Car reviews - Hyundai - Elantra - LaVita GLS 5-dr hatch
Smart styling job, good seating flexibility, abundant storage solutions, lots of creature comforts, great price
Room for improvement
Passenger airbag and ABS not standard, centre-rear lap belt used, sloppy manual gearshift, difficult-to-read instruments
10 Jan 2002
By TERRY MARTIN
IT WAS only a matter of time before Hyundai turned its attention to the mini people mover, building a clever little wagon off its Elantra platform and coming to market with a package which at once changes the state of affairs in the fast-growing segment.
As it has done before, the Korean auto giant has sized up its Japanese and European rivals and entered the arena with a formidable opponent.
One that is just as appealing to look at, is chockfull of creature comforts and clever in its seating arrangements. And one that undercuts them all on price.
It doesn't take long to discover compromises in the LaVita package. These are a given with such a stunning sticker price.
But for once these shortcomings are not persuasive enough to strike a line through the car without close investigation.
Some of them, including anti-lock brakes and a second airbag, can be overcome with a further dip into the pocket - and still the price remains attractive. Others, but not all, can be overlooked.
There is a lap belt in the centre-rear seating position, a flawed centre-mounted instrument binnacle and no chance of seat removal, to name three problem areas for LaVita.
Appealing aspects are, however, never far from the surface. Consider the inclusion of features such as air-conditioning, remote central locking, power for the windows and mirrors, a six-speaker CD stereo, drive-away pricing (at launch) and a reassuring warranty spanning five years or 130,000km.
Seating positions throughout are upright but comfortable, the rear seat passengers in particular benefiting from a "theatre" (higher) position and great views to either side courtesy of the low windowsills.
There's not a lot of ribcage or under-thigh support from the front pews and driver's seat "height" adjustment is really a euphemism for seat cushion angle adjustment. Still, a comfortable driving position is aided by lumbar support and a tilt-adjustable steering wheel - and there's no chance the tiller will obscure the instruments because they're planted in a binnacle high up on the centre of the expansive dash.
We've become accustomed to such unorthodox instrument positioning, having driven the new-generation Toyota Prius, Echo and Tarago. However, the LaVita's display is the worst we've come across.
The idea is to reduce the time it takes to glance from the road to the instruments and back again, and once the driver gets over the instinctive squiz to the space behind the steering wheel, he or she shouldn't experience too much problem with the relocation.
But the LaVita makes a mess of things. Rather than use a large, unmistakable digital speedo, Hyundai has opted for a conventional analogue gauge with an ill-thought-out graphic design and white numerals on a light-grey background. The time shown on the digital clock in the binnacle is seen in an instant - but the speed at any given moment? Not always known.
And give some thought to how often you take a peep at the indicator lights. Instead of bunging these in with the main instruments, LaVita designers have relegated them to a separate pod for warning lights, positioned right behind the steering wheel.
Otherwise, the LaVita controls and switchgear - even the local stereo head unit - pose no great problems for the driver. In particular, the wonderful heating and ventilation dials prove that driver convenience was on the priority list after all.
Storage solutions throughout the cabin are also second to none. With the new-generation Elantra's appreciation for storing maps and junk and bottles and the like, we might have expected clever door bins front and rear, seatback pockets, dash cubbies and a decent sized glovebox to surface in the LaVita.
But there is much more, including a deep bin underneath the front passenger seat, an overhead sunglasses console, a small push-out drawer in the centre console and lidded recesses under the floor (accessed when the rear seats are folded). There are airline-style trays behind the front seatbacks. And there is a cup holder under the front passenger vent to help keep a drink cool or warm.
Rear seat room is good in all directions, including the legs thanks to each portion of the 60/40-split rear bench being able to slide fore/aft 200mm. A large seatback and several notches for adjusting headrest height are also helpful for adults, though attempting to squeeze three across the bench is not recommended.
Indeed, this centre-rear position is best left alone with just a small one-position headrest and a lap belt offered - and not much comfort, as it also doubles as an armrest.
As well as the rear-seat slide function, LaVita has other flexible moments. The front seats fully recline, the rear seatbacks recline in up to six positions and each portion of the rear seat can be folded once or double-folded to rest up against the rear seatback. As we've noted, the one thing missing is full seat removal.
Even with the rear seats upright, there is a decent amount of luggage room and appealing features in the cargo compartment such as two lidded storage boxes, tie-down hooks, shopping bag hooks, cargo net, 12-volt power outlet and a full-size spare wheel under the floor. The load height and tailgate opening height are excellent, too.
On the flipside, child seat tether strap anchorage points near the rear bumper cut into cargo space when in use and must be adjusted whenever the rear seat is moved fore/aft.
We can only assume that cost reduction was also the reason behind slotting a revised version of Elantra's 1.8-litre engine into the LaVita rather than the more powerful 2.0-litre powerplant reserved for the GLS hatch and sedan.
But that said, the LaVita performs well with what it's got. With its kerb weight kept down to 1248kg - well below its major rivals - the vehicle has no problem towing two adults and a couple of kids.
Though the engine gets vocal at high revs, it has good strength lower down in the rev range where it counts most and LaVita is able to make light work of most suburban and extra-urban duties. It's quite frugal on the fuel, too.
Gear ratios are well matched to engine output and the dash-mounted gearlever is close to hand, however the manual shift is one of the sloppiest we've encountered on a Korean car - and that's some statement.
The steering wheel isn't a precise instrument either and it will writhe in the driver's hands whenever the vehicle meets mid-corner bumps. On the bright side, its lightness is useful when flitting in and out of shopping centres.
Suspension softness ensures a comfortable ride over smooth road surfaces but rougher patches give rise to noise and harshness, and corners prompt a fair amount of bodyroll. Front-end grip also deteriorates without pushing too hard.
Cruise control is needed to make long journeys more pleasant and the indicators switch off with only a small amount of steering input.
Yet these are minor interruptions to the big picture.
While the vehicle's shortcomings will force a lot of families into a higher price bracket, shoppers on a tight budget are still treated with utmost respect.
LaVita has earned its place on the shortlist.
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