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Elantra: A Comfortable, High-Quality Transportation Appliance.

by drive571:      Sep 3, 2008 - Updated Oct 26, 2009

Product Rating: 4.0 Recommended: Yes 

Pros: Hushed cabin, gentle ride, comfortable interior, thoughtful convenience features, low price.
Cons: Bland to occupy, not at all sporty to drive. Pinched trunk pass-through.
The Bottom Line: Seemingly channeling Toyota's Corolla, the Elantra has matured into a somber, sophisticated small-car bargain. If the Mazda 3's overt sportiness doesn't push your buttons, put this one on your list.


Hyundai gained a foothold in the U.S. market with bargain-bin pricing, and for two decades, no evaluation of a Hyundai has been complete without taking "the deal" into account. But with each successive generation of product, the brand's cars have stood taller and taller on their own merits, independent of price. Exhibit A: the compact Elantra sedan, redesigned for the 2007 model year.

Apparently uninterested in pitching the Elantra as fun or exciting, Hyundai presents its compact as eminently sensible transportation."Not only does the Elantra have an impressive 5-star frontal crash safety rating, the roomiest interior in its class, and tons of premium features," the brochure matter-of-factly states, "it also has an extraordinary 10-year powertrain warranty." Dollars and sense spoken here, in other words.

If today's Elantra is both a strong competitor in its class and a bargain, it deserves to be inked on more shopping lists. But has Hyundai come that far? I took an Elantra SE for an extended test-drive to find out.

Under the Hood

Although the Elantra is available in three flavors--the entry-level GLS, the "sporty" (read: better-equipped) SE, and the leather-upholstered Limited--all are powered by the same engine: a 2.0-liter, 138 hp Four. This engine's on-paper specs are about average for the class, so it's no surprise that it performs that way, too.

Don't confuse "average" with "mediocre," though, as small cars aren't the sluggards they were a decade ago. The Elantra has enough low-rpm verve to step smartly off the line, giving it a confident stride from stoplight to stoplight. There's enough pep for no-fuss freeway merging, too, though the engine doesn't relish being worked hard.

The latter trait speaks to the 2.0-liter's indifferent character. Hyundai aimed for Corolla-like sensory deprivation with this engine--successfully, too, as the Elantra's near-silent idle suggests you may have forgotten to turn the key. Push the Elantra beyond a canter, though, and the engine's creamy smoothness gives way to a hollow drone, accompanied by some thrummy vibes at wide-open throttle.

That's nothing new for a Hyundai. More surprising is that fuel economy now approaches the best in class. Traditionally an Elantra weakness, the new model's EPA-estimated 25/33 MPG (with automatic; manual models are rated at 24/33 MPG) betters most rivals' figures, and is only a few ticks below the class-leading Civic and Corolla. All Elantras run on regular-grade fuel.

Changing Gears

All three of the Elantra's trim levels offer a choice of two transmissions: a standard five-speed manual, or an optional ($1,000) four-speed automatic. That four-speed is a bit old-tech for a car so recently redesigned--many rival compacts offer five- or six-speeds, or gas-saving CVTs-but the Elantra's automatic is notably well-behaved, changing gear smoothly and responsively.

One potential annoyance: the Elantra's gear selector follows a zig-zag track, a feature which is supposed to look upscale, but which some drivers may find annoying.

Given American buying preferences, it's unlikely that many shoppers will be drawn to the five-speed manual. Which is a shame, as it's one of the areas Hyundai has improved the most. While the gearlever's action lacks a positive mechanical feel, its low-effort, well-oiled throws makes light work of shifting. The clutch is similarly featherweight; too bad it's also slushy, detracting from precise progress.

Twists and Turns

Hyundai's pursuit of refinement means that the Elantra isn't a particularly memorable car to drive. Instead, it's a bit like the Corolla, shuttling around so benignly that you tend to forget who's doing the driving.

Case in point: the Elantra's steering, which is tuned to make driving easy rather than fun. When you're holding course, the wheel feels firm and tranquil, feeding back a reassuring sense of straight-ahead. But when you enter a turn--whoa!--the steering turns weightless, almost too eager to comply, as if the mechanism was suddenly immersed in olive oil. Similar sensations can be felt behind the wheel of a Lexus, and for those who like to drive, that's no compliment.

Shoppers at the opposite end of the spectrum will delight in the Elantra's smooth moves, marveling at the way it pours through turns with fingertip effort. The silky tiller makes parking a breeze, too. And if you do find yourself on a tricky switchback, no sweat: although the Elantra isn't shy about leaning over in turns, its grip feels surefooted enough.

Stopping the Elantra requires a light touch, too, as its soft, spongy brake pedal feels like stepping a wedge of pound cake. Make that an alert wedge of point cake: the discs bite abruptly, so you learn to slow for stop signs with a mere squeeze of the toes.

Easy Rider?

Now that most enthusiastic drivers have hit the "Back" buttons on their browsers, we come to the high point of the Elantra's dynamics: ride comfort. Its suspension absorbs bumps like a bigger car's, with a settled stride over most surfaces. Quietness, in particular, stands out: the Elantra's cabin is seemingly vacuum-sealed against road and wind noise, lending it the hushed, serene atmosphere of a midsize. The downside of the Elantra's supple damping is that it allows traces of float on wavy surfaces--most noticeably at freeway speeds--which drive home its lack of sporty reflexes.

One feature that might surprise Hyundai skeptics is the Elantra's stout structural feel. Regardless of road surface, the Elantra's unibody remains as solid and drum-tight as a Toyota's--even cobbled concrete fails to excite reverberations in the cabin.

Inside Story

While Hyundai hasn't taken pains to make the Elantra a fun car to drive, they clearly lavished the great deal of attention on its interior. The cabin isn't particularly exciting to look at, an assemblage of gently flowing, generic shapes rendered in grey or--yawn--beige. But it's a soothing place to occupy, with comfort and ergonomics that give the reassuring sense that you've owned the car for years, even on the first drive.

Settle into the Elantra's driver seat, and you'll find yourself in the upright, dinner-table posture favored by today's compacts. This affords a tall view over the low cowl and windowsills, and the thin pillars and rear quarter lights make your surroundings bright and airy. You can even see the corners of the Elantra's hood-a rarity among new cars, and a boon in parking-lot maneuvers. Legroom is a bit abbreviated for taller drivers, but a height-adjustable cushion and tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel make it easy to tailor a familiar driving position.

Gauges and controls are similar to what you'll find in a Toyota. The former are simple and legible, the latter comprised of big, clearly-labeled buttons and knobs grouped on the upper half of the dash, where they're easy to use. Switch clicks feel smoother than the class norm, consistent with the padded, grippy-feeling surfaces and fleecy cloth elsewhere in the Elantra's cabin. Flick on the headlights to reveal Hyundai's only tasteless touch: intense, ice-blue night lighting for the gauges and displays. Meant to mimic a Volkswagen's, it's exactly the wrong shade for one's night vision, as any amateur astronomer will explain at length.

Other "surprise and delight" gestures are more successful. The Elantra's sun visors have pull-out extension panels for maximum coverage, unusual even in more expensive cars. Purses and plastic grocery bags can hang from a neatly-concealed hook in the passenger's side of the dash. All Elantras have a trip computer and heated mirrors, and the SE adds a leather-wrapped steering wheel, which Hyundai ensures you'll notice by using the smoothest, slipperiest leather imaginable.

Rear passengers enjoy a few amenities, too, including a flip-down center armrest (with dual cupholders), nicely-padded elbow rests on the doors, and storage netting on the front seatbacks. There's good room in back, too--not class-leading in any one dimension, but sufficient for two six-footers. Said six-footers will dislike the front seatbacks' hard plastic trim, however: it knocks careless knees unkindly, reducing the sense of space.

Fill ‘Er Up

Push the square button on the Elantra's driver door to pop the trunk, and you'll find a cargo area that's competitively sized for the class. Aided by a wide, low opening, it'll accommodate 14.2 cubic feet's worth of stuff, trouncing the Corolla's 12.3 cubic-foot capacity and the Civic's 12.0. That said, if there's any part of the Elantra that Hyundai cheaped out on, the trunk is it. There's no felt liner for the lid, so you're greeted with stamped metal when you open it, and its old-fashioned gooseneck hinges eat up space when shut. IKEA shoppers take note: while the Elantra's rear seatback folds in two sections, the resulting opening is uncommonly skimpy, so really bulky items won't fit.

Cleverer storage options await the items you'll keep with you in the cabin. Besides the standard glovebox-and-door-pocket combo, personal effects can find homes in the lined, lidded storage compartment atop the dash, overhead sunglasses caddy, two-tiered center armrest bin, or any of the six cupholders. Anyone who can finds this insufficient for their carryon detritus sure as heck isn't borrowing my car.

In Sum

With this latest redesign, Hyundai's Elantra has graduated from being a bumptious, endearing underdog to a car that wouldn't raise eyebrows if it wore a Toyota badge. In fact, in some ways, the Elantra is a better Corolla than the Corolla: it steers more politely, its interior is better-finished, and it offers a fatter portfolio of standard features. Of equal significance, Hyundai has displaced Ford, Chevy, and Dodge as the value-for-money leader in this class.

On the other hand, while the Elantra leaves no doubt that Hyundai will, at some point, be regarded on the same plane as its Japanese competitors, who wants to be one of the early adopters who takes a bath on resale value? Despite Hyundai's strong warranty and commendable scores in reliability surveys, the unfortunate fact is that Hyundai is still regarded as a second-string brand. And no matter how good a second-stringer's vehicles are, they're not worth as much as their better-established peers come trade-in time.

As a result, if you like to trade in your cars early and often, a Civic or Corolla remains a better bet. If you value sporty driving, Mazda's 3 is better still. But if you're put off by the pricing of these bestsellers, and are considering alternatives such as Nissan's Sentra, Chevy's Cobalt, and Mitsubishi's Lancer, put the Elantra--and particularly the midlevel Elantra SE--at the top of your shopping list. The truth is, in terms of comfort and convenience, you'll do little better in this class at any price.
Amount Paid (US$): 16,325
Product Rating: 4.0
Recommended: Yes 

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