The Hyundai Elantra is a home run, winning awards for its combination of affordability, sporty styling and performance, and roomy, attractive cabin. This latest design is modern and stylish, with crisp, clean lines. The cabin is roomy and attractive.
We found the Elantra enjoyable to drive. It has a nice balance of smooth ride and responsive handling. And we weren't the only ones who thought that: The Elantra was named the 2012 North American Car of the Year by a jury of 50 independent automotive journalists.
For 2012, changes are minimal because the Elantra was completely redesigned for 2011, with a new body, interior, engine and transmissions.
The 2012 Elantra comes with a new system called ActiveECO, which modifies engine and transmission control to smooth out throttle response and increase real-world fuel economy by up to 7 percent, according to Hyundai. The government numbers are unchanged, however. Also, the steering has been recalibrated on 2012 Elantra models for better on-center feel, and the horn has been upgraded. Otherwise, the 2012 Hyundai Elantra is unchanged from the all-new 2011 model.
A four-door compact sedan, Elantra competes against the Ford Focus, Chevrolet Cruze, Honda Civic, Mazda 3.
All models are powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque with a choice of 6-speed manual or 6-speed automatic transmission. Like other compacts, Elantra is front-wheel drive. Its relative light weight, less than 2,900 pounds, helps the Elantra with acceleration performance, braking performance, handling and fuel economy.
Fuel economy is an EPA-estimated 28/38 mpg City/Highway with either transmission. That's better than the Ford Focus (26/36 mpg), Chevrolet Cruze (26/36 mpg), or Honda Civic (28/36 mpg). It compares favorably to the super-efficient Focus SFE (28/40), Cruze Eco (28/42), and Civic HF (29/41) models. Hyundai says its Elantra PZEV model (that's California-speak for Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) is as clean as many hybrid electric vehicles, though power from the PZEV is slightly less. Hyundai claims a range of up to 500 miles.
Inside, Elantra is roomy, especially by compact standards. Its interior measurements are comparable to those of a small midsize car. There's plenty of headroom and legroom for tall drivers. Once inside, the back seat is tolerable for tall passengers, making this a great car for college students, though the sedan's fastback roof doesn't offer the rear-seat headroom of a hatchback. All models behave the same, so choosing a model comes down to deciding which features you want. We think the lower-level models offer the best value.
Hyundai Elantra GLS ($15,195); Limited ($20,445)
The Hyundai Elantra looks striking with crisp, edgy styling. It has presence among four-door compact sedans. Most of the rest of the class looks dated by comparison. The Elantra appears to have the sleekest, highest tail in its class and looks faster because of it. It's currently the most distinctive shape in this segment, rivaled only by the 2012 Ford Focus and Honda Civic.
Viewed from the front, the hexagonal grille presents a more sinister smile than that of the Mazda 3, more eager to play, a Dustbuster with attitude. The headlight housings wrap into the fenders, the trailing edge back as far as the centerline of the front wheels. This is in-your-face styling as far as commuter compacts go.
In side view, the Elantra echoes the styling of the Hyundai Sonata midsize sedan, with a raked windshield, roofline flowing into the trunk, coupe-like rear side window shape, and a forward-leaning shape. The crease that runs a rising arc from the front wheel, through the door handles and over the rear-wheel openings into the tail lights mirrors the shape of the old Triumph TR7 and TR8 sports cars. Perhaps Triumph's tag line, “The Shape of Things to Come,” was indeed accurate.
From the rear, the Elantra is very similar to the larger Sonata, so much so that in the distance or without anything for scale you have to be well-versed on your Hyundais to tell the difference. The tail lights are long, wavy wraparound fixtures echoing the curves that lead in to the rear bumper and promote airflow to help keep the lights clean; on a dirty road surface the license plate should be the first part shrouded in muck.
Elantra Limited models can be distinguished by their larger alloy wheels, fog lights, and mirror-mounted signal repeaters. None of those is reason enough to step up; the tires offer better performance but the aftermarket (or your dealer) can address that, too. The main reason for stepping up is to get the features you want, such as navigation, rearview camera or leather upholstery.
Hyundai Elantra's interior doesn't resemble that of cost-cutter compacts, instead marrying style with interesting materials. We think the nice interior is part of the value proposition offered by the Elantra. It has neither hint of cheapness nor pretense of luxury.
Heated rear seats come standard on the Elantra Limited model, along with leather upholstery and faux leather door panels all perforated in a wave pattern. Elantra GLS models use cloth upholstery. All the Elantra seats are the same construction, however. The headliner employs a mix of material that includes volcanic rock to an interesting effect more attractive than fuzzy cardboard or plastic. Plastic is used on many surfaces, of course, though the only area we found that looks it is the backs of the front seats. We were pleasantly surprised to find the center AC vents were color-matched to the surrounding trim, not always the case, even on more expensive cars.
Room up front is very good and the seats are set well in from the doors for extra elbow space. Both of our 6-foot, 3-inch test dummies fit fine, even with a sunroof, and neither had the seat all the way back. With the front seats left in place they squeezed under the low door opening into the back, when both found sufficient knee and toe space while one could sit upright without head against the headliner as the other was. There's a lot of passenger volume in the Elantra (EPA labels it midsize, though we consider it a compact) and it has competitive dimensions, but different shapes will find numbers aren't everything.
Front seats proved comfortable for hours with no back complaints about lack of lumbar or inadequate bolstering; longer-legged types may wish for longer seat cushions. It's worth noting the least expensive model does not include a telescoping steering column, which aids comfort and driver awareness. The rear seats are also comfortable, the center floor nearly flat and the center seat higher but well padded.
Analog road and engine speed complement digital fuel and temperature, bathed in blue at night. Most steering wheels have redundant control options and on cars so equipped telephone buttons for hands-on operation. Radio or navigation/audio atop the center stack was easy to work and see in sunlight, though occasionally we'd stumble upon some slightly odd logic like the low-frequency (bass) adjustment on top and the high-frequency (treble) adjustment on the bottom; alphabetical isn't what we're accustomed to. Ventilation controls are in their own section and quickly deciphered.
Cabin storage is fairly good in quantity, variety and location. Each door has a map pocket, electronics plugs aren't right next to the cupholders waiting to fill with coffee or cola, and there's a pocket on the right side of the console with an adjacent 12-volt power point. It's handy for charging things but anything in it takes away the passenger's left knee-rest.
Outward visibility is fairly good. The windshield pillars are thicker (a new set of safety standards is coming) than they were but so far away that rarely presents any issues. A tall windshield and articulated mirror mount ensure a good view on winding or hilly lanes, and the hood can only be seen by those sitting far forward and high. Despite the high trunk and sloping roof we had no problems with rear or rear-quarter vision.
The trunk offers nearly 15 cubic feet of space; only the Chevrolet Cruze and Mazda3 might hold more. It's not a big opening, but sufficient, and there are pulls to drop the 40/60 folding rear seats (not flat) for more capacity. There's only a small area of paint to lift things over so the rear bumper should stay pretty, and a hole in the trunk about the size of a tire has a filler with storage bins in it.
The solidity and driving dynamics make the Hyundai Elantra feel fully competitive with anything in its class.
The 1.8-liter engine makes 148 horsepower at 6500 rpm and 131 pound-feet of torque at 4700 rpm. (That's for the regular ULEV, or Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle. It's 145 hp at 6300 rpm in PZEV states).
Like most in this class, it has to be revved to get the most out of it, and it's fairly happy and unobtrusive doing so. Peak power is at 6500 rpm, though there seemed no point in going beyond 6300 to extract maximum performance. Like many Hyundai models, the gas pedal is calibrated for significant response, feeling like it initially gets a lot of power for just a little pedal, which then makes the second half of pedal travel not so exciting.
EPA fuel economy ratings on the Elantra are 28/38 mpg regardless of trim or transmission. Regular gasoline is recommended. During our test drive, the onboard computer showed a best of 40.3 mpg and a worst of 30.9 mpg in various traffic and terrain.
The 6-speed manual shifts effortlessly and allows maximum performance or most economical driving habits. The 6-speed automatic is just as good, holding gears as needed to maintain speed and eliminate a lot of gear changes trying to save fuel by uphsifting only to have to downshift two seconds later because speed fell off.
Electric-assist steering points the car where you want to go with minimal effort, reasonable feedback and U-turns in less than 35 feet. Brakes are all disc on all models and more than capable of slowing down anything the 1.8-liter engine gets going. Directional stability is good, with little of that vague on-center feeling that characterizes some electric-assist steering systems.
Electronic stability control and antilock brakes are standard across the board, and the steering assist is now part of the system: it adds assist when the steering wheel is turned in the correct direction, and lessens assist, requiring more driver effort, when the steering wheel is turned the wrong direction. It won't steer for you in case of a slide, only help you steer the correct direction.
The Elantra's structure is very stiff so the car feels solid, tight and squeak free. Suspension is tuned more for ride comfort than outright speed but the vault-like structure means it can do a commendable job on twisty roads and still glide down the highway. It does exhibit body lean in hard cornering but this is more than acceptable; it remains controlled and makes the driver aware it is working toward its limits.
It just pitter-patters across expansion joints, and it didn't make much difference if we were on the 16-inch steel wheels or lower-profile Limited tires and aluminum wheels. The latter have higher cornering limits, look better, won't be subject to rust long-term but aren't as forgiving on potholed infrastructure.
Hyundai claims a 500-mile range on the highway and we found nothing like wind noise, vibration or other fatigue-inducers that would make us stop for a break mid-way. Human endurance or hunger will more likely be the deciding factor.
The Hyundai Elantra is among the best in the compact class. It's stylish outside, very nice inside. We like the quiet ride, the airy cabin. It delivers excellent fuel economy.
G.R. Whale filed this report to NewCarTestDrive.com after his test drive of the Hyundai Elantra near La Jolla, California; with Mitch McCullough reporting from northern New Jersey.