Truth be told, we've always had a soft spot for the Hyundai Elantra Touring. Rather than being just another compact hatchback, the Touring was a bona fide small wagon – the sort of thing commonly reserved for the European market. It was a less-expensive alternative to the Volkswagen Jetta Sportwagen with an impressive warranty, though its milquetoast demeanor and somewhat odd styling never really made it a hit with the masses.
Nowadays, also-ran status is absolutely unacceptable for Hyundai, especially with anything in the Elantra family. After all, the compact sedan was named the 2012 North American Car of the Year and has been selling like hotcakes ever since it launched. So when we got word that a successor to the Elantra Touring would be on deck, out interest was indeed piqued.
Well, here it is – the 2013 Elantra GT. And while it's wholly different than the Elantra Touring that came before it, Hyundai hopes that its new GT will appeal to the buying public in a much larger way, even besting stiff competition from the likes of class-favorites like the Ford Focus and Mazda3.
This new five-door certainly has a lot riding on its (hatch)back. But does it deliver? We hit the roads outside of San Diego to find out.
In all fairness, we sort of knew ahead of time what the Elantra GT would offer. The outgoing Touring was based on the European-market i30, and the sleek new model debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show this past September. Surprise, surprise – it's nearly exactly the same as the North American-spec Elantra GT that took the stage at the Chicago Auto Show earlier this year. And from the first time we laid eyes on it, we found it to be an attractive, well-rounded little thing – perhaps even better-looking than the already svelte Elantra sedan.
The GT is only slightly different than the i30, though it features some slightly reworked headlamps and different wheel and tire options. But because of its slightly different platform, the Elantra GT has a few dimensional differences compared to its sedan brethren – and we aren't just talking about the addition of that handy hatch. It's a full nine inches shorter in length versus the sedan (169.3 total) and rides on a two-inch shorter wheelbase (104.3). It's also ever-so-slightly wider and taller in height. All of these changes add up to a curb weight that's about 100 pounds heavier than the sedan, but the GT still manages to be the lightest compact car in its class. The base car is a full 151 pounds less than the spritely Mazda3.
If you're a fan of Hyundai's Fluidic Sculpture design language, you'll really like the Elantra GT. There are a lot of pretty things going on here, elements like the pronounced front wheel arches and swooping character line that moves up the side and drops off following the curve of the taillamps, all of which give the GT a fresh, modern appearance with hind quarters that are decidedly European in appearance. Squint and you might think you're driving behind some sort of Seat five-door. Standard rolling stock are some rather generic 16-inch alloy wheels, but an attractive set of chrome-accented 17s – as seen on our test car – can be had as part of the Style Package, wrapped in P215/45-series tires.
Moving inside, the GT's interior has a noticeably different look to that of the Elantra sedan, and while the dashboard, instrument panel and center stack are clean and well-organized, they don't look quite as modern compared to what's found in the sedan (or new-for-2013 Elantra Coupe). Still, the materials used throughout the cabin are high quality and overall fit-and-finish is good, and the main connection points between driver and car – the steering wheel, shift knob, etc. – are wrapped in leather and feel good to the touch. When it comes to the compact class, Hyundai is indeed leading the pack with its interiors.
Furthermore, the Elantra GT offers a full 96 cubic feet of interior space – more than anything else in the segment. It doesn't feel as cramped or claustrophobic as, say, a five-door Focus, and the nicely bolstered seats are comfortable and supportive. Rear seat room is adequate, and taller passengers did not have to squeeze into the back bench. But the real win here is the 51 cubic feet of cargo space available with the seats folded. That's not nearly as capacious as the 65.3 cubic feet offered in the outgoing Elantra Touring, but we'd gladly sacrifice the extra space for the sleeker overall packaging. Even so, 51 cubic feet is nothing to sneeze at – that's roomier than both the Focus and Mazda3.
We had high hopes when we first met the Elantra GT in the parking lot of the Pauma Valley Country Club about 55 miles northwest of San Diego. After all, in the product presentation earlier that morning, we were told about the sport-tuned suspension setup and improved steering feel. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves blasting up the gorgeous roads of Palomar Mountain, the sort of roads where you're exiting one turn and setting up for another at the same time. You really dream about being in something like a Mazda MX-5 Miata here. And on an uphill ascent like this, a car's engine, transmission and steering really get a workout.
The GT uses the same 1.8-liter inline four-cylinder engine as the Elantra sedan, good for 148 horsepower at 6,500 RPM and 131 pound-feet of torque at 4,700 RPM. Those are perfectly adequate numbers for the 2,919-pound six-speed manual-equipped hatch. In fact, the Elantra GT has the best power-to-weight ratio of any five-door in the compact class.
But here's the thing: None of that really helps when the engine can't get its power to the wheels. Going uphill like this, the 1.8 feels absolutely gutless below 4,000 RPM, and the ratios for second and third gears aren't well-matched. You'll be pushing 6,000 RPM in second, shift into third, and you're back below 4,000, completely out of the powerband.
Luckily, the six-speed manual transmission is well-sorted and a friendly companion for lots of shifting action, with a good amount of feedback built into the clutch and a throttle that hasn't been tuned to deliver all of its power at initial tip-in. We've driven some truly terrible manual setups from Korea, Inc. before (Kia Forte, anyone?), so this more engaging setup is a welcome change of pace. If manuals are your thing, you'll be happy to know that you can still spec the stick in even the highest of Elantra GT trims.
Power issues aside, a drive like this allowed us to really test the full capabilities of the steering and suspension – two big wins for the Elantra GT. For the first time ever, Hyundai has employed a driver-selectable steering system, with Comfort, Normal and Sport modes on offer. Of course, we've tested wishy-washy versions of systems like this in vehicles like the 2013 Lexus ES, but here in the Hyundai, there are noticeable differences between the action of the different modes – "Sport" doesn't just mean that a false sense of weight/feel was added to the steering effort.
This is the sort of steering feel we wish were standard across the Elantra board: good on-center feel with plenty of feedback, though a slightly quicker steering ratio would be welcome. Still, for a company not known for great steering feel – especially when incorporating electrically assisted setups – this is a huge step forward.
When asked, Hyundai officials told us that the selectable steering would only be offered on the Elantra GT for now, simply so the automaker can gauge customer reaction. Based on our experience, we certainly hope it spreads throughout the lineup.
The suspension felt surprisingly well-sorted here, too. Of course, there's a slight bit of body roll during tight cornering and the front-wheel-drive setup incorporates safe, yet predictable understeer when really pushing, but all-in, it's exactly what we expected. Hyundai tells us that the i30's MacPherson front and torsion-beam rear suspension was tuned specifically for American markets (read: softened), but even so, it's perfectly capable of handling a bout of spirited driving while remaining comfortable and solid on highways and city streets.
A quick mountain climb isn't the best way to judge the Elantra GT's dynamics. After heading back out onto the road, we were faced with less-engaging roads, the sort of stuff that the majority of drivers will experience day in and day out. Here, the Elantra's powertrain woes weren't nearly as noticeable. Sure, it still feels sluggish while revving low in a gear, but there's ample get-up-and-go off the line and the engine soundtrack doesn't sound wheezy and strained. And as much as we enjoy the Sport steering mode, it's really nice to be able to click it into Comfort and lighten up the steering rack for parking lot maneuvers.
We must remember, too, that the GT's engine and transmission are tuned to offer good fuel economy above all. With either the six-speed manual or automatic transmissions, the five-door will achieve 39 miles per gallon on the highway. Very good stuff there, though in the city cycle, you'll only be hitting 27 or 28 mpg, depending on your transmission choice.
There have been rumors of Hyundai offering a version of its 1.6-liter turbocharged inline four in the Elantra GT, and we'll be crossing our fingers and toes that this comes to fruition. Even with a bit of detuning, some more low-end thrust and better gearing would easily make this hatchback one of the best-driving cars in its class.
The 2013 Elantra GT is making its way to Hyundai showrooms as you read this, priced from $18,395, not including $775 for destination. The six-speed automatic will set you back an additional $1,000, and there are only two options available – a style pack that includes 17-inch alloy wheels, a panoramic sunroof, leather seating surfaces and a handful of other goodies ($2,750), and a navigation pack that adds, well, sat-nav, along with a backup camera, automatic headlamps and automatic climate control ($2,350). Check every box and you'll be spending $25,270 out-the-door.
Hyundai only expects the GT to account for maybe 20 percent of Elantra sales, but from where we sit, it stands to gain more traction. The American market is warming up to hatchbacks now more than ever, and since this eye-catching new five-door already has the Elantra's strong credentials riding along with it, it's a far better offering than the Touring it replaces. The Elantra sedan indeed put the entire compact class on notice, and with the addition of this more functional GT, Hyundai is further cementing its place as a class leader.
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