2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco gas mileage road-trip report

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Road trips are an integral part of the American myth, with writers from de Toqueville to Jack Kerouac setting out to experience the variety and beauty of the huge country.

Vehicle launch events, on the other hand, are heavily scripted—with pre-set drive routes often designed to highlight a car's best attributes and camouflage any flaws.

But when Hyundai launched the 2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco in May, it did something different.

DON'T MISS: 2017 Hyundai Elantra Limited gas mileage review

It offered more than a dozen auto journalists each a car, to take from the factory on whatever routes they wanted, for as long as they cared to drive.

We love road trips. And we were on it like a shot.

Starting with a tour of the assembly plant in Montgomery, Alabama, where all U.S.-market Elantras are built, we put 2,900 miles on our bright blue sedan in just six days.

2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco road trip, May 2016

2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco road trip, May 2016

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Our route took us south and west to New Orleans, then into Texas (Houston and Austin, then heading north to Dallas).

Then we turned toward the northeast, with a long route through Arkansas and into Nashville, then on to Kentucky, West Virginia, and across the Mason-Dixon Line into Pennsylvania, before ending our trip in New York's Hudson Valley.

Why this route? It let us put miles on the car while visiting colleagues, not to mention up picking up three different sets of obscure old-car parts from various locations.

Not only did we stretch our driving legs, we got intimately familiar with what the car was like to live with during that crucial 15th hour of a very long day of driving.

ALSO SEE: 2017 Hyundai Elantra - Review

But first, the context. The 2017 Elantra Eco is the highest fuel-efficiency variant of Hyundai's successful Elantra lineup.

Starting with the radically styled 2011 model, the Elantra has taken Hyundai from an also-ran to a volume contender in the market for compact four-door sedans.

Redesigned for 2017, the latest Elantra has cleaner and more sophisticated lines, more features and options, and a host of electronic active-safety systems.

The Elantra Eco version uses a 128-horsepower, 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine paired with a 7-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. It's EPA-rated at 35 mpg combined (32 mpg city, 40 mpg highway).

2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco road trip, May 2016 - starting point at factory in Montgomery, Alabama

2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco road trip, May 2016 - starting point at factory in Montgomery, Alabama

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That compares to the 147-hp 2.0-liter 4-cylinder used in standard Elantras, which can be ordered with either a 6-speed automatic or on base models, a 6-speed manual gearbox.

The standard Elantra Limited is rated at 32 mpg combined (28 city, 37 highway) with a six-speed automatic transmission.

You can do incrementally better in a non-Eco Elantra by specifying the low-end SE model, which comes in 1 mpg higher on all three measurements: 33 mpg combined (29 city, 38 highway).

CHECK OUT: Hyundai Plans Hybrids, Electric Cars & More: 5 Qs With R&D Head Ki-Sang Lee

Our route encompassed most types of driving you can find in the U.S.

Long, flat, straight stretches of two-lane Interstate highway through the humid bayous of Louisiana gave way to a 12-lane-wide piece in central Houston that was still choked with stop-and-go traffic.

Kentucky, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania included the winding roads and deep valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, and we passed through any number of battered communities likely suffering from the slow death of the coal industry.

West Virginia Coal Hauler window sticker

West Virginia Coal Hauler window sticker

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Accents and road food varied, but truck stops, deep-fried delicacies, and gigantic expanses of asphalt swimming with semi tractor and trailer rigs were a constant.

Amidst the trucks, pickups, and large SUVs, our Elantra often felt little and low, but that's the American vehicular landscape. (How it got that way is a different story.)

Over 2,900 miles, the Elantra Eco's trip computer indicated that we had achieved gas mileage of 44.8 miles per gallon.

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