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Comparison Test: 2012 Ford Focus Titanium vs. 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limite

Yes, this is another comparison of inexpensive compact sedans. We know you want to see yet another Burnout Supertest, but this is no less important. Especially when you consider that the winner of this comparison will be crowned nothing less than the best compact car you can buy in America.

It’s a story that’s been in the making for months, as the 2012 Ford Focus Titanium and 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited are both previous comparison test champions. So what we have here is the best of the best.

Without question both Ford and Hyundai have raised their games. Whether it’s styling, features or performance, both of these sedans are stacked with plenty of everything. And sure enough, both Ford and Hyundai claim that their respective entries set the standard for the segment.

From the Outside In

One look at the new 2011 Hyundai Elantra and it’s obvious that Hyundai gave the art degree types at its North American Design Center in Irvine, California, free rein. The Elantra looks like a shrunken Sonata, but with a friendlier face and more bulbous fenders. It’s what Hyundai calls “Fluidic Sculpture” design and it’s one of the more eye-catching designs in the class.

The new 2012 Ford Focus, with its more purposeful lines, is a welcome change from the dreadfully awkward model that preceded it. It may not have the flair of the Elantra, but its “kinetic design form language” seems more of one piece. Since styling is so subjective there’s no real winner here, but we’re impressed with the sheer design-per-inch of both sedans.

 Some Power for the People

Compact cars always face the dilemma of power versus fuel economy, especially these days when it seems a requirement to advertise 40 mpg on the highway.

The Focus’ all-aluminum direct-injected 2.0-liter four-cylinder is the power champ of the two, grinding out 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. The Elantra counters with 148 hp and 131 lb-ft from its 1.8-liter multiport fuel-injected four. Continuing its high-techery, the Focus Titanium comes with a dual-clutch six-speed transmission dubbed PowerShift, while Hyundai uses a traditional six-speed automatic.

Out in the real world, the Focus doesn’t feel like it has a significant power advantage over the Elantra. That’s partly because its twin-clutch transmission is reluctant to downshift more than one gear for passing. The other factor is its resistant throttle pedal, which tricks you into thinking you’ve given it more boot than you really have. Further, the PowerShift’s Sport mode only holds revs slightly higher and does a pretty poor job of “learning” your driving habits.

The Elantra’s transmission is what we’d call shifty, but we mean that in a good way. It tries to get into 6th as soon as possible for better fuel economy, but prod the throttle pedal even a little and it immediately downshifts, sometimes two or even three gears. The downside here is that because it’s so eager to please, even if you just want a bit of extra power, the little engine is suddenly revving way up into its thrashy region. On the contrary, the Focus four sounds better the more you rev it and is always smooth. It even has a sporty-sounding rasp from its exhaust.

You can manually shift the Elantra via the console lever but there’s no rev-matching, so downshifts are slow and a bit jerky. The Focus’ PowerShift transmission uses a ridiculous rocker switch on the console shifter for manual operation. It’s hard to find quickly, and doesn’t really work all that well once you do. On the bright side, it does nice throttle blips on downshifts in Manual and Sport modes.

Against the Clock

Despite weighing 268 pounds more than the Elantra (3,091 vs. 2,823), the Focus proved about a half-second quicker from zero to 60 mph. Its best run took 8.9 seconds compared to the Elantra’s 9.5-second time (they run 8.6 and 9.2 seconds, respectively, with a 1-foot rollout like at a drag strip). The Focus was aided by quicker shifts from its twin-clutch gearbox along with a 2,800-rpm “launch control” mode that’s good for two-tenths.

When it comes to stopping, the Focus’ optional 18-inch cast-aluminum wheels/summer tire option helped it to an exemplary stopping distance of 111 feet from 60 mph. The all-season-tire-equipped Elantra could only manage a 126-foot stop from 60 mph, although its pedal was nice and firm. Although the Ford’s pedal felt a bit spongy during panic stops at the track, on the road it was much more reassuring. The Elantra’s pedal remained nice and firm throughout testing.

Besides the tires, the Focus has the benefit of a well-sorted suspension and one of the best electric-assist steering systems on the road. It snaked through our slalom at 67.7 mph, almost 2 mph quicker than the Elantra that proved to be surprisingly agile as well. The Focus might have even gone faster if not hampered by its nondefeat stability system, the intervention of which is thankfully quite high. The Focus also had its way with the Elantra around the skid pad, generating 0.88g versus the Elantra’s 0.81g.

Back in the Real World

Given its strong performance at the track, we weren’t surprised to find that the 2012 Ford Focus is more enjoyable on the street, too. The well-weighted steering, sticky tires and composed suspension give it a substantial feel that’s missing from most sedans in this class. Go ahead, attack a corner if you want; the Focus can handle it.

The Elantra slides around more on its slippy tires, and its wonky electric steering offers near-zero feedback. It also has a cruder suspension that skitters over bumps much more so than the Focus. Ride quality and interior noise were similar between the two, despite the Focus using what should be noisier performance tires. Chalk it up to good sound-deadening on the Ford.

Both of these cars claim to deliver exceptional mileage, but our testing loop was clearly more aggressive than the EPA test, as neither car came close to its official ratings. The Focus delivered an overall average of 27 mpg, with EPA ratings of 27 city/37 highway/31 combined. The Elantra fared even worse, with an overall average of 23.6 mpg on ratings of 29 city/40 highway/33 combined. Clearly, both cars would do better under more conventional driving, but the Elantra doesn’t appear to have a significant advantage despite its higher ratings.

The Inside Dirt

After considerable seat time in both sedans, we preferred the look of the 2011 Hyundai Elantra’s interior. The controls are far simpler and the layout in general is more pleasing to the eye. The biggest issue with the Elantra is the quality of the materials. They look soft, but when you actually touch them they’re hard plastic that doesn’t feel expensive.

In contrast, the Focus has some of the finest materials ever to swath a compact car’s cabin. It makes you feel as if you’re in a different class of car. Sure, there are huge vents jutting out in odd directions and it feels a bit more cramped than the Hyundai, but the overall impression is one of quality.

Plus, the front seats positively envelop you with their plushness and lateral support, putting the flat-as-a-board Elantra buckets to shame. The only real letdown in the Focus is the unnecessarily confusing/overwhelming MyFord Touch infotainment display screen, a standard feature of the Focus Titanium model. There’s no doubt it offers some nice features. Unfortunately, ease of use isn’t one of them.

Speaking of the seats, the Elantra’s dramatic roof line seriously cramps rear headroom, although the large and wide-opening doors make exit/entry easier than the Focus. Both cars come with split-folding seats and small trunk pass-throughs, but the Focus’ cargo area is abysmal because of the full-size spare that comes with the 18-inch summer tire option. Ford estimates the spare steals 3 cubic feet of cargo capacity, dropping it to 10.2 compared with the Elantra’s generous 14.8 cubic feet.

Adding It Up

So after thoroughly evaluating both sedans in every type of driving situation, here’s where they stand. The Focus cleaned up in every performance category, including observed fuel mileage. To some, that’s enough right there. These are not sport sedans, or even pseudo sport sedans, but when you combine top-notch performance with great fuel mileage it’s a pretty hard combination to beat.

When it comes to interior comfort, the Focus is our pick, too. Between the seats and the materials, you never feel as if you settled for an inexpensive car. The Hyundai isn’t far behind in this respect. There’s plenty of room and features galore, but it doesn’t have the same level of refinement as the Focus.

Of course, price is a major factor when you’re talking about cars in this category. Not surprisingly, the Focus is more expensive. Quite a bit more expensive, actually. Its as-tested price is $26,375 or $3,545 more than the $22,830 Elantra.

A closer look at the options list revealed plenty of features on the Focus that could be deleted without changing our impression of the car. The $1,100 automated parking package is largely pointless. Learn to park on your own. It’s free. The $1,490 Premium package is debatable. The six-way power driver seat is nice, but the rear parking sensors and rain-sensing wipers certainly aren’t necessary. Ditch those two packages and it would bring the Focus within $955 of the Elantra.

So is the 2012 Ford Focus $1,000 better than the 2011 Hyundai Elantra? Our unanimous decision was yes, it’s well worth the extra cost. From the interior materials to the solid feel of its chassis, the Focus feels like it costs $5,000 more than the Elantra, it’s really that good.

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