Last year, the all-new model of the Hyundai Elantra compact sedan catapulted the Korean make into the top tier of compact sellers. The company struggled to build enough Elantras to meet demand, and for 2012, the demand for the stylish yet inexpensive Elantra looks like it will only continue.
Globally, compact cars are the largest segment overall, and competition among major automakers is fierce. Hyundai's new and capable competitor makes the top-selling U.S. compact, the Toyota Corolla, look grim, dated, and dowdy. The 2012 Hyundai Elantra has a distinctive design, a refined ride, and a neatly detailed interior filled with features, for a price that may be $1,000 below comparably equipped competitors from Honda, Nissan, Chevrolet, and Ford. Prices start just above $15,000 and even the highest-spec version starts at only around $20,500.
And as Hyundai points out relentlessly, it's the only compact sedan rated at 40 mpg highway for every model--not just for special "Eco" models. Its full ratings are 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, giving it an EPA combined gas mileage rating of 33 mpg combined. Our tests indicated that's a realistic number, although some consumers say they're not getting nearly that fuel economy--leading Hyundai to commission independent tests to back up the ratings.
Style-wise, the "Fluidic Sculpture" theme translates well to the Elantra from the mid-size Sonata that pioneered the look. The 2012 Elantra, in fact, appears less pudgy and more crisp than its big sibling. Inside, it has almost the room of a mid-size sedan, although rear-seat headroom is tight. Inside, it offers an admirable amount of practical storage, including cubbies, cupholders, trays, and slots. Both the USB port and the power jack are easily reached, and the car is well insulated, so you can hear your music even at highway speeds. The rear seat-back folds down, too, opening to the trunk to give space for loading large flat things. Ikea furniture kits, anyone?
Motivated by a 148-horsepower, 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine, the Elantra moves along at a decent pace using either the six-speed automatic transmission or the base six-speed manual gearbox. Hyundai has taken some weight out of the Elantra, compared to earlier versions, and the light 2,700-pound weight clearly helps with efficiency as well. It's got all the standard safety equipment, though, and airbags in all the usual places. Handling is only average, and the electric power steering is fairly numb, but the four-wheel disc brakes are excellent--and still unusual in a cost-sensitive category where many cars have rear drums.
The base, manual-transmission 2012 Elantra comes with standard power locks, windows, and mirrors, along with keyless entry. If you upgrade to the automatic transmission, you also get cruise control, air conditioning, and an adjustable steering wheel that not only tilts but telescopes along with it. The optional navigation system has the largest display of any compact car, and it includes real-time traffic and weather data, voice recognition, Bluetooth pairing, and more.
Overall, we think the Hyundai Elantra delivers remarkable value. It does have a few quirks--some of which we weren’t too fond of--including the lack of an exterior trunk button or lock (sadly, an increasingly common trend, we find). But the Elantra's sales success shows that the new-car market picks up quickly on new models that go above and beyond the average. If we were the folks designing the next Toyota Corolla, we'd be worried--and so should Honda, Chevy, and Ford.
There's also a 2012 Hyundai Elantra Touring, which is the station wagon model of the previous Elantra that's now in its last year of production. Its styling is older, the interior is different, and while it's versatile, roomy, and sporty, it's far less refined than the new sedan--and considerably noisier too. It's powered by a 138-hp, 2.0-liter four, paired with either a five-speed manual gearbox or an aged four-speed automatic. That hurts its gas mileage, which the EPA rates at 26 mpg combined.
For 2013, it will be replaced by a five-door hatchback model called the Elantra GT--and there'll also be an Elantra Coupe, which takes the styling of the sedan and stretches it over a lithe two-door shape that looks pretty stunning.
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