What is the sound of four cylinders panting?
A fleeting epiphany came when I was scooting through squally, windy weather over the Golden Gate Bridge in the new Hyundai Elantra (it's been totally revamped for 2007) -- I thought that you don't really need a more expensive car, a more gizmo-laden car.
The Elantra, for all its humble station in life, nestled in that under-$20,000 group of largely anonymous transportation, has established itself, in its new incarnation, as a car that is fine as it is. It has all the things we now take for normal -- power windows, ABS brakes, enough air bags to suffocate a crocodile, booming stereo, etc. -- and so you begin to wonder why you should pay twice as much for a car that's a bit bigger and has a couple of more cylinders.
But the epiphany, startling as it was for that moment, was fleeting; it didn't crush me down for hours with its psychological ephipaniness, trying to convince me the car was really a Benz E350 in disguise. No ... it is what it is, a mid- to small-size sedan that competes with such similar ilk as Nissan Sentra, Ford Focus and, note here, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.
I said "note here" because the Civic and Corolla are the two cars everyone thinks of when they go shopping for wheels one step below the perennial best-sellers, Honda Accord and Toyota Camry. Civic and Corollas have been around for decades -- remember the CVCC (Controlled Vortex Combustion Chamber) Civic of the mid-1970s? -- and they are now to small cars what Volkswagen Beetles were 40 years ago.
What we have in the Elantra (once again, where do they get these names?) is a four-door sedan that has more interior room and cargo space than its Corolla and Civic cousins made by Toyota and Honda. We had an SE sedan with the four-speed automatic transmission (all three trim levels come with the automatic or with a five-speed manual). It was the midlevel model, and it never whined under protest at being thrown vigorously about the road.
The SE comes with cloth seats, and there's a suspicion that while they feel fine now, in 10 years they may become ratty and riddled by holes; it's just the soft feeling of the nap and the nagging uncertainty as to whether they will stand up to 10 years of pummeling by kids. The top-line model of the Elantra comes with leather seats, and you might do well to consider that.
The Elantra also had the aforementioned booming audio system with six speakers, a jack for MP3, CD/AM/FM and the convenient steering wheel-mounted stereo and cruise control buttons. The air conditioning/heating system controls are high enough up on the central dash console, and there are plenty of little cubby holes around the cabin. The trunk lid opens to reveal handles for the 60/40 split-folding rear seat back for those times when you need to carry several pairs of skis or -- bad luck on the slopes -- crutches.
This, of course, brings up the point of escalating options -- do you option up a smaller car to the point where its price is close to the largely unoptioned car that is next bigger in that product line. In Hyundai's case, the least-equipped Sonata, the GLS with the four-cylinder engine, is less than $1,000 more expensive than the best-equipped Elantra Limited. And with the Sonata, you've graduated into a clearly larger and (all things being relative) more sumptuous car.
But that's beside the point here.
On the road, the Elantra has that predictable small car behavior whenever you get out in a passing lane or start winding up a long hill -- you keep wishing for more power. Tromp down on the gas and those 132 horses turn their heads and glare at you briefly, grab the bits in their teeth and start panting uphill. The engine has that coarse, noisy four-banger roar that lets you know it is not very happy.
On straightaways, however, the car will get to illegal cruising speeds and stay there -- these days, nearly every car available in the U.S. market will break even the highest speed limits, although they won't want to stay there all day.
Of course, if you're seriously searching for a car in this competitive niche, the fact that may tip the Elantra in your favor is Hyundai's warranty, which has become such a marketing point in the Hyundai saga. The car comes with a five-year/60,000-mile stem-to-stern guarantee and extends it to 10 years/100,000 miles for the power train.
Then all you have to do is keep the car.
2007 HYUNDAI ELANTRA
Type: Front engine, front-wheel-drive four-door sedan
Price as tested: $17,380
Base price: $16,695
Power train: 2-liter in-line four-cylinder 132-horsepower engine. Four-speed automatic transmission (five-speed manual transmission available)
Curb weight: 2,747 to 2,895 pounds, depending on optional equipment added to the car
Seating capacity: Five
Mileage: 28 city, 36 highway
Fuel tank capacity: 14 gallons
Dimensions: Length 177.4 inches; width 69.9 inches; height 58.3 inches; wheelbase 104.3 inches
Warranty: bumper to bumper, five years/60,000 miles; power train, 10 years, 100,000 miles
Source: Hyundai Motor America (www.hyundaiusa.com); U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (www.fueleconomy.gov)
Michael Taylor, Chronicle Auto Editor
Friday, June 29, 2007