Orlando Sentinel's view

It’s hard to believe that 2007 marks the fourth generation of the Hyundai Elantra. Even more than the larger Sonata or smaller Accent, the Elantra arguably represents the company’s startling progress from the time it was introduced in 1992 to now.

As it has been from the start, the Elantra remains Hyundai’s competition for the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, as well as for domestics such as the Ford Focus (before that, the Escort) and Chevrolet Cobalt (before that, the Cavalier).

That 1992 Elantra introduced a feature that has served Hyundai well since then, and it had nothing to do with the car itself. The ’92 Elantra came with a warranty package called Value Care, which covered normal maintenance for two years or 24,000 miles. The powertrain warranty was raised to five years or 60,000 miles, up from three years or 36,000 miles. This showed the buying public that the company and its dealers had confidence in the product, and it translated into sales.

And that was upped to what we have now: The Hyundai Advantage is a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, and there’s a five-year, 60,000-mile warranty on most other components. And there’s a five-year roadside assistance plan with no mileage limit. In 2004, parts of the warranty became transferable to a second owner. I submit that Hyundai’s generous warranty plan did more to advance Hyundai’s cause — not to mention resale value — than anything else.

It does not hurt that Hyundai’s quality has improved dramatically, as has attention to detail: It used to seem as though designers and engineers worked from a simple checklist, especially regarding the interior. “Radio buttons? Check. Climate control buttons? Check.” It didn’t matter if those buttons had the right look or feel — important distinctions that the Japanese learned a long time ago.

The 2007 Elantra is the best yet, adding two inches of width and 2.2 inches to the height over the 2006 model. This does, in fact, move the Elantra from the EPA’s “compact” to the “midsize” category, with more interior room than an Acura TL. If rear-seat passengers don’t mind the relatively flat, hard seat, there’s ample legroom. Up front, twin bucket seats are very comfortable. Seat quality is something Hyundai has long needed to address — and has.

The 2007 Elantra comes in three models: The base GLS, which starts at $13,395 — it’s pretty bare-bones, as that doesn’t include air conditioning. At the other end is the relatively deluxe Limited, starting at $16,895. In the middle is the SE, which is tested here. It starts at $15,695, and at that price has most everything I want: The only option was a set of $85 floor mats, and with $600 shipping, the sticker read a reasonable $16,380.

Standard on all Elantras are four-wheel disc brakes with antilock, plus six airbags and active head restraint. The test car had air conditioning, cruise control, a trip computer, power locks, windows and mirrors; 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, a good stereo with six speakers, keyless entry, fog lights and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

The transmission was a very smooth-shifting five speed manual. A four-speed automatic is a $1,000 option. The manual suits the car’s surprisingly sporty personality, and it works well with the 2.0-liter, 138-horsepower four-cylinder engine. EPA fuel mileage is rated at 28 miles per gallons city, 36 mpg highway.

As it always has, the Elantra delivers a lot for the money, but never has it been this roomy or this — well, sophisticated. It’s an economy car in price only.

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