And in case you haven't heard, the Elantra gets 40 mpg. Snap.
First off, the Elantra does look like it's pulling off some sort of graceful leap. Hyundai intended to take the Elantra in a "sporty and modern" design direction this time, and we think it succeeded. Building on Hyundai's Fluidic Scupture theme that applies to the mid-size Sonata, the automaker managed to nail the proportions down a bit better with the Elantra, making the nose a little more crisp and aggressive, and giving it a more athletic stance. Get up close and note the front marker lights that extend to a point almost directly over the front wheel center—and to the front of the cowl—and the windshield that looks like it might possibly be the steepest of any small car. Take another step back and there's an entirely new dimension—as the deep crease from beside the headlamps softens as it continues all the way to the C-pillar and that prominent, rising shoulder line emerges from smooth sheetmetal just inches behind the lipped wheelwells.
From the back we could have mistaken the Elantra for a Sonata; the look between the two cars is almost identical, but with the Elantra an even smoother take. Hyundai's design direction with these sedans makes them standouts, but the down side, to these eyes, is that it risks looking dated sooner than more conservative models.
Inside, the Elantra combines traditional Hyundai swoopiness with some interesting new cues—specifically, the pinch point where the center console meets the rest of the dash. In person, the new interior impresses as a little odd at first, but the more we pored over the details, like the nice hooded gauge cluster and well coordinated two-tone themes, the better we liked it—and the more the entire design seemed to 'pop,' and make sense.
A Nu deal
The new, 148-hp, 1.8-liter 'Nu' four-cylinder engine—an all-aluminum engine with a host of improvements and/or weight-saving measures like a composite intake, silent timing chain, and electronic throttle (but not direct injection)—is the only engine offered in the U.S. Its idle quality is glassy-smooth, and it never reaches that coarse, buzzy range that makes so many small fours unbearable in their peak powerband. Then again, there's not much reason to rev it to its redline of 6,500 or so as it starts feeling out of breath by around 5,000.
Performance is pretty respectable from this engine, provided you're not afraid of eliciting downshifts. And 148 hp and 131 lb-ft is enough because the new Elantra weighs less than 2,700 pounds (and, actually, 62 pounds less than its predecessor). This is an engine that's right at home in the 2,500 to 4,500 range—and one that does well with the six-speed automatic transmission, the way about 93 percent of Elantras will be sold, Hyundai estimates.
That said, some of the same annoying Hyundai traits remain—namely ridiculously slow, delayed throttle response. You can literally floor the gas pedal for a pass, in a fraction of a second change your mind and lift back up, and the powertrain won't seem to even have known. Although we couldn't get into a manual car, we're curious if there, too, throttle response is as excruciatingly dulled.
Steering feel is better than what's offered in the larger Sonata, but it's still not on par with that of the Mazda3 or the Suzuki Kizashi—or, even, the new Kia Optima. While the steering felt fine at lower speeds, it was overly light around center at higher speeds, with a peculiar weighting (and that dreaded 'digital' feel) off center. Brakes on the other hand—four-wheel discs, while a number of models are still only offering drums in back—come with a nice, confident and firm pedal feel.
40 mpg? Yep.
Our drive route, which took us up into the mountains east of San Diego and along the Mexico border, was kind of a worst-case scenario for fuel economy; it had us up and down, skirting 5,000 feet elevation at times. To keep going with some gusto, that engine was revving. A lot. So it wasn't terribly surprising that we saw 26 mpg over a mountainous, quite aggressively driven stretch. On the way back into San Diego, we decided—mostly Interstate slog—we'd take it easy and see what we'd do going the speed limit. Over about 50 miles, mostly 65-70 mph, including a few mountain grades and traffic slowdowns, we saw 39 mpg on the trip computer. At first test, the 40-mpg highway figure looks easily achievable given a 70-mph flat freeway.
This 6'-6" driver had no problem getting comfortable in the Elantra, though as is typical for this class, the lower cushions were on the short side. Front occupants get plenty of headroom with or without the sunroof, thankfully. The front seats of our test Limited and GLS cars looked like they would have some lateral support, but the slightly risen seat edges do nothing for sharp corners. The leather that's available is perforated in a wave pattern and won't be mistaken for luxury hide, but it feels supple enough.
First climbing into the Elantra, we were concerned about the hard edge of the center console (we've had too many experiences with bruised knees), and with the rather low-mounted vents, one of which is just beside the start/stop button and looks like it's just above the driver's right knee. But the inward curve of the center stack proved perfect in keeping knees away, and our kneecaps were well below the vent.
Backseat space is a little bit better than what we're accustomed to in this size of vehicle, but a shortage of headroom (just like the Cruze and Civic) keeps it from being a true mid-size offering. While rear-seat heaters are on the options list—kudos for being first ever in this class—there are no true backseat heater vents, curiously (just what makes its way under the front seats. Pop the trunk and up high there are two easy-release pulls to fold down the 60/40-split rear seatbacks. They don't quite fold flar, but there's enough of an opening to easily fit skis, or a lamp.
There are a few very nice, thoughtful touches in the Elantra. Flip up the big center-console lid, and you'll find a power plug and USB input, so you can hide away your iPod or the like; but over on the passenger side, there's another side compartment and power plug for the passenger, or for another device.
The suspension, as we've already hinted, isn't exactly tuned for high-performance situations; that said, it loads and unloads predictably, and soaks up road noise better than most small cars. The Elantra's cabin is remarkably well isolated from wind noise, too. Here's where, at 70 mph, you really could think you were in a mid-size sedan.
Hyundai has left no safety equipment on the table with the 2011 Elantra. It's all included: stability control and anti-lock brakes with Brake Assist, as is a new Steering Effort Assist system that helps steer you back toward stability and control in a skid. Front seat-mounted side airbags are also standard, as are front and rear side-curtain bags. We found nothing to complain about with respect to visibility, though there is a rearview camera system available.
For many years now, Hyundai has sweetened the package with a few more features than you'll find standard elsewhere in the class. And it continues to do the same here; the base GLS comes with power windows, locks, power mirrors, keyless entry, and (on automatic models) air conditioning, cruise control, and telescopic steering adjustment. Oddly, Hyundai makes the telescopic adjustment optional on manual-transmission cars, available as part of a Popular Equipment Package. The Limited model adds a sunroof, leather seats and trim, heated front and rear seats, fog lamps, mirror-mounted turn signals, and 17-inch alloy wheels with Continental tires. Top options on the Elantra Limited, all part of a Premium Package, bring the nav system, premium audio, and proximity key entry and push-button start. Even on the GLS, you can get a Navigation Package.
Lots of features, seven build combinations
To help make the whole ordeal of supply and demand a little easier for all involved, the new Elantra is being offered in just seven build combinations. The down side of this strategy is that there are still holes; you can't, for instance, get the navigation system if you want a manual transmission.
Hyundai boasts that the nav system has the largest screen size in this class. For the price, its beautiful. And it really is a great system, incorporating voice recognition for phone, audio, and nav control, plus XM NavTraffic, NavWeather, Sports and Stocks integration, Bluetooth audio streaming, 16GB of onboard flash memory, Satellite Radio capability, and the capability to play JPEG or BMP slideshows from thumb drives.
The 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited Premium that we spent the most time with cost $22,700, while the base 2011 Elantra GLS starts at $15,550 (both prices including destination).
The Elantra isn't perfect. And it isn't quite the game-changer that the Sonata is. But 40 mpg; a sleek, sophisticated look; and even more value for the money confirm that this little sedan has officially left the Corolla in the dust.