This all-new, fourth-generation Elantra is trying hard to compete against the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Mazda3, Ford Focus, Chevy Cobalt and the new Dodge Caliber. That's a strong heap, but the Elantra stands on top in two areas, interior space and standard safety equipment. And by other measures, it holds its own.
Hyundai also claims that the Elantra warranty, 5 years or 60,000 miles plus 10 years or 100,000 miles for the powertrain, is the best.
Hyundai hopes for a younger image for this all-new Elantra, but the marketing road can be rougher than the engineering road. With enough effort, a carmaker can build a great car; but convincing buyers, especially young ones, to lay down cash can be harder. Designed by an American team in California, the Elantra's looks are better than ever, but it still has the soul of a mature person's car; that is, someone who might put practicality ahead of coolness. Of course, the same might be said about Civic and Corolla buyers.
The 2007 Elantra is taller, wider and longer in wheelbase than last year's model. The increased size has been used to good advantage inside the spacious cabin; not only that, there are storage compartments galore. It's clear that someone has been doing some thinking about this car. The seats are very comfortable and it's quiet at speed. It's long-legged for a compact car, and can run 80 miles per hour without straining.
The ride is good, although a bad freeway with relentless sharp bumps is more than the Elantra can accept without passing on some of the annoyance to the front seats. The brakes are excellent, and the cornering is good.
It can seat up to five, but the Elantra is more comfortable with four. The back seats offer ample hip room and adequate legroom. Because the Elantra generally costs less than the competition, it might well be a long-term bargain. However, resale value always needs to be considered, and that competition includes the stalwarts from Honda and Toyota.
Hyundai Elantra GLS ($13,395); SE ($15,695); Limited ($16,695)
The new Elantra has received a lot of careful work, and could pass for being seamless. At the front and rear fascia, the seams are so tight that the body appears to be one piece, until you look very closely. That quality fitting also reveals itself in the smooth opening and closing of the doors.
The Elantra's good looks move this Korean compact car toward the world of the stylish. Its sculpture is clean, with a high beltline running along at the body-colored door handles. It's got a subtle face, with trapezoidal headlamps having rounded edges, leading down and in to a cup-shaped grille with three simple chrome bars. At the bottom of the fascia is a long, slim air intake with two bars. It lacks definitive fender flares because it doesn't need them; the Elantra doesn't shout to be seen. The wheel covers, which are silver plastic on the GLS, look good from a distance.
The front seats are quite comfortable, with good bolstering, and the standard beige cloth is smooth but decidedly un-hip, unlike, say, the material in the Mazda3. There's an especially large dead pedal, although one wonders why, because the Elantra is not meant for hard cornering so the driver's left foot doesn't need the support.
The blue backlighting of the gauges has a youthful spirit, and makes the driver feel like it's a cool car. The arcs of the speedo and tach are a thin blue line, with red needles pointing the way.
The radio control knobs are blessedly simple, like radio knobs used to be. Hooray, we say. But we didn't care for the trim on the dash; imagine a silver plastic golf ball.
In the rear, the 35 inches of leg room is a half-inch more than the Civic and Sentra, and a half-inch less than the Corolla, give or take a tenth. But the Elantra has the most hip room. It also has the largest trunk, by a significant amount.
For carrying cargo, the rear seatbacks fold down to allow a pass-through into the trunk. However, the opening isn't vast like the Nissan Sentra's.
Storage compartments are abundant. There's a neat box inside the top of the dash, and a sunglasses container in the headliner. The fixed door pockets have built-in bottle holders. Below the three climate control knobs there's a small companion to the glovebox, and below that, forward of the shift lever, there's also an open storage area. There are two cupholders behind that, and a double console under the driver's elbow.
Generally, the interior is notably quiet, for a compact car. Then the wind picked up, and as we watched the dust devils ahead of us on the road, we listened to the whooshing against the glass.
One thing it doesn't do, surprisingly, is plow the front tires when you stand on the gas in a slow corner. We're not suggesting you drive like that, but we do test like that, because such extremes reveal limits, in this case capabilities of the suspension. It's a rare front-wheel-drive compact car that can pass this test. The Elantra will spin the inside front wheel, but it keeps turning around the corner instead of sliding straight ahead. The suspension engineers have done something right, in the front end of the Elantra.
The Elantra is softer all around than the sportier Nissan Sentra or Mazda3. The ride is good, although after a couple hours on a bad freeway, the sharp bumps will wear on you. Overall, it's a good fit for someone who just wants good transportation without attitude. It asks less involvement from the driver than those other two.
The brakes are excellent. We really stood on them a few times, and they didn't allow the car to dart or weave while they sharply brought down the speed.
The five-speed manual gearbox worked well. Out on the freeway, 80 miles per hour doesn't feel like 80, always a good sign, especially for a compact car. The tachometer shows 3500 rpm at that speed, and it's not in the least bit buzzy. It feels long-legged for such a small car.
There's plenty of oomph in the four-cylinder engine, which makes 138 horsepower, nearly matching the Sentra. Our test model had the five-speed, and the engine revved right up to the redline of 6500 rpm, and liked it. It also accelerates away at low rpm in a higher gear, with 136 pound-feet of torque.
The Elantra gets about 28 city and 36 miles per gallon. The mileage has been improved by small engine enhancements. It's been tuned to idle at low rpm, so low that sometimes you can't even hear it. But that might not save fuel, at least not with the manual transmission, because it requires a deft touch with the throttle foot to pull out from a standstill without giving it more gas than it needs.
With each new model, Hyundai creeps up on the competition, led by the Japanese. The Elantra has at least two assets, interior size and standard safety equipment, that out-do other compact cars. The styling can now hold its own; it's very clean and doesn't try to draw attention to itself. The seats are comfortable, brakes excellent, and cornering good. The revised engine offers the latest four-cylinder technology; it can power the Elantra to 80 miles per hour without much effort, and can deliver 28 city and 36 highway miles per gallon when driven conservatively. With a price that's lower than most other compact cars, the Elantra is a worthy competitor in the class.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Sam Moses filed this report from the Columbia River Gorge on the Oregon-Washington border.