First Glance: A new mission for the Accent
The outgoing Hyundai Accent was the last of the old-school Hyundais, and its biggest claim to fame was that it was America's least-expensive car for three years in a row. I quite liked the old Accent; it was cheap, cheerful, and good fun to drive, and only its dismal safety ratings kept me from recommending it more often. Still, many people dismissed it with a term I can't print on this website. (It starts with "s" and ends with "hitbox".)
For 2012, the Accent has been completely transformed, just like 2011's Sonata and Elantra. Instead of being a cut-rate alternative to mainstream Japanese cars, the new Accent aims to beat them at their own game.
Hyundai has done their best to differentiate the all-new Accent from the old car. The 2012 Accent gets the same swoopy styling treatment as the Sonata and Elantra, and the look works well on such a small car. The new Accent is offered as either a 4-door sedan or a devilishly handsome 5-door hatchback.
In keeping with American preferences, the sedan is now the cheapest version of the Accent. Priced at $13,205 with destination charge, it's no longer America's cheapest car; that title reverts to the all-new Nissan Versa, although the Accent will be in the top ten. That's the good news. The bad news is that the base model Accent lacks air conditioning, power windows, and a radio, all of which come bundled together for $1,750 (bringing the price to $14,955). Can't drive a stick-shift? The cheapest automatic Accent comes with the A/C package and lists for $15,955.
In the Driver's Seat: Money spent where it counts
Climb inside, and you'll see that Hyundai has spent their money where it counts: The dashboard is attractively styled, the controls are uncomplicated, and the fabrics, plastics, and switchgear feel substantial and expensive. Hunt around and you'll find some evidence of cost-cutting, like the chintzy carpeting in the trunk, but that's fine with me -- this is, after all, a car that tops out at $17,555.
All of the basics are covered nicely: The cloth-covered seats are comfy and supportive, and visibility is good -- not great -- although the hatchback's rear window is rather small. The back seat offers a surprisingly generous amount of legroom, though headroom is a bit limited in the sedan; the hatchback's roofline is taller. I liked the sedan's roomy trunk, but was really impressed by the hatchback's cargo bay -- at 21.2 cubic feet it bests even the Honda Fit, and like the Fit it has a low floor that will handily accommodate big, bulky items.
Safety was the old Accent's biggest problem, and Hyundai has seen to that: The Accent now comes with six airbags, 4-wheel-disc antilock brakes, and electronic stability control, all standard. Crash tests scores were still pending as this article was posted, but other recent Hyundai models have earned IIHS Top Safety Pick awards, and there's no reason to believe the Accent won't follow suit.
On the Road: Great gas mileage, but oh, the steering...
In choosing an engine for the Accent, Hyundai went for frugal rather than frisky. The 1.6 liter four-cylinder features direct fuel injection, an expensive fuel delivery system that delivers superior gas mileage and cleaner emissions. Output is 138 horsepower, more than any of its competitors, although you'd never guess from the way the Accent drives: Acceleration is good enough for short freeway on-ramps, but a drag-racer this isn't, and the engine is noisy when revved. And if you buy the 6-speed stick-shift, you will have to rev it -- I'd go with the automatic, which does a better job of power delivery, and includes a driver-selectable "eco" mode which smoothes out the driver's throttle inputs for better fuel economy.
No matter which transmission you pick, EPA fuel economy ratings are 30 MPG in the city and 40 MPG on the highway, besting the competition. I didn't get enough seat time for a meaningful fuel economy number, although the Accent seemed perfectly happy to deliver low 30s in mixed city and freeway driving.
My short test drive was also lacking in curves, but I did like the Accent's comfortable ride, and it felt stable and secure in broad, sweeping turns. But I was disappointed with the steering -- I thought it lacked good feel on-center and it wandered quite a bit on the highway, requiring constant correction. The SE model -- the sportier version -- has heavier steering and therefore requires more muscle to keep it on course. I didn't mind driving the Accent around town, but I don't know that I'd want to take one on a long trip -- I'll have to test one for a full week and see if that changes my mind.