We've got to hand it to Hyundai. After years of serving as the butt of car buffs' (and late-night TV show hosts') jokes, this company has turned things around. Back in 1986, the company fielded just one model, the misnamed Excel, and sold a bunch of 'em chiefly on the strength of the car's low ($4,995) price tag. But the cars were cheap, not inexpensive, meaning materials and build quality left much to be desired. Reliability also proved to be poor. As Hyundai soldiered on through the '90s, its cars got better but still gave small-car makers nothing to lose sleep over.
Redesigned this year, the third generation of the Elantra has blossomed; the wheelbase was increased from 100.4 inches to 102.7 and gives rear passengers more legroom. The new front styling reminded some of us of those scowling "Bad Boy" T-shirts and stickers that were popular with the perpetually insecure a while back. The rest of the car's body design is inoffensive, attractive even, both in profile and when viewed from the rear. The interior shows just how serious Hyundai is about improving its image and standing in the marketplace. Scrutinizing the various interior pieces for fit and finish, we were impressed by tight build quality, switchgear that moved fluidly and high-grade materials. Simply closing the door was a revelation, as the door handle is padded, and the door shuts with that satisfying thunk that bespeaks quality. One minor gripe we did have concerned the driver's seatback, which at times rocked back and forth a bit. Not only does the interior look and feel good, it works, as well. We found the seats soft yet supportive, gauges large and easily read, and controls simple and well-placed.
Instead of an array of trim levels ranging from stripper to all-out luxury car, the Elantra is available in a singular GLS trim level that comes chock full of desirable features. Air conditioning; power windows (with express down for the driver's window), locks and mirrors; dual trip meters; front side airbags; and a stereo with cassette player are all standard fare on the Elantra, as are a multi-adjustable driver seat (with tilt, height and lumbar adjustments), 60/40 split/fold rear seat, adjustable intermittent wipers, tilt wheel and a center console armrest with two storage compartments.
Hyundai didn't mess around with a variety of engines in the Elantra, either. It simply bolted in a 2.0-liter 16-valve inline four that pumps out a healthy 140 horsepower. This output is considerably more than competitors such as the Toyota Corolla (125 horsepower) and Honda Civic (ranges from 115 to 127, depending on trim level) boast. Refinements to the engine include a beefed-up cylinder block and hydraulic engine mounts, which together reduce noise and vibration. And revised combustion chambers improve low-end response. Transmission choices include a standard five-speed manual (which we tested) and an optional four-speed automatic. Power is all well and good, but how an engine delivers that power is also important, and the Elantra didn't disappoint us in that regard. We found the engine had a wide powerband and a low level of vibration. The five-speed stick was easy to shift and accurate, prompting one editor to comment that it was as precise and pleasant to work as a Honda's manual gearbox high praise, indeed. In terms of hard numbers, the Elantra ran the 0-to-60 mph sprint in 8.6 seconds and dismissed the quarter-mile in 16.6 seconds around a second or so quicker in each category than most competitors.
Although the braking arrangement is unremarkable with discs up front and drums in back, the brakes work so well that even without the ABS/four-wheel disc brake option, our test car came to a halt from 60 mph in a short and drama-free 133 feet. The Elantra's stopping ability was so good, it prompted our road test coordinator to state: "Brake performance is outstanding pedal modulation was excellent and allowed us to get the braking distance down to the level of ABS-equipped vehicles."
An all-independent suspension with MacPherson struts up front and a multilink setup out back in concert with spot-on chassis tuning imbues the Elantra with a well-damped ride and sporty handling. Front and rear stabilizer bars help keep the Elantra planted in the turns. Steering feel and action drew mixed reviews from our editors, with some feeling that the tiller was well-weighted and responsive, while others wished for more or less assist. Overall, we had little to complain about as the Elantra's handling dynamics make this econocar fun to zip around in.
Hyundai didn't skimp on safety features, either. In addition to the aforementioned side airbags, there are front seatbelt pre-tensioners (which automatically limit the slack in the belt in the event of a collision) and force limiters, as well as rear child seat anchors. Additionally, traction control is optional. In crash testing, the Elantra scored four stars (out of five) for driver-side frontal impact and five stars for the passenger side in the same test. Side impact results were equally impressive, with a five-star rating for the front occupants and four stars for those riding in back.
Providing owners with peace of mind and proving that Hyundai has faith in its products is the company's aggressive warranty package. Bumper-to-bumper coverage is good for 5 years/60,000 miles and the powertrain is protected for 10 years/100,000 miles (for the original owner, subsequent owners get the same 5 years/60,000 miles as the bumper-to-bumper protection). And to sweeten the deal, Hyundai throws in a 5-year/unlimited mileage 24-hour roadside assistance program.
So, what do we have here? An economy car with very good fit and finish, excellent all-around performance, virtually everything standard, a strong warranty and a price tag a couple grand less than the class favorites. Looks like Hyundai may have the last laugh.
System Score: 4.5
Components. This car is such a good value, perhaps we shouldn't complain too much about the stereo. It's a pretty bare-bones system, and yet in spite of this, it puts out some decent sound.
The head unit is pretty basic. It offers a single-disc CD player, tone controls, AM/FM presets and all the necessary functions. Although some of the buttons are on the small side, they're well spaced and logically placed. This makes for a friendly layout that is easy for the user to navigate. Unfortunately, the system lacks a cassette player, which would've been a nice bonus.
Things get better on the speaker side. Front speakers include a pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers in the front doors, coupled to an excellently positioned pair of tweeters above. The rear deck houses a surprisingly beefy pair of 6-by-9s that put out a lot of sound.
Performance. This system is very much in keeping with the value equation of this car. Although it doesn't rank up there with such leaders in the class as the stereo in the Ford Focus, it puts out respectable sound for the money and represents a good value. In particular, the front tweeters present a lively soundstage and better-than-average stereo imaging. Overall, though mainly because of weak amplification the system never gets up and dances. But again, what do you expect for such a reasonably priced car? Bass notes are muddled and diffuse, and most instruments have a tinny, artificial sound, but to even have a stereo in such an inexpensive vehicle is a bonus.
Best Feature: Excellently positioned tweeters.
Worst Feature: Needs an amp.
Conclusion. This one won't win any awards, but it's another example of the excellent value of the Elantra. You won't buy this car for the stereo, but most owners will get a lot of enjoyment out of this little sound system.
Associate Editor Erin Mahoney says:
What a fun little car! Once I got used to the incessant drone of the 2.0-liter four-banger, the Elantra proved to be a pleasure to drive.
On curvy roads, this econobox was quite nimble and easy to toss around. Much like in our long-term Focus ZX3, and even the more expensive VW Jetta, the Elantra's chassis felt light yet sturdy. More impressive still was the nicely weighted, immediately responsive steering.
Unlike the new Honda Civic that we recently tested, which floated a little too much over bumps in the road, the Elantra's suspension was appropriately taut, yet absorbent of highway irregularities. Road noise, on the other hand, was a little too intrusive for my taste, thereby reminding me that I was driving an economy sedan.
Unfortunately, one build-quality issue did rear its ugly head while I was driving the Elantra. Namely, my seatback moved back and forth as if it were loose.
For the most part, Hyundai certainly seems to have done a nice job with this one. And heck, even if fit and finish does become a major concern during the life of the vehicle, we've got that nifty 10-year/10,000-mile warranty to put our minds at ease.
Technical Editor Miles Cook says:
The Elantra is an incredible value. One of my colleagues recently compared it to a Honda Civic, and I agree. Judging it against the compact-car benchmark is praise enough in itself. But there's more.
First up is the drive. Elantra is a pleasure to run around in, with its reasonably accurate shifter, tight-as-a-drum interior ambiance and peppy 2.0-liter engine. The gauge cluster is also refreshingly simple and easy to read. I was amazed at its upscale feel inside and its list of standard features like power windows and locks, intermittent wipers and AM/FM stereo cassette. Even side airbags are standard equipment.
The only thing that still needs a little work in my mind is the steering. It felt a little vague and mushy, and its weighting was a little too much on the light side. But otherwise, pound-for-pound it matches the Honda Civic in several areas on the overall refinement scale. And it does so for thousands of dollars less. Combine all these goodies with one of the best warranties in the car biz, and you've got a winner, plain and simple. If someone were to ask me to recommend an inexpensive car that looks good, drives well and has lots of nice features, the Elantra is one of the first cars I'd mention.
Road Test Editor Neil Dunlop says:
The Elantra is a very capable family and commuter car. On a drive up to Big Bear from Los Angeles (about one hour of flat desert highway and another 60 minutes of twisty mountain roads), the Elantra behaved with the manners of a more expensive luxury sedan. It was quiet and comfortable on the freeway. With the multi-adjustable drivers seat, which includes cushion height, tilt adjustment and adjustable lumbar support, it's easy to find a comfy position so that the monotonous, mind-numbing highway ride didn't also numb our butts.
We were worried that the Elantra would be lacking on the twisty road up to Big Bear from the desert floor, but it impressed with its reasonably good grip, even when it was pushed. Though body roll may have been more extreme than we would have liked, it rode a nice balance between soft and stiff, and it handled even the hairpins with considerable élan, especially considering its econocar pedigree. In fact, it should be construed as a compliment to the Elantra that we critiqued its handling at all. Most econocars are expected to be glorified golf carts. The fact that we expected so much from the Elantra means we forgot it was an economy car.
It's easy to forget. The cabin is tastefully and thoughtfully laid out and the Elantra's list of equipment is surprisingly long. As far as options go, we especially liked the six-speaker CD player, cruise control and sunroof that let even more light into the already bright greenhouse. Hyundai's engineers also managed to tune the suspension so that bumps and other pavement irregularities are little felt inside. Wind and road noise intrusion are also low. And complementing the impressive list of comfort and convenience equipment are high-quality dash materials and sturdy switchgear that are equally impressive and put some much more expensive and supposed luxury cars to shame.
In addition, the trunk swallowed our luggage with plenty of room to spare. The Elantra's not even bad looking in a run-of-the-mill family sedan kind of way. Hyundai tried to imbue it with some attitude with styling cues such as a swooping belt line, sculpted hood, a sporty grille and chrome details. It doesn't make the Elantra a 3 Series or even an Accord, but it does make it somewhat attractive.
If you are looking for a compact four-door with good power, room, and comfort/convenience features, definitely take a look at the 2001 Elantra and compare with Sentra, Civic, Protegé, etc. I think you will find the Elantra is an excellent value compared with its competitors. Drawbacks as I see them: (1) Hyundais have historically poor resale value. If you plan on holding the car for several years, this will not be an issue, because the lower resale will be offset by the lower initial price. But if you trade cars every two to three years, you might do better with a car like the Civic with a high resale value. (2) Hyundais are not status symbols. If you care that your friends and co-workers may scrunch up their noses at your new Elantra, buy something else. (3) Fuel economy. Elantras are powerful for their class (140 horsepower) but not the most frugal cars with gas mid-30s on the highway is as good as it will get. If that's important for you, look at fuel sippers like the Civic or Echo. (4) Refinement. There are more refined (smoother engines, etc.) small cars out there, like the Jetta and Civic, albeit at a much higher price. If you want refinement, look elsewhere but take an Elantra for a test drive anyway, as you might be pleasantly surprised. (5) Dealer availability. There are lots more Honda, Nissan, Toyota, et al, dealers than Hyundai dealers. If you live in a big city, this is probably not an issue. Obviously, these were not issues for me, as I bought my 2001 Elantra in October 2000 and am very happy with it so far and I've owned Civics, Sentras, Toyotas and many other cars." backy, "Hyundai Elantra," #355 of 972, Jan. 1, 2001
" Although I don't believe that Hyundais are as reliable as the Japanese, American or European cars, the 100,000-mile/10-year warranty and the seemingly improved build quality were enough to alleviate my concern. I also believe that the quality across the industry is improving to the point that relative differences in quality are not as important as they once were. I agree that if you plan to trade cars every few years, resale value is a concern. I typically keep a car for 10 years, so it was a non-factor for me. The price for features was an obvious attraction for me, but the most attractive feature was the 140-horsepower engine. I had looked at the other competitors in the price range Saturn, Honda, Mazda, Chevrolet (Prizm), Nissan, Toyota, etc. and the additional horsepower was nice, especially in an area like Houston. I probably still would have bought a Prizm if I could have found one I liked in the area (I had enough GM points to make up any price advantage on the Hyundai). Not many Prizms are available with the five-speed and appointed the way I wanted. The base Elantra has so many features that it makes shopping easy . To date, I am very pleased with my purchase. The key points for me if you plan to keep it a long time, are willing to trade the lack of good track record on quality for the promise of a great warranty and seemingly [improved] build quality, and want to trade some fuel economy for some additional horsepower, the Elantra is a good deal dollar for dollar. Oh, I forgot if driving a Hyundai does not affect your self-esteem or peer perception. Although I consider myself rather self-assured, I am glad I have another car (I steal my wife's car) for those times that I need to take out certain business associates. In my opinion, if you are on the other sides of those issues, the Hyundai is not a good selection ." jimmy32, "Hyundai Elantra," #447 of 972, Jan. 21, 2001
"I have a 2001 Elantra and a 2000 Sonata. I prefer the Elantra any day. By no means is it an ultra-smooth, ultra-quiet car; however, it rides exactly as I would have designed it. I get just under 35 mpg highway and around 28ish city . It starts, moves and stops. It cools and heats well also. In my opinion, it is an excellent buy and performer for the money. Until the other folks wake up, the resale value is not the greatest, but then again, it is a lot less up-front in price, too . I don't live in my car and don't want to have to, either. For a vehicle to sit in the parking lot while I am at the office, why buy anything else? It's only going to get dinged and rained on etc., so why even consider more??" tonykrapil, "Hyundai Elantra," #552 of 972, Feb. 17, 2001
" I do like my Elantra but these inconsistencies (erratic gas mileage, misalignments, reluctant fuel doors, loose screw covers, idle speed idiosyncrasies) make it hard to conclude that the car is as refined, say as my 1996 Civic hatchback. In 50K miles, the only thing that has deviated from the center of excellence was a faulty speedo cable that was replaced under warranty. Although I spent my hard earned money on our Elantra and it was a leap of faith I would suggest to others not to make a similar leap and to wait a year to see how these cars behave after we get some significant miles on them. If you must buy a car, then I suggest buying another make of car, despite a higher price, until these Elantras are proven all-around worthy. You can always trade in another make for a higher resale in a few years and recoup it on a new lower priced Elantra if they do, indeed, prove worthy of your cash. Knowing what I now know, would I have spent an extra $3K on a Civic? I just don't know. What I do know is that I am not nearly as certain as I originally was about Hyundai and realize I may have to eat crow some time down the road ." interluk, "Hyundai Elantra," #784 of 972, March 26, 2001
"My 2001 Elantra has 5,200 miles on it, and I just love this car! Took a 310-mile highway trip yesterday with the air conditioning on. Average speed 65-70 mph. I got 36.5 mpg. With the price of gas heading where it's heading, I'm loving it even more. Those big SUVs are nice to look at, but if gas prices continue rising you're not going to be able to give those things away." moledad125, "Hyundai Elantra," #970 of 972, May 3, 2001
Edited by Erin Riches