Perhaps more than any other automaker, Hyundai has managed to drastically improve both the quality of the cars they built and, more importantly, the publics perception of them as a viable alternative in a sea of Japanese brands. Gone are the days when owning a Hyundai meant a broken 1987 Excel in your driveway and a bus pass in your back pocket.
Even the Accent has grown up, no longer relegating its owners to a dungeon of cheap, poorly fitting plastic panels that continually remind them that it truly was the cheapest new car they could find. And while the entire Hyundai lineup reflects their continual drive to make a better car, the current iteration of the Elantra is quite possibly the most important showplace for their efforts. While it may not stir the soul like the new Genesis or impress the in-laws like the new Azera, the Elantra represents Hyundais effort to compete with the likes of the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla for the key demographic of up-and-coming car buyers.
By winning buyers over at this stage, Hyundai knows that a home run in this segment will not only boost their sales figures now, but will allow them forge a long-lasting relationship that will keep buyers coming back for more Hyundais in the years to come.
In order to see just how far Hyundai has come, I decided to take a 2009 Hyundai Elantra for a spin. Pricing for the Elantra starts at $14,120 for a stripped down GLS model and can go as high as $17,800 for the Touring version. Even stripped down, the Elantra GLS looks good on paper, offering things like all wheel disc brakes, front and rear sway bars, and so much interior room that the EPA ranks it as a midsize sedan (as opposed to the compact Civic and Corolla).
While the GLS offers a great value for the money, the vast majority of owners will demand the addition of the Popular Equipment Package ($1750) in order to equip their Elantra with Air Conditioning. That $1750 also buys you cruise, fog lights, and an upgraded stereo with an auxiliary input jack.
At this point, the GLS is starting to sound like it has everything you need in an affordable sedan. That is, until you take a look at the Elantra SE. Upgrading to the SE from a Popular Equipment Package GLS will run you $1150 (MSRP $17,020), but includes Electronic Stability Control, Traction Control, Brake Assist, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob surfaces, 16 alloy wheels, steering wheel audio controls, and a fully re-worked sport suspension. Suspension tweaks include stiffened coil springs (18% stiffer up front, 24% stiffer in the rear), revalved struts, and larger front and rear sway bars (24mm front, 20mm rear, up from 23mm front and 17mm rear). However, the sporty upgrades to the SE stop with the suspension, as the SE retains the adequate 138hp 2.0 liter engine that the Elantra GLS comes equipped with.
While I'm generally wary about the dangers of going option crazy and inflating the price of what would otherwise be an affordable vehicle, upgrading to the SE from the GLS seems like a no-brainer for any buyer with the means to do so, especially if they are interested in the prospect of spirited driving from time to time. With this in mind I opted to test a 2009 Regatta Blue Elantra SE with the 5 speed manual transmission. With no additional options, the price on this vehicle was $17,740 after the freight charge was tacked on, making it $135 cheaper than a similarly equipped Toyota Corolla and nearly $2000 dollars cheaper than a comparable Honda Civic LX with optional 16in alloy wheels and fog lights.
When approaching the Elantra, the first thing that jumps out at you is the fact that it really doesn't jump out at you at all. Don't get me wrong, it is an attractive car, but it is also generally bereft of any striking features. Looking at the Elantra one can really get a sense that Hyundai was playing it safe, making sure not to include anything that would turn anyone off on the car even if it meant excluding everything that might turn people on in the process. Probably the most attractive element of my test car were the 16 alloys that come standard on the SE, which seemed to complement the car well without appearing too over the top.