ultimate on paper – a 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine with 139 hp and 126 lb-ft of torque, as opposed to the Elantra’s 147 hp and 132 lb-ft from its 2.0-litre – this difference is hardly perceptible thanks to how much more smoothly, and attainably within its rev range, the Corolla gets to peak power output. I even genuinely prefer the Corolla’s CVT to the Elantra’s six-speed automatic, a statement which sort of leaves me wanting to disinfect my keyboard, as much as it’s becoming the new reality.
The Corolla is similarly a ride and handling standout, traveling flatly through corners and relatively nonplussed over rough surfaces as opposed to much of its competition, the Elantra included.
Winner: Toyota Corolla
Value for Money
Value is a highly subjective term. In the context of a compact sedan, I take it to mean the most amount of overall usability, be that through good use of space or thoughtful implementation of features. The Corolla has plenty of redeeming qualities – and again, if we’re looking at entry level models, this is a completely different discussion – but with the differences between the prices on these two cars being within a stone’s throw, I have to view things like the Elantra’s larger interior and more universally useful infotainment system as being the places where people working within this budget will want to spend their money.
Winner: Hyundai Elantra
To choose a winner here, I had to put aside some personal sensibilities: namely, I had to downvote my own tendency to prefer cars that I find more attractive and more comfortable to drive and look more closely at what I think compact sedan buyers care about most, that being user-friendliness and outright spaciousness. If drive feel matters more to you, don’t overlook the new Corolla; it could well be considered among the very best in the segment. But if you’re shopping for a family car that will move you in the ways you need it to, the Hyundai Elantra is more likely to be the one you want.
Overall winner: 2019 Hyundai Elantra