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If it's possible, a single car shows exactly how far Korean automakers have come, and how much trouble they're causing for Japanese car companies. That car is the Hyundai Elantra, one of the best compact sedans available today, and one of the strongest new-car values in recent memory.
The Elantra, along with the latest Ford Focus and the new Chevy Cruze, has upset the order that held true for most of the past 25 years. The default recommendations of Civic and Corolla no longer hold true, and while the Elantra performs a bit better than in its last generation, it's much improved in gas mileage, much more spacious, and much more refined.
It's also a calling card for the Hyundai brand in terms of styling. The Elantra may have the best iteration of Hyundai's "fluidic sculpture" styling theme. It's an even smoother take than on the bigger Sonata sedan, and catapults the Elantra out of its old staid look, into a sporty, modern space. From some angles, the Elantra looks like it's about to leap ahead; the rear door cuts in particular seem to keep the body in constant visual motion. The interior could be even a little more successful, as it tames some of the swoopy lines that could look overdone in the Sonata. In particular, the hourglass shape of the center console is fresh and distinctive, a purely Hyundai design cue from a brand that's had few visuals all to itself in the past. It's a look that brims with confidence.
With its redesign last year, Hyundai downsized the Elantra's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine to 1.8 liters, but power remains more than acceptable. With 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque, the Elantra performs respectably with either a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual, thanks in part to a lightweight body of less than 2,700 pounds, or more than 60 pounds lighter than the car it replaced. Acceleration is smooth, though the four-cylinder gets boomy at the upper reaches of its rev range. The Elantra doesn't feel as energetic or engaging as the Ford Focus, though, because its throttle is slow to respond to inputs, and its steering--while improved with better on-center feel this year--isn't especially natural in its feedback. Ride quality is excellent, though, and the Elantra soaks up road noise as well as, or better than its competitors, with noise levels about as low as some mid-size sedans.
That's an important metric for the Elantra, since its interior space borders on mid-size as well. The front seats could use a little more bolstering and lateral support, but they're surrounded by ample space in all directions. In back, the leg room is fine for adults, but head room can be tight, even for medium-height passengers. The rear seats fold forward easily, if not completely flat, and that allows longer objects to be loaded into the relatively large, wide trunk. The Elantra's interior has lots of useful cubbies and storage bins, including a covered one that sits ahead of the shift lever: it also contains the aux jack, a power point, and the USB port in an easy to reach module, perfect for connecting smartphones.
All Elantras come with those features, and others that make it one of the best-equipped base vehicles in the segment. Even the base GLS has power windows, locks, and mirrors; keyless entry; and (on automatic models) air conditioning; cruise control; and telescopic steering. Options can turn the Elantra into a luxurious sedan; the navigation system has one of the largest LCD touchscreens in the class, and it's beautiful to look at and to use, with voice recognition for phone, audio, and and destinations, plus real-time traffic and weather. Bluetooth and audio streaming are standard, too; a rearview camera comes with the navigation system, and to top it all off, the Elantra earns the IIHS' Top Safety Pick designation.