18TH JULY, 2012:
Hyundai hasn't had much success selling cars above the Rs 12 lakh price point. The category was small when compared to the overall car market and maybe Hyundai's pricier sedans were a little early for their times. But whatever the reasons, cars like the Sonata and the Elantra were just not able to live up to the initial hype surrounding the original Sonata's launch.
The Elantra was even more interesting and intriguing. It was a decent car, offered with a good package and even managed to stir the competition to tweak their cars to match some of its attributes (ride quality for one). But the Elantra still failed to really make an impact with its sales numbers. Eventually, after being in the market for about four years, the sedan was withdrawn. But, that was the past.
The Elantra is now due to make a comeback and Hyundai must be hoping that this time it can carve itself a neat niche. The segment has a mix of old models like the Toyota Corolla, the Honda Civic and the Skoda Laura, and the relatively new ones like the Volkswagen Jetta, Chevrolet Cruze and the Renault Fluence. So, it is not like the buyer in the segment has been starved for choice.
Yet, the addition of a seventh model - the Elantra - could bring in some much needed freshness and competitive pressure in the segment.
The fifth generation Elantra is due to be launched by Hyundai soon and here are my first impressions after driving the new sedan.
The new Elantra attempts to merge with the Hyundai family design language. But, there is a sense of identity and design expression in the new Elantra, even as it sticks to the 'Fluidic' philosophy. It is distinctly a Hyundai, but it also has very recognizable lines that are shared by all other cars in the stable. The i10, i20, the current Verna and the new Elantra feature minor variations of features like the hexagonal grille, swept back headlamps, strong bonnet character lines and the overemphasized tornado line on the side.
The Elantra's new design is definitely more radical, modern and pleasing than the previous generation's. The most interesting profile of the new Elantra is from the side. Very much like the new Sonata's, the Elantra too seems to carry off the roofline of a coupé very well. In fact, though it seems quite improbable, it also manages to bring together a rather cab-forward style design at the front and the coupé-like rear.
At the rear, the new Elantra features a simple, symmetric and classy look, very similar to the Sonata. In fact, from a distance you'll mistake it to be the Sonata. The oversized rear bumper lifts up the impact of the rear design.
Hyundai engineers have chosen to take the whole concept of Fluidic design also into the interior of the new Elantra. The dashboard and centre console get the treatment and feature what they call the waterfall design - something that we have seen in some other cars too, though the Elantra has its own delightful excess.
The interior wears a beige and dark grey dual tone finish. The perforated leather seats in the top-end trim that I was driving were very comfy and bolstered at all the right places. There are glossy black and aluminium finished inserts all around the interior including the door panels. The overall quality of the interior is really good and there is an element of premiumness that comes through with the unique centre stack and supervision cluster. Blue back-lighting of all the displays adds to the coolness factor. Push button start, auto headlamps and dual zone automatic air-conditioning are standard.
True to its trademark style, Hyundai has built in a couple of segment busting features in the new Elantra too. The one I liked best was the ventilated driver and front passenger leather seats. Touch the button on the centre stack and almost immediately cool air engulfs your rear helping it stay sweat-free.
The driver's seat is 10-way power adjustable, though it would have been a very unconventional, but shrewd market strategy if it was the front passenger seat that had so many options instead. The chunky steering wheel is nice to hold and is adjustable for tilt and reach. It also sports controls for the infotainment system and cruise control - a button that I am quite sure is likely to be used only once during the car's lifetime. Air conditioner vents on the dashboard are small and though they are effective enough in cooling the interior, their size could also be the reason for the fan noise getting a bit loud at high speeds. Rear seat gets its own pair of vents.
The new Elantra is offered with quite a varied complement of powertrains compared to the competing cars in the segment. Two engines, one each of petrol and diesel and both of them are offered with the option of either a six-speed automatic or a six-speed manual transmission.
The petrol engine is a 1,797cc dual VTVT unit with Hyundai's variable valve timing tech. The engine produces a peak power of 150 PS at 6,500 rpm and a maximum torque of 18.2 KgM at 4,700 rpm. I didn't get to drive the petrol Elantra, instead Hyundai had offered the diesel Elantra with the six-speed auto gearbox for my test drive.
The diesel engine is the 1.6-litre CRDi VGT, which is the same mill from the current Verna with the same specifications. The 1,582cc engine generates a peak power of about 128 PS at 4,000 rpm and a peak torque of 26.5 KgM at 1,900 to 2,750 rpm.
Leg up to power delivered is thanks to the boost generated by a variable geometry turbocharger. The turbo alters performance based on demands placed by the driver and is pretty quick to spool up, but it doesn't entirely eliminate lag. There is enough pulling power available after the needle crosses the 1,200-1,400 rpm level, though peak torque is available only within a fairly narrow rpm band. However, though the diesel engine is shared with the lighter Verna, there is nothing to suggest that it is laboured or wheezy in the Elantra.
There is a bit of transmission noise that seeps into the cabin when the engine is on a boil, but otherwise the passenger area is quiet and vibe-free in the Elantra. The automatic gearbox features a torque converter and shifts are quick, but come in early in Eco-driving mode. There is also an H-matic option that allows manual gear (+/-) selection.
The ride quality in the new Elantra continues the previous gen's class-leading ability to soak up poor roads especially for the back benchers. Suspension set up for the rear is coupled torsion beam axle. With a wheelbase of 2,700mm, matched only by the Honda Civic in the segment, the Elantra manages to offer considerable legroom at the rear.
Handling, however, could have been a bit better. With the steering wheel only offering average feedback, it seems to be more tuned towards city driving than for winding country roads. There is no feeling of hesitation on the straights of the highway, but taking on corners might need the assistance of ESP and VSM (electronic stability program and vehicle stability management), both of which are part of the package. There is a raft of other safety features too, including hill assist control.
The new Elantra promises to be another classic Hyundai with its great value package - based on my assumption that its pricing will be competitive. Hyundai officials are said to be keen on benchmarking the price of the new Elantra to that of the Toyota Corolla. So, set trim to trim against competing cars, it won't be found lacking in features or in sticker appeal.
But, what it might have to face is buyer perceptions to its relatively close resemblance to the Verna, and thankfully a bit of the Sonata too. There will also be the whole issue of pricing that needs to be got right. The new Elantra must, in my opinion, still represent appealing value and yet not seem underpriced. There is a strong likelihood that the car will poach from buyers in-house, who might have otherwise been considering the Verna's top-end. Expect the new Elantra to be priced in the Rs 12 lakh to Rs 16 lakh price band.
But, in the end that might just be to Hyundai's advantage. For one, the buyer would still be staying with the family and for another, just like how the new Verna has contributed significantly to a change of image for Hyundai, the Elantra too might help shape the change further.