What I Wish I'd Taken to College
My first car was a 1973 Dodge Challenger. My uncle gave it to me for a nominal sum and the promise that I would never sully his carport with its oil-leaking carcass once I had the title in my name. On this car I learned the basics of automotive repair and maintenance. I also learned that nothing, not even the enthusiastic efforts of a 17-year-old boy, can make a Chrysler product run when it decides that it is going to give up the ghost. The Challenger lasted about seven months.
Having learned nothing from my experience with the Challenger, I decided to purchase a 1983 Plymouth Horizon with 85,000 miles on the odometer from a friend who was moving on to bigger and better cars. The fact that the Plymouth had been missing a rear window for several months, thereby creating a permanent portal which cats could climb through and give birth to their kittens, was not enough to dissuade me from this purchase. The Horizon was the car I took to college.
The Horizon lasted about 14 months. During that time I suffered through a dramatic engine fire, a failed master cylinder, a failed electrical system, a boom box wedged between the front seats for music, a capricious air conditioner and the nagging concern that dates would be turned off by my car's Humane Society odor. The final straw came during a fine Arizona spring day when the Horizon decided that it was not going to make any more trips to mom's house for laundry. While driving through downtown Phoenix, I heard a sharp metallic crunch accompanied by a sensation that something had just fallen off the car. To my surprise, pressing the gas pedal failed to result in forward motion. Knowing that something was seriously amiss, I coasted the Horizon into a lonely dirt lot that was home to a hearse sitting on four flat tires. My girlfriend at the time inquired if there was anything wrong. I said that everything was under control and that she should just sit tight. I stepped out of the car and was surprised to see much of my transmission laying at the intersection of Central and McDowell. Thankfully, it was Sunday, so the traffic was light enough for me to scramble into the road to drag what I could back to the Horizon. Upon hoisting it into the Horizon's hatchback, I informed my girlfriend that we would be having lunch at Phoenix's famed Spaghetti Company restaurant, conveniently located next to the dirt field that served as a parking lot for my transmission-less Horizon and the flat-footed hearse.
The moral of the story is that owning a used car can be a real pain. After calculating how much money I'd spent on purchasing the Challenger and Horizon, keeping them running, and finally paying to have them towed away to the wrecking yard, I figure that I could have almost paid for a lease on a new vehicle. Nothing ostentatious, just something reliable and comfortable to get me around during the hot months in Phoenix, when riding a mountain bike to work is just unbearable. Something like that is available today, and Hyundai sells it.
When I was in school Hyundai didn't sell anything worth buying. I had a few friends who had the misfortune of acquiring an Excel from their parents as high school graduation gifts, who were so disgusted after a few months of nagging trips to the dealer service center that they eyed my combustible Horizon with envy. Things have changed at Korea's biggest car company, however, and Hyundai now peddles some pretty decent vehicles to its U.S. customers.
The least expensive Hyundai available in the United States is the Accent. Available as a three-door hatchback or four-door sedan, the Accent comes with a 12-valve SOHC four-cylinder engine that makes 92 horsepower at a somewhat breathless 5,500 rpm and 97 foot-pounds of torque at a lofty 4,000 rpm. No one would call the engine powerful, but it is zippy enough to move this 2,100-pound car around town with pep. The Accent that we drove had a base sticker of $10,334. With a few items tacked on to make this bargain-basement car more comfortable, the sticker still stayed under $11,500, less than half of the average transaction price of a new car in America.
In addition to the engine and jaw-dropping price, the Accent GS comes equipped with a five-speed manual shifter, four-wheel independent suspension, power rack-and pinion steering, front and rear stabilizer bars, five-mph bumpers, rear window defroster, rear window wiper, split-folding rear seat and AM/FM stereo with cassette. This made our Accent test car look like an outstanding value right out of the box, because many of these items have to be purchased as options on competitors like the Chevrolet Metro and Honda Civic hatchback.
Unlike the aforementioned Metro and long-dead Excel, the Accent is fun to drive. Its free-revving engine is easy to wind up and its sharp steering makes it easy for this subcompact to weave through traffic. The brakes on our test car didn't feature ABS (an automatic transmission is required for that), but they did provide adequate stopping power, even after a demanding workout on a country road. Complaints about the driving experience centered on the Accent's vague and rubbery shifter, which has an impossibly long throw from first to second gear. After a week with the Accent, I was still missing shifts.
One of the best things about the Accent is its ease of maneuverability. A good seating position allows a driver of any height to see out of the car's large windows. The stubby front and rear overhangs and tight turning circle afforded by the Accent's 94.5-inch wheelbase make it incredibly easy to park in crowded parking structures.
However, the Accent's fine city manners don't translate well to freeway driving. The engine in our test model was not strong enough to quell this driver's fear of passing slow moving traffic on two lane roads, and climbing hills at freeway speeds can best be described as an exercise in futility. Several times I found myself reaching for the shift knob for a quick downshift of torque, only to find that doing so would place the car in first gear.
The interior of the Accent is quite nice for a car in this price class. Well-marked controls are easy to locate and operate and the stereo is placed logically above the climate controls in the center stack. Seat materials are sporty and grippy and the seats themselves exhibit adequate support during spirited driving. We wish, however, that the Accent's cupholders were able to accommodate larger drinks. We had to be content with our medium-size Evian bottle rolling around in the passenger footwell on one curvy part of our test; it just wouldn't fit in the slot designed by Hyundai. We were happy with the cargo carrying abilities of our test car. Our hatchback was able to swallow big loads with ease, especially when we folded the rear seats.
Hyundai has come a long way in the last few years, and the Accent is one of the best value statements that the company has ever made. Cute and friendly, reliable and cheap, the Accent is one of the best cars for customers on a budget to look into. Why didn't they have these things for sale when I was in school?