Editor's note: Estimated mileage ratings have been lowered to reflect a November 2012 EPA audit of this car's stated mileage.
One of the likely consequences of the federal government's push for more stringent fuel economy standards is that more people will be driving smaller cars in the future. Not too long ago, with the exception of a few distinguished compact cars, that didn't look like a very appealing reality.
That's changed with the debut of efficient models like the Chevrolet Cruze, the upcoming 2012 Ford Focus and now the redesigned Hyundai Elantra. The Elantra has all the makings of a sales success: stop-and-stare styling, a fuel-sipping four-cylinder engine and an optimal blend of ride comfort and handling poise — all at a competitive price.
In short, the Elantra is a home run in the compact segment, allowing more drivers to happily enter a fuel-efficient future.
The 2011 Elantra sedan is available at Hyundai dealerships now and is offered in two trim levels: base GLS and upscale Limited. I tested automatic-transmission versions of both trims; click here for a side-by-side comparison of the two models.
The redesigned Elantra makes a good case for being the most stylish new compact sedan on the market. The car's designer, Cedric D'Andre, said one of the goals of the design was to create a car that was at least as sporty-looking as the Honda Civic, which still has a modern look even though it hasn't been fully redesigned since the 2006 model year. Hyundai has definitely met its goal, as the Elantra's styling is as dynamic as it gets in this class.
Like the Civic, the Elantra's front roof pillars have been stretched toward the front fenders, resulting in a windshield with greater rake. This gives the car a streamlined appearance, but the left pillar blocks your view a little when navigating winding roads. The car has the look of a coupe as the rear window stretches nearly to the tail, resulting in a short trunklid.
Besides the appealing proportions, there's also a bit of visual flair almost everywhere you look. Pronounced hood and door creases, arching fender flares and a trunklid lip spoiler all contribute to a level of sophistication that's been mostly absent in compact-car designs, until recently. I'd been wondering what car was going to challenge the new Focus from a styling standpoint, and with the new Elantra that question has been answered — and then some.
Efficiency & Drivability
Automakers have been racing to produce small cars that get great gas mileage using conventional engines, and Hyundai has succeeded on that front with the 2011 Elantra, which is powered by a new 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder that gets an EPA-estimated 28/38 mpg city/highway with either the manual or automatic transmission. And Hyundai didn't sacrifice drivability to achieve those thrifty mileage figures.
There's no denying the Elantra is a modestly powered car, but so are most of its competitors, including the Civic, Cruze and Toyota Corolla. There are times when you need to use a heavy foot to pick up the pace — like when merging on the highway — but the Elantra gets around well at city speeds and on rural roads. Even when revved high, the engine sounds refined, with no buzzing from the engine bay.
As gas mileage promises to be a big selling point for the Elantra, I wanted to get a sense of its real-world efficiency. In one leg of driving that totaled slightly more than 100 miles, my driving partner and I averaged 38 mpg, according to the Elantra's trip computer. The route consisted of mostly traffic-free rural roads and urban freeways, with some city driving mixed in. The terrain was hilly, the air conditioning was running and neither of us altered our driving style to get better mileage. We were, in fact, hustling the car pretty aggressively.
Contributing to the Elantra's thrifty fuel use and good drivability is its optional six-speed automatic, which is a new Hyundai-developed transmission. The automatic's shifts are refined — even under hard acceleration — and quick. The transmission also doesn't race to get to its highest gear — a fuel-saving tactic some cars use — which improves responsiveness. The automatic listens attentively to your right foot; jab the gas pedal when cruising, and it readily kicks down a gear. The transmission's clutchless-manual mode is also quick to respond to driver-initiated gear changes, with none of the delay that plagues many of these systems and makes them unrewarding to use.
Ride & Handling
Before driving the Elantra, I had my reservations about its driving dynamics. Some of Hyundai's other small models, like the Tucson crossover, don't offer the best driving experience, and I wondered if Hyundai had figured things out with this car. After spending a day driving it in and around San Diego, it's clear the automaker has. The Elantra's combination of ride comfort and handling should please both everyday commuters and those who like to tackle a winding road now and then.
I consider myself in the latter category, and Hyundai's drive route — which took us close enough to Mexico that we could see the border fence just a few hundred yards from the road — provided miles of serpentine asphalt.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Elantra is how willingly it tackles curving roads. The car resists body roll, even when pushed hard into a corner, and lifting on the gas slightly had the effect of helping bring the tail through the corner more quickly, enhancing the car's already nimble feeling. The Elantra's suspension tuning makes it a sporty choice in the style of the Mazda3, which ranks as one of the more engaging mainstream compact cars available in the U.S.
I also got a feel for the car in more mundane driving, like highway cruising. Here, ride quality isn't as sensitive to rough pavement as it is in a Civic nor as isolating as in a Corolla, but it skews more toward the Civic. The ride is taut, but not overly so. Suspension rebound over dips and bumps is controlled, and there's a solidity to the design that's been missing in some other Hyundais, which have noisy suspensions. It's also quiet enough in the cabin at highway speeds to hold a conversation without having to raise your voice.
The Elantra has electric power steering, and it doesn't take much effort to turn the wheel. The car has very good straight-line tracking. The only time the steering seems to get a little flustered is in sections of continuous switchbacks where you need to turn the wheel back and forth again and again; there, the wheel feels numb.
A Cabin That Matches the Exterior's Promise
The Elantra's exterior sets high design expectations, but the cabin gets a fair dose of style itself. It's stylish in numerous ways, from the simple yet elegant ventilation system knobs to the slender control panel in the middle of the dashboard. The cabin is unequivocally modern — but not at the expense of occupant comfort.
For a small car, the front of the Elantra's cabin feels spacious, easily accommodating my 6-foot-1 frame. The standard height-adjustable driver's seat is a nice feature, and the seat went far enough back for me to sit comfortably. However, the steering wheel's optional telescoping feature doesn't extend far enough for taller people.
Besides giving the cabin a unique look, the slender center panel opens up more room for your knees than many conventional designs offer. You don't feel cramped in this car, and headroom is still pretty good in models with a moonroof — a feature that tends to rob space.
There was a time when roughly finished cabins were more common in this class, but refined interiors are becoming the norm, and the Elantra's compares well with the best of them. It features mostly high-grade materials — some of which have interesting patterns — and good fit and finish. Hyundai even went so far as to give the Elantra's fiberboard headliner and sun visors an upscale, woven-fabric pattern.
A few minor shortcomings did crop up. Faux-metal trim is prominent on the dashboard and doors, and while the shapes of the pieces are interesting, their appearance isn't that compelling. It also doesn't feel that great when you have to grab hold of it to close the front door. The flat-black plastic surrounding the audio system looks a little low-rent, the center dash vents can't be individually closed, and though Hyundai made the dashboard soft-touch, it neglected to do the same for the doorsill trim.
There's no question I was pushing the limits of space in the backseat; when I sat down, my head touched the rear window (the Elantra's 37.1 inches of rear headroom is similar to what the Civic, Corolla and Cruze offer). The Corolla and Cruze do have a few inches more rear legroom than the Hyundai, which has 33.1 inches, but I nonetheless had enough legroom in the Elantra — even with the front seat adjusted for me. The Limited trim has heated rear seats — an uncommon feature in this class.
Standard safety features include all-disc antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front seats, side curtain airbags and an electronic stability system. The stability system is part of the car's standard Vehicle Stability Management technology, which also uses the electric power steering to help keep the car on its intended course.
For a full list of safety features, check out the Standard Equipment & Specs page.
Elantra in the Market
The recently redesigned Sonata family sedan has been a breakout success for Hyundai. It gave families a stylish, fuel-efficient, value-packed alternative to the traditional heavyweights in its segment, and consumers have taken note.
The smaller Elantra follows much the same formula. It's affordably priced, has loads of style and sips gas. Plus, it adds a dash of driving fun, giving small-car shoppers plenty of reasons to choose it over one of the sales leaders. Like the Sonata, the Elantra is a car that will make people sit up and take notice — and competing automakers should, too.
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