- Emphatic design statement
- Gas mileage is very good
- Comes in sedan, coupe, and hatch
- Sluggish throttle response
- Rear headroom is tight
- Steering's better, not best
Civic who? Corolla what? The Hyundai Elantra's one of the new standard bearers in the compact class, with 38-mpg fuel economy, better safety, and class-leading standard features.
The Hyundai Elantra came out of nowhere in the 2011 model year to become one of the best-selling and best all-around compact cars available in the U.S. today. It's better than the Toyota Corolla, many of the Honda Civics, and a worthy competitor for the Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze. In fact, it was named 2012's North American Car of the Year.
Now offered in sedan, coupe and five-door Elantra GT hatchback guises, the Elantra is more than just a car. It's an example of how quickly South Korea has learned from Japanese automaker successes and rewritten their playbook.
The Elantra's an excellent value on many fronts. By its spec sheet, it's a mid-size vehicle, and it shows. The sedan's front seats could use a little more bolstering and lateral support, as in the coupe, but on either, 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. Coupes don't have a simple single-lever arrangement, which makes it a bit futzier to get into the back. 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.
The space is wrapped in a shape that's visual shorthand for the company itself: more accomplished and interesting than ever. More fluid than the bigger Sonata, and more accomplished and refined too, the Elantra two- and four-doors slice their way through the field of dull-looking compacts with even more authority than the tight Focus and honed Dart. Calling it the best possible evolution of Pontiac, had it lived, wouldn't be an insult: the way the Elantra sedan's rear quarter panels mimic the lightness of the last G6 can't be lost on GM, which now has the handsome but staid little Chevy Cruze to sell. If anything, the Elantra's cockpit's a little more daring than the exterior, with the hourglass of the center console a defining shape that just happens to function perfectly as a comfy knee rest.
Hyundai pared weight wherever it could to keep the Elantra lean and efficient. The effort paid off with a body that weighs less, and with fuel economy that rose to a magic marketing number. The previous Elantra's 2.0-liter four is down to 1.8 liters in this generation; with 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque in all, the Elantra performs smoothly and respectably with either a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual. 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. It's a bit better on coupes, which get a faster ratio, along with a stiffer rear suspension and distinct tuning. Ride quality is good on either model, 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 spills over into mid-size territory, even as a two-door.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 sedan and GS coupe have 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 vehicle; 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 four-door earns the IIHS' Top Safety Pick designation and now, the NHTSA's coveted five-star rating for crash safety.