A very short person once told me that good things come in small packages.
Perhaps there's some truth to that. Carmakers have certainly started taking notice of the little rides in the subcompact segment, once the refuge of doors that sounded like tuning forks when they closed. And I'm not talking good tuning forks.
The role these cars played was an inexpensive one. They remain some of the most affordable new cars available, but now they have a lot more style, amenities and performance. Blame $4-a-gallon gasoline for the renewed interest.
Carmakers such as Honda Motor Co. and Ford Motor Co. are rolling out pretty nice subcompact cars. The new Nissan Versa will arrive soon, as will a made-over Chevy Aveo, adopting the name Sonic from either hedgehog or burger joint fame.
The 2012 Hyundai Accent keeps its name from three previous generations. Once an afterthought of a car, unremarkable in its looks and performance, the all-new version moves to the front of the wee pack with a stylish exterior, gutsy performance and enough space to carry a Toyota Yaris.
Technically, the five-door Accent is a compact car, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, which classifies cars by interior volume. (In our hearts, it will be a subcompact forever.) All of that space comes from the longer wheelbase an additional 2.8 inches, to 101.2 inches and 0.2 inches added to its width. In design terms, this 0.2 inches equals one smidge.
But here's where you notice the difference: sitting in the front seats. There's just a lot more space, especially for your shoulders and elbows. Subcompacts have a tendency to feel cramped, especially for many American-size passengers. But the Accent feels extremely comfortable, with a nice open space in the front and enough room in the back to carry a couple of adults (though I wouldn't want to sit back there on a road trip across America).
More importantly, the interior materials are significantly improved over the outgoing model. This car feels downright luxurious at points. There's soft blue lighting throughout the inside of the cabin. The multi-tier dash breaks up the huge amount of plastic needed to create any dash, and the elegant silver trim brings together all of the elements, such as the gear shifter, instrument panel, steering wheel and doors. There's cohesion throughout the cabin that's intuitive and relaxing.
There's also space to carry a lot of stuff, with cubbies and storage spaces in the doors, behind the seats and in the center console, which can move fore and aft to find the right spot for your arm. There's also a lot of space in the back with 21 cubic feet of storage space in the five-door model (47.5 cubic feet of space with the second row folded down) and 13.7 cubic feet of trunk space in the sedan.
Moreover, the Accent offers all of those big-car accessories, mirroring the premium interior found in the Ford Fiesta. They include Bluetooth connectivity and a USB port to an optional 172-watt, six-speaker stereo system. Who knew all of the comforts of home could be combined into such a small package?
A little something extra
Meanwhile, the Accent maintains its little looker exterior.
Following the successful midsize Sonata and compact Elantra, the Accent is the bow on the fluidic design package.
The nicely creased sheet metal moves all the way across the sides, and there is just enough jewelry on it sparkling big headlamps, curvy fog lamps and wrap-around taillights that make the Accent look more expensive than it really is. That's always good design.
So is making both models distinctive-looking but holding a family resemblance. The hatchback includes a much different backside with tall headlamps, while the sedan has a much curvier roofline that provides ample head room for second-row passengers but still gives the car a lean profile.
All of that doesn't mean much if the Accent can't perform on the road.
And that's always been the problem with subcompacts. When you put a little engine in a little car, it typically provides you with just a little performance. Fortunately, most subcompacts also come with little expectations. Before the Fiesta arrived, only the Honda Fit provided a fun ride, and by fun, I mean lots of road noise and an uncomfortable driving position.
The Accent brings a little 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, but this time, Hyundai has included direct injection. This pushes the horsepower up to 138 and the torque up to 123 pound-feet. Furthermore, the Accent includes a six-speed manual or automatic transmission.
For most people, the automatic will serve just fine. The car doesn't burn up the road, but I never had that expectation. It can be driven hard, and it's pretty forgiving when it is. I actually liked this car better on the highway because it was so remarkably quiet. It could do 80 mph nicely with a comfortable ride.
A peppy ride
On city roads, the Accent drove best if you were never in a hurry. The power in the engine is on the far right side of the tach, and when you wind it out, it can feel jumpy. But if you drive normally, the Accent has plenty of pep and an all-around good ride.
One of the nice standard features Hyundai offers is disc brakes on all models. One way to save money when building a little car is to put drum brakes on the back. Hyundai skipped this money-saving idea and still delivered a well-priced vehicle.
There's something to be said for a carmaker that just goes one step beyond everyone else. Also, the braking is noticeably better than with other small cars disc brakes are just more efficient, maybe because they're smaller.
Hyundai continues that trend of building smaller cars better with the Accent and sets a new bar for everyone to reach.
Small no longer means cheaper. And small no longer means less capable or even less comfort.
The small revolution continues with the Accent. Tall and short people can rejoice.
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Overall: *** 1/2
Exterior: Excellent. New look is sleek and modern and pure Dodge.
Interior: Good. Great materials, well designed and intuitive. Lots of high-tech features and more space for everyone.
Performance: Excellent. Powerful engine and available all-wheel drive makes this a car for all seasons.
Pros: Beautiful look, low starting price and great interior make this car an affordable family sedan.
Cons: If you drive it like a race car instead of a family sedan, mileage numbers won't come close to the EPA numbers.
**** Excellent *** Good ** Fair * Poor