Driven: 2011 Hyundai Elantra

By Seyth Miersma

December 06, 2010

—San Diego, California

The newest generation of compact cars in America is virtually unrecognizable from the vehicles that wore that class designation in years past. Long regarded as the purview of those who could just barely make the cut as new a car buyer, the compact segment has, for decades, featured some of the slowest, cheapest, most undesirable cars available. Even for enthusiasts, who tend to understand a bit better the advantages to be had via lower curb weights and shorter wheelbases, the really attractive small car propositions often could only be found in European or Japanese Domestic Market fare.

Notions of “compact” being equal to “crappy” were slowly starting to disappear anyway in the US—with premium, good-to-drive models making some inroads into our plus-sized car culture. Fast forward past the financial crisis of 2008 and a massive re-investment in the compact segment by the bulk of the auto industry, and we see that the American options for small cars have never been better.

Chevrolet’s Cruze and Ford’s Fiesta now offer great fuel economy in concert with pretty impressive handling, and big-car content packaging, all for sub-$20K prices. Clearly the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, and Nissan Sentra are the proven winners in the segment, and all still offer excellent value, despite being a bit old in their respective model cycles. And while Korean brands have long been players for those seeking the most basic and least expensive in small car transportation, anyone who has been paying a whit of attention to Hyundai in the last couple of years should probably know to expect a lot more than four wheels out of the all-new Elantra. True to recent form then, Hyundai has delivered with a remarkably good car.

The Elantra just happens to fall in the compact segment, but there’s nothing especially small about it, truth be told. If, for instance, we were ask our baby boomer parents (those that only pay attention to cars when they’re in the market to buy one, anyway) to classify this Elantra, we’d bet dollars to donuts that they’d peg the thing as being vaguely “mid-sized.” The phenomenon of model-size “creep” has rendered the Hyundai at least as capacious as the Accords and Tauruses that so many families relied on in the 80s and 90s, despite its compact appellation.

More impressive than making a compact model physically bigger, though, is how Hyundai has made its Elantra drive with the smoothness and composure that most would expect of a vehicle a class or two larger. We immediately were struck by the very low levels of wind noise in the new car, as well as being thoroughly impressed with the stability exhibited by the car at high freeway speeds. Smaller models, even some of the very newest, have a tendency to wander a bit on the highway with too-light steering coming off as a bit fidgety when one would simply like to drive in a straight line. Elantra tracked true at 80 miles per hour, and did so without having to resort to a weirdly weighted steering experience for a relatively low-mass car. There was still a bit more tire noise that we’d like, but overall the car proved utterly calm and capable in the role of high-speed commuter.

Clearly learning a trick or two from its massively successful Sonata older sibling, Elantra manages to offer this refined driving experience without totally isolating the driver from the road, too. In fact, the quicker rotating, better communicating Elantra is probably a degree savvier than Sonata in terms of driving involvement. After spending hours pushing the Hyundai, and hard, over some nicely varied Southern California roads, we came away impressed with the car’s ability to tidily turn in and grip on hard corners, as well as with its strong, confident braking ability. We progressively pushed harder as we learned the Elantra’s limits, and found the car remarkably willing to dance at relatively warmed up speeds. One shouldn’t expect the poise of a true sports sedan, naturally, but overall handing is a fair measure more capable at speed than the outgoing Elantra, for sure. We’d also venture that the Hyundai can be more aggressively tossed about than the slightly more stately Chevy Cruze, though it isn’t, perhaps, as quick-rotating as the athletic Mazda3.

It’s worth noting, too, that the Elantra with the seventeen-inch wheel/tire package that we drove first felt a lot more stable during hard cornering than did the lower-spec car with smaller, sixteen-inch wheels. What’s more, the smaller-wheeled car, whose electronic power steering was tuned differently than its upscale brothers, seemed to offer just a little less in the way of dead-center steering feel. Overall, though, we were pretty impressed with the feedback through the tiller of this front-driver.

Overall cabin refinement is another area in which the Elantra not only stands out from its direct competitors, but from many a more expensive sedan, too. As with Sonata, Hyundai has mixed a judicious cocktail of pleasing materials, intelligent ergonomics, and bold design, to create a driving space that feels both comfortable and premium. The center stack is elegantly conceived in cars that are equipped with the optional seven-inch navigation screen (the non-navi models look considerably more downmarket for the screen’s absence). A central, multi-dial HVAC control is both nice to touch, and intuitive to use. And in general we found the cabin to be a rather roomy and pleasant place. Back seat space was compromised more in the area of headroom than any other dimension—you can thank the car’s rakish silhouette for that.

Even considering that this new Elantra is far better looking than the outgoing model, and that Hyundai’s reputation and market share have been growing by leaps and bounds in recent years, we suspect that a large number of tire kickers are going to check out this car based on its 40 mpg highway fuel economy rating. The new 1.8-liter four is the biggest reason for the nearly 18 percent mpg jump over last year’s car, with Hyundai using much lighter materials to reduce engine weight. An aluminum cylinder block replaces the old cast iron affair; high-strength plastics have been sourced to replace metal on the intake manifold and more. We were able to see 40 mpg when we reset the calculator for a strictly freeway portion of our drive—still a fairly long, hilly stretch of highway, so we’ve little doubt that a steady cruise of 70 miles per hour or so in the flatter parts of the country could net numbers in the low- to mid-forties.

Hyundai’s new motor is not, despite segment-relevant output numbers of 148 horsepower, and 131 pound-feet of torque, a terribly enthusiastic powerplant. Driving to elevations of over 6000 feet at points, we had more than a few opportunities to hear the motor strain on a steep grade, and to feel that it’s pulling power out of a tight bend was less than stupendous. Elantra feels spirited enough in terms of mid-range acceleration versus some other cars in its class, but it never seems to pull as hard as Mazda3’s 2.0-liter, nor sound nearly as good at speed as Civic’s 1.8. Most Elantras will be sold with Hyundai’s six-speed automatic transmission (a six-speed manual is also available), which thankfully does offer individual gear control via the central gear lever. The action of the manumatic won’t have you confusing it for a Ferrari F1 trans, but it does certainly help out when passing maneuvers are asked for, or when tight, hilly roads are on offer.

Elantra pricing is pretty aggressive from a content-per-dollar perspective, typical of Hyundai. After figuring for destination charges ($720), the very most basic GLS model starts at $15,550. The model that is expected to be the early volume leader is the GLS with the automatic transmission—with standard USB input, satellite radio, and heated mirrors—which will run $17,800. A GLS with navigation is another $1700, and the full-fat, every-box-ticked Limited Premium goes for $22,700.

We expect that Hyundai is going to do very well selling its new Elantra. The car immediately becomes the best looking thing in the (non-premium) compact segment, offers impressive fuel economy, and feels objectively luxurious at the higher trims. It is not the next great, small hope for the enthusiast driver, but that’s okay. Anyone that is seeking a big car experience in a compact, efficient package should start here first.

2011 Hyundai Elantra GLS Navigation
Engine: Inline-4, 1.8 liters, 16v
Output: 148 hp/131 lb-ft
Weight: 2701 lb (est)
Fuel Economy, City/Hwy: 29/40 mpg
Base Price: $19,380
On Sale: Now