Nimbly Avoiding Confrontation
2004 Hyundai Elantra GT Hatchback

The offset news was upsetting. Hyundai Elantra models for the 2001-03 model years received "poor" ratings in frontal offset crash tests conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Poor means the drivers of those cars have a high risk of head, neck and leg injuries in 40-mph, 40-degree-angle, frontal crashes between vehicles of similar size, according to the institute's evaluation.

Those kinds of collisions, in which 100 percent of the crash energy is concentrated on a small front portion of a vehicle, are the worst sort. Unlike full-width frontal crashes, frontal offset hits allow more crash forces to enter the passenger cabin and harm occupants.

By extrapolation, the institute's rating of the 2001-03 Elantras meant the 2004 Hyundai Elantra GT hatchback sitting in my driveway had a similar potential for crash injury.

The 2004 Elantra is built largely on the 2001-03 platform. The changes for 2004, with the notable exception of a new continuously variable valve-timing device in its engine, are mostly cosmetic.

But I drove the new Elantra GT anyway. It is not so much that I am reckless as I am pathologically cynical when it comes to results from lab-test crashes.

The smallest thing can change the outcome of those smash-bang exercises in which computerized dummies are the "drivers." An adjustment in air-bag deployment speeds, the addition of side or head bags, or a seat-belt adjustment -- any and all of those things and more -- could substantially change crash-test results.

Indeed, using a human being in place of a dummy could change the results. Humans react to impending danger. They try to avoid it. On the highway, success in crash avoidance varies with a driver's skills and the vehicle's active safety personality -- its handling ability, its suspension system and steerability and the addition of features such as anti-lock brakes.

Though I think highly of my driving skills, that self-assessment is, of course, debatable. But there is little to argue about in the matter of the Elantra GT's road competence. It is a remarkably nimble front-wheel-drive car. It's almost astonishing when you consider that it is, after all, an economy runner.

I drove the Elantra GT mostly in the city, where it excels. It has the right amount of urban oomph -- a 138-horsepower, two-liter, inline four-cylinder engine. The continuously variable valve-timing device, which more efficiently opens and closes air-fuel intake valves, makes the best use of that power.

There is good low-end torque, torque being the force that produces drive-shaft rotation. As a result, the Elantra does quite well in the myriad stop-and-go and slow-to-go situations in city driving.

Highway running in the Elantra GT is commendable for relatively short trips, such as round-trip tr avel from Washington, D.C., to New York City. The car's "Euro-tuned suspension" offers a hard ride, which is great for instant, curve-taking gratification. But it isn't so good for a longer-term relationship between the driver's bottom and the driver's seat.

All said, I like this car. Hyundai officials contend that, because of certain interior modifications, the 2004 Elantra GT should do better than its 2001-03 predecessors in the insurance institute's frontal offset crash tests. I did not try to verify that claim in real-world driving.

The way I figure it, you can die or be injured in a variety of ways, in or out of a vehicle. I don't worry about it. I just try to delay my inevitable appearance at the Pearly Gates by wearing seat belts, driving as well as I can, loving the ride and hoping for the best.

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: There is a possibility, based on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's crash-test results, that the Elantra GT ay not be your best friend in a specific kind of crash -- a 40-mph hit at a 40-degree angle into the front side of the car.

Recommended remedy: Don't crash.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Very good short-distance ride; excellent stop-to-start and slow-to-go acceleration; overall excellent handling.

Head-turning quotient: New front-end treatment and a revised taillight design give the new Elantra GT a richer look. People noticed.

Vehicle layout/design: The Elantra GT is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive car with a rear hatch.

Engine/transmission: The Elantra GT is equipped with a 2-liter, 16-valve engine that develops 138 horsepower at 6,000 revolutions per minute. Maximum torque is 136 foot-pounds at 4,500 rpm. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. A four-speed automatic is optional.

Capacities: The Elantra GT has seating for five people. Maximum cargo capacity is 37 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 14.5 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: I averaged 30 miles per gallon in mostly city driving.

Safety: Front side bags are standard.

Pricing: Base price on tested 2004 Elantra GT in "Rally Red" paint is $14,849. Dealer invoice price on that model is $13,667. Price as tested is $16,189, including $800 in options and a $540 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: Good value for the dollar. Compare with Ford Focus, Mazda3, Saturn Ion, Suzuki Aerio and the Toyota Corolla S.