For as long as I can remember, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla have been locked in a battle for compact car supremacy. Only, these days, they're not so compact any more. Model year creep has inch-by-inch stretched and bloated them until they've grown into midsized sedans right under our collective noses.
Meanwhile, the upstart Hyundai Elantra has also crossfaded into the midsize sedan range. It, too, is packing more interior space than ever, despite maintaining a relatively compact footprint that seems to work well in American urban environments. Plus, Hyundai's really stepped its game up for this generation, packing in more premium features than ever before while aiming to give us a true competitor for, rather than an alternative to, the very best this class has to offer.
We've rounded up a new, a and a and pit them head to head to see which of these former compacts is the best city car. Our battlegrounds for this showdown are the crowded streets and steep hills of San Francisco, California.
Third place: Toyota Corolla
The Corolla is both the smallest and the oldest vehicle in this midsize compact shootout. It's also, our editors unanimously agreed, the most boring.
At just 132 horsepower and 128 pound-feet of torque, the Corolla's 1.8-liter four-cylinder is the least powerful engine of the bunch. It managed to deliver decent performance and economy as well as efficiency on the highway and around town thanks to its continuously variable transmission, but we could feel the Toyota struggling on the uphill climb portion of the competition.
With its lack of Android Auto, Apple CarPlay or any advanced driver-aid systems (ADAS), the Corolla continued to lag behind the competition. Available Entune infotainment software gets the job done well enough, but proved to be less responsive than either of its competitors' systems. Also, though MovieTickets.com and OpenTable app integrations are nice, we didn't find them to be particularly useful while on the road.
However, the Corolla isn't without its charms. We crammed our three editors into the backseats of all three sedans and were surprised to find that the smaller Corolla seemed to offer the best quality of comfort. The wider Civic should have felt better, but the Corolla somehow offered better shoulder and hip room along with better access to the second row for entrance and egress.
Starting at $17,300 and maxing out at an as-tested $20,635, the Corolla is the most affordable of this trio -- though, admittedly, it offers much less content and amenities for that price. And with an EPA estimated 29 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway, the Toyota just barely edges out the Hyundai for second best fuel efficiency.
Second place: Hyundai Elantra
The Hyundai Elantra snags the silver medal, but wow was it a close call between this sedan and the Honda. No longer content to be the low-cost alternative, generic brand of this class, Hyundai is targeting the top with this new Elantra and it's got the Honda Civic squarely in its sights.
The Hyundai comes out swinging with some of the best ADAS in this battle royale. As equipped, we had forward-collision alert, adaptive cruise control, lane-departure prevention and a blind-spot monitoring system with surprising sensitivity.
Next up is the quite good BlueLink infotainment stack which features an interesting blend of connected telematics features, responsive inputs and solidly performing navigation software. Hyundai was also on the first brands to hit the road with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay functionality, so smartphone users have even more options for navigation, communication and audio playback app integrations.
On the performance side of things, the Elantra fell short of the bar set by the Civic. Like the Corolla, the Hyundai was a solid enough performer in its own right with decent efficiency from its lean-burning, Atkinson-cycle 2.0-liter engine. None of these are really driver's cars, but even the Hyundai's handling proved to be quite good at the low limits of city driving. However, the 147 horsepower engine seems to compromise torque for efficiency and makes use of the only fixed-ratio six-speed automatic transmission, which made its 132 pound-feet feel less responsive around town.
I mentioned that Hyundai was done being the low-cost alternative, so you've gotta pay for all of those features the automaker has crammed into this small, midsize chassis. At $17,150 to start, the Elantra carves out a nice middle of the road niche for value. However, as tested, and close to fully loaded, our example weighs in at $27,710. That's a few hundred bucks more than the fully loaded Civic Touring. Our editors agree that the Elantra is a solid vehicle for that price, but it's a tough sell when cross-shopping with the more powerful, more efficient Honda.
First place: Honda Civic
The Honda Civic is the performance king of this challenge with more power, better handling and just more driving joy both in the city and on twisty roads.
OK, I'll admit that bringing the new 1.5-liter turbocharged engine to the party was probably overkill. At 174 horsepower and 162 pound-feet of torque, the Civic Touring pretty much blows the competition out of the water. In our defense, even its base 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated engine is more powerful than anything the Hyundai or Toyota can muster, so why not go a bit overboard with the power? What's even more impressive is that the turbocharged Civic also returns the best estimated fuel economy at 31 mpg or 42 mpg in the city or on the highway, respectively.
In addition to being more powerful, the Civic's handling felt significantly more responsive than either the others' and its steering more communicative and accurate. Despite riding on a tautly tuned suspension, the Hondas still manages to feel comfortable in daily driving.
The Civic is the largest of the trio, so it's got the best interior volume and the most voluminous trunk. We were able to cram 64 small (12-inch) inflatable balls into Civic's boot, 62 in the Elantra's and 60 for the Corolla. Admittedly, that's not a whole lot of difference, but it is an advantage that is sure to matter at least to inflatable ball enthusiasts with very large collections. However, the on-paper size advantage didn't work out for the Civic in our backseat comfort test, which the Honda lost to the Elantra due to its lower ceiling height and to the Corolla for its small rear door opening which made getting in and out of the Civic's second row an acrobatic feat.
The Honda also puts its best foot forward with technology, even though that foot has one small odd feature. In the dashboard, we've got HondaLink infotainment, which isn't exactly as responsive to inputs as Hyundai BlueLink, but does boast superior navigation and maps software powered by Garmin. Like the Hyundai system, the Civic does support Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which is a killer feature for smartphone users.
The Civic boasts a suite of available ADAS that rivals that of the Hyundai. There's adaptive cruise control that works in stop-and-go traffic, lane-keeping assist that actively steers to keep the car between the lane markers and automatic collision-mitigation braking. I'm not a fan of Honda's weird LaneWatch camera system and have never really found it to be as useful as a standard, sensor-based blind-spot monitoring system like the one offered on the Elantra.
The 2016 Honda Civic also boasts the highest starting price at $18,640. However, in top tier, turbocharged Touring trim the Civic's $27,335 asking price is actually a few hundred bucks cheaper than the Elantra. Offering more smiles per dollar is always a good thing, making value the cherry on top of the Civic's slice of victory pie.