There are countless numbers that Hyundai executives could be drilling into our head today about the 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT. Numbers like 39 mpg highway, the $19,170 starting price or its 51 cubic feet of cargo space. Instead they're locked on one: 151. The 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT is 151 pounds lighter than its nearest competitor, the Mazda 3, and Hyundai is singing it from the rooftops.
This lightness, says Hyundai, is the key to fuel efficiency and leads to better handling. But is lightness enough in this extremely competitive segment? The Ford Focus, Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf have all established themselves as driver's cars with innovative, high-tech powertrains, unique design and European-tuned driving dynamics, and they've developed cult followings in return. The Hyundai Elantra GT is saddled with the same 1.8-liter and six-speed automatic found in the decidedly not cult-worthy Elantra sedan.
Hyundai's proven itself capable of swimming in deep waters before, but gunning for supremacy in the five-door hatch segment might be its biggest challenge to date.
The 39-MPG Compromise
Certainly cars with less weight require less power, but it feels as if somebody inside Hyundai moved a decimal point when they calculated the power needs of a car this size and weight. Propulsion comes courtesy of a ULEV-rated 1.8-liter four-cylinder that pumps out 148 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 131 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm. (There is a PZEV-certified engine that makes 145 hp and 130 lb-ft.)
Hyundai estimates this five-door will return 28 city/39 highway mpg and a combined rating of 32 mpg when coupled to the automatic transmission. We've seen this powertrain before in the 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited sedan. That car accelerated to 60 mph in 9.4 seconds and completed the quarter-mile in 16.9 seconds at 82.5 mph.
An optimist would call this a momentum car. We call it frustrating.
Furthering that frustration is the optional six-speed automatic ($1,000). Living with it is a bit like life with a toddler; it doesn't listen to a thing you say, and when it does something right, it's probably just coincidence. Manual mode, activated by slipping the shifter laterally out of drive, might as well not exist. The 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT doesn't hold gears to redline, often shifting well short of that mark at the most inopportune time, like during a sustained-throttle sweeping turn. And it certainly won't give you a downshift that will help with engine braking; ask and ye shall be denied.
These traits were common behaviors before VW brought us the DSG and Mazda released its new SkyActiv six-speed automatic. Both of those transmissions help with fuel economy and still offer the driver a rewarding measure of control.
The six-speed manual is, of course, better in this respect and offers a smooth clutch engagement and a shifter that's light, precise and easily the best in Hyundai's lineup. We have a friend who says that the abysmal clutch/shifter interface in the Elantra Touring is what turned his wife away from manual transmissions. If she would give this one a shot, there's a chance to win at least one human back to manual shifting.
Step inside the 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT and you're immediately transported into a different class of five-door hatch. The interior is bright, light and open, which is a stark contrast from nearly every other car in the segment. Like the normal Elantra, the GT's interior is well constructed with solid, responsive controls. Unlike the sedan, however, the GT's center console isn't overwrought with futuristic design.
Our tester was equipped with the $2,750 Style package that lumps together 17-inch wheels, leather seating surfaces, aluminum pedals, a power driver seat with power lumbar support, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and a huge panorama sunroof. Taller drivers will find that the sunroof eats valuable headroom, but everyone else will appreciate the natural light it brings to the party.
More importantly, we were armed with the Tech package ($2,530) that gave us navigation with a 7-inch touchscreen, a rearview camera, dual-zone climate control and a proximity key with push-button start. It's an expensive option and connecting an iPod still requires a proprietary plug, but the navigation is simple to use and the radio far easier to control via the touchscreen. Plus, if you spend any amount of time driving with a constantly cold spouse, dual-zone climate control is invaluable.
Hyundai also made sure the Elantra GT was as practical as possible. With the rear seats up you're looking at 23 cubic feet of cargo space, which is 1 less than a Ford Focus but 8 more than a Volkswagen Golf. The GT manages this by having a low load floor (beneath which is a real compact spare) and a high ceiling. The liftover height is also functionally low.
Should you need more space, Hyundai's trick 60/40-split folding rear seats create a nearly flat load floor. The rear-seat bottoms flip toward the front seats and the seatbacks settle nicely into the gap. This is an extra step, but produces a practical barrier between cargo and the driver compartment.
Give and Take
Thanks to a new driver-selectable steering mode that varies steering weight between Comfort, Normal and Sport — guess which one we preferred — there's enough effort and feedback to know what the P215/45R17 Hankook Optimo H426s are up to. It's also precise enough to put them exactly where you want them.
The Elantra GT uses the same MacPherson strut front suspension configuration as the base Elantra, while the rear end is augmented with a twist-beam axle with an integrated 22mm stabilizer bar and monotube dampers. This is a disappointment to potential fans of the GT who thought that, like the European i30 on which it's based, it would get a multilink rear setup. The only time you'll notice the difference is when mid-corner bumps bounce the rear end out of line, which can require minor steering correction.
In the 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT you won't find yourself instinctively drawn to canyon roads, but if you do wind up there, you'll be rewarded with a confident and predictable dance partner. Think big grins more than white-knuckle speed.
Forget Everything You Just Read
Of course, the above paragraphs only apply to a certain subset of the automotive consumer — the type of person who would rather have botulism than body roll. The type of person who understands steering feel. The type of person who appreciates the Mazda 3. The type of person who's reading this article. If you're not that person, the Elantra GT isn't for you.
The Elantra GT is for real human beings who want nothing to do with the Mazda 3's busy ride. The Elantra GT doesn't offer the steering feel, control, precision or fun factor of its main rivals and that's OK.
Over the past few years we Americans have been blessed with small cars that stay true to their European roots and aren't dumbed down for the U.S. audience. As such, that market is hugely competitive. Ford's Focus, VW's Golf and Mazda's 3 all drive well on canyon roads but are stiffly sprung and aggressively damped, which alienates some buyers.
The Elantra GT, when it goes on sale later this month, will play to those buyers' sensibilities. At 75 mph, its stability and quietness rival some luxury cars and there's none of the impact harshness that plagues the Mazda 3. Even in "Comfort" — the steering mode we assume most Elantra GT buyers will prefer — there's no wander and no correction required. In other words, this car is a highway commuter's dream.
Hyundai executives confirm that they're looking into a higher-performance Elantra GT for the go-fast set. Think turbocharging, unique suspension tuning and a more aggressive look. Until then, the 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT stands alone as a practical, comfortable compact tourer — no sporting intentions added. And that's all most buyers want anyway.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.