2011 Hyundai Elantra: First Drive
December 6, 2010
The redesigned Hyundai Elantra's stylish lines caught my eye when I saw it at the Los Angeles Auto Show last month, and its EPA-estimated gas mileage of 29/40 mpg city/highway only furthered my enthusiasm for this small sedan.
I had my reservations, though. Some of Hyundai's smaller models like the Tucson crossover don't offer the best driving experience and I wondered if the automaker had figured things out with this Elantra. After spending a day driving the car in and around San Diego at a Hyundai event for journalists, it's clear they have.
The Elantra delivers a compelling blend of ride comfort and handling poise that should please drivers who have to deal with the workaday commute as well as those who like to tackle a winding back road now and then. It's available at Hyundai dealerships now.
Before diving into the Elantra's ride and handling performance, let's touch on its efficient drivetrain, as that's sure to be one of the car's selling points. I was concerned that the impressive fuel efficiency might come at the expense of drivability, but that's not the case.
The Elantra is a modestly powered car — no question — but so are most of its competitors like the Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze and Toyota Corolla. There are times when you need a heavy foot to pick up the pace such as when merging on the highway, but it gets around well at city speeds and on rural two-lane roads. Even when revved, the engine sounds refined, with no buzzing sounds coming from the engine bay.
To get a quick sense for the Elantra's real-world gas mileage, I reset the car's trip computer before one leg of driving that totaled a little more than 100 miles. Over this stretch, my driving partner and I averaged 38 mpg. The route consisted of mostly traffic-free rural roads and urban freeways along with some city driving mixed in. The terrain was hilly; we had the air conditioning on, and neither of us altered our driving styles to favor efficiency. In fact, we hustled 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. Shifts are refined — even under hard acceleration — and quick. The transmission also doesn't race to get to higher gears as quickly as possible. That’s an rpm-lowering, fuel-saving tactic employed by some cars. Hyundai's set-up improves engine responsiveness. The automatic listens attentively to your right foot; jab the gas pedal when cruising and it readily kicks down a gear.
Hyundai's drive route, which took us close enough to Mexico that we could see the tall border fence a few hundred yards from the road at one point, featured miles of serpentine roads. One of the Elantra's most interesting qualities is its willingness to tackle this kind of blacktop. The car resists body roll, even when pushed hard into a corner, and lifting off the gas slightly had the effect of helping bring the rear end through the corner more quickly, enhancing the car's already nimble feeling. While the Mazda3 still ranks as one of the more engaging compact cars available in the U.S., the Elantra's suspension tuning makes it one of the sportier choices in its class.
In more mundane driving situations like cruising on the highway, ride comfort skews more toward a Civic than a Corolla. The suspension is taut, but not as sensitive to rough pavement as a Civic's or as isolating as a Corolla's. Suspension rebound over dips and bumps is controlled, and there's solidity to the setup that was missing in some earlier Hyundais, which had noisy suspensions. The Elantra's electric power-steering system offers good straight-line tracking stability, but it grew numb in the switchbacks.
The amount of room in the Elantra's cabin is surprising. The front of the car feels spacious and easily accommodated my 6-foot-1-inch frame. The standard height-adjustable driver's seat is a plus, but the telescoping steering column — an optional feature — didn't extend quite as far as I'd like.
Besides giving the cabin a unique look, the slender center control panel opens up more room for your knees compared to many conventional designs. You don't feel cramped in the front, and headroom is still pretty good in models with a sunroof.
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 cabin holds up well against the best of them. It uses mostly high-grade materials that have interesting patterns, and fit-and-finish is good. However, a few minor issues surfaced.
I'm not a huge fan of the faux-silver trim that has a prominent home on the dashboard and the doors; the design is interesting, but its appearance isn't compelling and it feels low-grade when you grab onto it to close the front doors. The flat-black plastic surrounding the audio head unit looks a little low-rent, too, and the center dash vents don't have on-off dials if you don't want any air blowing at you from there. Like I said, it’s minor stuff.
In the end, my lasting impression of the Elantra is the car has all the necessary attributes to compete and win in its segment.
Senior Editor Mike Hanley is a father of three boys; he reviews new cars, admires classic cars and has embraced the minivan lifestyle. Email Mike