Miles Cook, Contributor
These days, Hyundai must be doing something right. Through September of 1999, the Korean automaker saw its year-to-date car sales go up a whopping 68 percent compared to the previous year. A consistent introduction of new product has been the main reason for the company's renaissance. Replacing the less-than-fabulous Excel in 1995 with the Accent was one of the first steps Hyundai made on the road to real respectability. For five years, the first-gen Accent was the entry-level subcompact for the prospective Hyundai customer.
For Y2K, the Accent is an all-new design, and our experiences in this well-equipped GL sedan tester were, for the most part, quite positive. While not the thrill ride of, say, a Honda Civic Si coupe, the Accent goes about its business in an orderly fashion without annoying the driver with horrendous flaws or unpleasant surprises.
In fact, upon first entering the car, the surprises were actually quite pleasant. When we first heard we were going to be spending a week in a car that initially has the appeal of a kitchen appliance, we thought, "Oh no, here's your weekly time in the penalty box." But that wasn't the case at all. Interior features abounded in our little Coastal Blue four-door. Right off the bat, we found such pleasantries as power windows (we would've been really spoiled if there was a one-touch down for the driver) a stereo/CD player that's easy to learn and operate, appealing cloth seating throughout, and instrumentation that includes a tach. In a car in this price segment, we never expected a nice-sounding CD player and a rev counter -- impressive indeed. Not only is the feature-laden cabin a nice place to spend time, the controls are wonderfully intuitive. For example, you can figure out everything in the center stack in about 5-10 seconds. The HVAC controls are clearly labeled and a snap to use, the gauges simply could not be easier to read, and all the major controls like the shifter, turn signal lever, and other ancillary control items fall readily to hand. And one more thing before hitting the road and looking at other aspects of this little errand-runner. Most of the staff here were also quite impressed with the driver's armrest. "A very nice touch on such a low-dollar car," noted one driver.
Before getting streetside and driving this car, it's important to remember the price point we're at here. At around 11 grand, the driving experience isn't going to knock your socks off. With the 1.5-liter, 12-valve four-banger wheezing out 92 horsepower at 5500 rpm, don't expect to be frosting that Focus ZX3 at the Stoplight Nationals anytime soon. Running 0-60 in 11.6 seconds, the Accent is just downright slow. Quarter-mile times were also leisurely, with the Accent sauntering through the traps in 18.2 seconds at 75.9 mph. When the pedal isn't on the floor, however, the driving experience is better than you might expect at this cost of entry. We say might, because some drivers had a few notable and rather harsh gripes about the Accent's driving dynamics. "It has zero low-end torque," said Associate Editor Liz Kim. And since Liz is among the more rational and less speed-crazed staffers here at Edmunds.com, we take this as a serious point to consider. Decidedly mixed reviews came in on shifter feel for this car. Some thought the five-speed shifter worked very well, low-dollar car or not. In fact, one staffer even said it felt better than the super-luxo Mercedes Benz SLK 320 that we recently tested for a roadster comparison test. Others were not so kind. "The action of the shifter is awful. It feels like you're deboning a chicken," said one sharp-tongued staffer.
We also had the chance to drive an Accent with an automatic that was rented by of one of our out-of-town staffers. We were more impressed with that gearbox than we anticipated. Top-gear cruising was quite relaxed, there wasn't any hunting around for the various gears, and full-throttle upshifts (of which there were a few) were competent if not awe-inspiring. Furthermore, the overdrive lockout button to hold the trans in third was well placed on the shifter and easy to use. If you happen to be on the fence as to which way to go with the Accent, we'd strongly recommend driving both manual and automatic versions before making your decision. If you drive in heavy traffic, then the $600 tab for the auto is worth considering.
During straight-line driving and rowing through the gears, our final call on the Accent is that it's acceptable if not particularly rewarding in the day-to-day humdrum of schlepping back and forth to the office. Just don't go looking for revelations when the road turns twisty. The appliance-like nature of the Accent pretty much takes the fun out of any back-road tomfoolery. Sure the car is nimble and maneuverable in tight traffic at slow to moderate speeds. But pondering the concept of pushing it on such a road as Los Angeles' Mulholland Drive, where we went to photograph the car, is really an exercise in futility. The puny 175/70R13 tires started to squeal in protest at the slightest hint of spirited cornering, and they're the main culprits here when you stop to examine the car's contemporary underpinnings. For starters, it has independent rear suspension with MacPherson struts up front, offset coil springs and an antisway bar. Caster angle (how far the spindles are tilted toward the back of the car) has also been increased with this new model and suspension geometry has been optimized. The result is reduced nose lift while accelerating and reduced nose dive under braking. The above-mentioned IRS is a dual-link design with coil springs and an antisway bar. Too bad that while all this sounds pretty good, its potential is really hampered by the crummy little tires.
In fact, updating to a 15-inch wheel with a 195/50R15 tire at each corner would probably work miracles in the Accent. One editor commented, "whatever tires are on this car need replacement immediately. They beg for mercy early, lack grip and sing loudly over painted roadway lines." Clearly, the car's skidpad performance of 0.75 g would be notably better with larger and better-quality rubber. Braking from 60 mph in a longish 145 feet would surely be better, too. And given that the car is so small and light (2240 pounds), upgraded treads would easily raise the slalom speed from 58 mph.
Since suspension and underpinnings are such a critical part of any car, more input from the several people that drove the Accent seems appropriate. As most have said, things are pretty good up to the point where you start to push the car. For example, another driver said, "The suspension provides a fine ride around town, but push it hard and it gives up, rolling over and playing dead. Directional stability on sweeping curves at speed was distinctly lacking. Body roll was excessive." As we've noted, probably the single most effective (and easy) way to improve matters would be to upgrade to bigger and grippier tires.
Seemingly flimsy suspensions hampered by decidedly sub-par tires aside, the Accent has other things going for it that are worthy of mention while you're shopping for that thrifty subcompact. One of the more notable things to consider is Hyundai's warranty program. In short, it's pretty much the best in the car biz, with only Volkswagen and Isuzu matching Hyundai's 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. The only other carmakers that come close are Lexus and Infiniti with six-year/70,000-mile powertrain warranties. In terms of the basic bumper-to-bumper warranty, Hyundai stands alone with five years and 60,000 miles. At best, others are four years and 50,000 miles or less. And while Volkswagen may match Hyundai in powertrain, its bumper-to-bumper is a paltry 2 years and 24,000 miles -- the lowest among all major automakers.
There are other points to consider with the Accent, both good and not so good. Fully decked out, our test car was easy on the senses in the sticker-shock department, with an MSRP of just over 11 grand. However, that doesn't include various features like cruise control, a must for the open road. One editor noticed it right from the start when he commented, "having cruise control would be really nice. Frankly, I'd rather have it than power windows." It wasn't on our test car, and furthermore, cruise control isn't even available as an option. That's a shame, because the Kia Sephia offers it as a $250 option.
Speaking of options, we had a tough time fleshing out the price of our Accent, because Hyundai doesn't supply window stickers with its test cars and the pricing seems to change on a weekly basis. What's the deal with that? For us it means going on an annoying goose chase trying to track down pricing on all Hyundais - we had the same experience a few months ago with an Elantra test car. For you, the prospective buyer, it means you should make sure all the dealer's ducks are in a row before you sign on the bottom line. After all, we don't want our readers getting jerked around by dealerships when it comes time to lay cash on the barrelhead.
The overall consensus among staff members about this car was unusually hot or cold. There wasn't much gray area. We liken it to a real love-hate relationship that, if nothing else, means we're passionate about cars. But that's not really the point of the Accent. This car isn't meant to stir the fires of automotive passion. And in a sense, you can't fault it for that. All the swinging back and forth aside, the Accent is really a fine automotive appliance that does a good job of shuttling its occupants from point A to point B. And while yes, you might get more car for your 11 grand in the form of a used Civic or Corolla, they don't come close in terms of Hyundai's top-drawer warranty program. So if it's peace of mind you're after, and not passion, the Accent is clearly a worthy choice among others in the relentlessly competitive subcompact segment.
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