James Riswick, New and Used Car Editor
It's hard to imagine lusting after an economy car. You typically purchase one only because you have a limited amount of money to spend, and the car in question ultimately provides the most bang for your buck. Yet there is such a thing as a great economy car: one that makes you not only forget about that humble price you paid for it, but also makes you wonder why someone would pony up for something more expensive. The fully redesigned 2011 Hyundai Elantra is such a car.
It starts the moment you lay your eyes on the sculpted curves of the Elantra's body and the dramatically raked roof line that almost gives it the profile of a coupe. Climb inside and you're greeted with a bold dash design that still manages to be easy to use. The materials that surround it aren't quite best-in-class, but they aren't bargain-basement either, and this Elantra Limited's leather upholstery, heated seats and various electronic toys certainly help as well. Start the car down the road and the Elantra manages to be refined and comfortable without making you feel as if you're driving a dull moving appliance.
Now, the Elantra is not alone among the ranks of great economy cars. This segment is stronger than ever, boasting far more hits than duds. And even if the Elantra doesn't quite qualify as the greatest economy car (the new Ford Focus is a tough car to beat), this Hyundai has the style and substance to stand tall amid a very tough crowd.
When it comes to engines, the Hyundai Elantra would seem to be the tough car to beat — at least on paper. Its new 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine produces a class-leading 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque, while at the same time returning 29 city/40 highway mpg and 33 mpg combined. Other competitors achieve the 40 mpg number using special, extra-cost option packages designed to enhance fuel economy, but every Elantra meets this standard whether you opt for the base car or the top-of-the-line Limited like this test car.
So that's what it says on paper. On the road, the Elantra delivers acceleration on par for the segment, and in Edmunds testing the car reaches 60 mph from a standstill in 9.4 seconds, then gets through the quarter-mile in 16.9 seconds at 82.5 mph. The Elantra's engine lacks the turbocharged low-rpm grunt of the Chevy Cruze, yet it also doesn't rely on high revs to achieve optimum power like the Honda Civic. In other words, the Elantra features a rather useful power band that doesn't draw much attention to itself in ways either good or bad. Sure, you'd probably prefer the added oomph of more powerful compact cars like the Mazda 3 s or VW GTI, but then those cars don't achieve 33 mpg combined.
For those of you who like to have a little fun around corners in your compact car, the Elantra lacks the road-hugging capabilities of the Mazda 3 and surprising Kia Forte SX, as well as the sophisticated suspension setup of the Ford Focus and Honda Civic, which provide a better balance between ride and handling. Nevertheless, the Elantra isn't so behind the curve that the average driver will really notice in everyday motoring (neither would even an enthusiastic driver, really). Most folks will find in the Elantra a car with nicely weighted steering, a comfortable ride and a body that doesn't excessively roll in corners.
The Elantra's driver seat proved to be comfortable over several long driving stints, while its adjustability (along with the tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel) cater to a wide array of heights. Headroom is plentiful up front, but taller folks will have to crane their necks to fit in the back. This is the price you pay for that sleek roof line, but at least there's a generous amount of legroom in the back for those tall folks to slouch.
Once under way, the Elantra is about what you'd expect from today's small cars in terms of noise. It's not quite a vault like the new Focus, but it also doesn't make every slight breeze sound like a hurricane (Civic). Road noise is also kept in check for this segment, but not so much that you'll confuse it for a Hyundai Sonata or most other midsize sedans.
Checking the factory navigation system can be a tenuous car-buying decision, as not all built-in navs are created equal. Sometimes they add irritating complexity to the stereo and other functions (as in the Cruze or Focus, for instance), but in the case of the Elantra, the navigation system improves overall functionality. The large LCD touchscreen is mounted high and features crisp graphics, large touch buttons and a logical menu layout. The surrounding physical buttons mean those various menus are easy to access as well.
As such, and given our Elantra's modest price, we think the navigation system's $2,000 Premium package is a worthy option, especially since it also adds keyless ignition/entry, a rearview camera, automatic headlights and an upgraded stereo. This equipment is already on top of the Limited trim's standard leather upholstery, sunroof, heated front and rear (!) seats, Bluetooth and iPod interface (the latter of which is standard on all Elantras, but made better by the navi's touchscreen). You definitely get a lot of stuff for your money with the Elantra, which has historically been a hallmark of Hyundai vehicles, but now all that stuff comes in a car that would be pretty impressive even without the Costco-style features list.
For those times when you actually go to Costco, the Elantra benefits from a very large trunk, which features a wide opening and 60/40-split pass-through. Stuffing in golf clubs couldn't have been easier. If you have smaller items, the cabin is blessed with a big armrest cubby, a sizable glovebox and a covered bin forward of the shifter that shields your iPod from thieving eyes.
Design/Fit and Finish
Take a look at side-by-side pictures of the Elantra from one generation to the next, and it's easy to wonder how they came from the same gene pool. This is a radical transformation, and even though there are now a number of handsome compact cars, it's hard to argue against the Elantra being one of the classiest. It certainly doesn't look like a car that starts at less than $15,000 for the base model.
Much like the exterior, Hyundai's former aesthetic of frumpy form over function has been exorcised inside the car as well. The curved, waterfall dash design has a touch of Cadillac CTS in it, but also looks a bit like the aliens from Independence Day. (Google it; we'll wait.) Regardless of what the cabin's looks might remind you of, the cabin is well made, with acceptable materials. There are plenty of hard plastic pieces, but they are nicely grained and of a low sheen, while places that make contact with your elbows are mercifully soft. Switchgear is high quality as well, with the nifty rotary climate control selector in particular moving with a fluid, snick-snick precision through each fan speed and temperature detent.
Who should consider this vehicle
If you're in the market for a sedan in the $15,000-$25,000 price range, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra needs to be on your list. It's not the quickest, quietest, most spacious nor most fun to drive, but it's pretty close to the top in all these categories, while boasting top fuel economy and an immense features list. Well-rounded would be the operative term (and it looks pretty good, too). Still, with the Chevy Cruze, Mazda 3, Volkswagen Jetta and especially the Ford Focus all newly committed to the game, checking out the field is still recommended. You may not lust after any of these economy cars, but you're unlikely to be disappointed by them either.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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