2011 Hyundai Elantra: First Drive

December 6, 2010
Hyundai has been making much more than baby steps forward with every vehicle they redesign. As of late, they've felt like flying leaps. Such is the case with the mid-size Sonata, which was redesigned this past year. And now, it's also true for the compact Elantra sedan, too.

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.

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