Finally. That is the word that springs to mind after a sparring session that lasts from the city to the country between the Holden Astra RS-V and Hyundai Elantra SR.
The Astra and Elantra initially look like distant rivals: one is a European-designed, Polish-made hatch, the other a sedan made in South Korea for North America.
Both offer 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder power, however, teamed with manual gearbox availability for under $30,000 before on-road costs. They each start with mirror-imaged nameplates – RS and SR – and near-equally mix kit for the cash.
Even before declaring a winner, both Holden and Hyundai finally provide buyers with a reason not to choose a Volkswagen Golf. That small hatch benchmark remains brilliant, but unless buyers stretch to a $41K GTI it certainly isn’t fast or sporty.
Not even a Mazda3 SP25 – the classic warm-to-spicy hatch or sedan – really fulfils that brief. These two rivals certainly do.
Holden Astra RS-V ($30,990 plus on-road costs)
Hyundai Elantra SR ($28,990 plus on-road costs)
The Elantra SR’s $28,990 pricetag almost exactly splits the difference between the $26,490 Astra RS and $30,990 Astra RS-V (all before on-road costs). The RS-V tested here delivers the slightly narrower gap, although the RS is a bottom-line star.
Despite being $2500 cheaper than the SR, the RS adds stop-start engine tech, automatic park assistance, lane-keep assistance, forward collision warning with head-up display and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) as standard.
Both get keyless-auto entry, however Holden buyers need to push $2000 beyond the Hyundai to this RS-V before leather trim with heated front seats, dual-zone climate control and auto-dimming rear-view mirror are matched. The Elantra’s sunroof also adds $1990 to the RS-V (bundled with adaptive cruise control unavailable in the SR).
The Astra only gets electrically adjustable driver’s lumbar support, its rival countering powered height/tilt/fore/aft functions. But the RS-V returns serve with other stuff: 18-inch alloys (versus SR’s 17s), a heated steering wheel and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with integrated satellite navigation and colour trip computer display (versus 7.0in minus nav and a monochromatic trip computer display in both RS and SR).
The sedan in this test boasts the marginally stronger value equation – topped by a five year/unlimited kilometre warranty versus its rival’s three-year/100,000km cover – but the hatch offers a stunning entry price in RS form, with greater technology in RS or RS-V and longer service intervals (15,000km instead of 10,000km, annually).
Nowhere is the Europe-versus-North America divide more evident between the Astra and Elantra than inside.
The Holden appears a generation ahead of the Hyundai, starting with its consistently matched upper-door and dashboard soft-touch plastics, and leading to its liberal use of piano-black and matte-silver trim; while the thin-rimmed steering wheel and small speedomer and tachometer appear sporty-chic.
At night soft mood lighting even drops from underneath the door armrests.
We experienced the RS following this test and, despite being $4500 cheaper than this RS-V, the same high standard of interior presentation crosses over.
If anything the cloth trim is nicer than the average-quality leather of this top model grade, while the smaller touchscreen, monochromatic trip computer display and standard air-conditioning dials don’t demonstrably lower the tone.
The Astra doesn’t quite reach Golf standards of cabin quality, though. Some scratchy lower dashboard plastics and switchgear (shared with the outgoing Australian-made Cruze) do dissipate some of the otherwise semi-premium feel.
However, the RS-V still feels like it starts from a higher design base with added kit; the SR feels like a spruced-up version of an entry-level model.
The door trims of the Elantra are hard and basic, with the exception of (thankfully optional) red leather inserts and faux carbonfibre trim applied also to the pleasant, but plain dashboard.
Hyundai’s touchscreen is a basic unit with below average audio quality, although it matches the Holden with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring tech.
What it does mean for an iPhone user, however, is using Apple Maps – and on our country test loop, it directed us to drive through a river before failing to find an alternate route because a 4G data connection was absent.
This problem was alleviated by the RS-V’s integrated sat-nav, which proved its worth even before we mention its high-resolution screen and stunningly good audio quality (and the eight-speaker unit is standard on every Astra).
All is not lost for the SR, though. Its sporty model-signifiers of a flat-bottomed steering wheel and vertical-needle speedometer and tachometer are nice, while the Hyundai steals back points from the Holden for seat comfort.
Where the Astra’s front seats are standard units – comfortable but flat and lacking side support – the Elantra’s sporty buckets are broader, deeper, with greater bolstering. Why a superflous ‘Sport’ is stitched into the SR’s backrests, though, we’ll never know.
Rear accommodation is more evenly matched between this duo. Both manufacturers claim to offer an identical amount of legroom, but the Holden provides 24mm extra headroom – enough of a difference to cause the noggin of this 178cm-tall tester to just brush the Hyundai’s rooflining.
Both include a nicely tilted bench of medium firmness, with the Elantra offering a touch extra shoulder space and rear air-vents that are disappointingly absent from all Astra model grades (yet are standard in all Golfs).
It’s an on-the-fence call for boot space: the RS-V claims a sizeable (for a hatchback) 360-litre luggage volume and has the clear practicality-plus of a wide back opening; the SR boasts a more capacious 458L space but with a narrower bootlid aperture.
It all leaves the Hyundai with some ground to make up on the Holden before a key is turned – but we can confirm it does, in a big way, once away from the big smoke.
ON THE ROAD
Beyond merely finding out how well this similarly specified European and South Korean duo can each deliver their sporting intent, there is also a batteground for ‘middle Australia’ forming as a sub-plot here.
Hyundai globally developed a new independent rear suspension (IRS) setup for the Elantra SR, replacing the basic torsion beam back-end of the standard grades. It then handed the hard-points to the company’s Australian tuning team to select spring and damper rates specifically for our local conditions.
This recently proved to be Holden’s forte. When the outgoing Cruze switched from South Korean to Australian production in 2011, it wasn’t long after that the company’s engineers turned a dynamically average car into the handling benchmark.
With the new Astra, Holden has thrown both hands in the air and declared the standard European suspension is good enough for our conditions. Only the steering and electronic stability control (ESC) tune have been locally tweaked.
Enter the sub-plot: which car is more ‘Australian’ these days, a Holden or Hyundai?
First, though, the RS-V is proving to be an absolute delight around town. With the exception of a long-throw manual – but thankfully no longer rubbery and obtuse like that of former Astras – and an awkwardly shaped gearlever, the 1.6-litre turbo is as crisp as a glass of semillon in summer, and the ride is supple even on 18-inch rims.
With a kerb weight of 1344kg – 132kg lighter than the Cruze SRi-V that also packed 15kW/70Nm lower outputs – the Holden-via-Opel small car feels agile, backed by light, quick and accurate steering. It feels all-of-a-piece; a bit luxurious, a tad sporty.
Despite wearing smaller 17-inch tyres that typically contribute to increased ride comfort, the 1360kg Elantra SR reacts to urban lumps and bumps with a firmer edge. It’s never harsh and is well-rounded overall, but along with heavier steering – equally quick but less fluent and satisfying than its rival’s – it contributes to a feeling of more serious sporting intent.
The Hyundai never feels as light on its feet as the Holden, and its 1.6-litre turbo isn’t as sweet, being growly and gravelly versus its stringy and zingy rival.
With 265Nm of torque between 1500rpm and 4500rpm – versus 300Nm from 1700rpm until 4700rpm – the heavier sedan perhaps feels a touch more linear in its delivery, though, and less boosty and fruity than its foe. Its manual shift quality is also superb, with a shorter and tighter action than the Astra’s.
In any case, these small cars both feel properly brisk in any conditions. Consider that only three years ago a Golf GTI produced 155kW, and the Elantra’s 150kW at 6000rpm and Astra’s 147kW at 5500rpm can be seen as even more impressive.
This duo are simply in another league to warm hatchbacks that have come before, with the exception of the Kia Pro_cee’d GT that shared the Elantra’s IRS and engine.
Through sweeping country corners, both contenders deliver impressive grip and balance, followed by emphatic turbo punch.
The Astra is more playful and engaging, its steering continuing to feel sweeter and its ESC perfectly tuned. It turns into corners eagerly, but immediately shifts its weight onto its outside rear wheel to passively help the nose point. There is a softness evident in its suspension travel, but no greater bodyroll than its firmer rival.
Curiously, this RS-V uses a Bridgestone Turanza touring tyre that is solid in terms of grip, but the Cruze SRi-V used a Bridgestone Potenza variety that Holden engineers specifically chose because it is a great sporting tyre.
Perhaps the selection is more indicative of the Astra’s semi-premium, sports-luxury character compared with the tarted-up, aggressively dynamic Cruze. That could be the case except the newest Holden is dreadfully noisy on coarse-chip roads.
Hyundai’s choice of Hankook Ventus Prime tyres raises eyebrows, too, because Kia has selected superb Michelin Pilot Sport rubber for its Pro_Cee’d GT.
The Elantra is no less grippy than its rival, however, while being slightly quieter as well. The SR also fronts smooth corners wearing a very serious dynamic face, with genuine point-and-shoot poise. Where the Holden is light and occasionally flighty, the Hyundai simply feels tight and right.
That point is no more evident than when country roads turn rough. Quite simply, the Australian-tuned South Korean sedan is undeterred and undisturbed by the worst of mid-corner bumps and undulations. It simply feels aggressively pointed and planted, and would be the closest among this duo to keeping pace with a proper hot hatch.
By contrast, challenging country roads can unravel the Astra’s core dynamic ability. At once it can feel both slightly floaty and slighty harsh, crashing and banging in parts of the same road its competitor shrugs off.
Note the word ‘slightly’ though – only on the worst road surfaces does the Holden feel flustered, and it’s clearly the price to pay for its supple urban ride quality. Critically, there is still a hugely fun and frisky chassis underneath. Equally, however, the Hyundai is better at taming bitumen beyond the ‘burbs.
TMR VERDICT | Which Car Wins The Small 'n' Spicy Showdown
No other circa-$30K small car can match this duo for a combination of performance and dynamic ability for the price. Finally there are alternatives for those who don’t want a lovely, luxurious Golf – bravo, Holden and Hyundai.
The more rounded driver’s car here is the Elantra SR. It offers plenty of punch and kit for the cash, not to mention a suspension tune that could creep up behind hot hatchbacks in a comparison test of such models.
The more rounded small car overall, however, is the Astra RS-V. Hyundai’s latest came hard-charging towards the finish line and the SR remains the sedan best-suited to rural Australia. But ultimately a much nicer cabin, extra technology, a sweeter engine and more supple suspension are enough to offset the Holden’s below-par rough-road refinement – genuinely its only real negative.
It’s actually the RS that makes for an astonishing value case, but either way buying a sporty Astra provides a choice to either save money or splurge, with each grade delivering the same virtues only with different equipment. And that’s why it wins.
- Holden Astra RS-V – 4.5 stars
- Hyundai Elantra SR – 4.0 stars
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