At $9,970 -- actually $10,665 once you factor in the destination charge, possibly less once you finish haggling with the dealer -- the bare-bones 2009 Hyundai Accent GS Base 3-door hatchback is the least-expensive car sold in America. But as I've discussed before, a low price doesn't always mean a good deal. Does that apply to the 2009 Hyundai Accent GS Base? Read on. $10,665 base, $10,760 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 27 MPG city, 33 MPG highway.
First Glance: Oh no they didn't!
Just a few weeks after Nissan announced that their new stripped-down Versa 1.6 was to be priced at $9,990 (actually $10,685 with destination charge), making it the cheapest car in America, Hyundai announced a new version of the Accent, the GS Base, priced at $9,970 ($10,665 with destination) -- exactly twenty dollars less than the Versa 1.6.
Before the GS Base came along, the cheapest Accent was the plain ol' GS, priced at $11,765. So what did they do to the GS to cut the price by $1,100? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It's the same exact car. Ah, but there's a catch: If you want any options -- air conditioning, power windows and locks, even a stereo or an automatic transmission -- you have to buy the one that costs $1,100 more (and then pay for the options). Hmmm.
Now, before I go on, I do have to give kudos to Hyundai. Automakers often put well-optioned cars into their press fleets in order to coddle us journalists into writing a nicer review. But the Accent that Hyundai supplied for this test was the actual base-model Accent. No air conditioning, no radio, no nothin'. (Well, except for a $95 set of floor mats, but those don't really count.) Even Nissan slipped air conditioning and antilock brakes into the Versa 1.6 I tested. And I'll tell you what: I liked the Accent better than the Versa. I wouldn't recommend buying it, but I did like it.
In the Driver's Seat: Funny, you don't look cheap
If I parked the $9,970 Accent next to the $9,990 Nissan Versa and asked passers-by to pick the cheaper car, I bet most would pick the Versa. Granted, the Accent sports typical cheap-car cues like plastic wheel covers (link goes to photo) and black (as opposed to body-color or chrome) side mirrors and door handles. But it's still a cute little car, a sharp contrast to the homely Versa.
Inside, the Accent is done up in cheap-looking gray plastic, with cheap-looking black plastic as a no-cost option. But there are lots of pleasant surprises, like variable-delay wipers, headlights that automatically shut off when you turn off the car, a driver's armrest, a luggage cover, even an ashtray and a lighter. Not that I have any use for an ashtray and a lighter, but with many cars now offering extra-cost "smoker's packages"... well, free stuff is free stuff.
The seat cloth is of higher quality than I expected, and instead of putting a blank plastic plate over the missing radio, like you'll find in the Versa, the Accent has two trays perfectly sized for storing all those CDs you can't play. (The Accent does come with four pre-installed speakers, so adding a radio is pretty straightforward.) I thought the non-adjustable steering column was set a bit too low, but other than that, I found the driving position comfortable and visibility excellent. The back seat is cramped and hard to get in to -- this is, after all a 3-door car -- but it does have three proper headrests. I do wish it came with a rear window wiper, though; every hatchback should have one.
On the Road: It's all fun and games 'till you crash it
The Accent is powered by a 110 horsepower 1.6 liter engine, which gets an A for effort, a B for overall performance, and a C for decorum -- the engine turns a frantic 3,500 RPM at 70 MPH, and it's a noisy little bugger. I really liked the Accent's manual transmission -- the shifter is precise, if a bit notchy, and the clutch is light. Fuel economy wasn't all that great: I averaged 29.8 MPG, which isn't a bad figure, but quite a bit lower than other small cars I recently tested, including the Nissan Versa 1.6 (34.6 MPG), Honda Fit (39.3 MPG!), and the Toyota Yaris (34.4 MPG, and that was with an automatic transmission). Most small cars are inherently fun to drive, and the Accent is no exception. The ride is a bit soft and bouncy, but man, does it cling to the road.
Safety is the one area where the Accent falls down. Front-seat-mounted side airbags and two-row side curtain airbags are standard, but antilock brakes aren't available, nor is electronic stability control. And the Accent's crash test scores aren't very good. Actually, they're kinda bad. In government tests, the Accent scored 5 out of 5 stars for front impact -- as do most new cars -- but side impact scores were 4 stars for front passengers and 3 for rear passengers. In the more realistic Insurance Institute for Highway Safety tests, the Accent is Acceptable (the second highest rating) for frontal impacts and Poor (the worst rating) for side impacts -- and that's with side airbags! The Versa 1.6 aced all of its crash tests, as did the Honda Fit and the Toyota Yaris.
Journey's End: Like it? Yes. Recommend it? No
I went into this test expecting a basic car that provided basic transportation. What I found was a cute, cheeky, playful little runabout with a winning personality. I liked it quite a bit better than the $9,990 Nissan Versa 1.6. But just as there's a catch to the Accent's pricing, there's a catch to this review: Between the Accent and the Versa, I'd recommend the Versa.
Why? Several reasons. First, the Versa is just more practical. It has four doors, a huge back seat, and a big trunk. The Versa has significantly better crash test scores, plus it offers antilock brakes as a $250 option; the Accent doesn't offer them at all. (And let's face it, given the Accent's crash test scores, it needs all the help it can get.) Air conditioning and an automatic transmission are also on the Versa's option list, and you don't have to buy a more-expensive model to get 'em. And finally, the Versa has better resale values -- an important factor to consider, since most buyers of inexpensive cars are planning to eventually trade up to something nicer.
Downsides to the Versa? It's as ugly as the Accent is cute, its warranty is shorter, and you probably won't be able to negotiate as good a deal on it as you will on the Accent. Neither reason is enough to sway my recommendation. As much as I love the Accent -- as cute as it is, as enjoyable as it is, and as inexpensive as it is -- if you only have ten and a half grand to spend, you're still better off with a Nissan Versa 1.6. Or a used car. -- Aaron Gold