By the numbers, the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are the most popular compact cars on the market. Beyond those two are more than a dozen alternatives, each vying for attention with its own mix of talents.
Among them is the Hyundai Elantra, a car whose chief distinctions once included its low price and long warranty. Times have changed — the redesigned 2007 Elantra is still a bargain, but now that it comes stocked with all the latest safety and convenience features, it no longer feels like a bargain-basement choice. On many levels, it's downright desirable. If you're considering a Civic or its peers, give the Elantra a good, hard look.
The Elantra comes in GLS, SE and Limited trim levels. A manual or automatic transmission is available with every trim level; I drove a manual SE.
Exterior & Styling
Dropping the previous generation's vaguely European styling, the new Elantra adopts a taller, curvier look. Hyundai says it follows the look of the full-size Azera sedan — which is not the most distinctive design, either. Even with fog lights and 16-inch alloy wheels, my test car looked too much like a Toyota Corolla, especially in the back. It won't repel anyone, but neither is it likely to attract a strong following.
Body-colored side mirrors and door handles are standard on all Elantras. They're a nice touch, given that some competitors have black plastic moldings on their base trim levels.
Beyond some cheap door panels and a rubbery steering wheel, there was little to suggest the Elantra as tested cost less than $16,000. The dash is trimmed in soft-touch materials, the buttons feel high-quality and the ceiling has an upscale woven texture. Better yet are the abundant convenience features, most of which are rarities at this price — things like lighted vanity mirrors, a telescoping steering wheel, a sunglass holder and a rear armrest with cupholders.
The cloth seats are comfortable, with substantial cushions and ample back support. Leather is optional, but a lumbar adjustment for the driver's seat is not available.
Hyundai goes to great lengths to emphasize that the Elantra's cabin is from 5 to 10 percent larger than most competitors. Indeed, I found plenty of room up front. I'm just shy of 6 feet, and there was enough legroom, plus an inch of leftover headroom with the seat positioned at maximum height. (Tall drivers, take note: My Elantra came without a moonroof, which usually steals an inch or two of headroom.)
Unfortunately, none of that extra room goes in back. The seats are high enough off the ground that legroom is bearable, but headroom is tight. The seatback folds in a 60/40 split, exposing a small opening to the trunk. Trunk volume measures 14.2 cubic feet, which is more than nearly all the Elantra's major competitors.
The Elantra's 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes 138 horsepower. Paired with the easy-shifting five-speed manual, it was enough to get around town. Getting up to highway speeds requires revving the engine high, creating enough noise to drown out the stereo. Passing at highway speeds requires a downshift or two, and even then it takes patience and timing.
The wheels and suspension provide little in the way of sound deadening, so there's plenty of road noise at highway speeds. On a sustained stretch at 75 mph, there was some shimmy in the steering wheel and rattling in the headliner, and the wheels came unglued over any major bumps. Most compact cars fare about as well, but a few — most notably the Corolla — perform a bit better.
Standard four-wheel-disc antilock brakes bring things to a stop. On paper, they're a full class above the rear drum brakes many rivals use. In practice, they delivered sure-footed stopping power.
The EPA rates the Elantra's gas mileage at 28 mpg in the city and 36 mpg on the highway with either the automatic or manual transmission. Here's how that compares to the competition:
|EPA-Estimated Gas Mileage (City/Highway, mpg)|
|All figures are for 2007 models with the base engine, automatic transmission and regular (87-octane) gasoline. Dodge Caliber figures are for the 2.0L engine; the 1.8L engine is offered only with the manual transmission. Remember that the EPA is adjusting its testing procedures for 2008 models, and the new mileage estimates will be lower.|
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Elantra its highest score, Good, for frontal crash tests. As of this writing, IIHS has not tested the car for side impacts.
All Elantras come with many safety features, including side-impact airbags for the front seats and side curtain airbags for both rows. Four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are also standard, as are active head restraints, something rarely offered in this segment. An electronic stability system is not available.
All five seats have head restraints, and the front ones ratchet forward for better whiplash protection. Nice.
Trim Levels & Features
Before you add in the destination charge, the Elantra GLS starts at $13,395. That's quite a bargain, considering it comes with all those safety features, remote keyless entry and power windows, door locks and mirrors. Unfortunately, there's no CD player or radio. If you want music, go for a dealer-installed stereo or visit your local electronics store for an aftermarket choice. The optional AM/FM/CD system from Hyundai is bundled into the $1,700 Preferred Package, which also adds air conditioning, cruise control and fog lights.
At just under $16,000, the midlevel Elantra SE has those options, as well as alloy wheels and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. The Limited adds heated leather seats. Options available across the line include a sunroof and automatic transmission; expect a fully-loaded Elantra to cost about $19,000. All trim levels include Hyundai's 10 year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
Elantra in the Market
Like the previous generation, this Elantra is a lot of car for the money. That it goes toe-to-toe with the Civic and Corolla is a relatively new thing for Hyundai, a company whose sedans have always offered impressive value, but only recently started delivering competitive quality. After a week behind the wheel, I'm certain the quality is here. If you're shopping for a compact car, the Elantra is worth a drive.
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