Hard to believe, but the Elantra is now in its tenth model year, and its fifth generation. The Elantra is completely new for 2011, and what a step forward this new car is. While the Elantra has spent most of its life as an also-ran, this new car steps to the top of the heap. Or, to be blunt, this is the Elantra Honda and Toyota wished Hyundai would never build. When word got out that in a Consumer Reports compact car comparison test that the Elantra took top honors, we wanted to see just how good the Elantra was. But this is The Garage, and we don’t look at cars as appliances here. How does the Elantra rank in the hands of um, let’s say someone with a more enthusiast bent? Read on!
To start, there’s no getting around the stand-out looks of the Elantra. Featuring swoopy styling with nary a straight line to be found, it is staggering to think a car in this price range could not only be interesting to look at, but dare I say, exude this much class and taste. The headlamp housings run up nearly halfway up the front fenders, but hardly seem overwrought in execution. A coupe-like roof-line, and strong character line running from just below the side-view mirrors, slicing through the door handles and ending at the rear taillamps is bold and dramatic. Our test car’s 17″ alloys were clean and simple, but added to the flair of the Elantra. It’s uncommon to see this level of style in this class of car, making chief rivals Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic look dull and dowdy in comparison.
The high-style theme carries over to the interior. Again, Hyundai exhibits a level of style not normally seen here. The Elantra offers a tasteful mix of faux (read silver plastic) metal and piano black trim. The seats are reasonably comfortable over long distances, and the cabin had plenty of room for myself, wife and son as we spent a recent Father’s Day weekend driving all over the state from everywhere to a castle to a Ferrari car show. While nothing feels cheap about the Elantra’s interior, it did seem a (small) step behind Honda’s. The air vents on the center stack were at about knee-level for me, which seemed a bit odd. Otherwise, all controls were logically placed and easy to use.
The Elantra is offered in base GLS and top-spec Limited models, but regardless of choice, all Elantra’s share the same 1.8L four, good for 148hp. The GLS is offered with a six-speed manual or automatic, while all Limited’s come with the automatic only. Gas mileage is impressive-the EPA estimates 29/40 MPG city/highway. Around town the Elantra offers decent pep, and while you would think the Elantra is most at home scooting around suburban streets, the car is quite relaxed bombing down the highway at 80mph, not even breaking a sweat. The six-speed automatic in our car was always working with, not against me. Steering is a little light, and handling is tuned a little more towards comfort than sport. Make no mistake-the Elantra is not a boring car to drive, but I would still advise a test drive in a Mazda3 if you’re seeking a sportier drive.
So, at this point, it’s fair of you to say that I’ve described a perfectly competent small sedan, but why should Honda and Toyota be terrified of this car? The answer is simple. Price. Now, it used to be that price and a sweet warranty are what Hyundai hung its hat on in the past, but now the Elantra is dynamically on par with the best in its class, yet still is able to offer a distinct price advantage. Our test car was the top-spec Limited model, which came equipped with the optional Premium Package. Using the 2012 Honda Civic EX I had tested the week prior to the Elantra as a benchmark, the two cars were within a few hundred dollars of each other. Our Elantra had an as delivered MSRP of $22,110USD. But what features did I get on the Elantra that were not on our test Civic? A leather interior, front AND rear heated seats, XM satellite radio, Navigation, auto headlights, push button start, proximity key entry, and a rearview camera.
To put that into perspective, I used Honda’s online configurator to build my own Civic EX as closely as I could to the Elantra. Picking an EX with leather and Nav, 17″ wheels and foglights, the comparable Civic rang in at more than $5,000 higher than our Elantra, and still lacked the heated seats, rearview camera and other features. Remember when I said this is the car Honda and Toyota wished Hyundai would never build? Well, they built it. With the Elantra, Hyundai has yet again reached a milestone, game-changing car that should have all competitors breaking out in a sweat. Not quite as dynamic as a Mazda3, but competent nonetheless, the Elantra sets a new standard for styling and content for the money.