Turning the auto industry on its tail by offering the best warranty deal on wheels, Hyundai has managed to get our attention once again. So has the person brave enough to head up a Korean company in the United States, a gent with the name of Finnbar O'Neill, Hyundai’s president for the past year.
The reputation of Hyundai cars suffered public floggings in the early 1990s due to quality problems, and sales spiraled downward. Heavy rebates were offered, which angered dealers. In addition, the factory was turning out cars in colors no one ordered or wanted to buy and adding options willy-nilly.
Today, Hyundai is experiencing one of the fastest turnarounds and restoration of consumer confidence in recent history. How? By strict quality control, better marketing campaigns, re-examination of its target markets, and that generous 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty and bumper-to-bumper coverage for five years or 60,000 miles.
Back in the bad times, dealers were selling fewer than 10 Hyundais a month; today, it's closer to 100 a month and increasing. Sales are up 68 percent, and by the end of December, more than 160,000 units will have been sold this year.
In America, Hyundai is considered a tiny company that sells budget-priced cars. But back home in Seoul, Hyundai is one of the world's biggest and most diversified business organizations, including operating the largest automobile manufacturing company on the planet and selling its models in 190 countries.
In spite of its size, Hyundai makes small cars for the United States. Its lineup is limited to subcompacts and compacts, with just one midsize model. The company isn't even getting into the phenomenally successful sport-utility segment until the spring. But dealers are scrambling now to get the 2000 models on their showroom floors.
Hyundai's new message has caught fire faster than anyone anticipated, and by the end of next year, more than 500 dealerships will be selling Hyundai sedans, hatchbacks and SUVs.
Leading the mix with a brand-new design is the Hyundai Accent, which the company is promoting as the great value story of the currently stagnant subcompact segment. There are three models: the L and GS hatchback and the GL sedan. All share the same engine, a revamped and quieter 1.5-liter four-cylinder SOHC that delivers 92 horsepower. Fuel economy is the engine's main advantage: 28 city and 36 highway when teamed to the manual transmission, and 2 miles per gallon less with the automatic. The automatic transmission is available only on the GS and GL models.
The main differences between the three cars are the number of doors, trim, and a few deft touches such as folding armrests and split rear seats on the GS and GL. These models also include a clock, tachometer, tinted glass, and a five-way adjustable driver's seat. The GL sedan offers a remote trunk release. On the stripped-down L base model, neither tinted glass nor air conditioning is available even as options, an omission that we hope will be rectified by Hyundai for its 2001 models. Cargo space is larger, by 16.1 cubic feet to 10.7 cubic feet, in the three-door hatchbacks compared with the sedan.
The three models are generally well-equipped for the price range, and it's doubtful any other manufacturer can beat the value-per-price ratio in light of the warranty. You won't find high-tech options like GPS or OnStar, but for bread-and butter cars, these practical Accents are a good fit for 18- to 45-year-olds making $30,000 and up.
When the top-of-the-line model in this lineup costs under $1,000 more than the base model, it's a pretty good indication that the subcompact Hyundai Accent entry-level L hatchback, $8,999, and the GL sedan, $9,699, are already loaded with necessary equipment. Unless you like air conditioning, automatic transmission, and a CD player. Those cost extra. Between the L and GL prices is the three-door GS hatchback at $9,599.
Still, if all you're looking for is basic transportation that looks neat and tidy and has enough oomph to get you to the stores or train station and back, then the little Accents fit the bill.
Styling offers no surprises but is by no means staid. The Accent's lines are, in fact, quite elegant, with a few sculpted edges instead of curves.
This subcompact has a sturdier stance for 2000, thanks to a wider body and longer wheelbase. Front halogen headlights are wraparound and slanted rearward over a body-colored bumper with a front air intake dam and fog lamps. The waffle-design cross-members of the grille give the front end a look of strength, and the no-frills rear end has delta-shaped lights.
The front-wheel-drive Accent's basic structure is stronger and more rigid for 2000. Reinforced A- and B-pillars, those that support the roof and windshield, are stiffer to cut down on vibration. Double seals help reduce wind noise, and foam and other absorbent materials in various locations help to soak up noise in the passenger compartment.
One highly desirable and convenient feature: the fuel tank door is on the driver's side.
More interior room, and ‘colored sprinkles’
If the higher roofline of the GS model we test-drove gives an impression of more interior room, that's because it's true, and there's plenty of headroom. Considering its size, there is not ample room, but there's enough for two adults to sit in the back of this sedan without kissing their knees. The car is 2 inches wider and 1.6-inches longer than is its predecessor, so you have more head, hip and leg room.
The seat fabric is an interesting stain-resistant gray fabric sprinkled with colored sprinkles — obviously kidproof and dogproof. The seats themselves are definitely more comfortable and now have additional lumbar support. On a recent 170-mile test drive in the GS version, no stiff, achy muscles or backache at the final destination. Seat positioning is good, though you might miss power buttons. Those hand-cranked wheels that adjust the seats higher or lower are popular in other countries, but most drivers here, women in particular, complain they are often too large and difficult to turn. Fortunately, the lever that moves the seats forward and backward is the standard, easy to-find-and-pull device under the front seat.
The dash is a no-nonsense, practically designed array of grabbable large knobs and switches in well-placed locations. The instrument cluster is more high-tech, with three gauges that tell you if you're going too fast, at too-high rpm, or running out of gas or water. A simple line of icons beneath the gauges alerts you to door ajar, tailgate open, oil pressure status, and several other conditions. An option is a tilt steering wheel.
On the road
If you want take advantage of the Accent's engine power and have lots of fun, check out the manual-transmission model. Horsepower is more than enough to swat a fly and offers a far zippier ride than the automatic version. Shifting gears is easy, responsive, and smooth as butter, although second gear tends to lag if you're a leadfoot. The shifter knob is perfectly placed.
The Accent corners well, steering is precise, the turning radius is tight, and the entire driving experience is comfortable and enjoyable. The car fits like a glove.
The suspension system has been upgraded for the 2000 model year to McPherson struts in front and multilink in rear, providing as cushy a ride as you'd want in a car of this caliber.
While anti-lock brakes are not an option or standard on any of the Accent models, the power-assist front brakes grip as well as those we all used before ABS became a buzzword, and the rear brakes have self-adjusting drums.
The last word
Hyundai has done well to provide subcompacts under $9,000 that fill the requirements of many buyers: affordable, good-looking, roomy, contemporary and practical. And then there's that interminable warranty, albeit with a quixotic condition that the warranty will extend to anyone who buys the car from you provided it's a member of your family.