I like Hyundais, I like hatchbacks, and I like European cars, and the all-new 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT is all three wrapped up in one. My review of the Elantra GT was going swimmingly well until I quite literally hit a bump in the road. Where does the Hyundai Elantra GT get it right -- and where does it go wrong? Read on.
First Glance: Korea's vision for Europe
Meet the all-new Elantra GT, known to our friends across the Atlantic as the Hyundai i30. I don't usually talk much about what automakers are doing in Europe because, really, what does it matter? We're here, they're there, and if we could buy the same cars they have in Europe, we'd probably go for cool stuff like the Volkswagen Scirocco or the Citroën C5 Tourer. In the case of the Elantra GT, though, it matters a little bit, because this is a car that South Korean automaker Hyundai designed for Europe. Here in the States, hatchback lovers are in the minority -- car enthusiasts and young people are the big takers -- so Hyundai is porting the i30 to the New World with minimal changes, primarily a bigger engine and a retuned suspension.
That explains a lot about the Elantra GT, primarily the size and styling. While the Elantra GT shares the same platform as the Elantra sedan and Elantra Coupe, it's shorter both in wheelbase and overall length (2" and 9" respectively), taller, and slightly wider. And the styling is a big departure -- not that the other Elantras are dull-looking cars, but the Elantra GT has a much bolder front fender line and a unique grille with a nice bendy theme to it, while out back (link goes to photo) the Elantra's trademark tail-up body crease takes a dive for the pavement to follow the contours of the rear fender. It's an exceptionally good-looking little car, especially in white -- the blue car in the photos seems more understated -- and if you look at what European automakers like Renault and Peugeot are doing with their hatchbacks, you'll see where Hyundai found its influence.
In the Driver's Seat: Where it all goes right
Inside, the Elantra GT gets a dashboard that is distinct from other Elantras. The bits and bobs are in the same places, but the details are different; the GT has a big open center stack with a lot more storage space and unique climate controls. As with the other Elantras, the style, control placement, and material quality are all top notch, and I liked having an easy place to drop my cell phone and camera while I drove. Under the fascia you'll find seven airbags; along with the usual six (2x front, 2x front-seat-mounted side, 2x two-row side curtain) there's an airbag for the driver's knees. The GT is the only Elantra to get a knee 'bag, and the Hyundai staff seemed to (reluctantly) hint that the extra airbag was necessary to get good crash-test scores. Uh-oh.
Space-wise, the Elantra GT gets it right: The front seats are not only supportive and comfortable, but you can also get them in leather (and power-adjustable for the driver -- a rare find among small cars). I found the GT's back seat roomy and comfortable; on paper it's more spacious than the Subaru Impreza 5-door, but doesn't have quite as much legroom as the Mazda3 hatch. Cargo capacity is 23 cubic feet, matching the Impreza and trailing the Ford Focus by one cube, but trouncing the Mazda3 by six. In the finest European tradition, the rear seat bottom cushions can be tilted forward, allowing the seatbacks to be folded flat for 51 uninterrupted cubic feet of cargo capacity.
Those who are familiar with Hyundai's lineup might be wondering what happened to the mini-wagon format of the GT's predecessor, the Elantra Touring. Hyundai downsized the GT because a bigger car would have encroached on the Tucson CUV -- and besides, Europeans like their cars shorter, not longer. For what it's worth, the new GT's cargo capacity is only 1.3 cubic feet less than the old Touring, although it can't handle bulky cargo as easily -- not without folding the rear seats down.
On the Road: Where it all goes wrong
While the i30 in the Old World gets a choice of 1.4 and 1.6 liter gasoline and diesel engines, here in the States, the Elantra GT drives its front wheels with the same 148 horsepower 1.8 liter engine found in other Elantras. The car I tested had a 6-speed manual with exceptionally tall gearing; off-the-line acceleration felt fine, but steep highway grades required downshifting to 5th and sometimes even 4th, and keeping pace on twisty mountain roads meant changing down to second and thrashing the daylights out of the poor engine. I don't mind shifting -- that's why I drive a stick-shift! -- but the truth is that the automatic is probably the better choice for the Elantra GT. The manual's numb clutch is tricky in traffic, and automatic car's fuel economy is slightly better -- 28 MPG city and 39 MPG highway versus 27/39 for the stick, figures that are nearly identical to the Mazda3 SkyActiv. (I averaged just over 31 in a week of driving.) Unlike the Mazda, there's no super-fancy technology here; Hyundai simply kept the weight down, with the various versions of the GT tipping the scales between 2,745 and 2,959 lbs.
When it comes to ride and handling, the Elantra doesn't stand out quite so much. Compared to other Elantras, the GT gets its own rear suspension setup, with unique tuning for the US market. My test car had the optional sport suspension, and on most roads it felt fine; the ride is Euro-firm and respectably quiet. But whenever I hit a big bump at speed, it would all fall apart -- the suspension crashes upwards and the car bounces up and down like an old-school Buick. The GT grips well in steady-state cornering, but hit a serious bump and the rear end skips off like a schoolgirl. 95% of the time the Elantra GT feels fine, but it's those 5% moments -- sectional freeways, badly patched pavement, and the like -- are a constant reminder that Hyundai's suspension engineering still needs some work. That's a shame, because otherwise the GT feels well balanced, and the "Flex Steer" system, which has three modes for feel and heft (Normal, Comfort, and Sport), though slightly numb in terms of feedback, works really well.