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2007 Hyundai Elantra test drive

The Big Three is now the Big Four

About.com Rating 3.5 Star Rating


2007 Hyundai Elantra GLS

2007 Hyundai Elantra

Photo © Aaron Gold
The Big Three of the subcompact sedan field -- the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Nissan Sentra -- have a new peer in the redesigned Hyundai Elantra. The new Elantra stands up against its Japanese rivals in space, safety and driving experience, and stands slightly ahead in value and warranty coverage. But in a world where compact cars are becoming more trendy, the Elantra's conservative styling could put it under the radar of many buyers. $13,995 base, $15,580 as tested, EPA mileage 28 city/36 highway.

First glance: Space and safety, but what about styling?

The Elanta is the last car to be redesigned as part of Hyundai's "24/7" program (7 all new models in 24 months). And if ever a Hyundai needed a redesign, it was the Elantra. It wasn't a bad little car to drive -- quite good, in fact -- but the old Elantra suffered dismal crash-test scores.

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.

Continued below…

In the Driver's Seat: A budget-priced car you can live with

2007 Hyundai Elantra dashboard

2007 Hyundai Elantra dashboard -- base-model GLS shown

Photo © Aaron Gold
The new Elantra's interior and trunk are bigger than the Civic and Corolla -- in fact combined interior and trunk volume are so great that the EPA classifies the Elantra as a mid-size, not a compact.

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!

What a joy the Elantra is to drive! The Elantra is peppy and light on its feet. It was so good that my co-driver and I had to keep reminding each other that it only cost $14,000.

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

2007 Hyundai Elantra rear view

From the rear, Elantra's taillights give it a strinking resemblance to the old Ford Contour

Photo © Hyundai
The Elantra is a competent little set of wheels that hits all the marks on the good-small-car checklist. High fuel economy? Check. Safety equipment? Check. Passenger and trunk space? Check. Long warranty? Yep. Inexpensive price? Check -- it still undercuts its Japanese competitors, though the price gap is narrowing. Good content-for-money? Well, the base GLS model, with no stereo, no A/C and no telescoping steering wheel is a bit on the skinny side, but other than that, check.

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.

Next page: Pros, cons, bottom line and specs

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