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2011 Hyundai Elantra - First Drive Press Preview

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Another Base Hit - Maybe a Two-Bagger for the Koreans

By Steve Purdy
The Auto Channel
Detroit Bureau

SEE ALSO: Hyundai Buyers Guide

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Hyundai’s impressive product push continues unabated. One hit after another for the past few years brought the Korean automaker from rookie to star status making it all look effortless. Of course, it is anything but effortless as lots of talented people are working very hard to make it happen. They do, however, seem to have some kind of magic behind them.

In this case the talent and magic are applied to the compact Elantra sedan, formerly a plane-Jane, white-bread little economy car. Those terms certainly don’t apply anymore, although economy is certainly part of the formula. The base car comes in under 15 grand but the take rate for that model, we expect, will be tiny. Anyway, we had a few days with the new Elantra in Southern California last week and came away impressed with its content, efficiency and particularly style.

Leading the Hyundai team here in the US is the trim and charming John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America. I accosted him as he ran (at certainly more than a jogging pace) up the long, steep hill from the north shoreline of the Torrey Pines State Park next to the resort where we had assembled to preview the new Elantra. I was struggling just to hike up the hill, stopping every quarter mile to huff and puff. John wasn’t even breathing hard as he greeted me effortlessly cruising up the hill. Though he made it look easy it is certainly hard work keeping that fit. So too, Hyundai.

As I got back to the hotel (probably an hour after John) I encountered the new Elantra glowing in the afternoon sun on the front lawn. Without looking closely it could easily be mistaken for the swoopy, modern, mid-size Sonata introduced a tad less than a year ago, here at Torrey Pines. Sonata has exceeded sales projections in its first year.

Designer of both cars, Cedric d’Andre, describes the design language they call “fluidic sculpture” that characterizes the current generation of Hyundais. “It’s almost a cab-forward design,” he says, “featuring character lines that create tension and movement.” Character lines move around the car drawing it tightly into a graceful, aesthetic, efficient whole.

We usually think of tension as a bad thing – but not in car design. In this case it has resulted in an admirable 0.28 coefficient of drag, normally a sports car kind of number. It’s all in the details, like front fascia that leads air away from the tires, door handles that emerge gently from the body structure and steeply sloped windshield that allows air to move over the car easily. Headlight and taillight structures swoop smoothly around the corners pointing toward the middle of the car. The visually low roofline reminds us of the stylish VW CC, but that “4-door coupe” is harder to get into and has less interior volume.

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Interior design reflects the same design philosophy. I find no boring or simple shapes, rather all the lines seem to have a destination and a purpose. The materials, fit and finish are first rate. Nothing inside implies entry-level or low-end. Even the seat fabrics and the faux-fabric covering the pillars (a material that incorporates powdered volcanic rock) suggest thoughtful design. Controls and data readouts make it easy and intuitive to manage all the functions. The digital readouts for odo and trip computer are large and clear enough for my codriver to see from his passenger position even without his glasses.

A couple of unexpected details stand out inside: a handy 12-volt outlet resides beside the center stack on the right for the convenience of the passenger, and the glove box door is damped making for an upscale feel. The only niggle I found is the console latch is nearly unreachable with the unit in the forward position. Of course, also surprising is the availability of heated rear seats, something usually found in luxury cars only.

Moving the cowl forward, increasing the wheel base by a couple of inches and designing in every space advantage they could conceive puts interior volume for Elantra technically into the mid-size category. The 60/40 split rear seat makes for efficient expansion of the large trunk. Even with the front seats fully back most rear seat passengers will be comfortable. It’s amazing how roomy they’ve made this “compact” car.

The available navigation system features a 7-inch (largest in class) touchscreen and includes a rear-view camera, a slide-show function for your photos, XM NavTraffic, NavWeather, Sports and Stocks, along with Bluetooth 2.0 interface, voice recognition, 16G flash memory and all expected connectivity options.

Under the hood a new inline 4-cylinder engine lurks, ready to impress techies and greenies. With 1.8-liters of displacement it makes 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque, posting impressive EPA mileage numbers of 29-city and 40-highway. That happens because of reduced weight (it’s all aluminum), continuously variable valve timing, electronic throttle control, offset crank and a variety of other tricks along with a new 6-speed automatic transmission. By the way, this engine has a jewelry-like, chrome-steel timing chain that never needs replacing. Now remember, they’re getting 40-mpg on the highway without incorporating direct injection or turbocharging. So we can expect even more in the future.

Suspension is relatively conventional with MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam in the rear. Shocks are monotube. Steering is electric rather than hydraulic which saves a wisp of power for more important tasks and brakes are discs all around with ABS, traction control, and all the chassis dynamics we now expect in our cars.

Our drive route took us into the mountains east of San Diego then along some great winding roads near the Mexican border. The Elantra felt great on the highway and on level roads but once off I-8 and into the mountain two-lanes I felt like we needed a bit more power. The transmission, though, was more than willing to downshift in plenty of time to keep us motivating up the hills. That certainly mitigates the need for more grunt. When we manipulate the transmission manually it shifts with amazing smoothness and quickness. Power numbers are quite similar to the competition so we see this is no disadvantage for Elantra. Hyundai manages a few more mpgs with that hp though.

Driving dynamics are excellent. The revised chassis includes copious use of a variety of high strength steels making it more than a third stiffer than the previous model. (Hyundai has its own Steel plant and 400 metallurgists working on new uses for the hard metal.) The electric power steering has a natural on-center feel and the suspension is tuned to provide a good balance between firmness for handling and softness for ride quality. This is not the kind of car we’re likely to ever find adjustable suspension settings so the balance is important.

A great deal of effort went into making Elantra quiet. It is at least the equal of its competitors in this regard. At higher speeds wind noise in negligible and over coarse pavement little noise intrudes on the cabin.

What the Hyundai folks are most proud of are the mileage numbers posted confidently by Elantra. Many competitors in this class taut 40-mpg on the highway but only on select models for which the customer must pay extra. All Elantras get the same engine and the same impressive mileage.

The 2011 Elantra comes in two main trim levels – GLS and Limited – different flavors can be had within each level. The basic car with six-speed manual transmission and no extras (it’s reasonably well equipped without extras) comes in at under $15,000. The mighty well-equipped Limited (with leather, sunroof, 17-inch wheels, heated rear seats, Bluetooth and lots of stuff) starts at $19,980. Compared to the competition – Cruze, Civic, Focus, Corolla – when comparably equipped, you’ll likely find a modest cost advantage for Elantra.

The new Elantra is coming off the assembly line at the Georgia plant now and your dealer probably already has a few. Take a look. I think you’ll be impressed.

Steve Purdy, Shunpiker Productions, All Rights Reserved