THE ageing champ was a beaten fighter. Two Koreans in particular had come through the ranks to depose the Toyota Corolla as the best compact sedan in the South African market. Now, with the arrival of the 11th-generation Corolla (the seventh to be launched here), the former kingpin laces on the gloves once again and climbs into the ring. It’s going to be a bruising battle and the Corolla must take on rivals that square up to it in terms of specifications and affordability.
Consider the Hyundai Elantra, the elegant and refined two-time winner of CAR’s Top 12 Best Buys award in the compact-sedan segment, and the new Kia Cerato, which, like its Rio four-door sibling, offers elements of style and luxury that is predecessor never could.
So, we’ve sampled a trio of 1,6-litre compact sedans with pricetags below R250 000 from Toyota, Hyundai and Kia to see which manufacturer can rightfully claim to sell the best-balanced product in this segment.
In principle, while the issue of aesthetics shouldn’t be a clincher when considering a solid family car, that’s simply not the truth. People aren’t subliminally drawn towards the unremarkable and inoffensive, and as car owners we’re equally disinclined to select a set of wheels that suggests we’ve raised the white flag and embraced practicality and comfort. Thankfully, all of the gathered three are interesting to look at.
While a combination of dowdy styling and the ubiquity of being produced in dizzying numbers rendered the previous Corolla all but invisible, but the new car is decidedly good-looking.
The slash of swept-back chrome grille with louvres flowing into the headlamps, neat character lines on the bonnet and flanks, and crisp taillamp design topped with a rakishly curved roofline and bodywork with a satisfying interplay of curves and planes lend the new car a dynamic and upmarket air.
The Elantra’s curvaceous styling was suitably impressive when we first encountered it a couple of years back. And, while it continues to stave off any danger of being considered dull, there’s a twinge of doubt as to how well it’s aged. Viewed alongside the Corolla and Cerato, it looks a bit fussy and dated. There is, however, a facelift due this year, adding Hyundai’s now-signature blade daytime-running lights to the headlamps and some black surrounds to the brakelamps, among others. But the main blot on the Elantra’s canvas is the fitment of 15-inch steel wheels that make the car look slightly downmarket compared with the others’ 16-inch alloy items.
But it’s the angry slants of the Cerato’s LED daytime running lights that really catch the eye. It sits at the sportier, more youthful end of the spectrum and treads a careful line between the Hyundai’s intricate curves and the Toyota’s squared-off bearing.
In terms of packaging, it’s interesting to note that all the cars’ wheelbases stretch 2 700 mm. However, the actual utilisation of space is markedly different.
While the Koreans are pretty much level pegging in terms of rear legroom, the Elantra’s boot and utility space is considerably more capacious than that of the Cerato’s still-practical luggage compartment. The Hyundai also sports a noticeably higher – some testers considered a little too high – driving position.
Here the Toyota bests its rivals with a cabin that’s very spacious and a good range of driver’s seat-height adjustment allows you to quickly find a driving position that’s spot-on. Rear legroom is impressive too, serving up at least 65 mm more stretching space than the others thanks to a combination of seatbacks that are thinner than those of its predecessor and by the aft movement of the rear-seat hip point by 70 mm.
Furthermore, the Corolla’s boot equals the Elantra’s spacious load area and serves up more utility space when the seatbacks are tumbled.
Curiously, none of the cars features an exterior boot-release button, opting instead for remote opening via key fob or a release lever in the cabin. Adding to the frustration is the Corolla’s lack of a grab handle to close the boot lid.
Having taken in the Toyota’s sharp new suit, a number of the testers had mixed feelings about the cabin. The cliff-like facia, with its tiered design that reminds of those of contemporary Lexuses, is crowned by slush-moulded surfaces and the general layout is intuitive.
But the cabin’s finishes let it down. The door linings on our test vehicle (and another Corolla we examined) played host to some poorly finished panels, especially those surrounding the window switches, and although the padded door cards and armrests look upmarket, they are surprisingly scuff-prone.
Small details such as the thin, loose carpeting in the boot also contribute to the impression that the Corolla’s perceived quality doesn’t rival the Koreans’. It’s a shame, as the standard-fitment leather seats, a feature lacking in the others, look smart and will weather spills well.
Most testers found the Elantra’s facia overly fussy and the minor ventilation controls fiddly. But the perceived quality is demonstrably better than that of the Corolla and lends the car a more substantial and upmarket feel. The only aspects that detracted from this upmarket air were the urethane finish for the steering wheel and gearknob, both of which are leather-trimmed in the cases of the Corolla as well as the Cerato.
There’s even less to fault in the Cerato’s cabin, which feels even more premium than that of the Elantra. Details such as the carbon-fibre-effect trim meld neatly with an ergonomically sound instrumentation layout aided by logically placed, legible ancillary controls to make the Cerato’s cabin the nicest place to be. Although the Kia’s rear legroom doesn’t quite match that of the Corolla, it’s far from inhumanely cramped back there and the rear occupants also receive their own set of air vents.
Ride and Dynamics
Toyota has invested a great deal to make the Corolla more involving to drive than before. A lower centre of gravity, along with revised front springs, lends the Corolla a satisfyingly pointy and precise demeanour on twisting roads and helps to rein in body roll during hard cornering. Even on this model’s 16-inch alloys, the ride is supple, but it’s not the plushest riding of the trio.
That plaudit goes to the Elantra, which dismisses the majority of road imperfections with aplomb – possibly down to its fatter 65-profile footwear. This feeling of composure is further augmented by a sense that the Elantra’s cabin seems better insulated from road and engine noise than those of its rivals.
Although its ride is roughly on par with that of the Corolla, the Cerato’s steering lets it down. A good few of the team experienced an imprecision to both its and the Elantra’s tillers that lead to a feeling of detachment from the behaviour of the front wheels. In the Cerato’s case, this is evidenced by a great deal of looseness around dead centre, and by contrast, the Elantra’s steering feels heavier at low speeds than one might expect.
In keeping with its nimble handling, the Corolla’s electric power-steering system, although a bit light and artificial in its feel, is more precise in its action than the Koreans.
Performance and Efficiency
With all three cars being of similar weight and powered by naturally aspirated 1,6-litre engines, there’s precious little between them performance-wise. Where the Koreans’ higher outputs at lower speeds generally lend them the edge in terms of low- to mid-speed pull, the Corolla closes the gap once the speeds start climbing.
As per most variable-valve-timed engines, the Corolla’s free-revving 1,6-litre petrol unit brings out its best only at higher revs, where unfortunately it sounds thrashy. Thankfully, the revs drop low enough at freeway speeds. In town driving, however, the gearbox needs to be stirred to keep the engine on the boil. The six-speeder is mercifully slick and precise, unlike the Koreans’ somewhat rubbery shifts.
The contrast between the times posted by the mechanically similar Elantra and Cerato, although around 0,5 seconds, could be as a result of such minor variables as air temperature on the day and the stickiness of their respective tyres.
In theory, the Corolla’s shorter gearing should have a detrimental effect on fuel consumption, but the figure it returned during the fuel route test (6,8 litres/100 km) is very respectable. However, the engine’s peaky nature probably undoes some of this benefit and saw it fall behind its peers.
Where the Corolla claws back points is in terms of stopping power. Its more comprehensive brake-assistance systems resulted in a fairly consistent set of stopping times during our tests. The Cerato’s ABS-plus-EBD-assisted setup wasn’t far behind in terms of stopping times, but we experienced a disconcerting “hiccup” or hesitancy during one of our runs. The Kia felt noticeably less composed than the Toyota but palpably better than the Hyundai’s system, which saw the Elantra slewing slightly at the nose on a couple of stops.
Value for Money
On the face of it, you’d be hard-pressed to find cars in the Korean cars’ price bracket with as many standard-fitment niceties, but the variables between the two are unusual. For instance, where the Cerato features single-zone climate control and auto headlamps, the Elantra counters with dual-zone ventilation and auto wipers.
But the Cerato pulls ahead with a greater array of safety features (front, side and curtain airbags versus the Elantra’s dual front items), cruise control as well as the alloy wheels.
The most puzzling of the Elantra’s omissions are Bluetooth and RDS. Given that the Toyota has these features (mated with a fetching colour TFT screen that doubles as a reverse camera that neither of the Koreans possess; the Kia does have Bluetooth, however, but lacks RDS), it’s surprising that the Elantra eschews an item that’s both convenient and contributes to driver safety.
Aftersales-wise, there’s little in it, with all three benefiting from a five-year/90 000 km service plan, although the Koreans’ longer warranties are appealing.
While the Corolla lags marginally in terms of nice-to-haves, Toyota’s reputation for producing reliable vehicles, likely strong resale on the back of the name and a dealer network that dwarfs its rivals’ still-reasonable presence should see it regain some ground.
It’s a difficult call, because all three cars essentially meet the same provisos in subtly different ways, so it fundamentally boils down to what priorities dictate a buyer’s purchasing decisions.
If comfort and refinement are your main priorities, and the idea of missing out on a few niceties (and safety features) doesn’t bother you, the Elantra is a good option. If safety, a bit of driver involvement and a reputation for solid motoring are important, pick the Corolla.
If lots of spec for your money and a sporty visage are required, the Cerato will appeal the most.
In this segment, they’re all relevant stipulations, but they’re ultimately tempered by price being the final arbiter. The team’s opinions were widely divided until the subject of the trio’s new list prices was broached.
As an overall product, there’s little against the Elantra. The problem lies in its upper-tier price that excludes such niceties as alloys and some important interior specifications, as well as a comparative dearth of safety features and a fairly humdrum driving experience.
The Corolla’s driving experience, spaciousness and safety specification just pip those of the Koreans. But its price premium belies the Toyota’s below-par trim finish and comparatively light standard specification. The Corolla’s reputation, local manufacture and Toyota’s extensive dealer infrastructure gives the newcomer every chance to emulate the success of its predecessors. But in a segment where competitors have made big leaps, Toyota has played it a bit too safe with the newcomer.
It would be all too easy to cite the Cerato’s asking price as the decider here, but there’s no getting away from the fact that in entry-level 1,6 sedan territory, it has its rivals licked.
The most telling aspect of the Kia lies in the change of tack that Korean carmakers have taken with their wares. Neither the Elantra nor the Cerato are unremarkable cars packed with standard specification and priced to sell in bulk; the Kia is only marginally off the Toyota’s pace dynamically, meets it head-on in terms of comfort, and surpasses it in terms of price and feeling like a premium product.
The Toyota’s broad model line-up and reputation still hold sway, but at this particular point of purchase, it’s the Kia that makes more sense.
- Test summary
Toyota’s new Corolla carries a weight of expectation and faces formidable competition from Korean brands. Is it up to the task?
"Good enough" doesn't cut it anymore, Toyota. Cerato is my pick.Terence Steenkamp
Very, very close. You can't go wrong with all three. I'd take the Corolla.Steve Smith
In this price-sensitive segment, the Cerato offers the best value.Sudhir Matai
Corolla backs up progressive styling with sure-footed handling.Mike Fourie