Warm as toast

LUKEWARM? NOT ON YOUR LIFE. THIS TRIO PROVES THAT SMALL SEDANS NEED NOT BE DULL ECONOBOXES

WORDS NATHAN PONCHARD PHOTOS NATHAN DUFF

NOW THAT THE DOMESTIC FOUR-DOOR IS LIVING ON BORROWED TIME, WHAT WILL VALUE-FOCUSED SEDAN BUYERS TURN TO IF THEY LIKE PERFORMANCE WITH THEIR BOOT?

Remember when a zero-to-100km/h time in the seven-second bracket was quick?

I mean really quick? In the í80s you needed either plentiful displacement or a turbo to get there, and in the Noughties a proper hot hatch or a home-grown warm sedan with at least six pistons under the bonnet.

Now that the domestic four-door is living on borrowed time, what will valuefocused sedan buyers turn to if they like performance with their boot? Possibly a Honda Civic RS, Mazda 3 SP25 or Hyundaiís freshly baked Elantra SR Turbo.

According to Hyundai Australiaís research, small sedan buyers are active rejectors of hatchbacks and SUVs, hence why the Korean brandís local outpost has invested so much effort into tuning the chassis of its spicy new Elantra SR, the first sporting Elantra in six generations stretching back 25 years.

This is no ordinary sedan-warming, however. Gone is the boggo Elantraís torsion-beam rear suspension and underwhelming 112kW 2.0-litre atmo four, replaced by a brand new multi-link independent rear, a seven-speed dual-clutch auto (or a six-speed manual if you appreciate the art of changing gears) and a 150kW 1.6-litre direct-injection turbo four pinched from the Veloster SR coupe.

The Elantra SR also brings huggy perforated-leather seats, a neat little flat-bottomed steering wheel clad in similar leather, trick-looking lights at both ends, a mild bodykit, a modest set of shiny-spoked 17s, a grillemounted Ďturboí badge and a twin exhaust. On the scale of visual chest-puffing, the Elantra SR is no Dwayne Johnson, and many people will like that. If you werenít aware of the above, youíd think the SR was an optionedup Elite with an aftermarket tip.

Despite the goodness lurking within, the warm sedan category is hardly a hot-bed of Snapchat-worthy eye candy. Chief rival for the $31,290 Elantra SR dual-clutch is Hondaís bodykitted $31,790 Civic RS, complete with the Japanese brandís first mainstream forced-induction donk since the City Turbo, though producing the same 127kW as it does in lesser Civics, slugged with a one-transmission-fits-all CVT unlikely to attract enthusiasts.

The Civicís warmed-over styling is also on the ďreally, did you have to?Ē scale of why bother, saved by the RSís aggressive, blacked-out nose and the seductive quality of its engineering. Finally, after 15 years in the doldrums, the 10th-generation Civic is back in the game, proving once again that Honda has what it takes to compete with long-time rival Mazda.

The immensely popular Mazda 3 SP25, now in its third generation, has crafted itself an enviable (and deserved) premium-mainstream image over the past 13 years. Recently updated with some new trim finishes, improved refinement and the addition of G-Vectoring Control (GVC) to enhance its reputation as a driverís car, this SP25 is as aspirational as warm sedans get. Especially the range-topping $35,490 Astina with six-speed SkyActiv-Drive auto, which mirrors the $31,990 SP25 GT for mechanical spec, but loads on the trinkets for a class-busting level of spec.

What hasnít changed in the updated SP25 is its perky atmo drivetrain. In this era of small-capacity turbos and alternative transmission choices, Mazdaís big-bore four adheres to conventional engineering ideas on paper, but the reality is a high-compression, hyper-efficient

YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD SAVE THE CIVIC? A MANUAL GEARBOX, WITH WHICH HONDA USED TO EXCEL

76 VALUE DEAL

HYUNDAI has packed a load of equipment into the Elantra SR for its not-so-premium price. Besides larger 305mm front brakes and all the other go-fast goodies, you get perforated-leather trim, front and rear parking sensors, 10-way electric driverís seat with electric lumbar, heated front chairs, a sunroof and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto. The Civic RS matches much of that but skips the sunroof and adds LED headlights. Neither offers AEB or sat-nav (like the Mazda).

engine tied to a decisive six-speed auto that is the definition of driveability.

While the SP25 canít quite match its boosted rivals at the strip (clocking 7.7sec to 100km/h and a 15.5sec standing 400m time), its drivetrain is deliciously responsive. Sweetly spirited and blessed with immaculate gear changes, the SP25 has an effervescent personality that frequently compensates for its ultimate lack of muscle compared to the grunty Elantra.

Right foot flat, the Mazda upshifts prematurely from first gear at just 6000rpm, and thereafter kisses 6200- 6300rpm, but itís almost like the engine could use a 7000rpm ceiling to really capitalise on its free-revving nature. And in manual mode, regardless of which gear the wheel paddles select, the SP25 hits 6400rpm and uncharacteristically (for a Mazda) grabs a taller gear.

The only way youíll get it to hold a ratio these days is if stability control is switched off.

On paper, the new turbo Civic doesnít quite have the Mazdaís measure. Less power (127kW), a lower torque threshold (220Nm from 1700-5500rpm compared to 250Nm at 3250rpm) and a CVT transmission imply lazier, less-flustered performance thatís all about wafting. And thatís mostly true. But thereís a disconnect between the Hondaís almost raucous engine and its economy-focused transmission.

Unlike the Mazdaís faultless operation, the Civicís drivetrain has its moods. Flatten it and the CVT will settle on a rev point as it briskly gathers speed (reaching 100km/h in 7.4sec) before throwing in a bunch of artificial ratio steps that dampen the head of steam it was gathering. And this accelerative process isnít consistent; sometimes the Civic will maintain a rev point, other times it Ďgear shiftsí.

But itís the drivetrainís Ďrubber bandí effect that undermines the new Civicís excellence. Nail the accelerator to plug a gap in traffic and you get a combination of engine and transmission lag before the drivetrain finds boost. Then, if you quickly lift your right foot, thereís a delay before the Civic lets go of both revs and throttle, in an almost reverse effect.

Shifting the Civicís gearlever into ĎSí minimises lag, but the rubber-band feeling remains.

Thing is, weíre talking about a Honda drivetrain here. The one-time ĎJapanese BMWí has been (rightly) panned for many wrongs this century, but drivetrains have rarely been among them. Yet the turbo Civic lacks both the induction sweetness for which Honda is renowned and a decent transmission to leverage what it can muster when the chips are down.

It does have its good points. On hilly country roads, Civicís drivetrain is excellent Ė quiet, torquey and effortless Ė but the more you ask of it, the greater its deficiencies. You know what would (mostly) save it? A manual gearbox, with which Honda used to excel.

Both the Civicís rivals offer six-speed do-it-yourself options, and the Hyundai backs that up with a decent seven-speed dual-clutch alternative primed to make the most of its 150kW/265Nm turbo donk. Itís a tightly geared unit, with fourth often proving the ratio of choice when channelling the engineís chubby mid-range on twisty roads. But it wonít allow you to grab a lower gear if the downshift equates to more than 5000rpm, and without any dedicated launch protocol, the Elantra SRís standing-start numbers donít truly reflect its pace.

Off the line, it momentarily pauses before hitting its stride, meaning the sixes and 14s this drivetrain is capable of simply donít materialise. Once on the move, though, the Elantra SR is a wolf dressed in a sheepís coat with a pair of Onitsuka trainers.

Boasting an unburstable mid-range and a level of throttle response that eludes the boosted Civic, the

Elantra smashes through the 80-120km/h increment in a rapid four-dead, beating its rivals by close to a second.

And if you stick to its pleasure zone Ė a meaty, thrusty and satisfying 3000-5500rpm Ė then it doesnít really matter that anything above six grand sounds all a bit strained and intrusive.

Much as Hyundaiís seven-speed DCT is generally excellent at doing what it does, we noticed the occasional hiccup. A fluffed shift here and a dose of neutral before settling revs and discovering a ratio proves that VW and Ford arenít alone in not quite matching torque-converter-auto slickness with their dual-clutch transmissions. But the Elantra íbox showed no signs of fatigue in hard driving, and neither did its upsized brakes, performing two 34.7m stops from 100km/h in succession.

And you might want to sit down before you read this: the Elantra SR Turbo loves hard driving. In this iteration, with a sophisticated rear suspension system and an allnew platform designed and developed in Europe, the Elantra finally has the hardware to compete head-on with the best Japan (and Europe) can muster. And letís not forget the months of exhaustive testing by HMCAís local crew in refining the set-up even further.

The result is a warm sedan that gets better the longer and harder you drive it. Steering connection could be crisper at straight ahead, and off-centre response a bit more decisive, but once you have a quarter-turn of lock wound on, the Elantra SRís chassis really hooks into corners. It feels fluid and progressive as it adjusts its balance, and once youíre at (or beyond) that quarterturn wheel position, the Elantra squats onto its outside rear tyre and fires itself through bends carrying serious speed. Itís beautifully neutral but also impressively adjustable, and if you pin the nose into a tight corner under brakes then lift off, itíll even serve up some oversteer, all without spoiling its dynamic flow. And (incredibly for a Korean car) without disturbing its benign and subtle stability control.

But Elantraís steering isnít quite on the same page.

A faster rack would certainly suit the chassis better, but thereís also a Sport setting (via the centre consoleís Drive Mode button) that adds too much weight to the helm unless youíre really pressing on. Even then, somewhere between Normal and Sport set-ups would be ideal, though Sportís enhanced throttle response gives the SR terrific thrust out of corners.

Up to about seven- or eight-10ths, the Civic is arguably sportier. Thereís a connection between its fast-geared steering and the alertness of its chassis that makes it feel more naturally poised than the Hyundai. It wants to dive towards apexes and delivers terrific adjustability

YOU MIGHT WANT TO SIT DOWN BEFORE YOU READ THIS: THE ELANTRA LOVES HARD DRIVING

from its rear end. You sit low and ensconced in the Honda, too, with a proper sporty driving position and a marvellous view ahead, making fast country running an undeniable pleasure. But at the outer reaches itís a very close fight with its Korean nemesis for the driverís-car title.

In really tight corners, the Hondaís rapid steering doesnít load up enough to feel natural, meaning you need to be super-focused on being precise with your inputs. And its drivetrain is a letdown in performance driving. You can blame that CVT transmission again because itís all a bit too rubbery and lacking in crispness to feel satisfying.

The Mazdaís drivetrain is much more linear and entertaining than the Hondaís, though its dynamics tread a different path. Despite the subtle enhancements achieved via G-Vectoring Control, the 3 feels relatively disinterested much of the time. Steering inputs from straight ahead at steady speeds simply donít achieve the instant poise, precision and response that define the new Civic, but if you corner the SP25 harder, it brings its back end into play and suddenly becomes the sporty sedan everyone assumes it is.

Like the Elantra, the SP25 loves to be driven hard, but it has a more pattery ride and, despite recent improvements, still transmits more road noise.

The Hyundai can also become a bit pattery over corrugations, but itís quieter and more consistently controlled, without the almost switch-like changes in road-noise pitch between smooth and coarse surfaces that is so evident in the Mazda.

The Honda shines in this department, owing to the most supple ride of the group and the least road noise.

It can be punished over rough surfaces and all you get in return is some rocking around of its passengers, all of whom are lounging in the most accommodating interior here. The Civicís strong suit is definitely making a determined stab at a rolling country road. With its chassis engaged and the best aspects of its torquey donk and infinitely geared transmission deployed, the Civic RS is a brilliant mile-eater.

The Elantra SR comes close, though it doesnít feel as all-of-a-piece. Its higher driving position (on a nicely bolstered bucket) feels a bit more econocar, yet there isnít the toe-room beneath its electric front driverís seat to compensate. And while the rear bench offers both space and support, its decent level of vision is eclipsed by the Civicís near-opulence in this department.

Alongside the other two, the Mazda 3 feels smaller and narrower. With styling taking precedence over packaging (to the benefit of everyoneís eyes Ė the SP25 is easily the most elegantly styled car here), the Mazda canít hope to deliver taxi-like space in the rear, or the Hondaís expansive aspect up front. Its seats are also not quite right, particularly the front pair, and why does this $35K range-topper only get height adjustment for the driver when a base Golf or 308 offer it on both front seats? Ditto a driver-only one-touch power window.

So, likeable and fizzable as it is, the Mazda 3 SP25 is definitely starting to show its age. Weíre not advocating for a second that it should offer limousine levels of interior space (like the Honda does), because thereís an intimacy about the 3 that many people will appreciate, but itís now clearly an old-gen Mazda. Alongside the

THE CIVICíS STRONG SUIT IS MAKING A DETERMINED STAB AT A COUNTRY ROAD. THE RS IS A BRILLIANT MILE-EATER

HONDA CIVIC RS

$31,790/As tested $32,365** Drivetrain in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo front engine (east-west), front drive 1498cc 127kW @ 5500rpm 220Nm @ 1700-5500rpm CVT automatic Chassis steel, 5 doors, 5 seats 4644/1799/1416/2700mm 1547/1563mm 1331kg 517 litres 91 octane/47 litres 7.5L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 10.7m (2.2 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (282mm) solid discs (260mm) Bridgestone Turanza ER33 215/50R17 91V Safety (US)

HYUNDAI ELANTRA SR

$31,290/As tested $31,785** in-line 4, dohc, 16v, turbo front engine (east-west), front drive 1591cc 150kW @ 6000rpm 265Nm @ 1500-4500rpm 7-speed dual-clutch steel, 4 doors, 5 seats 4570/1800/1440/2700mm 1549/1563mm 1390kg 458 litres 95 octane/50 litres 7.9L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 10.6m (2.6 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (305mm) solid discs (262mm) Hankook Ventus Prime 2 225/45R17 91W (ANCAP)

MAZDA 3 SP25 ASTINA

$35,490/As tested $35,908** in-line 4, dohc, 16v front engine (east-west), front drive 2488cc 138kW @ 5700rpm 250Nm @ 3250rpm 6-speed automatic steel, 6 doors, 5 seats 4580/1795/1450/2700mm 1555/1560mm 1336kg 408 litres 91 octane/51 litres 7.6L/100km (test average) Front: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar Rear: multi-links, coil springs, anti-roll bar electric rack-and-pinion 10.6m (2.6 turns lock-to-lock) ventilated discs (295mm) solid discs (265mm) Dunlop SP Sport Maxx 215/45R18 89W (ANCAP)

quiet, supple, nuanced and sophisticated new CX-9, the 3 feels slightly raw, a bit not-quitethere, a bit dated even. But it still has the cabin quality, the driveability and the styling appeal to keep reeling in sports-focused Aussies like a season pass to the G.

The Elantra and Civic are somewhat harder to separate. The Oz-tuned Hyundai is more overtly sporty, with a really fun chassis and loads of meaty, accessible grunt. But it does look a bit like someoneís dad in a race suit, and it doesnít have the holistic design approach of the Honda. You can tell the Elantra SR is a deeply conservative car thatís been given the Cinderella sporting treatment whereas the new-gen Civic was designed like that from the get-go.

So where does that leave the Civic RS? Itís unfortunate that this car doesnít have a sweet Honda manual or even a decent six-speed auto because its drivetrain is such a missed opportunity, and the main reason why the Civicís star rating doesnít have an Ď8í in front of it. But the rest of it is so deeply impressive that itís hard not to give the gong to the Honda. Learn to drive around some of its flaws and the Civic improves with exposure, but in its current form itís incapable of delivering the same thrills as the Elantra SR on a great piece of road.

If it were us, the solution is simple: either an Elantra SR (manual or dual-clutch) with optional dealer-fit 18s, or a lower-spec 1.5 turbo Civic (the $27,790 VTi-L) that drives exactly the same as the RS but without the implication of an inappropriately applied badge.

HONDA CIVIC RS

Performance Power-to-weight: 95kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6500/6600rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 96 Speed in gears 205km/h @ 5500rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.1sec 0-40km/h: 2.4sec 0-60km/h: 3.8sec 0-80km/h: 5.4sec 0-100km/h: 7.4sec 0-120km/h: 10.0sec 0-140km/h: 13.2sec 0-160km/h: 17.5sec 0-180km/h: Ė 0-400m: 15.4sec @ 152.2km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 4.7sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 35.7m 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Verdict 7.5/10 Fine chassis; quick steering; polished ride; vast interior; driving position CVT spoils the fun; turbo donkís raucousness and lack of linearity Track: Sydney Dragway, dry. Temp: 16įC.

Driver: Nathan Ponchard *Estimated value.

Warranty: 3yr/100,000km. Service interval: 10,000km. Glassís 3-year resale: 58% AAMI insurance: $1172 ** Includes metallic paint ($575)

HYUNDAI ELANTRA SR

Performance Power-to-weight: 108kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6500/6500rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 95 Speed in gears 46km/h @ 6500rpm 77km/h @ 6500rpm 118km/h @ 6500rpm 163km/h @ 6500rpm 207km/h @ 6500rpm 210km/h @ 5420rpm* 210km/h @ 4550rpm* Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.2sec 0-40km/h: 2.4sec 0-60km/h: 3.6sec 0-80km/h: 5.2sec 0-100km/h: 7.0sec 0-120km/h: 9.4sec 0-140km/h: 12.1sec 0-160km/h: 15.8sec 0-180km/h: 20.9sec 0-400m: 15.1sec @ 156.4km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 4.0sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 34.7m 7.5/10 Mid-corner balance and pace; tons of grip; strong engine; slick gearbox Core engineering not as holistic as the Hondaís; bland core design Track: Sydney Dragway, dry. Temp: 16įC.

Driver: Nathan Ponchard *Manufacturerís claim.

Warranty: 5yr/unlimited km. Service interval: 12 months/10,000km. Glassís 3-year resale: n/a AAMI insurance: n/a ** Includes metallic paint ($495)

MAZDA 3 SP25 ASTINA

Performance Power-to-weight: 103kW per tonne Redline/cut-out: 6200/6400rpm Speed at indicated 100km/h: 98 Speed in gears 57km/h @ 6200rpm 99km/h @ 6200rpm 138km/h @ 6200rpm 199km/h @ 6200rpm 212km/h @ 4650rpm* 200km/h @ 3700rpm Standing-start acceleration 0-20km/h: 1.0sec 0-40km/h: 2.1sec 0-60km/h: 3.6sec 0-80km/h: 5.5sec 0-100km/h: 7.7sec 0-120km/h: 10.4sec 0-140km/h: 13.8sec 0-160km/h: 18.7sec 0-180km/h: Ė 0-400m: 15.5sec @ 147.6km/h Rolling acceleration: Drive 80-12Okm/h: 4.8sec Braking distance 10Okm/h-0: 38.1m 7.0/10 Peachy drivetrain; excellent quality; hard-driving handling; styling; image Pattery ride; not-quite-there seats; much less room than its rivals Track: Sydney Dragway, dry. Temp: 16įC.

Driver: Nathan Ponchard *Estimated value.

Warranty: 3yr/unlimited km. Service interval: 12 months/10,000km. Glassís 3-year resale: 56% AAMI insurance: $1042 ** Includes premium paint ($250) and floor mats ($168)