First glance: Space and safety, but what about styling?
So it's no surprise that safety is one of the highest priorities for the new Elantra. Like the newest versions of the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra, the Elantra offers front seat-mounted torso airbags and roof-mounted side curtain airbags for front and rear seats (link goes to photo) as standard. Antilock brakes are also standard fare, and while most competitors come with disc brakes in front and drum brakes at the rear, the Elantra comes with four-wheel-discs, which offer better braking performance in the rain.
If there's one place the Elantra comes up short, it's styling. The car actually has some rather nice details, but unless the light hits the car just right you probably won't notice the swoopy character line that runs from nose to tail. At first glance the Elantra looks rental-car anonymous, and the taillights, which bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the old Ford Contour, don't do the rear view any favors. I saw the Elantra in a variety of colors and none seemed to bring out the Elantra's well-hidden beauty.
In the Driver's Seat: A budget-priced car you can live with
My fellow journalists and I found the Elantra comfortable for drivers short and tall, though I would have liked a telescope (in-and-out) adjustment on the steering column -- for reasons I can't fathom, it's standard on all versions but the base-model GLS I drove. The controls and switches had the high-quality feel normally associated with Japanese cars, and the Elantra has so many bins and cubbies that I suspect one of its interior designers has a storage-space fetish.
The Elantra is particularly kind to back seat passengers. Three shingle-style headerests provide adequate whiplash protection and slide down out of the driver's view when not in use. Parents will like the child seat tethers at all three seating locations, and adult passengers will appreciate the center armrest with integrated cupholders, a rare find in a budget-priced car.
The $13,995 Elantra GLS comes with the aforementioned safety equipment plus power windows, power locks, heated power mirrors, keyless entry and alarm, but does not include air conditioning or a stereo. Those features are optional on the GLS and included on the $16,295 Elantra SE, along with alloy wheels, XM satellite radio, Bluetooth phone compatibility, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shifter, and cruise control. $1,000 more buys the Elantra Limited with heated leather seats.
On the Road: Joy, oh, joy!
The new Elantra is powered by Hyundai's familiar 4-cylinder 2-liter Beta engine with 138 hp and 136 lb-ft of torque. Most of my seat time was in a 5-speed manual Elantra. The shifter is clunky but precise and the light clutch makes it easy to drive in stop-and-go traffic. Hyundai claims 0 to 60 in a decent 8.8 seconds for the stick-shift. In real-world driving I found plenty of power for hills and freeway merges.
I took a short drive in an Elantra with the optional four-speed automatic. The new continuously variable valve timing system helped make the engine feel nice and snappy off the line, but I quickly ran into situations where 2nd gear was too low and 3rd was too high. The Honda Civic's 5-speed automatic and the Nissan Sentra and Versa's CVT offer more flexibility in situations like these.
On the bright side, Hyundai targeted MPG, particularly on the automatic models. Through a variety of improvements -- from driving the power-steering equipment with an electric motor rather than the engine (0.68 MPG) to lowering the engine's idle speed (0.24 MPG) -- EPA estimated fuel economy for automatic Elantras was increased by 4 MPG on both city and highway cycles. EPA estimates are 28/36 for both manual and automatic, respectably close to the automatic Civic's 30/40. Automatic cars sold in CA, MA, ME, NY and VT have slightly less power but qualify as PZEVs (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicles).
Journey's End: Elantra runs with the pack - but the pack is pulling ahead
What the Elantra lacks is pizzazz. How important is pizzazz in an economy car? Well, take a look at the latest versions of the Honda Civic and Nissan Sentra. Both cars take styling seriously, and the Civic's innovative interior is in a league all its own. The Elantra has some nice curves, but they manage to stay hidden under the paintwork. Inside it's simple and functional but very conventional. Styling-wise the Elantra trails behind with the Toyota Corolla, along with second-fiddlers like the Mitsubishi Lancer and Chevrolet Cobalt, all cars that are functional but frumpy. Granted, the Elantra could find worse company to hang out with, but with the Corolla and Lancer rumored for radical redesigns in 2008, it's going to get lonely back there.
Shame, 'cause under the sheetmetal is a wonderful car that's quiet, economical, safe and enjoyable to drive, and good enough to elbow its way into the Big Three's territory. Let's hope the buying public will be able to see past Elantra's humble exterior and appreciate the beauty within.