The Elantra is one of the quickest cars in its class. It handles as well as many of its competitors and has a sporty feel. It comes with a 138-hp 2.0-liter engine with variable-valve timing and is a leader in fuel economy, earning a 27/34 mpg City/Highway from the EPA when equipped with the manual transmission.
The four-door sedan is popular, but we prefer the five-door hatchback for its practicality.
Elantra is available in base GLS and sporty GT trim and, for 2006, it's also available in an upscale Limited trim.
The Elantra's interior is nicely finished and it's roomier and more comfortable than many subcompacts, including big name brands such as the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. Standard equipment surpasses that offered on cars costing thousands more, and includes side airbags, designed to provide torso protection in a side impact.
Hyundai's warranty is one of the best available. The basic warranty covers five years or 60,000 miles for the original owner, with free roadside assistance throughout. The engine and transmission come with a 10-year/ 100,000-mile warranty, and Hyundai warrants Elantra against rust-through for five years or 100,000 miles.
Hyundai Elantra GLS sedan ($13,675); GLS hatchback ($14,075); GT hatchback ($14,995); Limited sedan automatic ($15,475)
From the front doors forward the sedan and hatchback are identical, featuring prominent twin trapezoid headlamps angled back in a black background. The headlamps were designed to cast a broad pattern of light, and they're complemented by a V-shaped grille with thick, horizontal bars. The grille is integrated with the bumper cover and does not lift with the hood.
Hyundai says it added the sedan in response to customer requests, but we prefer the more daring styling and increased carrying capacity of the hatchback. With its big hatch opening and split folding rear seat, the five-door is remarkably versatile for a car its size.
The five-door hatchback is distinct from the sedan starting at the B-pillar and moving rearward. The hatchback boasts a more expansive glass area, and its roof trails back into the rear hatch, fastback style, rather than dropping suddenly toward the trunk. The hatch ends with a small, body-colored spoiler lip above the taillights. The only unfortunate aspect of the rear styling is in the taillights; broken abruptly by the edges of the hatch lid, the lights look as if they've got duct tape over the middle. On the functional side, the taillights on all Elantras are sized for visibility, and the opening for the key is on the right (curb) side of the lid.
The Elantra stretches 102.7 inches in wheelbase, providing good leg room inside in both the front and back seats of both body styles. Headroom is also good both front and rear. Just as significantly, the engine is mounted with hydraulic attachments in a front subframe, greatly reducing the amount of drivetrain vibration that reaches the cabin.
The front seats are terrific, offering precise adjustments. They are large and neither too soft nor too hard, providing adequate support without inflicting pain. The driver's seat adjusts for height both front and rear and both front seats have adjustable lumbar support. The front shoulder belts are height adjustable, a feature shorter people will appreciate.
The rear seats in the Elantra sedans are roomy and comfortable for the class. Hyundai provides a combination lap/shoulder belt in the center position, which is preferable to a lap belt only. With less than five feet of rear hip room, outboard rear passengers will be happier if the center spot is empty, but that's true in all compacts.
The gauge binnacle and control panel sweep in front of the driver and down toward the center console. The speedometer and tachometer have separate faces. The purplish backlighting in the GT makes them quite legible at night or in full mid-afternoon sunshine.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning are adjusted with rotary controls, which are easier to use than the sliding type. The dials are set below the stereo, which is good because the stereo tends to be accessed more often. The dash vents feature separate controls.
Switches for the headlights, wipers, and cruise control are mounted on stalks, within easy reach. Remote releases for the trunk/hatch and fuel-door are standard. The window, side mirror and central locking controls are located in the driver's door panel. The hazard-light switch is located square in the center of the dash, where it's easy to find. The overhead floodlamp is just above the windshield to the center of the car, providing good light distribution. A second power point is provided below the lighter. And a small, slide-out felt-lined storage bin is located below the driver's side vent.
The only gripe involves the stereo. The slick Kenwood system in our test car sounded fine, but the buttons on the faceplate are tiny. Moreover, we found the flashing, multi-color graphics annoying when driving at night.
We think the five-door hatchback is the most desirable body style. With the rear seat in place, the hatchback provides 26.6 cubic feet of cargo volume, more than double the space in the sedan's trunk (12.9 cubic feet). Fold the seat down, and the five-door offers a class-topping 37 cubic feet of stowage. It's remarkable what you can squeeze into the Elantra hatchback's cargo bay. We fit a dozen 10-foot pieces of wood molding and a couple of two-by-fours entirely inside the car, with the hatch closed. Then we did it again with plywood sheets cut to 40x70 inches, including the remnants. With the hatch tied partway open, the possibilities include full sheets of plywood or a 27-inch TV in its carton. That's impossible in a sedan. The security system allows the trunk or hatch to be unlocked with the key without disarming the alarm.
Elantra's continuously variable valve timing allows more complete combustion of nitrous oxide in the exhaust. Models sold in California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine are tuned to meet super ultra-low emissions (SULEV) standards; the SULEV engine produces slightly less power: 132 horsepower and 133 pound-feet of torque.
Either way, you need to rev the engine to wring the most power from it, making a manual transmission the best choice for the Elantra. There just isn't gobs of power at lower engine speeds. Most of the acceleration-producing power is at higher revs, coming in around 4400 rpm and carrying through to the 6400-rpm redline. That means you'll need to work the transmission, shifting to get the most from the power plant. Enthusiast drivers enjoy that. But if you're used to an engine with more low-end torque, and you don't let the Elantra wind out, you might wonder where the goods are. And when you find them, you might be disconcerted by the ruckus of a hard-working four-cylinder howling near 6000 rpm. These power characteristics are better suited to a manual transmission than an automatic. Also, the Elantra drivetrain isn't as smooth as that of some of the other cars in this class.
Nor is it a leader in fuel economy. Elantra nets an EPA-estimated 27/34 mpg City/Highway with the five-speed manual, 24/32 mpg with the automatic. Elantra's relatively heavy weight means other cars in the class deliver better fuel economy.
In addition to its acceleration performance, Elantra makes up for these deficiencies with its balance of ride and handling. Indeed, the Elantra GT offers levels of handling associated with a good European sedan, with speed-sensitive power steering and a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension. The steering requires only a light touch during parking maneuvers or in tight quarters, yet it firms up at travel speeds and gives the driver a good idea of how well the front tires are gripping. The rear suspension keeps the tires firmly on the pavement, even on bumpy roads, to keep the rear of the car from bouncing around. This all adds up to maneuverability in traffic, secure, reasonably precise handling on curving two-lane highways and a ride that is neither floppy nor buckboard stiff. Only on freeways with a rapid succession of excessively uneven expansion joints does the Elantra tend to get bouncy. The weakest link in the handling package on the GT is its hard, wear-resistant all-season tires. A set of speed-rated performance tires would further improve handling though at the expense of faster tire wear.
The Elantra hatchback does not suffer from the flexing and rattling that is the bane of some five-doors. It's decently screwed together and satisfactorily solid.
Four-wheel disc brakes, vented in front do a great job of slowing Elantra five-door models. We recommend the available anti-lock brakes, which come bundled with traction control. ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control in an emergency braking situation, while traction control enhances stability when accelerating.
The Hyundai Elantra is more enjoyable to drive than many of the name-brand cars in its class and there's little about it that feels cheap. In the workaday grind the Elantra is better than acceptable. It's good, and it can run with comparably equipped competitors in nearly every respect except the size of the monthly payments. There, it comes out ahead. Hyundai has made big gains in reliability and build quality, and any concerns in that regard are eased by a comprehensive warranty and roadside assistance plan. Elantra is the bargain of the class. An all-new Elantra is expected for the 2007 model year so watch for possible deals on the 2006 models.
New Car Test Drive correspondent J.P. Vettraino filed this report from Detroit.