Things are changing at Hyundai: Once known purely for their cheap cars, Hyundai is coming on strong as a first-rate automaker. In 2009 they wowed us with the luxurious Genesis Sedan and the sporty Genesis Coupe. For 2011, the mid-size Sonata shed its conservative clothes for a racy look and a luxurious interior -- and now the all-new 2011 Elantra is following the same path. But for all its good looks, is the new Elantra a good car? Read on. Price range $15,625 - $21,980, EPA fuel economy estimates 29 MPG city, 40(!) MPG highway.
First Glance: New look, old values
Obviously, the new Elantra's styling is the big story. At first glance, it looks rather like a Sonata that's been left in the dryer too long. But look closer and you'll see a lot of unique and attractive elements. I especially like the shoulder-line crease that runs through the door handles and the way the rear fenders transition into the rear bumper. Exterior design isn't usually a spotlight feature of inexpensive compact cars -- look no further than the awkward lines of the old-shape Elantra as proof -- so it's nice to see that Hyundai has made styling a priority. In my opinion, this is the most attractive car in the compact segment.
But many Americans equate Hyundai with "value pricing" -- industry-speak for "cheap cars" -- and the Elantra doesn't disappoint. Base models start at $15,625, making the Elantra one of the least-expensive compact sedans on the market, and undercutting the Kia Forte -- a distant mechanical relative of the Elantra -- by $65. But as with all things, one must read the fine print: For that price the Elantra comes with a manual transmission and lacks air conditioning (although it does get power windows and locks). Hyundai says most buyers will go for the GLS automatic, which includes air conditioning and cruise control for $17,875, a pretty good deal compared to other cars in this segment. At the high end of the scale is the $20,775 Elantra Limited, which includes leather seats (heated in front and in back!), a sunroof, alloy wheels, and an automatic transmission. All Elantras can be equipped with GPS navigation, a backup camera, automatic headlights, and a premium stereo.
In the Driver's Seat: Prepare to be shocked
I drove an entry-level Elantra GLS and was surprised -- shocked, almost -- by how nice the interior is. The plastics and fabrics (link goes to photo) are as high in quality as anything you'll find in a Toyota, if not a Lexus. And there are some lovely details, like these air conditioning controls, with are both functional and artfully designed -- a rare find in a luxury car, let alone a $16,000 compact.
I also drove a Limited model with standard leather and optional keyless ignition, and it was even more impressive -- so impressive, in fact, that I couldn't help but notice what wasn't there, namely power seats and automatic climate control. Is it unfair to expect such luxuries in a compact car? Not anymore -- Chevrolet offers both in the Cruze, and the Mazda3 is available with all of the above plus automatic rain-sensing wipers. That said, a Mazda3 with all the toys costs nearly $26,000, while a fully-loaded Cruze is over $27k. The Elantra tops out at a more reasonable $21,980. Hyundai could have added more features, but perhaps they don't think America is ready for a $25,000 Elantra.
So how does the interior function? It's certainly all good up front; the driver enjoys a supportive seat with good visibility all around. But the back seat leaves something to be desired. There's plenty of room for heads and legs, but the cushion is low to the floor and there's little toe-room under the front seats. I took a half-hour ride back there and never did get comfortable. The back seat splits and folds to expand the trunk, although with 14.8 cubic feet available, the Elantra isn't hurting for trunk space.
On the Road: Great new engine, fantastic new transmission
The Elantra's 148 hp 1.8 liter engine provides a perfect blend of power and fuel economy. Both manual and automatic transmissions are rated for 29 MPG city and 40 MPG highway, which pretty much dusts everything in the compact segment (although the upcoming 2012 Ford Focus is expected to match the Elantra's 40 MPG highway figure). My test drive wasn't long enough to get good real-world figures, but I did see well over 40 MPG during gentle highway driving.
Of the two transmissions, the automatic is the way to go. The 6-speed manual has a light clutch and precise shifter, but the engine feels sluggish below 3,500 RPM. The automatic, a 6-speed unit designed in-house by Hyundai, provides much better access to the engine's power. It's quick to downshift when needed and eager to let the engine run all the way up to redline, which means it does a great job of keeping the engine in its powerband.
The Elantra's suspension was tuned by the same engineers who did the Kia Forte, but the Hyundai is tuned for a softer ride. I found the Elantra to be comfortable and reasonably quiet around town and on the highway, but I thought there was too much up-and-down body motion on curvy, bumpy roads. Steering feel was good on cars with alloy wheels (standard on the Limited, optional on the GLS), but the base model GLS I drove, which had steel wheels and a different brand and model of tire than the alloy-wheel cars, didn't feel as good in the curves. (Hyundai says they are still fine-tuning the steel-wheel cars, so my early-production tester may not be the last word.) Overall, I thought the Elantra wasn't as satisfying to drive as the Forte, but its smoother ride makes it easier on the backside.
Journey's End: A matter of taste
Overall, I'm quite pleased with the new Elantra. I love the styling and I'm really impressed by the interior. I think the engine is fantastic and the responsiveness of the new automatic transmission is truly outstanding. I'm amazed by the fuel economy, especially considering that the Elantra's engine isn't a particularly high-tech unit -- which shows that Hyundai's engineers really sweated the small details to come up with big fuel savings. But more than anything, I'm glad that the Elantra is no longer just a cheap alternative to a Toyota Corolla, but rather a good car that can stand on its own.
Still, I'd be lying if I said the Elantra was my favorite compact sedan. I prefer small cars that are more involving to drive and offer more high-end equipment, which is why I like the Kia Forte and the Mazda3 -- but that's more a matter of personal preference than an indictment of the Elantra.
How does the Elantra compare to the big dogs in the segment? Both the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla charge higher prices for less equipment, and neither one can match the high-class appeal of the Elantra's cabin, especially the Corolla, which feels cheap and outdated compared to the Hyundai. Still, both the Civic and the Corolla are solid cars with a reputation for reliability and resale value. (Which is not to say that the Elantra lacks either; in fact, Hyundai's residual values have been steadily increasing, and the Elantra will no doubt prompt another jump.)
Bottom line: The new Elantra is a solid car that combines fresh and innovative styling with good ol' fashioned value. If you're shopping for a compact sedan, you'd be doing yourself a great disservice by not test-driving the Elantra. -- Aaron Gold