There's a difference between cheap and inexpensive.

The Hyundai Excel, the first offering for the U.S. from the South Korean automaker in the 1986 model year, was cheap--$4,995

The Hyundai Accent, the model that replaced Excel in the 1995 model year, is inexpensive--$9,999.

Excel was small, cramped and seemed to be held together with duct tape. Accent is larger, roomier and bolted together well.

Excel was a low-cost new-car alternative to a used car. Accent is a low-cost new-car alternative to a new Toyota or Honda.

But while Accent is far better than its predecessor, you still have to accept some compromises. This is, after all, an entry-level machine aimed at attracting first-time buyers as well as those consumers more concerned with high mileage and low monthly payments than with having the most fashionable car in the parking lot.

While one of Accent's strong points, for example, is a lot of standard equipment considering the low base price, one of its shortcomings is that you still can't add the full complement of desired equipment even if you are willing to spend more money.

Accent is offered in coupe and sedan versions. We tested the entry-level Accent GL hatchback coupe dressed in sporty GT trim, a package not offered since the 1997 model year, that boosts the base price to $10,899.

The standard equipment list is impressive for an entry-level car--air conditioning, front- and side-impact air bags, fully independent suspension, all-season radials, AM/FM radio with cassette, body-colored side moldings/grille, digital clock, tinted glass and rear window washer/wiper.

To equip it as most would for convenience and safety, however, takes another $400 to add power windows, locks and mirrors and a sound system upgrade to AM/FM stereo with CD player.

But you can't equip it to the max. Anti-lock brakes with traction control, sunroof and remote keyless entry are three items you can't obtain through the factory.

Side air bags are nice, but ABS with traction control would be better in helping you avoid situations that would require bag deployment.

Power windows are nice, but a sunroof would help circulate the air even better and eliminate the wind noise coming through Accent's side windows.

Having to lock/unlock the doors by inserting a key and turning rather than pressing the button on the fob is simply primitive today. When carrying a couple of packages and having to balance them while getting to the key or when parked in a dimly lit lot, remote keyless entry helps relieve a lot of unnecessary burden, not to mention stress and anxiety.

The 1.6-liter 4-cylinder is ideal for the mileage minded. The 29 m.p.g. city/33 m.p.g. highway rating with the standard 5-speed manual reduces the number of stops for fuel. Automatic runs an extra $650 and is rated at 25 m.p.g. city/35 m.p.g. highway.

B ut the 1.6-liter is rated at only 104 horsepower and 106 foot-pounds of torque. Accent GT looks sporty thanks to its body-colored rocker-panel moldings and deck-lid spoiler. But the 4-cylinder is meant for mileage, not muscle.

And, as with all 4-cylinder engines, you have to accept that it isn't the quietest powerplant on the planet. Four-cylinder engines tend to transmit the audible commotion back into the cabin, especially at takeoff. And the 5-speed manual is a bit notchy.

Accent has four-wheel independent suspension and front and rear stabilizer bars, but thanks to the upgrade to a stiffer sports-tuned suspension when you opt for the $495 GT package, the ride is a little firm and you'll feel most of the imperfections in the road. Of course, that's a compromise you have to accept in a $10,899 car.

Accent comes with 13-inch radials as standard, 14-inch when you opt for the GT package. Have to suspect 15-inch radials would offer better handling, but anything to avoid teeny 13-inch radials is an improvement. Handling is typical for an economy car--little lean, little sway. Back off on the accelerator pedal when the road starts to twist sharply.

The Accent coupe is a hatchback. The cargo hold is rather large and well suited to haul gear or groceries. If you need more space, the split rear seat backs fold. After reaching for the release button from the rear cargo hold, however, you have to fiddle to get the shoulder belts on the seat backs out of the way so you can lower them.

The seats are comfortable and covered in cloth with a blue/red/green/purple speckle design that helps camouflage spills until you can clean them up--like at trade-in time.

The front seats in this two-door fold and slide forward to expose a rather large aisle to get in the back seat. Once in back, however, room is a bit tight for head and legs.

Couple of nice touches are the remote fuel-filler door release alongside the driver's seat, small coin tray in the center console and dual retractable cupholders that pop out of the dash. One cupholder in the back of the center console serves the two rear-seat passengers.

Sales of the entry-level subcompact Accent in '03 through March are down to 13,225 from 19,350 a year earlier, while sales of the larger compact Elantra are up to 15,000 units from 12,500 a year earlier.

One reason for the shortfall is that the subcompact, front-wheel-drive Accent, priced from $9,999 to $11,700, offers a $1,000 rebate, and the compact, front-wheel-drive Elantra, priced from $12,900 to $15,300, offers a $1,500 rebate.

Another reason is that Elantra offers power windows/locks/mirrors as standard and ABS with traction control ($525) and power moonroof ($650) as options.

Accent also is losing some sales to those migrating into the compact Santa Fe sport-utility vehicle. Santa Fe's price range is $17,500 to $24,000, but for the first time it carries a $1,000 rebate, bringing in more buyers. Santa Fe sales have climbed to 23,354 through March from 17,870 a year earlier.

Next month, by the way, Santa Fe adds the 3.5-liter, 195-h.p. V-6 in the Hyundai XG350 sedan as a companion to the 2.7-liter, 173-h.p. V-6 now offered. The big difference, however, should be launch off the line, with the 3.5-liter rated at 219 foot-pounds of torque versus 182 foot-pounds in the 2.7-liter.

Hyundai said the typical Accent buyer is a parent purchasing a car for the college student; the empty-nester/retiree purchasing a low-cost car to haul behind the motor home; or the consumer who wants to spend the minimum to invest the money saved in hobbies or toys.

Strictly personal: Birthday greetings to granddaughter Taylor Brae, who is celebrating No. 3.


'03 Hyundai Accent GL

Wheelbase: 96.1 inc hes

Length: 166.7 inches

Engine: 1.6-liter, 104-h.p., 16-valve 4-cylinder

Transmission: 5-speed manual

Fuel economy: 29 m.p.g. city/33 m.p.g. highway

Base price: $10,899.

Price as tested: $11,859. Includes $400 for popular equipment package that includes power windows/door locks/mirrors, and AM/FM stereo with CD and six speakers; $495 GT package with sport tuned suspension, sport cloth seats, two tone leather wrapped steering wheel, white face gauges, 14-inch six spoke alloy wheels, body colored rocker moldings, front fog lamps, body color rear spoiler, and GT badging; $65 carpeted floor mats; and $495 freight.

Pluses: Low cost, high mileage, stylish coupe. Just about everything available on this economy model that you'll find on coupes with more prestigious nameplates.

Minuses: Four-cylinder tad noisy, five speed a little notchy, have to fight belts to lower rear seat backs.