Generally the small-car compromise goes something like this — among style, content or affordability, pick any two. It turns out that making inexpensive cars that are profitable — and therefore worthwhile for the automaker to invest in — is tricky business.
With the 2011 Hyundai Elantra, the company is attempting to take that box of compromise and shake it all about. Hyundai's taking the fight to the compact side of the sedan spectrum with the new Elantra, the latest in the reinvention of its model range. We're getting the impression that the company's just lining up dominoes and flicking them over, one by one. It's making this look easy.
It's not going to be easy, of course, as the compact car class is chock-full of mainstays like the Honda Civic, Mazda 3, Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla, plus the new Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta sedans.
The Elantra's visual presence suggests confidence. Although similar to the outgoing Elantra in width and length, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra chops nearly 2 inches out of the height and instead adds it to the wheelbase. The effect is dramatic, and no longer does the Elantra look frumpy.
The new car's cohesive and unusually purposeful look is the product of Hyundai's California design studio, and while there are hints of Civic in the greenhouse and some Lexus IS at the rear, the Elantra largely has a look all its own. The subdued aggression of the nose, the long wheelbase, sharp character lines — this is definitely not a toylike small car.
Styling nits to pick? It looks a bit awkward with the smaller 16-inch wheels, but little else. The Elantra simply looks terrific in the metal.
Not Bad Inside Either
Inside the cabin, the pinched-waist look to the center stack adds a bit of flair while presenting the various and sundry controls in a clean and straightforward manner. Materials are of the hard-but-look-soft variety, and there are mercifully few surfaces that don't have a matte finish.
Despite the deep cowl, the interior feels breezy and spacious — headroom up front is plentiful for 6-footers and the steering wheel is a bit smaller in diameter than usual, which enhances the sense of space up front. The backseat is a different story, as headroom is cramped, although legroom is plentiful even for tall folks. Also of note — rear seat heaters. Yep, and they're standard on the Elantra Limited.
One Engine for All
All 2011 Elantras are powered by an all-new 1.8-liter four-cylinder generating 148 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 131 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 rpm. The new engine is the single most significant contributor to the Elantra's fuel-sipping ways, mainly because the outgoing Beta iron-block four was kind of a dinosaur. The all-aluminum engine has a two-step variable-length intake manifold and continuously variable intake and exhaust cams to help broaden the torque curve while improving fuel economy. An intelligent alternator further ekes out fuel economy by charging primarily when it is most efficient to do so.
Hyundai is quite proud of the Elantra's 29 city/40 highway mpg, taking great pains to point out that those fuel economy numbers apply to all Elantras regardless of transmission, trim level, wheel size or even paint color. No premium need be paid for a special high-efficiency version as with the Cruze Eco or Fiesta with the Super Fuel Economy package. This way, everyone wins — consumers and CAFE-conscious automaker alike.
Balancing Fun and Frugality
High fuel economy numbers such as these often come at the expense of any semblance of fun since they typically rely on a transmission (well, for automatics, anyway) that upshifts to 6th gear before you leave the driveway and low-rolling-resistance tires that howl like a pack of coyotes when you think about turning the wheel. Not so the Elantra. It's nimble and there's a solid amount of grip on tap when you bend it into a corner. The fully electric steering doesn't have Mazda 3 levels of driver engagement, but it is very precise and certainly feels better resolved than the Sonata's odd tiller.
Isolation from road noise could be better. The Elantra relays coarseness through its structure in a way that reminds you that, yes, you're driving a car priced somewhere in the teens.
Although it delivers fully class-competitive power, the Elantra's engine still relies on revs to tackle large hills or freeway merging situations. Thus, the transmission's ability to seamlessly change to the right gear for the occasion is that much more critical. Fortunately, gearchanges from the Elantra's autobox are creamy smooth and downshifts are served up willingly when needed. No stodginess or hunting here. A six-speed manual is standard on base models, but the six-speed automatic is optional on the GLS and standard on the Limited.
The front suspension consists of MacPherson struts up front and there's a twist-beam rear suspension. This compact rear suspension allows for ample cargo volume of 14.8 cubic feet. Its short-length rear deck makes for a deep cargo area, and the wide deck lid is supported by gooseneck hinges.
Surprisingly, Hyundai fitted monotube dampers to the Elantra's rear suspension rather than cheaper twin-tube dampers. Engineers can usually dial in better ride quality with monotubes since they can generate meaningful damping force even at very small piston movements. And sure enough, although the Elantra rides firmly, it's a well-damped firm and not an underdamped cheap-car crashy-firm. The kind of firm that we can get behind.
Ride quality has a lot to do with chassis stiffness, too, and there the new Elantra is said to boast a 37 percent increase in torsional rigidity over the outgoing model. The fundamental goodness of the Elantra's chassis is, er, good.
Two Trim Levels, Many Choices
Like the Sonata, the Elantra will be offered in two trim levels, GLS and Limited. GLS runs the gamut from the $15,550 bare-bones loss-leader version with a six-speed manual gearbox, 15-inch steelies and no cruise or air-conditioning, to the optioned-up GLS Navigation.
The automatic-only Limited grants access to options like leather, heated front and rear seats, 17-inch wheels and other goodies you expect in a fancy-pants version with a name like "Limited." To this you can add a Premium package, which forms the upper bound of Elantra pricing at $22,700. Weight weenies will be pleased to know that the base GLS with manual gearbox weighs 2,661 pounds, whereas the gussied-up Limited weighs some 215 pounds more.
Don't expect to find many base GLSs that exist primarily to feature the low starting price. Realistically, most Elantras will be equipped somewhere in between — with the six-speed automatic and a few creature comforts but sans navigation. The GLS with the Preferred package starts at $18,350.
Optioned smartly, the Elantra is more than just a lot of car for the money. It's a sharply dressed, roomy and amply equipped car for the money. It was before to some degree, but now it has classy looks to match. And when it comes to economy sedans, that still matters.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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