Hyundai Elantra enjoys Hyundai’s measured quality successes

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

One of Hyundai’s top priorities over the past few years has been to improve the quality of its vehicles. It has been a big issue since the early days when the South Korean company started marketing cars in the United States.

After a couple of years of initial success and then a string of years of falling sales and having to defend the quality of their cars, for reason, Hyundai came up with an ingenious plan to sell cars that may not have measured up to Japanese and American standards - attach a warranty that would cover the powertrain for as long as most people kept a car.

It worked.
People responded to the pledge that Hyundai would repair the transmission and engine for up to 10 years or 100,000 miles.

At the same time, to their credit, Hyundai started building more quality into its vehicles. They weren’t going to let warranty costs, both in dollars and reputation put them out of business.

The long-term warranty including a 5-year, 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper provision still comes with current models. But that new-found build quality and an exceptionally low purchase price also come with the deal, making Hyundai cars and sport utility vehicles some of the most attractive products on the market.

J.D. Power and Associates, the Agoura Hills, Calif. marketing and research firm confirmed this spring what most of us already knew, Hyundai is making good cars, comparable in many respects to the vaunted Japanese brands. It tied for second in the 2004 J.D. Power Initial Quality Study, and the company’s products have earned praise from “Consumer Reports” magazine and high ratings from IntelliChoice.

The compact Elantra, the company’s bestseller, has earned applause from the press and from consumers since its introduction in 2001. It competes against such stalwart Japanese entries as the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Mazda3 and Nissan Sentra.

Hyundai added a 5-door Elantra hatchback in 2002, and now the company has made several improvements inside and out to keep the car fresh.

Anecdotally speaking, a colleague in our L.A. office opted for a GT to make her 120-mile per day round trip to work initially based on price and the warranty. Today she is happy as a lark and loves her car, already stating that when the current GT is “finished” she plans to buy another. So far she has had nearly 40,000 miles of trouble free driving.

The car has a stylish look, and our 2004 hatchback model dressed out in silver paint was an eye catcher. We received several compliments on the car, which were followed by questions as to price. It seems when warranty and price are discussed, the car virtually sells itself.

The Elantra comes in GLS and GT trim levels on the sedan and GT on the sporty hatchback that got its start in the European marketplace. Price including destination begins at $13,839 for the GLS manual. Our GT hatchback with 5-speed manual decked out in leather trim and loaded with amenities had a sticker price of $14,849.

Elantra has only one engine, but it’s a good one. A 2.0-liter 16-valve 4-cylinder generating 135 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque propel all models.

It’s enough engine power to handle the optional 4-speed automatic. But it can be a really fun drive when mated to the 5-speed manual and when equipped with sport-tuned suspension in the GT version.

The shifter, while not in the short-throw sports car class, is not in the rubbery class either, as is so often the case in vehicles in this price range. It shifts acceptably and the engine responds energetically as the revs climb toward redline.

The power-assisted rack-and-pinion steering has also been tuned for more road feel in the GT version. Other items found on the GT trim level to enhance the driving experience include four-wheel disc brakes and 15-inch alloy wheels.

One feature that isn’t offered as standard fare is ABS. We think antilock brakes are a must on any car and should at least be offered as an inexpensive stand-alone option. On the Elantra they are bundled with other extras including traction control as a rather pricey $1,225 option. We think Hyundai needs to rethink this strategy.

The ride is on the soft side, but the Elantra doesn’t pretend to be called a sports sedan. It just happens to be a family sedan that can be fun to drive. The downside to the softer ride is some bounce on big bumps and more body lean on the tight curves than we enjoy. But we suspect most people who buy the Elantra will be pleased with the ride.

Interior space is plentiful considering the car’s compact size. And we always opt for the hatchback over the sedan when there’s a choice. There are so many more storage options with a hatchback. For instance, with the rear seats up there’s 26.6 cubic feet of storage in the hatchback. With the seats folded, storage increases to 37 cubic feet. The traditional sedan’s trunk has 12.9 cubic feet of storage.

The seats are comfortable and the driver is faced with an attractive yet simple dashboard setup. Switchgear works well and has a nice feel. Materials look nice and all pieces in our tester were properly aligned. This is important, because no matter how inexpensive the vehicle, a neatly executed interior gives the owner a sense of pride in his or her purchase.

Standard equipment in our test vehicle for that under 15-grand price was astounding. It included air conditioning, 4-wheel disc brakes, rear independent suspension, driver and front passenger side airbags, Kenwood CD/MP3 player, keyless entry, tilt wheel, cruise control, power locks and windows, alloy wheels and rear-window defroster and wiper.

Figure in the new-found Hyundai quality, the large amount of equipment and the long-term warranty, together with the price of admission, and it adds up to a winner in the compact segment.