Today, the bevy of executive saloons available are cars that offer a great blend of performance, comfort and features. They all have powerful and refined diesel motors, they all come equipped with automatic gearboxes and all of them are really well equipped. Each of them has a beautifully built cabin with plenty of space, and each of them will do 90 percent of what their larger cousins can, but at only 60 percent the cost.
So, what are your options? Hyundai has just made a splash in this segment with its stylish all-new Elantra. It’s well priced, is loaded to the gills with features and comes with the assurance of Hyundai’s vast service network. If that doesn’t have you interested, the fact that it is available with an automatic gearbox surely will. It certainly makes a lot of sense, but is it the best car you could buy over its rivals?
To find out, we’ve brought in the refreshed Chevrolet Cruze that recently received a new engine, and also the Volkswagen Jetta that has won itself quite a few admirers for being a mini-Passat. And we’ve also included the Skoda Laura which, despite its seven-year vintage, continues to be a popular choice among buyers in this segment.
The Elantra shares its 126bhp, 1.6-litre diesel engine with the Verna. But this motor is more than up to the task of hauling the larger and heavier Elantra, as Hyundai has made some key changes to it. The Elantra feels sufficiently peppy in the city and on the highway, and its six-speed automatic gearbox also works well to keep you in the right gear for all speeds. Even engine refinement is very impressive, so long as you’re not pushing hard, that is. It’s only on occasions when you mash the throttle down that some of the chinks in the engine-gearbox combo crop up. The power delivery isn’t very linear, with a noticeable step up after 2000rpm, and the engine gets quite noisy as revs rise. The gearbox also feels a bit indecisive when you want a sudden burst of power. But, just like the other cars here, you do have the option to shift gears manually in tip-tronic mode for added control.
Although the new Cruze with a 2.0-litre engine –that’s good for 164bhp – has a power advantage over its rivals, outright performance doesn’t see all that big an improvement over the old car. Where the newer Cruze feels a lot better is in traffic. It’s more responsive and the build-up of power is less sudden and not as pesky, which allows better judgment of how much throttle input to apply. Press on and the Cruze will pick up speed briskly enough. What does somewhat spoil the experience is its six-speed gearbox. It is tuned to extract the best fuel economy and hence tends to upshift and drive in a higher gear than you’d like. And like the Elantra’s ’box, this Chevrolet one feels a tad sluggish to downshift when you want instant power.
In comparison, gearshifts on the Jetta are much quicker because of a more sophisticated (and efficient) dual-clutch gearbox. Apart from being more responsive, its six-speed gearbox also adapts better to your driving style and gives you access to power just when you need it. As a result, the Jetta is able to make the most of its 2.0-litre engine’s 140bhp and, hence, also feels a lot livelier than the significantly more powerful Cruze. Helping matters is that the engine has loads of pulling power even at low speeds and that the thrust continues even at higher speeds.
It’s the same story on the Laura too and understandably so because the Skoda and Volkswagen use the same engine and gearbox. Correspondingly, performance is near-identical. The Laura’s 0-100kph time of 9.72 seconds is the best here, but both the Jetta and Cruze post times within 0.5 seconds of this figure. It’s only here that the Elantra feels slower than the other cars with its time of 10.92 seconds. But it’s a more even match through the gears, though the Laura and Jetta still hold on to their performance advantage. If at all, you can tell the Laura and Jetta apart by their engine’s refinement. The Laura’s motor is a tad louder and is more gruff-sounding at idle. That’s also got a lot to do with the Jetta’s noise insulation, which is easily the best here.
Hyundai’s newer cars have taken design to a new level and there’s been lots of progress on the engine front too, but driving dynamics has remained the manufacturer’s weakness. The Elantra feels a tad too softly sprung – so anything above city speeds and there’s quite a bit of vertical movement both at the front and rear. The electric power steering feels over-assisted at high speeds and contributes to a very disconnected driving experience. However, the steering’s lightness does help on busy streets and when parking. Also, on patchy urban roads, you’ll appreciate how ably its suspension deals with all but the largest of potholes.
Low-speed ride quality is quite good on the Cruze too, though sharp bumps do thud into the cabin, and on the whole, the suspension isn’t all that quiet. Up the pace and, much like the Elantra, the Cruze feels out of its comfort zone. It tends to wander over uneven surfaces and lacks the sense of composure you’d want from a car in this class. Even the steering tends to feel vague at times. That, along with the Cruze’s resistance to quick changes in direction, means it is not enjoyable to drive in a rapid manner.
The Laura offers the most fun experience behind the wheel. Its steering is well-weighted at all speeds and responds very nicely to all inputs. The Laura also exhibits great body control around bends and is easily the most agile car here. The Laura has great high-speed manners and is very stable in a straight-line. But like most European cars, sharp edges filter through into the Laura’s cabin, especially at low city speeds.
There’s more of the same on the Jetta too, but its lower-profile tyres heighten the underlying firmness of its ride. The ride, however, does improve the faster you go and even at speeds above 100kph, the odd undulation does little to faze the Jetta’s flat ride and composed demeanour.
Adding to the feeling of control are the Jetta’s safety electronics that use the car’s braking system to ensure it sticks to the desired path around long, sweeping bends. Even its steering feels very nice to use, but in the end lacks the precision offered by the Laura’s unit.
The Elantra’s cabin echoes the exterior’s swoopy styling. The dashboard looks particularly interesting thanks to that unique hour-glass-like centre console. However, once the initial impression wears down, you will find it is a case of form taking precedence over function. The air-con controls seem bunched together, and even the central air-con vents are positioned a touch too low. Still, the level of quality in here is impressive. The soft-touch plastics on the dashboard are nice to touch, panel fit is consistent through the cabin and the perforated seats look rich too.
Similarly, you’ll like the sporty contrast stitching on the Cruze’s seats, as well as the cockpit-themed dashboard that wraps itself around the front occupants. An interesting detail is the hooded instrument cluster, which not only looks great, but is also easy to read. However, the quality is not up to the mark. Some of the buttons feel tacky and there are also glaring panel gaps at places.
On the other end of the quality spectrum is the Volkswagen Jetta. Fit and finish is hard to fault and everything (with the exception of the air-con knobs) looks, and feels, built to last. However, the dashboard does look a tad conservatively styled. Just like the Jetta, the Laura’s cabin won’t win you over for design. But it still manages to feel very special thanks to a tasteful combination of black and beige plastics and excellent all-round quality.
You’ll also like the Laura’s cabin for the generous space it has on offer. There’s ample legroom in the back and the only real complaints you can level against its seat is that the backrest is a touch too hard and a tad upright. The Laura’s front seats are supportive but drivers will find rear visibility slightly restricted owing to the car’s heavily slanted rear windscreen. Rear visibility is somewhat of a problem on the Elantra too, but thankfully, it comes with a reverse camera as standard. This apart, there are more goodies to pamper occupants, including ventilated front seats. Chauffeur-driven owners will also appreciate the inclusion of the audio system controls in the rear seat armrest. However, the Elantra’s rear seat isn’t the most comfortable. It is positioned quite low, so ingress and egress isn’t all that convenient. Headroom is in short supply too, the seat provides inadequate thigh support and some may even find the backrest a tad too reclined. Both the low seat and lack of rear headroom are due to the sloping roofline. Legroom though is really good, but the small rear windows reduce the feeling of space inside the cabin.
Cruze owners will also have to contend with its less-than-ideal seats. The front seats are comfy, but the generous side bolstering will not find favour with ‘healthier’ occupants. Larger occupants are also likely to have trouble in the back because headroom is quite restricted. For its part, the seat is comfy and there is adequate legroom too. In that light,the Jetta’s rear seat offers the best space and comfort, though, like the Laura, the backrest is a tad upright. Front-seat comfort is also really good.
The Jetta also wins points for being loaded with lots of cubbyholes as well as bottle holders on each of the four doors. Likewise, the Elantra is also very generous in terms of space for smaller items. The Cruze offers decent storage too, though its glovebox is really narrow and can’t hold much. Curiously, the Laura’s rear-seat occupants don’t get as much as a dedicated cupholder and the rear door pockets are small too. The 560-litre boot is the largest here.
Similarly, the Jetta’s boot is well shaped too and space is second only to the Laura’s. There is decent space in the Elantra’s luggage bay as well and in comparison to the rest, the Cruze’s 450-litre boot feels quite small.
Hyundai sells the Elantra diesel with an automatic gearbox in a single fully-loaded variant that costs Rs 15.85 lakh. It comes with a large list of standard features, including a reverse camera, powered driver’s seat, ventilated front seats, a USB and Aux-ready music system, Bluetooth telephony and automatic headlights. There is no stinting on safety equipment either with six airbags to keep you protected in the event of a collision.
Priced at Rs 15.67 lakh, the Cruze automatic may be the most affordable car here but it still comes with lots of features. For the money, you get a partially-powered driver’s seat, automatic climate control, a music system with Aux and USB connectivity, keyless entry and go, and a sunroof. It does however miss out on some important equipment like rear air-con vents and, with just two airbags, its safety kit isn’t all that comprehensive either.
Those interested in the Jetta will have to really extend their budget. That’s because the Jetta is only available in a single variant that costs Rs 18.90 lakh. And contrary to what you’d expect, it isn’t the best specced car either. You don’t get automatic climate control, which is inexcusable for a car that costs so much. However, the Jetta does come with a powered driver’s seat, a touchscreen interface for the audio system, beautifully crafted paddle-shifters for the gearbox, and eight airbags.
Laura buyers can choose between three variants, with prices starting at Rs 15.84 lakh for the base Ambition trim. Our pick of the range though is the mid-level Elegance trim that comes with dual-zone climate control, leather seats, reverse parking sensors, a music player with an Aux input but only two airbags. Sadly, even this variant doesn’t get steering-mounted audio controls or a powered driver’s seat. These are available only on the top-spec L&K variant, which also gets a touchscreen interface, Xenon headlights and a total of eight airbags. But, priced at Rs 19.15 lakh, it is ridiculously expensive and not worth the premium. Be warned, Skoda also doesn’t have the best reputation when it comes to aftersales support. Spares are expensive and its service footprint is also restricted to larger towns.
But the Laura does come with a 2 year/unlimited km warranty, which is the same as the one Volkswagen offers on the Jetta. As with the Laura, the Jetta is fairly expensive to maintain.
In terms of service costs,the Elantra is easiest on the pocket. Hyundai also has the widest service infrastructure among the manufacturers featured here that, along with the Elantra’s 3 year/50,000km warranty, adds much piece of mind. In comparison, the Cruze’s 3 year/1,00,000km warranty is even more generous. Chevrolet’s network is also widely spread across India and finding a service station shouldn’t be much of a problem.
Perhaps the biggest consideration for buyers will be fuel economy. Automatic cars have a reputation for being costly to run owing to their lower fuel economy vis-à-vis manual cars. However, the Laura and Jetta, with their efficient dual-clutch gearboxes, do quite well in this department. The Jetta delivered 11.8kpl in the city and 16.8kpl on the highway, which is marginally more than the Laura’s figures of 11.6kpl and 16.5kpl respectively. The Elantra, with its smaller diesel engine, does quite well too with a city figure of 11.2kpl and highway figure of 16.2kpl. These figures compare well with the Cruze, which gave us 9.8kpl in the city and 15.3kpl on the highway.
The latest Cruze feels a whole lot better than the one launched in 2009. The new engine is more refined and city driving is a lot better. Unfortunately, the Chevy is still far from perfect. The performance is good but it isn’t all that fun to drive. The rear seat lacks sufficient headroom and the cabin quality is also a let-down. But the Cruze is the most affordable car here. However, for sheer value, even the Cruze can’t compete with the stylish new Hyundai Elantra. That’s because the Elantra comes loaded with every conceivable feature, yet doesn’t cost the earth. Pricing is realistic and its smartly-finished cabin gives you the impression you’ve got more than your money’s worth. Its low-speed ride is the best here and even engine refinement is good. Unfortunately, the small windows, low rear seat and limited headroom are a letdown in the Elantra. So, it’s a close fight between the Jetta and Laura. Both boast a tough build inside and out, and feel far better built than the Hyundai and Chevrolet(in that order).
In terms of performance, the two are near-identical and the differences really lie in how the cars drive. Where the Laura is the more engaging car to pilot, the Jetta is the more effortless highway cruiser. The Jetta does have the advantage of a more spacious cabin. But considering the Jetta’s Rs 18.90 lakh price tag (ex-showroom, Delhi), it’s the Laura that we’d recommend as the best buy. The Laura comes in three variants, and even in the middle Elegance trim, matches the Jetta for features – that it costs a whole Rs 1.7 lakh less than its cousin from Volkswagen only seals the deal.