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Car reviews - Hyundai - Elantra - Elite sedan

Our Opinion

We like
Overall packaging, distinctive styling, inviting and spacious cabin, smooth performance, warranty, stability control availability
Room for improvement
Feel-free steering, auto gearing means a hefty right foot is needed for adequate performance

11 May 2007

HYUNDAI’S first ‘good’ car – for want of a better word, after the dreadful early Excels and Sonatas – was the 1991 Elantra.

Okay, no emails please. We realise it was called Lantra back then (and in its subsequent incarnation), because Mitsubishi claimed that ‘Elantra’ sounded too much like the now utterly forgotten Magna ‘Elante’ of the time.

But be it Lantra or Elantra, it never felt cheap or nasty like most Korean cars did back then, and nor was it ugly. Subsequent models, like the 1995 Sportswagon, even looked cool, although its 2000 replacement was certainly no Scarlett Johansson.

Now we’re up to the number four Elantra, which competes in a small car sphere more cut-throat than a contest for Anna Nicole Smith’s will.

Today, it seems, you got nothin’ if you ain’t got Volkswagen Golf quality, Toyota Corolla economy, Ford Focus handling and Mazda3 style.

Nothing, that is, unless you have a big fat price advantage that you can wield around like an axe.

This is where the previous Elantra, with its packed features, long warranty and tempting price, had carved out a nice little niche for itself. The Hyundai heartland, if you like.

But now Hyundai has higher hopes. Bigger dreams. Larger aspirations. Grander goals. Cheapness is out, and quality is its new obsession.

This is why the Elantra IV looks like a scaled-down Lexus. People kept asking us what model Toyota we were driving during our time with the Hyundai.

It is the same inside too.

Forever banishing the Korean company’s awful cabin fever, the latest Elantra’s cabin – in top-line Elite as tested – is Hyundai’s best to date, with a clear and concise climate-control system sitting above a nicely finished and pleasantly presented – some might even say classy – dashboard.

High points include excellent front ventilation, a comfortable driving position, plenty of storage compartments, a handy curry hook, clever remote boot release button, and a smart use of colours and trim.

However, while the instrumentation is joyously easy to read, its Electric Blue illumination is too bright on the dimmest setting, and retina searing on the highest. It’s so intense, in fact, that you can see it from space.

The front seats are a little shapeless, but still better than tolerable for most people’s journeys, while the rear pew is pretty accommodating in all dimensions for a car of this size – except for the punishing centre section, which is only good if your favourite show is Bob The Builder.

The (leather? It feels more like pleather) steering wheel is slippery and rear vision is hampered by that upwards-pointing posterior, so a good set of rear parking sensors might be a worthwhile investment.

Beneath that portly posterior is a reasonably large luggage area, although it is not that deep, probably due to the full-sized spare wheel living in there.

Having the split/folding rear seat releases securely placed in the boot is a great plus, as is having plenty of performance once you give it a boot-full.

The Elantra feels very energetic off the mark, thanks to a powerful 2.0-litre twin-cam four-cylinder engine fitted with variable valve timing, offering 105kW of power at 6000rpm and 186Nm of torque at 4600rpm.

This is an engine that gives all it has in a sudden rush of acceleration, swinging up the rev range with ease and refinement. It is much better than the previous Elantra in this regard.

Slotting each of the five forward gears in the manual model is not the chore it once was in Hyundais, either. Excel drivers won’t believe how good the Elantra is in this respect.

However, the four-speed automatic, though smooth too, requires a firm right foot if spirited progress is to be maintained once you are in cruising mode, because there really isn’t sufficient torque available.

Consequently, the transmission all too readily shifts down when all you want is a bit more speed for a small hill or a gentle head wind, while revs, noise and fuel consumption all shoot up in sympathy.

Worse still, the steering is singularly the worst aspect of the Elantra.

It feels artificial, lifeless and disconnected to the front wheels, effectively undermining the Elantra’s sharp handling and grippy roadholding. You might get used to it, but you will never enjoy driving this car.

On the other hand, Hyundai should be heartily commended for offering stability control on all models, as well as a five-year warranty.

The ride comes as a bit of a surprise – firm but not to the point of hard or harsh, yet sufficiently absorbent around urban roads. And it doesn’t sound crashy or tinny over bumps and potholes either.

After driving two Elantras over hundreds of kilometres, two things are clear: 1. Keen drivers need not apply, and 2. It works most effectively in its more basic guises (SX, SLX), since the top-line Elite S is kissing $30K, which is serious money and puts the car way out of its league despite having ‘little Lexus’ looks.

So less is more, and less is best, for a Hyundai that keeps up the Elantra’s deserved reputation as a better Korean car.

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