Hyundai is on a roll toward respectability, with the 1996 Elantra station wagon its jauntiest, comfiest, best-looking low-bucks vehicle to date. Not bad for a subcompact built in South Korea, a republic famous for kimchi souffles but infamous
for producing rattling misfits that would be considered dubious bargains if buyer incentives included 10,000 frequent flier miles per breakdown. You'd be vacationing in Monte Carlo the first week. Early Elantras wallowed with the worst of them and
were hung, drawn and quartered by critics for being raucous and snail-powered with an automatic transmission that jolted occupants to the point of whiplash. But this Elantra wagon, generally, is a hoot. Looks come close to being a Ford
Contour cuddling a baby bullfrog. The form is quite attractive--quirky from this angle, almost voluptuous in that light--and far from being just another boring Asian soap bubble. There's also a very serious roof rack that might have been borrowed from a
Buick Roadmaster and could double as carrying handles in tight parking situations. For less than $16,000 you get the stuff of little Bimmers. Tilt steering and dual air bags. Independent front and rear suspension. Alloy wheels and cruise control.
Power windows, mirrors and locks. Air conditioning and a six-speaker sound system. And anti-lock disc brakes for a few bucks more. Handling falls a few raised eyebrows beneath unbelievable for a car of this purpose in this shrunken price range.
Think Honda, think Toyota. Then give Hyundai credit for working a concert of changes to the underpinnings--from that independent suspension with stabilizer bars to a multi-link system at the rear--and carefully calibrated to keep the car tight and firm
and free of wayward repositioning whether its maneuvering be mundane or emergency. The Elantra wagon has brakes that would stop a barge. Rack and pinion power steering keeps the car precisely where pointed without a hint of road surface or
weight-transfer wanderlust. So the driving experience becomes a succession of questions to self: * Are we sure the rock-base version of this wagon costs only $14,000? * Has part-ownerMazda become a full partner in Hyundai and rebadged a 626?
* Is this, in fact, a Hyundai? The latter, sadly, remains an easy answer. For no matter what improvements Hyundai has been making to styling, tchotchkes, creature comforts and ancillary mechanicals, its power trains remain more
embarrassing than a bases-loaded walk. From earlier drives aboard Hyundai's Accent, Sonata and freshman Elantras, we suspect the trouble may lurk with the transmission. No matter mechanical or automatic, once worked by Hyundai they simply never seem
to deliver performance promised by the horsepower. * In the 1996 Elantra, oomph has been elevated to 130 horsepower. That's two ponies less than a base Dodge Neon sedan,
but more powerful than other subcompact wagons: Ford's Escort (110 horsepower), Saturn (124), Toyota Corolla (105) and Subaru Impreza (110). And torque delivered by Elantra is superior to all but Neon. We made several runs with a 4-speed automatic
Elantra wagon. In both modes, sport and conventional, and with engine revs built high against the brakes for whippet starts. Yet 12.3 seconds was the very best time for accelerating to 60 mph. And that's an average two seconds slower than times we
have posted with Neon, Escort, Saturn, Corolla and Impreza. We switched to an Elantra sedan--220 pounds lighter than the wagon--with a 5-speed manual that typically squeezes out quicker times. Still, its best run to 60 mph was only 10.5 seconds.
That's also inferior to the competition. Worse, the Elantra's mid-range acceleration from 40 mph to 70, often the sudden call of freeway travel, took 13 seconds. That's just not enough to escape advancing semiso
to catch the guy in the Passat who flipped you off for dragging your butt in traffic and delaying his choco-martini. Again, we point a finger at the transmission because it slapped and wheezed and hunted for the right gear or slipped into lethargy
and manic-depression every time we kicked its ribs. In the end you give up, give in to this mechanical sedation, and give way to anyone who's getting close enough to give you a noogie. * Once back on its own terms and turf, the Elantra
wagon loses its grumpies and reverts to slow albeit pleasant companionship. Which translates to more cargo and people room by several cuboids than Ford Escort, Toyota Corolla, Subaru Impreza or Saturn wagons. Or, thanks to 60 / 40 seats folding flat,
enough air space for a pair of mountain bikes and a big red dog. The rear hatch opens and rises easily and liftover is low. The interior--the bolstering and grasp of seats, the clear view of instruments and short reach to critical controls and
buttons--is quite warm, and pleasantly covered with mid-quality plastics and fabrics. There's head, hip and shoulder room a plenty with all dimensions a match or an improvement on the competition. Accommodations for maps, gloves, parking tickets and
Frappuccinos is generous. And there's a net in the rear compartment so that Playmate coolers and the odd grapefruit do not ricochet. In the years ahead, Hyundai will broaden its range to Japanese and American levels. There's a minivan planned for
1998. Also a compact sport utility, a coupe, a convertible--and South Korea's first luxury sedan with a 4.0-liter V-8. We trust that current transmission diseases aren't mechanically transmittable. 1996 Hyundai Elantra GLS Wagon The
Good: Stylish, value-stuffed counter punch to those who say South Korea doesn't make stylish, value-stuffed subcompacts. Grand handling close to being sporty. Roomier and as practical as competing wagons. A lot of wagon for the money. The Bad:
Doesn't live up to performance potential suggested by 130 horsepower. Engine and transmission protest mightily when overworked. The Ugly: Durability questions raised by engine and transmission woes. Cost Base: $13,799. (Includes dual air
bags and 4-speed automatic; tilt steering; independent suspension; power windows, mirrors and doors; roof rack; rear window wiper / washer; center console with armrest; remote fuel door and trunk lid; child safety locks.) As tested, $15,670. (Includes
air conditioning, cruise control, six-speaker sound system, alloy wheels, floor mats and cargo net.) Engine 1.8-liter, four cylinders inline, developing 130 horsepower. Type Front-engine, front-drive, subcompact station wagon.
Performance 0-60 mph, as tested with automatic, 12.3 seconds. Top speed, estimated, 110 mph. Fuel consumption, EPA city and h
ighway, 22 and 31 mpg. Curb Weight 2,685 pounds.