Civic who? Corolla what? The Hyundai Elantra's one of the new standard bearers in the compact-sedan segment, with 40-mpg fuel economy, better safety, and class-leading standard features.
It's possible to point to one vehicle that illustrates just how deeply and how quickly South Korea's automakers have intruded on the territory once owned by the Japanese brands. The car? The Hyundai Elantra, new in 2011, and still pwning the likes of the Civic and Corolla with its lofty gas mileage, improved safety scores, and rich standard-features list.
The Elantra's one of the best compact cars available today, period. The North American Car of the Year for 2012, the Elantra's an excellent value on many fronts. But it's also a new bit of visual shorthand for the Korean company. More fluid than the bigger Sonata, and more accomplished and refined too, the Elantra slices its way through the field of dull-looking compact four-doors with even more authority than the tight Focus and honed Dart. Calling it the best possible evolution of Pontiac, had it lived, wouldn't be an insult: the way the Elantra's rear quarter panels mimic the lightness of the last G6 can't be lost on GM, which now has the handsome but staid little Chevy Cruze to sell. If anything, the Elantra's cockpit's a little more daring than the exterior, with the hourglass of the center console a defining shape that just happens to function perfectly as a comfy knee rest.
Hyundai pared weight wherever it could to keep the Elantra lean and efficient. The effort paid off with a body that weighs less, and with fuel economy that rose to a magic marketing number. The previous Elantra's 2.0-liter four is down to 1.8 liters in this generation; with 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque in all, the Elantra performs smoothly and respectably with either a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual. The Elantra doesn't feel as energetic or engaging as the Ford Focus, though, because its throttle is slow to respond to inputs, and its steering--while improved with better on-center feel this year--isn't especially natural in its feedback. Ride quality is excellent, though, and the Elantra soaks up road noise as well as, or better than its competitors, with noise levels about as low as some mid-size sedans. That's an important metric for the Elantra, since its interior space borders on mid-size as well. The front seats could use a little more bolstering and lateral support, but they're surrounded by ample space in all directions. In back, the leg room is fine for adults, but head room can be tight, even for medium-height passengers. The rear seats fold forward easily, if not completely flat, and that allows longer objects to be loaded into the relatively large, wide trunk. The Elantra's interior has lots of useful cubbies and storage bins, including a covered one that sits ahead of the shift lever: it also contains the aux jack, a power point, and the USB port in an easy to reach module, perfect for connecting smartphones.
All Elantras come with those features, and others that make it one of the best-equipped base vehicles in the segment. Even the base GLS has power windows, locks, and mirrors; keyless entry; and (on automatic models) air conditioning; cruise control; and telescopic steering. Options can turn the Elantra into a luxurious sedan; the navigation system has one of the largest LCD touchscreens in the class, and it's beautiful to look at and to use, with voice recognition for phone, audio, and and destinations, plus real-time traffic and weather. Bluetooth and audio streaming are standard, too; a rearview camera comes with the navigation system, and to top it all off, the Elantra earns the IIHS' Top Safety Pick designation and now, the NHTSA's coveted five-star rating for crash safety.
Later this year, the Elantra family grows with a two-door Coupe model and a hatchback GT edition. Will they bring the Elantra closer to the Focus' sporty edge? We'll let you know soon, after a road test in the coming weeks.