2012 Hyundai Elantra: The Next Compact Car BMOC?

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Hyundai is becoming a juggernaut.

The Korean automaker isn’t content merely to be competitive. It intends to dominate. Last year, the new Sonata cold-cocked the mid-sized family car segment, with features such as a standard 200 hp engine that also delivers 35 MPG on the highway wrapped up in one of the sharpest sheetmetal suits going – for about $19k to start.

Next up, the redesigned Elantra.

As OJ might say, Look out!

WHAT IT IS

The Elantra is a sedan/coupe up one notch in size and price from Hyundai’s entry-level subcompact, the Accent (the only remaining Hyundai that’s still a Blue Lite Special, by the way). This review will focus on the sedan.

Like the new Ford Focus and Chevy Cruze, the Elantra’s a slightly bigger car than the typical “compact” sedan.

It’s also a much nicer car than mainline econoboxes such as the Granny Panty Toyota Corolla  – and if you give it a look see, ought to make you think twice before buying living-on-fumes-of-former-glory class leaders like the Honda Civic.

Prices start at $15,195 for a base GLS sedan with 1.8 liter engine and six-speed manual transmission; a top-of-the-line Limited with six-speed automatic carries an MSRP of $20,445.

WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012

Fuel efficiency is the Big Thing – in part for the obvious reason that gas is back up to almost $4 a gallon again and also because the government is about to kick-up mandatory MPG minimums again.  So the ’12 Elantra offers a new driver-selectable “Active Eco” mode that dials back maximum power (and optimizes automatic transmission shift points for maximum efficiency), bumping up gas mileage by as much as 7 percent to nearly 40 MPG on the highway.

That’s about as good as it gets in this class. To do better, you’ve got to go smaller – or go hybrid.

WHAT’S GOOD

Proves economy cars can be good-looking cars, too.

Handles exceptionally well.

Costs $600-$1,500 or so less to start than a Mazda3, Ford Focus, Honda Civic or Chevy Cruze.

Larger trunk than most.

4-7 MPG better mileage than all three of them.

Best warranty coverage going.

WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD

Slightly sluggish acceleration compared with some of the others in its class.

Rakish roofline clips backseat headroom.

UNDER THE HOOD

All 2012 Elantras come standard with a 1.8 liter engine making either 148 or 145 hp (if you live in California or choose the Partial Zero Emissions or PZEV version). It’s available with either a six-speed manual transmission or (optionally) a six-speed automatic.

Acceleration’s a bit less than average for the segment – zero to 60 takes 9.4-9.5 seconds or so. This about a second or so off the pace of the quicker cars in this class like the just-redesigned 2012 Ford Focus – which comes standard with a 160 hp engine – and also the spunky Mazda3, which offers a larger, 167 hp engine.

But the Hyundai offers 40 MPG highway fuel economy capability – which you can’t beat without going subcompact, hybrid (or motorcycle).

Not yet, anyhow.

The upcoming 2012 Mazda3 (not out at the time this review was written) will reportedly equal the Elantra’s mileage – while offering better performance – with its new Skyactiv-G engine. But expect a bump in MSRP from the current (2011) Mazda3′s base price of $15,800 – which is already some $600 higher than the base price of the 2012 Elantra.

Same deal with the 2012 Focus. It, too, offers 40 MPG capability, but its base price of $16,500 is even higher than the Mazda3′s – and $1,300 more than the Hyundai’s.

For the money, the Hyundai’s mileage is hard to beat – and the one to beat.

ON THE ROAD

Zero to 60 is the ancient yardstick of performance and while it’s true the Elantra is a little bit less quick than the Mazda3 or the new Focus, it’s important to put things in context. First, none of these cars are slow. There hasn’t been a slow car made in years – the most recent being the ’90s-era Geo Metro, which had a 1 liter, 55 hp three-cylinder engine. It took more than 13 seconds to reach 60.

That was a slow car.

No one makes ‘em anymore. If you check the stats, you’ll find that even a hybrid Prius – which is pretty much the most gimpy thing going in a new car – makes it to 60 about 4 seconds sooner than the ’90s-era Geo Metro.

And the Elantra is easily 2-3 seconds quicker than the Prius.

The point being, while the Elantra’s not the quickest car in its class, it is not slow. There are no slow cars anymore. The debate now is only about who makes the quickest cars – and while that may be fun to bench race about, in the real world, most drivers only have to worry about whether their car has enough punch to pull into traffic, to handle highway speeds of 70-75 or so without feeling geezy and has enough gumption to make a reasonably snappy pass every once in awhile.

Does the Elantra have beans enough for that? Yes. All new cars do.

What all new cars don’t have is a yin-yang balance between precise, well-balanced handling and a comfortable, quiet ride. Some can burn through corners  like slot cars – but ride like old trucks. Others have a plush, Mallomar ride – but squeal tires and heave their bodies around if you take a curve even a couple of MPH faster than the posted speed limit. You can macht schnell in this little Eantra if you want to and the car will respond with vigor – but the sporty handling capability does not come at the expense of ride quality. Having just spent a week in the new Honda Civic prior to testing the new Elantra, I rate the Hyundai as being the more enjoyable car to drive – on both counts. I haven’t yet driven the new Mazda3 or the ’12 Focus and I expect great things from both. But here again, don’t forget the price gap.

Hyundai has carved out a great little space for itself – one that may lead to a lot of sales.

The optional Active Eco system is pretty neat. This is more than just a gimmicky green “eco” light that comes on when you drive with a light right foot, too. When you push the button to engage it, the computer dials back engine power and resets the transmission shift points to noticeably lower fuel consumption. Yes, you’ll also notice reduced performance, but in stop-and-go type driving, this is a non-issue.

The gas mileage gains are not.

AT THE CURB

There’s a lot to be upset about in the world at large these days, but the aesthetics of lower cost cars isn’t one of them. If you can remember what the typical economy sedan looked like (and what it was made of) in the ’90s or earlier, the Elantra – and to be fair, its competitors, too – should be sufficient to put you in a better frame of mind. Think, two-thirds scale Sonata.

And the Sonata is a sharp-looking car.

There is a price to be paid for these sharp looks, however. It’s not huge – but it’s gotta be mentioned:

Relative to two of its competitors, the Mazda3 and Honda Civic, the Elantra has about three inches less rear seat legroom – 33.1 inches vs. 36.2 inches for the Mazda and the Honda (the Ford Focus has 33.2 inches back there; the Cruze 35.4 inches). Even so, legroom is still adequate for six-footers. The problem is headroom.Six footers consigned to the back seats will probably find they have to lean (and scrunch) forward to avoid rubbing up against the headliner. Even if not, it feels a bit claustrophobic back there.

But this is equally true in the Elantra’s major competitors, too.

It’s the result of the trend toward swoopy, coupe-like styling for sedans. Instead of the old three-box look (see: Toyota Corolla) rooflines now taper downward from the windshield and by the time it gets to the back of the car, it might be an inch or more lower than it was at the start. Result? Just 37.1 inches of backseat headroom in the Elantra (same-same in the Civic; 37.5 inches in the Mazda3, 37.9 in the Cruze and 38 inches in the Focus).

They’re all a tight fit for taller drivers.

Front seat occupants fare better in the Elantra. It has about about an inch more headroom (40 inches) than the Mazda3 (38.9 inches) and Civic (39 inches) and nearly two inches more than the 2012 Focus (38.3 inches). The Hyundai’s front seats occupants also get about an inch-and-a-half more legroom (43.6 inches) than in the Mazda3 and Civic (42 inches each). The Focus has just slightly more – but only fractionally (43.7 inches). Chevy’s Cruze is the only one that beats ‘em all on this score with a very generous 42.3 inches of front seat legroom.

The Elantra’s also got one of the larger trunks in the class – nearly 15 cubic feet vs. 12-13 cubes for other cars in the segment. Only the Cruze has more room – and not by much, just 15.3 cubes.

Other things worth mentioning in terms of layout and design:

The Elantra’s audio and climate controls consist of large rotary knobs – dual concentric knobs for the latter, one for temperature, one for fan speed. This is a very tactile, user-friendly layout. Excellent. The power window/lock switches on the door panels are also canted inward slightly – which is also tactile and user-friendly.  Hyundai has also cribbed a page from Nissan, which includes soft-give padded armrests in some of its cars. The Elantra has this, too.

And it also has a pull-up parking brake – which all cars ought to have but don’t. The pedal-type/push down (or worse, electric/automatic) parking brakes used in many other cars would be useless – or worse,  dangerous – in an emergency. With a pull-up parking brake, you can modulate braking force in an emergency, slowing the car without locking up the back wheels and spinning out. Yeah, there’s a bit less space on the console for things like coffee holders. Ask yourself which you’d rather have if the main brakes ever crap out on you.

THE REST

Other than the slightly tight backseat, the only other thing I will complain about is the Elantra’s DRLs – which don’t come with an “off” switch. I know some people like DRLs. But others don’t and until they’re required by law (let’s hope that never happens) car manufacturers should either make them optional or provide an “off” switch.

That aside, what’s not to like?

My tester – a top-of-the-line Limited model with leather seats (with heaters) and GPS/satellite radio – just barely crested $22k, sticker.

And don’t forget: The Elantra has the absolute best warranty: Five years, 60,000 miles on the whole car; ten years or 100,000 miles on the major parts (engine and driveline).

Tack that on to 40 MPG fuel economy – and the fact that you’ll leave the dealer with at least a few hundred (if not $1,000 or more) still in your pocket vs. what you would have spent to buy one of the Elantra’s competitors.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Hyundai’s the new big man on campus. Make way.

Throw it in the Woods?  

END

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  11 comments for “2012 Hyundai Elantra: The Next Compact Car BMOC?

  1. Charlie Peters
    August 3, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    how can a motorist find out about the Californnia CARB PZPEV check engine repair provided by the MFG for free?

    Charlie Peters
    510-537-1796

    • August 3, 2011 at 4:14 pm

      Hi Charlie,

      My understanding is that all car manufacturers are required to warranty the operation of the emissions system for ten years/100,000 miles. I’m not sure whether that’s on a pro-rata basis, or covers just parts (but not labor). Your dealer should be able to tell you exactly what is – and isn’t covered. The info should also be in your vehicle’s paperwork (look under “warranty” in the index). Hope this helps!

  2. Roanokejoe
    October 27, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    This is an excellent review. I own a 2005 Elantra. Sluggish as hell. I probably have mechanical issues with it. Are you going to review the Mazda 3? Do you tell dealerships you are reviewing cars for a website?

    • October 27, 2011 at 8:14 pm

      Hi RJ,

      The Mazda3 review is in here somewhere! (Check under “reviews” – I will try to dig up the link.)

      I get the cars I evaluate directly from the car companies; not from dealerships.

      • Roanokejoe
        October 27, 2011 at 8:24 pm

        you have the 2010 mazda 3 review, but I don’t see the 2012. In the Hyundai article you mention that the Mazda 3 wasn’t available at the time of publication (aug 2011), so unless you’ve reviewed it since August, you haven’t done it yet.

        • October 27, 2011 at 8:28 pm

          Ah! I haven’t had the ’12 yet… but should be getting into one soon.

          Hopefully, before it snows!

  3. Robert
    November 2, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    I have been considering the new hundai for sometime and had some doubts as to the overall desirability of the vehicle…thanks for an in depth report on the vehicle..

  4. Charles Eyer
    November 3, 2011 at 9:14 pm

    What a timely review, I just stopped by my Hyundai dealer looking at the used (2008-2009) Sonatas and Elantras. I like everything except the back windows. You can’t see a damn thing through them. The 3 headrests obscure what little rear window there is. So I checked out the Altima, and Honda – same thing. These cars are death traps as far as visibility goes. I drive a 2006 Santa Fe and would keep it but the road noise is driving me nuts now that I am taking longer road trips since retiring. Good review with good information.
    Charlie

    • November 3, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      Thanks, Charlie – good to have you with us!

  5. Roanokejoe
    November 28, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Hey Eric,
    Bottom line, if you had to choose between the Honda Civic and this Hyundai, which would you choose?

    Thanks.

    JQ

    • November 28, 2011 at 4:18 pm

      Hey Joe,

      The Hyundai – no question. I say this as a fan of Honda products – especially older Honda products. But in my opinion, current Hondas are overpriced (and under-warranted). Hyundai gives you more car for less money – and a better warranty, too.

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