2011 Hyundai Elantra Review – First Drive

Great looks, fuel economy, features and price make the 2011 Elantra an immediate top choice in the compact segment

2011 Hyundai Elantra Review – First Drive

As cars become larger, heavier and increasingly complex, there’s been a rise in pseudo-nostalgic grumblings for “the good old days” of 20 years ago, when vehicles were light-weight, fun to drive and fuel-efficient.

FAST FACTS

1. Every 2011 Hyundai Elantra model, regardless of trim level or transmission, gets an EPA rated 29/40-mpg (city/hwy).

2. A 1.8L 4-cyl makes 148-hp and 131 ft-lbs of torque and can be had with either a 6-speed manual or automatic.

3. Optional equipment includes luxury items like a 7-inch Nav system, a 360-watt audio system, proximity key, a bush-button ignition, as well as heated from and rear seats.

4. Pricing starts at just $14,830 with top trim levels at $21,980.

Fetishizing a bygone era is nothing new, and in some respects, these people are right. Does a Honda Civic sedan really have to weigh over 3000 lbs? Do we really need a Toyota Camry with 268 horsepower?

On the other hand, the automobile has made some profound advancements in the last couple decades, and the 2011 Hyundai Elantra is one of the best examples of this phenomenon.

40-MPG HIGHWAY FOR EVERY ELANTRA

With their new compact car, Hyundai is emphasizing two of the increasingly important aspects of the automobile – technology and fuel economy. You won’t find horsepower figures or 0-60 times being flaunted on the Elantra’s spec sheet. The big news on the quantitative front is the 29-mpg city and 40-mpg highway fuel economy rating, giving the Elantra bragging rights over the rest of the competition.

Rivals like the Ford Fiesta or Chevrolet Cruze can only return this sort of mileage with specially prepared models that have been tweaked to deliver every last mpg. On the other hand, every Elantra, from the $14,830 base model with a 6-speed stick shift, to a $21,980 fully loaded automatic transmission Limited model, will return 40 mpg on the highway.

WINNING THE WAR AGAINST WEIGHT

While outright speed isn’t a selling point, Hyundai’s performance path for the Elantra does include various measures to cut weight from the car, notably using high strength steel in different areas, to increase rigidity and keep the curb weight down. So as much as an aerodynamic shape (with a drag coefficient of 0.28 cd) helps reduce drag and improve fuel economy, a lighter drivetrain does its own part to help by dropping 62 lbs from the outgoing model.

A base Elantra weighs 2,661 lbs, while a loaded model tips the scales at 2,877 lbs. Considering that the Mazda Miata, long considered the benchmark of light weight cars, now weighs 2,511 lbs, the Elantra isn’t doing too badly while carrying two rear doors, a proper back seat and a real trunk.

The Elantra is technically classified as a mid-size car, and Hyundai claims that interior passenger space is on par with a Lexus ES350. The svelte weight is even more impressive when one looks at the opulent features available on the Elantra – heated front and rear seats, a back-up camera, Bluetooth connectivity, a 360 watt stereo, automatic headlights and a power sunroof.

At the launch even in San Diego, we were able to sample a base model GLS with the 6-speed manual and a fully optioned Limited model with the 6-speed automatic transmission. One Hyundai representative suggested that the Limited, with its 17-inch wheel and tire package, was the one to have for the twisty stuff, and while an automatic gearbox is as exciting as lima beans, we decided to trust him based on his experience developing the chassis for the Genesis and Equus, not to mention the first generation Miata during his previous tenure at Mazda.

Truthfully, none of the Elantras are corner carvers. The car certainly feels light, and doesn’t have the overbuilt feeling that the Cruze does, but it’s really difficult to imagine a single Elantra buyer driving one in anger.

That’s not to say you can’t have fun with this compact car. The old maxim extolling the fun of driving a slow car at its limits applies directly to the Elantra.

The biggest impediment to having fun are the four-wheel disc brakes, which are not linear in their application, and bite hard very early on. In every day driving, this might stop you from flattening a kid who ran into the street to chase his errant basketball, but it also prevents you from smoothly braking in a straight line and can lead to a less-than-smooth driving experience – although owners are likely to get used to the feeling quickly.

ALL-NEW 1.8-LITER MAKES 148-HP

The new 1.8L four-cylinder (annoyingly code named “Nu”, after the Greek letter) has an adequate 149-hp, but lacks the torquey punch of the Cruze’s turbo engine, particularly during passing maneuvers. On the other hand, the Elantra’s gearbox is world’s better, without any of the coarseness or unacceptable lagging between shifts, helping the engine utilize the powerband in an efficient and expedient manner.

The 6-speed manual is expected to have a single digit take rate, and we’re not surprised. Aside from American buyers’ antipathy towards stick shifts, this one isn’t very good, with a shifter that feels like its being rowed through a tub of yogurt, although the clutch requires little effort and should make city driving a breeze.

SPACIOUS CABIN, SMOOTH DRIVE

The interior materials are certainly on the upper end of the spectrum for this segment, with the majority of the controls placed on the tight, compact center stack. The iPod integration on the base GLS model can be little tedious, with users being forced to scroll through their ostensibly large list of artists and songs using the standard audio controls, but the LCD screen on the Limited makes the task less frustrating.

Once you get your music sorted out, you’ll find the Elantra is at home on the highway, where the car moves silently and effortlessly across the open road, immune to crosswinds or buzzy powertrain noises that plagued the previous generation of small cars.

The driving position immediate strikes us as better than many competitors, and the ride quality, while not as composed as the Cruze or Corolla, won’t trouble the average customer looking for a comfortable, compliant ride.

Rear seat passengers will find adequate space, despite the sloping roofline’s propensity to minimize headroom on other cars. Overall, we’re pleased with the Elantra’s styling, which looks like a more rotund version of the current Sonata, and will likely prove a hit with style-conscious consumers who can’t quite afford a premium nameplate.

Interestingly, the Elantra does share one trait with premium German luxury cars in that it looks best when equipped with large wheels and low profile tires.

One notable selling point not being touted by Hyundai is safety. One Hyundai rep stated that he wasn’t able to confirm if the Elantra would get a 5-star crash test rating, a near ubiquitous rating in the compact car category, let alone the mid-size class that the Elantra is technically classified as by the EPA.

THE VERDICT

Car manufacturers face a two-fold problem in today’s market. Auto sales have always been a zero-sum game; the consumer’s money can go to one product and one product only, forcing other competitors to lose out on a sale.

As little as 10 years ago, there was a clear hierarchy of product quality, and Hyundai was firmly entrenched at the bottom. But times have changed, and today, it’s pretty hard to buy a bad car. The argument can even be made that the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla are the inferior products, having been languishing on the market past their expiration date.

With such a hyper-competitive market, Hyundai has delivered exactly what customers are looking for, by offering a stylish, affordable compact loaded with cool gadgetry and class-leading fuel economy. It may not be the most thrilling drive in its class, but it’s hard to find a more practical choice than the 2011 Elantra, and this alone will make the car a winner in this crowded segment.

RELATED READING

2010 Honda Civic Sedan Review

2009 Toyota Corolla

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Review – First Drive

2010 Nissan Sentra 2.0 S Review

2010 Mazda Mazda3

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