There is no doubt that the best way to find out which of a number of cars best suits your needs is to take them all out for a test drive at the same time. Obviously for most people this just isn’t possible – but it is for us! We compare three top-level small sedans; the Holden Cruze SRI Z-Series, the Honda Civic RS Turbo, and the Hyundai Elantra Elite. John Oxley reports.
It’s not often we can get hold of three cars which are as evenly matched on price as these three are, but with only $10 between them, well you don’t get much closer than that, with all just a smidgen under $30,000.
And it’s pretty much the same when it comes to specification, as they all have most of the bells and whistles, they all have Bluetooth, and they all have the ability to provide satellite navigation, although the Cruze’s is a traditional built-in satnav whereas the Honda and Hyundai rely on Apple CarPlay/Android Auto – provided you’ve got the latest phone.
However, when it comes to the drive train they all vary significantly, and this is where we expect the differences to show the most. Let the jousts begin!
The Cruze has been with us a long while now, and it’s undertaken a journey of constant improvement. Earlier models were criticised for having poor handling with rampant understeer, but latest models have cut this to an acceptable level.
So too with the engines, which have evolved from old-school “GM parts box” into modern turbo units that, on this model, dish out more power than any of the others in the group, although it comes at the expense of heavier fuel consumption. On top of that, Holden recommends you use 95 octane petrol.
The Holden is also the fatty of the group, weighing-in a 124kg more than the Honda and 95kg more than the Hyundai, taking the edge off its power advantage somewhat.
The top-end Cruze is lacking in almost nothing you’d expect from a range topper, and comes with imitation leather and suede upholstery which is nicely presented, with contrasting red stitching. Very swish!.
The steering wheel is trimmed with real leather, and as with all the cars in the group, there are satellite controls for the Bluetooth hands-free telephony and the audio system. The Cruze also comes with voice recognition.
Our testers generally found the Cruze interior to be smart, albeit a bit old-fashioned, and the MyLink infotainment system is excellent, and apart from offering a built-in sat-nav, also enables you to download your own apps, including satellite radio (you pay for the data).
“The controls are very good, but very busy in the centre of the dash,” said one of our testers.
There’s a seven-inch touch screen which also doubles as the reversing camera monitor (parking sensors are also fitted), and the sound system was liked by all. The Cruze has a good-sized glovebox, but it doesn’t lock. However, our testers particularly liked the cute between-seats box which has a padded top so it can be used as an armrest, and allows you to stash your phone away inside out of sight to charge it or plug into the USB port.
Aircon is excellent, with full electronic climate control.
And there are a couple of features that are exclusive to the Cruze; the Find My Car function which activates the flashers and the alarm so you can easily find your car in a busy car park (great when you’ve just got off a plane and it’s hosing down with rain), and the Remote Start feature which allows you to start the car from inside the house on a cold day so the car interior is nice and warm by the time you’re ready to leave.
The one thing about the Cruze was that it felt roomy inside – wider than the outside dimensions would
lead you to expect – and the bucket seats had nice bolsters which weren’t too tight for our bigger testers.
However, one feature missing was reach adjustment of the steering wheel, although it could be adjusted for height. Seat adjustment is manual, but with six different modes, including seat height, and there are heated front seats.
The interior of the car is quite roomy back and front, with plenty of rear seat space for adults, and the rear seats fold forward in a 60-40 split.
However, although it’s generally more convenient, our testers felt the seat back unlocking mechanism, which is operated from inside the car, is not ideal. “It’s easy for anyone who breaks into the car to flip the seats down and take all your stuff,” said one tester.
As far as exterior styling was concerned, all our testers felt the Cruze was the least attractive of the bunch, despite its sporty dress-up kit. “It’s good around the rear, but on the whole it’s rather old-looking,” said one of our testers.
And our lady tester? “The front bonnet looks fat, not sleek”, she said. That said, the Cruze comes with the biggest wheels and tyres, at 18 inch. It also gets lots of great detailing, such as alloy sill plates with a Holden motif, and alloy pedals. Entry and exit is via proximity hands-free key, with push-button start/stop.
However, once on the road that didn’t stop her enjoying the power and performance. “The engine is very responsive and feels sporty,” she said.”
It wasn’t just our lady tester who liked the performance – we all did. And we all appreciated the quiet ride, although there were some criticisms of wind noise at times. However, full marks for the gearbox, which is a six-speed torque converter auto with smooth and positive changes, and the ability for the driver to change gears manually, although there’s no sports mode, or steering wheel paddles.
“It’s very stable with little body roll, but tends to understeer, said one of our testers. “And the ride seems to feel a bit ‘jiggly’ on some surfaces”.
The Cruze Z Series cars have a sports suspension, which, coupled with the wide tyres, probably caused this rather weird feeling.
Summing up, one tester put it quite succinctly: “Much better than any Cruze before, but feels ready for a change”.
The Honda Civic is the latest in our bunch to be released in New Zealand, brand-new from the wheels up, and, except form the entry level S model, with a completely new powertrain, including state-of-the-art EarthDreams direct injection turbo engines.
At the same time Honda has optimised the whole car to give it crisp handling to match the startlingly modern styling, with more than a touch of “Star Wars” in the sharp-cut edgy front and rear.
In fact, the latest Civics are so far removed from their staid predecessors that it’s hard to believe they have come from the same motor company.
The Civic sedan has always been a mainstay of the Honda collection, and now it joins a growing line of updated and modernised models in the Honda range.
As mentioned elsewhere in the magazine (see P23), there are four models in the Civic sedan line-up (a new hatch model will come later), the top three of which are all driven by the same 127kW/220Nm 1.5-litre turbo engine.
The Civic RS Turbo we have in our comparison test is second from the top in the line-up, with an NT Turbo as the range-topper, and costing an extra $3,000. We believe this is money well spent as it represents the cost of a suite of the latest safety gear, which includes autonomous emergency braking and road departure mitigation as well as lane departure warning and assistance, plus active cruise control which includes low-speed operation and re-start.
None of these technologies are present in any of the rest of the range, including the RS, although other standard features do include cruise control, multi angle reversing camera with dynamic parking aid, Bluetooth, daytime running lights, electric parking brake, tyre deflation warning, and brake hold function.
The interior of the Honda is thoroughly modern, with the main instrument cluster dominated by a big rev counter with a digital speedo, very easy to see. The dashboard is well laid out, although our lady tester found it had “too much black”, although, to be fair, this is offset somewhat by nice aluminium trim.
“It has a well laid-out dash and trim, and is easy to use, with a clean and no-nonsense layout. Ergonomically I wouldn’t change anything”.
Dual zone aircon is fitted, and there’s a seven-inch colour touchscreen in the centre of the dash, and this runs the infotainment system as well as doubling as the reversing camera, as well as the left-turn camera, which shows what’s close to the car so you don’t hit anything close to the edge of the road – or worse still, a cyclist in your blind spot!
There’s Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard, so you can get satnav via an app on your top-end smartphone – but you’ll have to get the NT for a dedicated satnav.
And the audio system got great plaudits from our testers – as it should with 10 speakers (including a sub-woofer, and 452 watts of sound. “”GREAT” metaphorically shouted our lady tester.
The Civic seats are trimmed with real leather, as is the steering wheel, and both are trimmed with contrasting white stitching. The seat surfaces are also perforated to get the best out of the heated front seats. Getting a good driving position is assisted by the eight-way power adjustment of the driver’s seat, as well as both tilt and reach for the steering wheel.
“Seat comfort is excellent, with plenty of legroom front and back” – and that from our tallest tester.
Talking of the seats, the rear ones are split 60/40, and have a drop-down centre armrest, and when folded forward present a flat floor. And for those who need security, well you can only fold them forward after pulling a release in the boot.
However, it was out on the road that the Honda impressed the most. “The engine response is impressive, with power plus, and huge pickup over the range,” said one tester. Our lady tester thought it didn’t quite have the “wooma” of the Cruze when accelerating.
“A great car, easy to drive, with plenty of power and good braking ability,” said another tester.
Handling, too, came in for positive commentary. “Good road holding with virtually no body roll,” said one tester.
Although it’s fitted with a CVT, normally the bane of a road tester’s life, the Civic didn’t get hammered for that, perhaps because the gearbox software is set to change in seven defined steps, like a normal auto ‘box, so doesn’t “flare” under hard acceleration like many others. And the fact that it has paddle shifters and sports mode were big attractions.
In fact, all our testers commented on the quiet ride, and the lack of wind, engine and tyre noise.
Summing up, the comments were all strong. “Beautiful on the road in all aspects,” said one tester, while another added: “This is a thoroughly modern car – and the sunroof is a bonus.”
The Elantra is another new kid on the block, having been launched only a couple of months ago, and as such it’s a showcase for Hyundai’s latest small car technology.
Styling follows Hyundai’s latest corporate theme, with a large and aggressive front grille the dominant feature, and fastback styling which could easily kid you into believing it’s a hatch. There are 17 inch wheels, but they look quite small, and with no room for anything bigger in the wheel arches.
“Good cut lines around the boot line, but a rather old-fashioned design”, was one comment.
The top-line Elite comes packed with features, including 17 inch alloy wheels, leather upholstery with perforated seat facings, a seven-inch multimedia touchscreen with a six-speaker audio system and Apple CarPlay integration (with Android Auto soon, as well as Bluetooth telephony and streaming, and a reversing camera, plus front and rear parking sensors. But no separate satnav.
And the Elantra is the only one of our three to have some of the latest safety kit, namely blind spot detection – which tells you if there’s a car in your blind spot, which beeps a warning and a light flashes in the appropriate outside mirror if you indicate you’re going to change lanes, while lane change assist goes one further if you start to change direction, and will vibrate the steering to get your attention. There’s also cross traffic alert, which warns if there’s a car approaching from the side while you’re reversing out of a parking spot.
There’s dual zone climate control, an electric parking brake with auto hold, with lumbar support, and there’s proximity key entry with push-button start.
The interior of the Elantra is neat and fuss-free, if a little bland, and there’s a seven-inch touch screen in the centre of the dash for the infotainment system and reversing camera.
“The dashboard was easy to use, but a bit old-fashioned,” said our lady tester. “Very busy, but everything is to hand,” said another.
The sound system came in for some criticism. It’s fitted with only four speakers and two tweeters, compared to the 10 in the Honda
The seats are leather trimmed, as is the steering wheel rim, and there’s tilt and reach adjustment of the steering wheel, as well as 10-way electric adjustment of the driver’s seat, including lumbar support. The Elantra’s rear seat also benefits from heater ducting.
Unfortunately, though, all of that couldn’t satisfy our testers.
“Hard seating,” said one. “”Slightly uncomfortable in the base of the spine,” said another, while our lady tester also found “the driver’s seat was uncomfortable”. The front seats are both heated, though
However, all found there was lots of space back and front, while the Elantra has the second-biggest boot, and like the Honda benefits from having the 60-40 dropdown rear seat backrest openers in the boot.
And the Elantra is the only one in the group to provide stowage net in the boot, as well as a hook. It’s also the only one to provide a comprehensive first aid kit and fire extinguisher, although our testers questioned its fitment in the boot. “You don’t want to be trying to get into the boot to get it, especially if the boot’s full of luggage,” said one tester.
But a great feature is the Smart Boot, which gets around the problem of having your hands full by opening when you stand behind the vehicle (with the key in your pocket or handbag).
On the road the Elantra was the least-exciting of the bunch, as to be expected from its lower power output.
“Fair but gets fussy when pressed,” said one tester. “Responsive, but mid-range is not so good, and the gearbox is slow to change,” said another.
The Elantra is fitted with a conventional torque converter gearbox, and although smooth, had neither a sports mode nor steering wheel paddles, though gears could be changed manually if required. “It sometimes hesitates on fast pullaways,” commented one tester.
As far as handling was concerned, our testers all liked its taut feel. “It was stable on the road, with little, if any, body roll,” said one tester. “Holds well in corners, but the steering lock could be better”.
Summing up, all the testers had positive comments, although some were tempered. “A generally good all-round car”, was one summation. Another: “On road ability is good, but it would be better with smoother gear changes”. And our lady tester? “An enjoyable drive, but I just couldn’t get comfortable, no matter what I adjusted”.
As always, when you have a competition of any nature, there has to be a winner, and our comparison test was no exception.
Our testers were asked to score the cars in seven main areas, namely fit for purpose, ride and handling, comfort and equipment, economy, performance, interior and boot space, and overall assessment. This last category was to include general feelings about the car, including its looks and how safe it feels.
The Honda, by a fairly large margin, with the Hyundai second, and the Holden just one point behind in third place.