2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport review: A lot to like but little to love

Mack Hogan | CNBC
Key Points
  • The exterior is a missed opportunity for Hyundai.
  • CNBC loved the interior of the Elantra Sport compared to other vehicles.
  • The driving experience isn't very good.

All right, we surrender.

After over a decade of Hyundai beating us over the head with advertising and brand messaging declaring itself a real contender in the automotive world, the war for our minds is over.

We get it, you're a real car brand. What next, then?

Consumers have a great deal of respect for the Korean company that rose from nothing to slay the kings of iron and injection, but there's little passion among owners. Despite their fantastic value and superb quality, Hyundai vehicles have yet to become inspiring.

But maybe a hot compact can change that? Once desperate for a follow-up to the aging Beetle and dead Minibus, a then-niche Volkswagen helped cement its following through the GTI hot hatchback. Hoping to emulate that success, Hyundai has brought out a spicier flavor of its Corolla fighter.

It's called the Elantra Sport, it costs $24,935 and I spent a week with it to find out whether it's enough to win our hearts.

Exterior: Mature. Maybe too mature

Mack Hogan | CNBC

One of the reasons many consumers like the Volkswagen GTI is its understated, handsome looks. The Elantra Sport follows suit, with its aggressive but not overwrought styling. To buff-book-obsessed octane junkies like your author, there's enough of a distinction to show of the Sport model's aggressive intentions.

Mack Hogan | CNBC

To the public at large it looks a bit too vanilla to draw any extra attention. While a sedate, refined style works for established players, I'm not sure it's the right call here. A more playful look, like what Ford has done with the Focus ST and FIesta ST, helps establish performance cred.

It's an attractive car, and it won't lose points here, but it's a missed opportunity to make a statement.

Interior: Gunning for the throne

Mack Hogan | CNBC

If there's anything about this car that'll make you fall for it, it's the interior.

I had no strong opinion on the Elantra's cabin before driving this car, but a week with it catapulted it to a near first-place contender. It's just so usable.

Mack Hogan | CNBC

The seats are comfortable and well bolstered. Controls are laid out logically, with high quality plastics covering most surfaces. I also found the car almost perfectly equipped for the class, with the only options available being a premium package — you should get it — and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. Don't get that.

I haven't driven the DCT model, but the whole point of a sports sedan is getting a more visceral driving experience for less money. A manual accomplished both parts of that mission more successfully.

Mack Hogan | CNBC

The Elantra also comes with Hyundai's excellent BlueLink infotainment system, which is one of the best touch-screen infotainment solutions on the market. It may not beat the controller-based system in the Mazda 3, for instance, but it's near the top of the class.

Mack Hogan | CNBC

It also has what quickly became my favorite minor feature of any system; in the Elantra, the car records your top 10 radio presets and allows you to rewind to the beginning of a song if you open the station part of the way through. It's brilliant.

Taken as a whole, this interior is class-leading. Some compact cars' interiors are more pretty, some slightly more usable. None, though, are more of a total package.

Driving Experience: Not quite there yet

Mack Hogan | CNBC

I really wanted to write about the next great sport sedan. About how Hyundai had done it, making an affordable, comfortable and stylish alternative to the segment stalwarts.

It's a shame that it left me a bit cold.

Straight-line performance wasn't the problem. The 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder comes on boost around 2000 rpm, pulling strong to the redline and making the most of its 201 horses. It doesn't pack the firepower of the mighty Focus ST or venerable GTI, but delivered through a smooth six-speed manual. It's certainly enough to make you smile.

No, the issue was the corners. Sure, it cornered well and changed direction swiftly, but that's not enough. Hot compacts are about bringing you closer to the road, making driving a visceral experience. And the Hyundai Elantra Sport just doesn't give you that feedback. A GTI on a back road can be a revelation. The Elantra Sport felt merely like a well-sorted car.

If you buy this car thinking of it as a sportier compact car, it delivers. But it isn't a true dynamic match for the hot hatchback kings.

Value: Making up for points lost

Mack Hogan | CNBC

To help you forget that fact, Hyundai has priced it well below the true hot cars in the segment. The Focus ST starts at just shy of $25,000, where this fully-loaded Elantra stops. Of course, an Elantra Sport with a DCT will set you back an extra $1,100, but since the Focus doesn't offer an automatic the point is moot.

A GTI, for reference, $25,595 and can be optioned to a dizzying $37,110. That car will ship with technology you can't even get on an Elantra Sport, like adaptive cruise control. Still, the Elantra Sport follows Hyundai tradition of being a superb value.

Final Thoughts

Mack Hogan | CNBC

As long as its prices undercut competitors and offers fewer horses and a less dynamic driving experience, it's unlikely that a Hyundai will ever be an aspirational car like fast Fords tend to be.

There's a lot to like about the Elantra Sport. I just wish there was something to love.

Exterior: 4
Interior: 5
Driving Experience: 2.5
Value: 5
Overall: 4

Price as configured: $24,935