On The Road Review: Hyundai Elantra

Make no mistake, this week’s Hyundai Elantra is now a huge player in the compact sedan segment and in the words ahead we’ll attempt to tell you why.

No longer a budget-car maker, Hyundai is firmly entrenched in the American marketplace and is rapidly climbing the sales charts. With stellar products such as the Sonata midsize sedan plus the accolade-earning full-size Genesis and new Equus luxury sedan, Hyundai has broken down barriers and burst through doors that critics thought it might never reach.

After a week in the new Elantra, it became crystal clear why this new compact sedan is outselling Honda’s vaunted Civic — an updated design all by itself. Yes, that’s right, the Elantra is outselling the Civic (and the Toyota Corolla too), recording enough sales to grab the number three slot behind Chevy’s hot-selling Cruze and Ford’s big-selling Focus for both June and July as Americans start to buy more fuel-efficient cars that are a credit to the design efforts employed to make these cars mainstream automobiles. Incredibly, Hyundai is now America’s number six selling nameplate, outpacing more established rivals such as Dodge, Chrysler, GMC, Jeep and Volkswagen.

The list of attributes on the Elantra’s portfolio are numerous. The eye-catching styling is certainly very significant, as the compact Elantra looks very polished, and more poised than small cars of our past. Like the stylish Focus and Cruze, the Elantra eclipses the dour looking Civic, bland Sentra and dowdy Corolla with striking swooshes along its flanks plus a rakish greenhouse that improves visibility as well as interior space.

Part of this new design is the credible effort utilized to hide the fifth-generation Elantra’s new size. Like several of its contemporaries, the Elantra has grown several inches and now has dimensions that closely mirror the midsize sedans of just a few years ago. In 1992, Toyota rolled out a new Camry sedan that quickly became the benchmark for the midsize segment. That car measured 187.8 inches long on a 103.1-inch wheelbase and weighed 2,950 pounds. This latest Elantra rides on a longer wheelbase, 106.3 inches, with a body that is just 9 inches shorter than the Camry: 178.3 inches. A base Elantra with an automatic transmission — a new six-speed unit — tips the scales at 2,750 pounds, only 200 pounds less despite a host of new levels of equipment.

And that brings up the next list of attributes that differentiate the Elantra from the other sedans in this segment — the list of standard features included for less money.

Built now in Alabama, yes that Alabama, base level Elantras with the six-speed manual gearbox start at $15,995. The car pictured here, a top Limited model, arrived with this lengthy list of features: electronic stability control with traction, dual-continuous variable valve timing for the 1.8-liter engine, mirror-mounted turn signals with one-touch lane change action, fog lamps, five-speaker premium audio system with auxiliary jacks, XM and iPod connectivity, steering wheel audio controls, Bluetooth, heated front and REAR leather seating, 17-inch alloy wheels, tilt and telescopic steering wheel, power sunroof, trip computer, keyless ignition with proximity passive locks, back-up camera, as well as a high-resolution navigation screen — plus much more — for just $22,830. No one else is touching the Elantra’s pricing.

Behind the wheel, the Elantra feels very poised traveling down the road. That long wheelbase combines with a commendable 62 inches of track width to give the Hyundai above-average ride compliance as well as the stable feel you want on undulating, crowned rural roads or rutted interstates. At speed, the Elantra’s direct steering feel maintains path accuracy over these various surfaces too, never a trait to take for granted.

With just 1.8 liters of four-cylinder power under the hood, you can be forgiven for assuming that the Elantra might not be as quick as some competitors. Don’t worry, that modern aluminum DOHC motor makes 148 hp plus 131 pound/feet of peak torque — enough power to make the Hyundai more than speed competitive with both traffic and its primary rivals, the six-speed automatic a good match for the engine’s output.

But how does the Elantra do on the all important fuel mileage part of its performance? The EPA says the Elantra earns mileage ratings of 29-mpg city and 40-mpg highway. With little regard for maximizing mileage, my tested Elantra — wearing low miles on the odometer — returned 37.3 mpg and 34.1 mpg, respectively. Those numbers beat the EPA’s combined average of 33 mpg — quite handily, meaning that 40 mpg is well within the Elantra’s reach given a driver that practices more restraint with the throttle.

Complaints are few. I would prefer a larger driver’s seat, one with power adjustability, especially on the seatpan. The hard plastic liner in the center console’s beverage slots allowed certain containers to annoyingly rattle, and the horn is a one-note wimpy sound unbecoming of this car’s refinement.

On the plus side of the ledger, the rear seat actually holds adults, the split rear seatbacks have separate pull-knobs in the trunk for when you need to expand the cargo hold, plus the instruments and controls are well thought out, legible and user-friendly.

American Honda has been in a slump of late, struggling with dated offerings, a shortage of good sellers due to the Japanese earthquake, as well as the perception that Honda has misjudged the buying public’s mood for innovative designs.

If these issues are keeping executives awake at night, they are probably hearing the tap, tap of footsteps gaining on them. This isn’t a dream. Those steps are going to get louder for Honda, and Nissan, as Hyundai continues to earn market share here with a lineup that doesn’t seem to quit.

With more cars on sale than any other automaker that earn the all important 40 mpg EPA rating, Hyundai is becoming not only a value purchase, but a smart car purchase.

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Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.