I must admit to a certain amount of dread going into this test. It’s going to be like comparing three sorts of small rocks trying to determine which is best, I imagined. They’re all about the same size, and they all do basically the same thing, and they’re all pretty good at doing it. Something extraordinary needed to happen to make this test thrilling.

Like, what if we could get one of them to explode! Or, how about one of them just crumbles when you touch it?

None of the automakers involved would let us blow their car to smithereens, so it looked like we were screwed.

Until, that is, all the cars turned out to be pretty different. Instead of three small rocks, we were comparing an apple to an orange to – I don’t know – a pineapple? Point is, they all take different approaches to the compact car question. I won’t spoil the verdict just yet, but what I can say is that it’s a very good time to be in the compact car market.

HeapMedia89978

The Honda Civic is the best-selling car in Canada, and has been for some time. All that could change this year though, because it’s up against a tougher set of competitors than ever before. (It’s too early to tell for sure, but the Hyundai Elantra looks poised to take the Civic’s crown.)

When I first drove the new Civic, I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t that different from the old car, outside or in. In some ways (see: ultra bland styling, and cheap interior plastics) it seemed like the Civic had taken a big step backwards. It just didn’t seem like Honda was trying very hard, thinking the compact Civic could just rest on its laurels. 

Living with it and driving it for a week, I can see I was wrong. The new car is refined where it counts. Visibility from the driver’s seat is amazing – by far the best-in-class.

Having such a large glasshouse is great for city driving where you really need to see all around. The iPod/phone/multimedia connection is also best-in-class. The controls are intuitive and you can see your music on a big screen that shows artist/song/album artwork information. So simple. The dual-level dashboard design is excellent too, with the most important information up top, right in your field of vision.

Yes, the exterior does look bland. And yes, the engines aren’t as exciting as the old ones, but for most buyers, this new Civic is better where it counts. Our biggest gripe is how many different shades of grey are in the cabin – it makes it feel cheaper than it should.

The base engine is a 1.8-litre unit good for 140 horsepower and 128 pound-foot of torque.

Official fuel economy is rated at 7.2 L/100 km on the highway and 5.4 in the city (with the manual transmission).

An automatic gearbox is on offer, but you have to step up from the base DX trim ($14,990) to the LX ($18,690).

HeapMedia89976

After the minimalist Civic, the Focus feels over-designed. The strange shapes on the dash and doors, a ridiculous abundance of buttons on the steering wheel, and an (optional) MyFord Touch display screen that takes the prize for worst interface design of anything currently in an automobile. So much info is crammed on the screen at all times, it distracts from the road. The buttons are so small, you have to pay precise attention to exactly where you’re pushing so you can hit the right command.

Plus it’s got a hideous burgundy, green, blue colour scheme for no apparent reason. Compliment that with the garish white and black interior/dashboard colour scheme and it’s just too much. 

Mercifully, you can avoid all those horrors by opting for a base-spec model which doesn’t come with any of those “features.” Without the screen, the dash is well-designed, and the controls simple.

The exterior styling of the Focus is the best of the bunch to our eyes, even if it does take away slightly from interior space. Rear seat legroom was the worst of the group and weather it will be enough space for an adult depends on how tall front seat passengers are.

The “S” sedan starts at $15,369, powered by a 2.0-litre engine. It’s good for 160 hp and 146 lb-ft torque. That’s comfortably more than its rivals, but it doesn’t feel any quicker.

In fact, loaded down as our top-level “Titanium” spec test car was, it actually felt sluggish. Fuel economy is rated at 7.8 L/100 km in the city and 5.5 highway.

To get the hatchback with an automatic transmission, the price jumps way up to $22,798. The six-speed dual-clutch gearbox in the top-line cars is a great idea, but it’s not refined enough for prime time just yet. If you’re considering a Focus – and your should – make sure to stick to the basics.

HeapMedia89977

The Elantra falls in between the Civic and Focus in terms of design and technology. It looks interesting (but not as slick as the Focus) and the interior is clean (but not as minimal as the Civic). 

We would have loved to test the Elantra’s iPhone/multimedia compatibility, but unfortunately it’s the only car in our group that requires a special cable for the connection. That’s annoying in itself, but when you’ve got to pay an extra $50 for the cable it seems like a bit of a scam.

Although the steering feel on the Hyundai is artificial and alien feeling (like the Ford’s, but much more so) the Elantra actually handles corners best, thanks to its excellent electronic differential that applies the brake on the inside front wheel when needed. In most situations, the Elantra refuses to understeer.

The Hyundai also has the best fuel consumption, at just 6.8 L/100 km in the city and 4.9 on the highway. Despite the eco-friendliness, it doesn’t feel sluggish thanks mainly to a sharp-ish throttle pedal. The 1.8-litre engine is rated at 148 hp and 131 lb-ft of torque.

When it comes to cargo capacity, the Elantra comes out on top with 419-litres of space behind the rear seats, with the Focus second (374) and the Civic last (353). Go for the Focus hatchback though, and you’ll got a healthy 674-litres.

The base Elantra starts well-equipped at $15,849. If you want an automatic gearbox, the total comes to $17,049.

Different approaches to the same segment of the car market. It’s refreshing actually.

The Focus is the best looking car here, but also most expensive. It’s the choice for the style-conscious buyer. The Civic is bland outside, but quietly brilliant inside: the thinking person’s choice. And, the Hyundai isn’t as good-looking as the Focus, or as zen as the Civic, but has a happy mix of style and substance that will be sure to please a majority of buyers. 

Now, it’s up to you, but be sure to do some thorough test drives and check your bank balance before you make up your mind.