There will always be a need for entry-level cars — inexpensive new automobiles for those who want to keep costs low. We don't expect anything more than the basics from these cars, with the key question being "Will it get me there?" In terms of affordability and dependability, the 2009 Hyundai Accent GS Hatchback is among the front-runners, and Hyundai's generous warranty further sweetens the deal. But what you don't get is as important as the bottom line.
Our test vehicle, a 2009 Hyundai Accent Base GS is as inexpensive as new cars get today. For the modest price, you'll have to sacrifice air-conditioning, a radio and power windows (or any other power controls). For those accustomed to them, it might be hard to forego these conveniences even if your budget dictated it. But the hardest pill to swallow is the Accent's lack of antilock brakes (ABS), which is worrisome in this day and age when new drivers generally aren't taught the art of threshold braking.
Instead of an abrupt stop, untrained drivers piloting a non-ABS-equipped car would encounter a terrifying shriek coupled with plumes of white tire smoke. After our test Accent came to a stop from 60 mph — needing 25 feet more than we would've expected from the ABS-equipped competition — our test-driver lamented, "In the real world, this is a crash."
That reason alone is enough for us to shy away from recommending the 2009 Hyundai Accent GS, despite its undeniably low price. We would certainly suggest shoppers consider the higher trim levels that come with ABS, or even wait until the 2010 Accent GS arrives with an ABS option.
If you can't wait for next year's model, we would steer new car shoppers toward other modestly priced choices like the Nissan Versa or Toyota Yaris. For a bit more, you could also consider the Honda Civic, the Mazda Mazda 3 or even a lightly used certified pre-owned compact.
Powering all 2009 Hyundai Accents is a 1.6-liter inline-4 cylinder that produces 110 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque. While these figures may not raise any eyebrows, the light 2,461-pound curb weight keeps the tiny hatchback from feeling like a lead-filled rowboat. The five-speed manual transmission also helps to make the most of the meager power output, with well-spaced gears and an easy-shifting stick.
A four-speed automatic is available, but only if you step up in trim level and add the auto transmission as an option (in the end, costing an additional $2,100). The EPA estimates fuel economy at 27 mpg in the city, 33 mpg on the highway and 29 mpg in combined driving. Our observed combined fuel mileage of 30.6 mpg supports these figures. (For 2010, Hyundai has given all Accents engine enhancements that improve fuel economy. The GS with a manual transmission now has an EPA rating of 28 mpg city/34 mpg highway and 30 mpg combined.)
In testing, our Accent accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 9.4 seconds, which is decent in this class and just fine for merging onto highways. Braking, on the other hand, was as bad as it gets. Coming to a stop from 60 mph required a harrowing 155 feet, and this was in the hands of our seasoned test-driver under controlled conditions. Antilock brakes are not available on GS models (though 2010 models will offer them as an option), and the dangerously long stopping distance should encourage drivers to upgrade to the SE or GLS trim level. Stability control is not available on any Accent.
With any luck, drivers finding themselves in a panic stop situation would be able to avoid a collision by swerving away from danger. The Accent's suspension remains fairly stable at the limit, despite its soft and wallowy nature. However, drivers finding themselves in such a precarious predicament will also find that the steering proves useless with the front wheels locked up, and striking a balance between braking and swerving is difficult for even the most talented of drivers.
The 2009 Hyundai Accent GS defies the economy car stigma by delivering a fairly livable cabin, even for extended stints. Drivers of all sizes are likely to find a comfortable position thanks to a well-contoured seat and an adjustable seat cushion angle. Even our tallest staffers had ample headroom and seat travel. Chronic shorts-wearers might want to rethink their fashion choice, since the seat fabric has a coarse waffle pattern that some may find abrasive.
Rear seating is adequate for average-size adults and children, but access is a bit problematic because of the narrow passage between the front seats and door sill. We were surprised to find that the rear seatback angle is adjustable, although choices seem limited to upright or very upright, rather than there being an actual reclined position.
On the open road, our Accent GS delivers a fairly quiet and smooth ride for its class. Engine noise tends to be on the buzzy side, but only at higher revs. Road noise was present, as was a bit of wind noise, but neither became an issue of contention, since the lack of air-conditioning had us mostly driving with the windows down.
Like most hatchbacks, the 2009 Hyundai Accent's excellent all-around visibility leaves nothing to guesswork. The simple gauges are legible (if a little outdated), while the few switches and buttons are within easy reach. The manually operated window cranks were mercifully light and quickly rolled up or down.
Interior storage is scarce, but the deep cupholders should fill in just fine — although their placement behind the front seats is rather inconvenient. Radio functionality and sound quality weren't an issue as the car wasn't equipped with a sound system. (We'd also like to take this moment to point out that driving while wearing headphones is illegal in most states and dangerous in all of them.)
The cargo area can accommodate 16 cubic feet and the 60/40-split-folding rear seats allow for bulkier cargo and flexible seating options. The large hatch opening also makes for easy loading, but getting a small golf bag to fit required folding down a rear seat. Compromised rear-seat access poses some problems when installing child seats, but there is just enough room to install a rear-facing child seat without impinging on front-seat comfort. We'd suggest a sedan if you've got kids.
Design/Fit and Finish
In terms of design, our 2009 Hyundai Accent test car was pretty much what you'd expect from this segment. The proportionally small wheels and large body are typical for an economy car, as are many of the mild styling elements. Exterior styling is far from evocative, but not at all unpleasant.
Inside, the Accent has a pleasing mix of organic shapes that surround the occupants in hard plastic bits — also typical of cars in this class. Interior elements fit together well, minimizing creaks and squeaks often found in other budget-minded vehicles.
Who should consider this vehicle
If price is the absolute deciding factor in your new car search, the 2009 Hyundai Accent will suffice, but we strongly urge buyers to opt for ABS-equipped models instead of the current GS trim. We would also suggest looking at certified pre-owned compact cars from recent model years, since you'll get a bigger, better-equipped car with a warranty. It's worth noting that even used alternatives like the Civic, Yaris or Ford Focus are still more expensive than the Accent.
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