On Autos: Korean compact hatchbacks are imperfect low-cost options

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The 2017 Kia Forte5 is an affordable compact hatchback, but mediocre gas mileage and missing safety features hold it back in its class. (Brady Holt/The Current)
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It has become safe to assume that Korean cars offer respectable quality at affordable prices.

Hyundai and its sister brand Kia have always sold inexpensive vehicles, and they have approximately matched the leading competitors for years.

But that does not mean every Hyundai or Kia is a great choice. In the compact hatchback segment, the Kia Forte5 and the newly redesigned 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT both make a positive first impression – but they come up short in notable ways.

The Elantra GT is particularly tempting. Priced from $20,235, the Elantra GT offers generous standard equipment; clean, upscale styling; lots of available luxury features; and an upscale but ergonomically sensible interior.

Do not confuse the Elantra GT hatchback with the more popular Elantra sedan, as the two models share little beyond the name. Hyundai developed the GT for the European market, where it is sold as the i30. Accordingly, the elegantly restrained styling reflects European design preferences. Unlike a Honda Civic, for example, the Elantra GT is free of sharp angles and creases. The GT’s dashboard also looks and feels upscale of the purely functional Elantra sedan.

But while the Elantra GT costs several thousand dollars less than its comparably equipped competitors, you lose some of those savings at the gas pump. EPA fuel economy ratings are poor for a compact car at just 27 mpg in mixed driving, with the base 161-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and automatic transmission. That trails the Civic by a whopping seven mpg.

The Elantra GT’s value levels also suffer for drivers who want emergency automatic braking – a useful safety feature. While many competitors make this system widely available or even offer it as standard equipment, it is offered only on the fully loaded $29,000 Elantra GT. That is not necessarily a problem if you were already planning to buy the car with its more powerful engine, leather upholstery, navigation system and so forth. But if you are looking for a simple, affordable vehicle with today’s safety tech, you can get a much less expensive competitor.

Elantra GT interior.

The Kia Forte5, meanwhile, is the five-door version of the Forte sedan. It is an older design than the Elantra or Elantra GT, dating to the 2014 model year. In fact, Kia recently unveiled an all-new Forte that will go on sale later this year.

The outgoing Forte5 retains some appeal. Like the Elantra GT, it is generally pleasant to drive, and its hatchback body style provides excellent space efficiency compared to a sedan – a boon for city driving and parking. The Forte5 is also an affordable option, starting at $19,195. And although its gas mileage is also disappointing, it edges out the Elantra GT for efficiency with 28 mpg in mixed driving.

However, the Forte5 feels like the more basic car than the Elantra GT. It boasts comfortable seats and a well-executed touch screen infotainment system. But the cabin feels more dated overall, with more basic plastic trim than the Elantra GT and a humdrum design. Its handling also is not as responsive as the Hyundai’s, though neither car is particularly sporty. And although emergency automatic braking is widely available on the Forte sedan, it is not offered at all on the Forte5 hatchback; the hatchback also has a curiously limited selection of exterior colors.

Both the Forte5 and Elantra GT are offered with a 201-horsepower engine, a turbocharged 1.6-liter shared by Hyundai and Kia. It’s standard on the Elantra GT Sport and Forte5 SX trims, and it provides more power than most competitors. However, the tested Forte5 SX did not feel especially zippy in routine driving, and the SX trim also has a stiffer suspension tuning that was unpleasant on potholed streets.

Elantra GT rear.

These two hatchbacks can be compelling options either if you want the lowest price, or if you want a lot of luxury features at a relatively attainable price point. They deliver a generally pleasant experience and usefully spacious interiors. But with fuel-thirsty engines, hard-to-find safety gear and unremarkable driving dynamics, they’re not the best compact hatchbacks you can buy. The Civic is a better-rounded option for not much more money, and the Mazda3 and Ford Focus a true fun-to-drive experience, albeit with less rear-seat room.

Meanwhile, for maximum value, the Toyota Corolla iM and Chevrolet Cruze hatchbacks also have appealing prices along with better gas mileage than the Koreans. However, the Toyota has few available luxury features, and the Chevrolet reserves its best safety gear for pricey high-end models.