How many new Honda Civics have you seen on the road today? Contrast that with the number of facelifted Toyota Corolla Altis and recently registered Mazda 3s, and you’ll have an idea of the Civic FC’s scale of dominance in the C-segment, which was once upon a time the car market’s centre of gravity.

Years of attacks from smaller sedans and SUVs means that it’s no longer the default, but the Civic’s entry last year has brought back some attention to this class of car, even if much of it is from Honda buyers validating their purchase against older opposition.

Besides the Civic’s expressive styling that made its rivals look half a size smaller overnight, Honda also brought the turbo engine to the masses. Sure, we’ve had European downsized turbos for awhile now, but nothing’s truly mainstream until a big Japanese brand carries it in a core product.

Keeping the Civic in mind as the class benchmark and the pioneer in turbocharged mass market sedans, we drive the new Hyundai Elantra.

The sixth-generation Hyundai Elantra actually predates the current Civic. This ‘AD’ generation sedan was introduced in Hyundai’s domestic market of South Korea in September 2015, before heading to North America in 2016. Hyundai released the Elantra Sport, the performance flagship variant, midway through last year.

It took awhile for the Elantra AD to reach our shores, but it eventually did so in June. Better late than never, and even better is Hyundai-Sime Darby Motors’ decision to offer the Elantra in both normal and Sport flavours.

Our local range kicks off with the 2.0 Executive, powered by the familiar 2.0 litre Nu engine with 152 PS at 6,200 rpm and 192 Nm of torque at 4,000 rpm. The naturally-aspirated MPI engine is paired to an in-house six-speed torque converter automatic transmission.

More interesting is the Elantra Sport, which has a 1.6 litre turbocharged engine under its hood. The Gamma T-GDI is packed with 204 PS at 6,000 rpm and 265 Nm of torque from 1,500 to 4,500 rpm, as per the Korean Avante Sport. Opting for the Sport over the Executive nets you an extra 52 PS and 73 Nm.

The downsized turbo engine puts the Elantra in the same conversation as the 1.5 litre Civic Turbo, but the Korean motor holds a substantial advantage – 31 PS and 45 Nm more to be exact.

The Elantra Sport is actually from a higher performance rung than our Civic. In the US, it battles the latest Civic Si – a sporty midpoint between the regular Civic and the Civic Type R – which puts out 205 hp and 260 Nm between 2,100 and 5,000 rpm. While the Hyundai has nowhere near as much street cred as the Si badge in the American sport compact scene, it has the firepower to match.

Back home, while our Civic comes with a CVT automatic, Hyundai’s gearbox of choice is a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. The ingredients are definitely there for the Elantra to be a Civic-beater in performance and driving terms, but all that on-paper promise can amount to nothing if it’s not cooked right. Previous Korean attempts at sporty cars have been less than tasty, and I’m rightfully wary.

We start off in the 2.0 Executive, which is a pleasant enough drive. The familiar 2.0L Nu engine and 6AT combo provides adequate performance that’s par for the course. The Ioniq was the last Hyundai I drove, and that hybrid car’s low NVH levels and good refinement really impressed – it’s more of the same in the Elantra, which means that it’s a much more soothing drive than the Mazda 3, and perhaps even the Civic.

From memory, the AD feels more substantial on the move compared to the previous-generation MD, with better isolation from bumps and ridges. The steering is precise and easy, but there’s not much feedback to speak of. That’s normal for a modern electric set up though, with only the Mazda 3’s lively helm standing out in the class.

The Elantra 2.0’s suspension is tuned for comfort. The extra slack from the soft springing manifests itself in more body roll and a loping gait at highway speed, compared to the Elantra Sport. While previous generation Korean cars such as the Elantra MD and Sonata YF somehow managed to combine a soft primary ride with not very good low speed bump absorption, the latest Elantra fares much better as a comfort-oriented sedan.

The Elantra AD is a clear improvement from the previous generation car, but that’s not much of a surprise as the MD – striking physical form aside – wasn’t a frontrunner in its prime.

The shock and awe was delivered by Elantra Sport. The 1.6 litre turbo engine endows this Korean with a serious punch, and the rate of acceleration feels alien in a mainstream Asian sedan. Never mind getting up to highway speed (which is ridiculously easy), the Sport can hit the double century without breaking too much sweat, and remains stable while at it.

The official 0-100 km/h time for the Elantra Sport is 7.7 seconds; that’s 2.2 seconds faster than the 2.0 NA, but the gap feels much bigger in practice. The 1.5 litre turbocharged Civic does the century sprint in 8.2 seconds.

There’s a slight delay in response before the T-GDI’s torque does its thing; while the DCT’s shifts aren’t as rapid and snappy as Volkswagen’s sport-tuned DSGs (as in the Golf GTI), it’s no deal breaker and lag from a standing start isn’t as apparent as in the Volkswagen Tiguan, for instance.

The gearbox is witty enough for smooth town work (not a given thing for dry DCTs, Ford owners can testify) and does a rather good impression of a torque converter automatic. Steering paddles are standard in the Sport, but you won’t be reaching for them often, another mark of a competent transmission.

The Elantra Sport is a more exciting drive than the Civic; but more than the power advantage, which is palpable, it’s a good DCT versus a CVT that really pushes the Hyundai ahead in driving terms. The former is just more conducive for spirited driving.

On that note, Hyundai did not engineer in a “sporty” engine or exhaust sound for the Elantra Sport, preferring a more “executive” way of gaining speed. Driven normally, there are no hints of the engine’s potency and the good NVH displayed in the non-turbo Elantra is evident.

Strong as the powertrain is, it’s perhaps the Elantra Sport’s competent dynamics that surprised us more. Korean cars have been given many tags before – stylish, well equipped and good value are among them – but ‘good to drive’ is not a common descriptor. The Ioniq was the turning point for this writer, and the good work is continued here – only this time, there’s performance to match.

The Sport gets larger front brakes (16-inch vs 15), multi-link rear suspension in place of the 2.0’s torsion beam, and a firmer set-up than the NA variant. The latter, which is immediately noticeable, combines with shorter suspension travel for tighter body control and well-contained roll. The corresponding busier high speed ride isn’t intolerable, but can be felt especially from the rear seats. As mentioned, high speed stability is good.

The chassis strikes a good balance between control and comfort, IMHO, and is a good match to the Sport’s pace. Unlike previous fast Korean cars, this one encourages you to drive harder when the opportunity presents itself.

Less evocative is the Elantra’s interior, which is the car’s weakest point. Nothing much wrong with the quality on offer, it’s just that the design of the dashboard is dated, and that’s even before you compare it with the cabins of the Civic (modern, digital) and Mazda 3 (sporty, minimalist). The dashboard layout is reminiscent of the Sonata LF’s – not a good design to be associated with, although the newer car is slightly less dowdy.

While I personally don’t mind the Elantra’s mechanical hand brake and analogue dials, an electronic parking brake – as employed by Honda and Mazda – would make for a neater centre console with more storage space. As for the classic twin dials, they give a racy feel to this old-fashioned driver, especially those on the Elantra Sport, which gets red needles and a six o’clock starting position. These elements may be traditional, but they’d be picked on less if the overall dash design was more contemporary.

Another old school sporty cue is the Sport’s red-black leather seats, which are more red than black. With red door cards thrown in as well, it’s a bit much, to put it mildly, and downright unpalatable if the exterior colour is a clashing one, such as our tester’s Blazing Yellow. Conversely, the 2.0 Executive’s black suede seats with red stitching is nice to the touch and more pleasing to the eyes.

Thankfully, not all of the Sport’s racy items are jarring. The CF-style trim across the dash is quite understated, and we like the flat-bottomed steering from the Ioniq, with red thread on the leather wrap and a red ring at the base. The Sport-only shift paddles could have better tactile feedback, though. The driver’s seat doesn’t go as low as the Civic’s, but we have no issues with the driving position.

At the back, space is adequate but far from spectacular. You get more room than in the cramped Mazda and some European C-segment hatchbacks, but the Civic – with an identical 2,700 mm wheelbase – is ahead. However, if you don’t need that much room, the Hyundai’s rear bench offers a more comfortable and natural seating position thanks to a long seat base that’s also higher than in the Honda.

But if you want the most space for the money, the B-segment is where you should look to. Many with modest driving expectations have already done so, and the Honda City and Toyota Vios – with flat floors and huge trunks – punch way above their price in space terms.

With basic motoring needs well-covered by sub-RM100k sedans, design is an area where the C-segment can fight back, as the Civic has demonstrated. The Elantra’s design isn’t as flamboyant, but it’s a smart looking car with good proportions. In isolation, the Hyundai appears significantly smaller than the Civic; but 60 mm deficit in overall length aside, both cars have identical wheelbase and width measurements. With shorter rear overhangs, the Elantra’s boot is 61 litres smaller.

While the Elantra MD was all fluidic, Hyundai has crafted a sharper suit for the AD. The arrow-like silhouette, tall boot and upturn in the window line have all been retained, which means that there’s some continuity despite the new face.

Speaking of face, the Sport has ample differentiation from the regular Elantra in front, thanks to a black border for the Audi-style grille and less chrome for the horizontal slats (six tightly spaced ones versus five on the regular grille). There’s also a discreet red ‘Turbo’ emblem one on side.

The Sport bumper is unique and features larger side intakes (there are air curtains on the sides, although not as obvious as in Audis), a more prominent chin and LED daytime running light strips. The HID headlamps (halogens on the 2.0) come with decorative chrome cradles and some red accents.

Both the NA and turbo variants ride on two-tone 17-inch alloys with 225/45 rubber, but each get its own rim design – blade-style for the Executive and twin five-spokes for the Sport. The latter adds on side skirts and a diffuser in the rear bumper, which integrates twin pipes on one side. Both cars get LED tail lamp signatures, but the Sport’s ‘triple C’ look is more distinctive than the 2.0’s ‘double U’ pattern.

Personally, I like how the Elantra Sport looks, which is aggressive without being too loud. Darker colours than blue or gold give it a stealthy aura that’s apt, especially as hot hatches (never mind the Civic Turbo and most premium compact execs) will find “that bloody Hyundai” harder to shake off than expected.

However, there’s one design problem that’s close to my heart, literally. While the upturned window line is not new, Hyundai has moved the sharp edge of the rear door much higher, from the signature line on the MD to the edge of the DLO teardrop on the AD. Opening the rear door pushed that sharp end into my sternum, resulting in a painful weekend. Of course, this may not be an issue for other users, but you have been warned.

Shorn of the Sport’s powertrain, it’s hard to make a case for the RM116,388 Elantra 2.0 Executive against the cheaper Civic 1.8. Not helping matters is the presence of the impressive Ioniq in the same showroom. A recipient of tax incentives, the hybrid starts from just over RM100k.

However, for those approaching the Civic with sporting expectations, the Elantra Sport – which is just a few hundred ringgit cheaper than the top Civic 1.5 TC-P – delivers more in that regard. The Hyundai does not just beat the Civic Turbo on performance, it’s the sharper and more sporting car to drive. Kit wise, it counters the Civic’s digital flash and LED eyes with blind spot detection, rear cross traffic alert and a tyre pressure monitoring system.

Will the Elantra cause a dent in Honda Civic sales? I don’t think so. Even if you disregard the combined brand power of ‘Honda’ and ‘Civic’, the FC is a great all-rounder that you can’t go wrong with. But the brave few to go against the flow with the Elantra Sport would have scored one hell of a performance bargain. It may not be as focused as dedicated hot hatches, but the fast and comfy Hyundai does the job of a premium compact exec pretty well, at half the price.


GALLERY: Hyundai Elantra 1.6 Sport


GALLERY: Hyundai Elantra 2.0 Executive

GALLERY: Hyundai Elantra 2.0 Dynamic (with bodykit)