Compact cars used to be a compromise. They were short on style, lacking in amenities and not exactly entertaining to drive. They were usually cramped, especially for those unlucky enough to draw the back-seat-short-straw. In their defense, compact cars were good on gas, and usually cheap to buy and maintain. They certainly weren’t aspirational purchases (unless you were buying your very first car), but were usually a rational decision designed to stretch the family budget. What if you could buy a compact car that had style, enough interior room to qualify it as a midsize car and enough luxury amenities that you were forced to do a double take on the window sticker? What if that car was even relatively entertaining behind the wheel, yet still returned up to 40 miles per gallon of fuel economy? Would this be the stuff of science fiction? Actually, it would be Hyundai’s new Elantra.
Designed by Andre Hudson, the same designer behind the new Hyundai Sonata, the 2011 Elantra is the next car to use Hyundai’s “fluidic sculpture” design language. Compared to others in the compact sedan segment, the Elantra really stands out; deep set character lines run up the doors and are offset by pronounced and flared wheel arches. A steeply raked windshield conveys a sense of speed, even when the car is standing still. The front grill carries over the hexagonal design theme pioneered on the Sonata, but doesn’t take the easy way out by simply copying it. You can tell that the 2011 Elantra is from the same company that builds the Sonata, but it’s more visually interesting than just a scaled down version. Bold styling can be polarizing, but I suspect a lot of people will love the lines of the new Elantra.
As sexy as the exterior may be, it’s the interior where the Elantra really shines. In no way, shape or form does the car convey the message “compact car” or “economy car”. In fact, I’d say there’s as much interior room as in my wife’s 2006 Acura TSX; how that’s possible, I have no idea. Interior materials are first rate: the dash is a pleasant mix of soft touch vinyl with contrasting plastic trim. Unlike so many other cars built to a price point, it’s visually interesting inside, and it’s got all the luxury you could want. Want heated seats in the front and the rear? You can get them. Want a navigation system and a 360 watt premium audio system? They’re available, as is ventilated leather seating, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming, automatic headlights, proximity key with push button starting, a moonroof and repeater turn signals on the side mirrors.
Opt for the bargain basement GLS model with the six speed manual, and you still get quite a bit of car for the money. The six speed manual is superb, with a better than average shifter feel and well spaced gearing. The cloth seats are comfortable and look like they’ll hold up well over time; they don’t offer a heated seat option, but they’ll warm up quicker than leather seats anyway. Even the GLS trim level steering wheel (which lacks the Limited’s leather cover) is well shaped and can be ordered with Hyundai’s outstanding steering wheel controls for phone, audio, cruise control and trip computer functions.
Regardless of which Elantra version you opt for, power comes from Hyundai’s Nu 1.8 liter four. It’s more powerful than the outgoing Beta 2.0 liter four, and it’s 74 pounds lighter thanks to the use of an aluminum block and head. It’s also got some up-market features, like the use of a timing chain over a timing belt to increase service intervals. It’s got variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust side and features a variable length intake runner to maximize both low end torque and high end power. The engine comes mated to either a six speed manual (in GLS trim versions only) or a six speed automatic (in GLS or Limited trim). All combinations of engine and transmission are rated at 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, which makes them unique in their class. To achieve a highway fuel economy above 40 mpg, Chevy Cruze buyer have to opt for the Cruze Eco. Ford buyers will need to buy the Ford Fiesta with the Super Fuel Economy Package to get to 40 mpg on the highway, and neither the gas engined Honda Civic nor the Toyota Corolla will get you to 40 mpg no matter what version you select.
The Elantra’s fuel economy is the result of careful design on the part of Hyundai. The car’s shape gives it a drag coefficient of just .28, which is the best in the compact car class. The Nu engine improved fuel economy by 7.4% over the outgoing Beta engine, and the new six speed auto transmission yields a 4.1% improvement over the outgoing four speed trans. A smart alternator, electronic power steering, low rolling resistance tires and weight savings give the new Elantra an additional 5.7% improvement in fuel economy over the previous model.
As good as the new Elantra is, it does have some faults. The previous version had a four wheel independent suspension, while the new Elantra makes do with an independent front suspension and torsion beam rear. It’s not a big deal, since the Elantra still felt planted and stable at any speeds I drove. It understeers at the limit, but no more than you’d expect it to; besides, I doubt many Elantras are purchased to win autocross trophies. A bigger sin, in my eyes, is the transmission: the shiftable automatic doesn’t hold a gear to redline, and that’s simply inexcusable. What’s the point of allowing a driver to shift if the transmission over-rides his input? Why does the car automatically assume I want to save fuel by upshifting from first to second at 5,000 RPM, then upshifting from second to third at 3,000 RPM? Please, Hyundai, fix this single flaw with the 2011 Elantra, and while you’re at it add the six speed manual transmission option to the Limited version. Your manual gearbox is superb, nearly as good as Honda’s, and there are drivers out there who’d love to have heated leather seats with a row-it-yourself gearbox.
So what’s the price range for the new Elantra? A base GLS model with no options and the manual transmission starts at $14,830, excluding destination charge. At the other extreme, an Elantra Limited Premium stickers at $21,980 (excluding destination charge), but that includes the nav system and all other options. A GLS with every option except nav stickers at $17,630, and I suspect that’s the version Hyundai will sell the most of. Based on initial sales, I’d say the biggest problem Hyundai faces in the next year is figuring out how to build enough Sonatas and Elantras to meet customer demand; for an automaker, there are far worse problems to have.