That's where the Hyundai Accent fits into the marketplace. It's inexpensive, inoffensive and gets good gas mileage. While that may not sound like a ringing endorsement, the Accent holds its own in a crowded field, and that says a heck of a lot.
I tested a 2009 Accent; 2010 models are arriving at dealerships now with a few changes.
Changes for 2010
The biggest change for the 2010 Accent is its mileage. All trim levels see at least a 1 mpg bump, and the all-new base trim level, called Blue, gets a large jump versus the 2009 base model. The Blue comes only as a two-door hatchback and gets 28/36 mpg city/highway, versus 27/33 mpg for the base 2009 Accent.
Those mileage gains come with no changes to horsepower or torque.
A smaller change is the addition of a standard iPod/USB port for all trim levels. Otherwise, the 2010s should be nearly identical to the 2009 I detail below.
A horsepower rating of 110 doesn't sound like a lot of power to anyone these days, but it was only a few years ago that a Honda Civic produced only 115 hp. The Accent's four-cylinder never felt underpowered, which says a lot for the little hatchback. It moved nimbly in city driving and handled itself well on the highway, too.
The Accent felt well-planted at high speeds and was relatively quiet for a car in this class. Besides some loud engine noise, the overall sound level reminded me just how far this class of cars has come in the past 10 years. The ride was pleasant, too. It wasn't too firm, like the Honda Fit, while not being quite as comfortable as a Nissan Versa.
The 2009 Accent SE tested is rated at 27/33 mpg city/highway, and after 220 miles of morning and afternoon commutes through bumper-to-bumper traffic, side streets and suburban sprawl, it registered exactly 31 mpg, which is faithful to the ratings.
The one issue I had with the economy car's performance was the manual transmission in my SE. It's the same stick found in sub-$10,000 base models, and let me tell you, it is one annoying manual.
The clutch itself takes some getting used to, releasing much higher than most drivers would expect. The real issue, though, is the shifter. Each shift between gears is broken up by a huge "clunk" as the stick literally gets stuck mid-throw before reaching the next position in the traditional H pattern. Every single person who drove this car commented on it — with pained expressions. After a long commute, my right elbow was sore from all the hard shifting.
Acceleration in 1st and 2nd gears is quite brisk, and I would even call it enjoyable. If it weren't for the slightly zippier competition in the Yaris and Fit, the Accent's quickness would have come as a bigger shock.
Because the Accent has gone longer than most of its competition since its last redesign, the interior is definitely behind the others I've already mentioned, but it's about on par with Chevy's tiny Aveo5. If your last memory of a compact hatch is more than five years old, though, the Accent will probably be higher quality than you'd expect.
Although it certainly feels and looks like a sub-$15,000 car, the Accent doesn't feel like a $10,000 car. The dash is well laid out, fit and finish is decent, and there's a lot of space for the driver and front passenger. I managed to fit my son's full-size convertible car seat using the Latch connectors in the backseat. It was snug and kind of hard to get him in and out, but he couldn't manage to kick the back of my seat, which is unusual in small test cars.
My one big gripe with the interior is the flimsy seats, which gave me a sore back about 20 minutes into my 70-minute commute (made so long by summer construction). When I got to my cubicle, my desk chair felt downright therapeutic in comparison. The only plus is the captain's-chair-style armrests, which are a great thought in a car so small that its center console is low on the floor. The Yaris I tested didn't have armrests at all.
The two-door hatchback Accent is kind of cute, kind of sporty and a little dorky. Some folks I came across liked it; others just weren't offended by it. The sedan's styling is much more conservative, and overall no one is going to turn their head to look at an Accent. It certainly isn't as striking as a Fit or Yaris.
Another surprise was this little car's big cargo area. At 15.9 cubic feet with the rear seats in place, the Accent far surpasses the Yaris' 9.5 cubic feet of cargo volume, and it's not far from the larger, four-door Versa hatchback, which boasts 17.8 cubic feet. The Honda Fit, though, is pretty huge, with 20.6 cubic feet.
I was also able to squeeze two large baby gates into the back — upright, with the backseat down — along with other bulky items filling the rest of the cargo area while running some errands. Later, it swallowed a rather expensive grocery-store run ably, with no need to lower the seats.
The problem with low-cost models like the Accent is that their low advertised price translates to few frills — or even basic amenities. Pricing for the 2010 models starts at the same low $9,970 price of the 2009 base model and both come without air conditioning or a stereo. Our somewhat-loaded SE test car had power windows and, thankfully, air conditioning, along with a pretty decent stereo. It also had larger 16-inch wheels, antilock brakes and a sportier suspension. Its final price was $15,790, including a $720 destination charge.
That's why those low prices are deceiving; while the Honda Fit starts much higher, at $15,610 after a $710 destination charge, it comes standard with almost everything in the SE version I tested.
The Fit is also bigger, more fun to drive and has a vastly superior interior, including comfier seats.
Accent in the market
If all you need is the most basic transportation, a sub-$10,000 Accent might be the right pick for you. But once you reach the full price tag by loading it up with features most buyers expect in any car these days, you're encroaching on territory ruled by Honda and Toyota.
The wild card is likely to be the real-world price, as you're more likely to find a Hyundai with a bigger discount. Current incentives on the Accent are $1,500 cash back on 2009 models and $500 for 2010s (excluding the low-cost base models) through Nov. 2. The Fit rarely, if ever, sees cash-back offers.
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