Just as Hyundai did with the new Sonata -- which matches and in many ways surpasses its top competition in the midsized category, the Honda Accord and Toyota Corolla -- the Korean company is hoping to drive to the front of the compact market.
The Hyundai Elantra has always come up short to the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, but the margin narrowed with each new Elantra model. For 2011, Hyundai is right there; as with the Sonata, the Elantra may be the segment's benchmark.
Finally, the Elantra has styling that is handsome and distinctive, but -- and this is relatively new for Hyundai -- still looks like part of the manufacturer's family. For years, Hyundai seemed to design its vehicles individually, with no apparent concern as to whether they bore any resemblance to the other cars on the Hyundai dealer's lot. Now, look at the Sonata, the Elantra and the new-for-2012 Accent, and you can see a market identity there.
The Elantra, slotting between the entry-level Accent and the larger Sonata, starts at $14,945, which gets you a GLS model with a six-speed manual transmission and quite a few features, including power windows and locks, a good sound system with satellite radio, and keyless entry. It does not, however, get you air conditioning, which is added on as part of a $1,250package that includes cruise control and larger tires and wheels. Add that and $750 in shipping, and the least expensive Elantra with air would list for $16,945. If you want the six-speed automatic transmission, add $1,000.
The good news about all Elantra: No matter what model you get, or which transmission, the EPA-rated mileage is the same – 29 mpg city driving, 40 mpg on the highway. That's on regular gas. This is expected to be a huge selling point for the Elantra -- after all, the new-for-2012 redesigned Volkswagen Beetle, with a diesel engine, is expected to be rated at 29/40 mpg, and diesel fuel is about 30 cents a gallon more than regular gas.
The test Elantra was the top-of-the-line Limited model, which had almost everything you'd want as standard, including air and automatic, plus a power sunroof, heated front and rear seats, alloy wheels and P215/45R-17 tires, and even leather upholstery. But don't get the Elantra's leather confused with the leather in, say, the Hyundai Genesis. It looks and feels like vinyl, but Hyundai says it's leather, so we'll take their word. Base price for the Limited was $19,980, and with only two options -- carpeted floor mats and a cable to connect your iPod to the stereo -- the price was $20,830, with shipping. A "Premium Package" would have added another $2,100 -- it has a navigation system, a rear-view camera, a more potent 360-watt stereo and push-button start. I didn't miss having any of that.
The Elantra is built at Hyundai's new assembly plant in Montgomery, Alabama, but only 34 percent of the parts for the car come from the U.S. -- the rest are still shipped in, mostly from Korea, including the engine. Likely that will change as Hyundai develops a network of parts suppliers closer to the factory. Build quality of the test Elantra appears to be on par with what we've seen from Korea the last few years, which means it's quite good.
On the road, the six-speed automatic hits a nice balance between maximizing the engine's 148horsepower, yet finding a gear as soon as it can that will lower engine speed, and raise fuel mileage. There's plenty of power for acceleration. The ride can be a little choppy -- wheelbase is 106.3 inches, but it feels shorter -- but the Elantra is fine even for long-distance driving. Handling is crisp, but not quite sporting, and the new electric-boosted power steering lacks any sort of feel -- there's work to be done there.
Front seats are fine, and there's room in the car for four six-foot passengers, and there's still a 14.8-cubic-foot trunk. In terms of packaging, the Elantra can't be faulted. Up front, instruments and controls are competently done and easy to figure out and operate. With the leather and the sunroof, the Elantra Limited doesn't look or feel like a cut-rate, all-you-can-afford alternative.
Plus, it doesn't hurt that it's downright handsome. Once again, Hyundai takes aim and hits the bulls-eye. Well done.
2012 Hyundai Elantra Limited
Base price: $19,980
Price as tested: $20,830
EPA rating: 29 miles per gallon city driving, 40 mpg highway
Engine: 1.8-liter, 148-horsepower four-cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Length: 178.3 inches
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
In a nutshell: Hyundai drives to the front of the compact segment.