Hyundai Elantra — Today a practical award winner

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

It came as no surprise to us when we saw that the Hyundai Elantra won the J.D. Power and Associates 2009 award for highest initial quality in the compact car segment. Elantra owners, who were surveyed by J.D. Power, reported fewer problems with their vehicles than any other in the segment.

What does this mean? It means Elantra owners were more satisfied with their cars in the first weeks of ownership than owners of such vaunted and valued nameplates as Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3 and Ford Focus.

It came as no surprise because we were wowed by the current-generation Elantra three years ago after we spent a week with a 2007 version, the first year of the current iteration. Upon re-visiting the Elantra — behind the wheel of a 2009 top-line SE for a week — we were again won over by its roomy interior, exceptional road manners, comfortable suspension, overall fit and finish, long-term warranty, and low sticker price.

It seems strange that the Hyundai is seldom mentioned in the same breath with Civic, Corolla or Mazda3. It deserves the same recognition, and perhaps the newest J.D. Power results will at least direct some shoppers to a Hyundai store for a test drive.

Hyundai has been cruising along with between 75,000 and 90,000 Elantra sales a year. Not shabby, but rather lackluster when compared to Civic sales of 339,000 and Corolla sales of 351,000 in 2008. We say don’t let these numbers deter you. Sometimes the path less traveled is the best path.

Hyundai is now designing cars in America for Americans. This current Elantra styling rendition came out of the company’s southern California design studio, and it features contemporary uncluttered lines that are pleasing to the eye.

Hyundai is not shy about borrowing the best from the competition, and in the case of the Elantra you can see a bit of Toyota Corolla in the face and the rear.

Like the exterior, the interior layout looks like something we’ve seen before. But that’s not a bad thing because the switchgear is attractive and intuitive. Round climate controls have a nice feel.

Some of the ugly things about economy cars of the past, including several Hyundai products, were interior shortcomings such as misaligned pieces and poor-quality material including bad-looking plastic. It’s hard to live with those things every day and take pride in your car.

Forget those days and those cheap South Korean products of the late ’80s and early ’90s; truly the are things of the past. Being inside the Elantra is a pleasant experience. Materials are of high quality and alignment is close to perfect.
The new Elantra not only looks good, it feels good. It offers the feeling of a more upscale mid-sized sedan with a quiet interior and ample space for four adults. In fact, interior accommodations are so generous that the compact Elantra falls into the mid-sized category in the government’s rating system.

The interior volume of the Elantra has grown to 112.1 cubic feet over the previous version without increasing the exterior dimensions of the car. That’s more than the current Nissan Sentra, which grew like a weed from the previous generation. The Elantra now boosts class-leading front-seat legroom of 43.5 inches (the Civic has 42.2 inches) and a half-inch more legroom in the rear than the Honda at 35 inches. Finding foot room in the back is made even better because of generous space under the front seats.

Hyundai managed to create this passenger-friendly cabin without sacrificing trunk space. In fact, the new Elantra with 14.2 cubic feet has a cubic foot more space than the previous car, a foot more than the Sentra and two cubic feet more than the current Civic.

If there is weak spot in this well-thought-out sedan, it’s with the powertrain, a carryover from the previous generation. But even there we hesitate to call it a weak spot. It’s just more average than the rest of the car. Carried over is a 2.0-liter inline 4-cylinder generating 138 horsepower and 136 foot-pounds of torque. It can be equipped with a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic transmission.

Low-end torque is the best feature of the engine. Response is good off the line, but tends to suffer at higher speeds. The engine runs smooth and quiet at low rpm, but becomes rather raucous above 4,000 rpm.

Performance and fuel economy are pretty much mid-pack at about 8.5 seconds from 0-to-60 and 83 miles per hour in the quarter mile, with an EPA rating of 25 mpg city and 33 mpg highway with the automatic. City mileage suffers one mpg with the manual. The Corolla and the Civic boost better mileage, while the Volkswagen Rabbit and 2010 Mazda3 have worse mileage.

Even though we wouldn’t classify the Elantra as sporting, it possesses a smooth and stable feel and can be somewhat entertaining on the back-road curves. Here is where we miss the last generation’s Elantra GT. It is a shame that Hyundai didn’t bring a new version of the GT forward.

Hyundai excels in three areas with all its vehicles — standard safety, price and warranty.

And those things put the new Elantra near the head of the class. It comes with: A five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 10-year/ 100,000-mile powertrain warranty; Standard safety that includes front-side impact and side-curtain airbags, standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and Electronic Brakeforce Distribution, standard active seat restraints, and the maximum five-star government rating for frontal collision protection; A starting price of $14,795 including destination charge.

In reality the starting price is just that — a starting price. It won’t be the final price in most sales because the base GLS trim level comes without air conditioning. Add the $1,750 Popular Equipment package and you will pick up air, foglights, cruise control and an upgraded audio system with iPod and USB jacks and satellite radio.

The up-level SE adds all those things plus 16-inch alloy wheels, a tilt/telescoping steering wheel with steering wheel audio controls for $17,695 with the manual transmission and $18,495 with the automatic. All SE models get power windows and doorlocks and remote keyless entry.

Our SE test car with automatic carried a bottom line of $18,915. Options were floor mats and a Bluetooth hands free phone system.

The nitty-gritty of this Elantra is trouble-free family transportation with an excellent purchase price, good gas mileage and one of the best warranties in the business.

Base price: $14,795; as driven, $18,915
Engine: 2.0-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 138 @ 6,000 rpm
Torque: 136 pound-feet @ 4,600 rpm
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Turning circle: 33.9 feet
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Length: 177.4 inches
Curb weight: 2,747 pounds
Luggage capacity: 14.2 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 14 gallons (regular)
EPA mileage: 33 mpg highway, 25 city
0-60: 8.4 seconds (Edmund's)
Also consider: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra

The Good:
• Spacious interior
• High-class cabin
• Long warranty

The Bad:
• Noisy engine especially over 4,000 rpm

The Ugly:
• Compact segment crowded with good products