The very first thing I said to myself when I sat down in the 2011 Hyundai Elantra was "Well, this is going to screw things up."
For months, I have been advocating that the best compact cars were imported from Detroit. (Hey, maybe I should copyright that line before some carmaker steals it?) The 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and 2012 Ford Focus were far and away my top picks for mainstream compact car transportation. But now, I'm not as sure. The 2011 Hyundai Elantra is simply gangbusters in nearly every category.
It has the looks of Hyundai's all-new Sonata, which is awesome. It gets better gas mileage than most subcompact cars. It comes with out-of-this-world amenities, such as second-row heated seats, a crystal-clear navigation system, and more than 43 inches of legroom in the front row. And it has a starting price under $15,000, giving it a dollar to luxury quotient of incredible.
Realistically, the base-model Elantra GLS feels more like a price statement than a civilized modern machine. It only comes with a six-speed manual, and things like air conditioning, cruise control and 16-inch wheels are optional. Lots of carmakers pull off this stunt.
But it's when Hyundai starts adding options that the Elantra begins to feel like a bargain. A top-of-the-line Elantra Limited starts at $21,980 — both the Cruze and Focus can still cost thousands of dollars more.
My fully loaded Limited was a cocoon of luxury and leather, at a cost of $22,000. The 7-inch, high-resolution monitor at the top of the center stack provided a crisp navigation system that's easy to use. There is also a slew of technology features that are quickly becoming the norm on many compact cars: Bluetooth connectivity for hands-free phone operation, voice recognition and push-button start.
Hyundai also adds a proximity feature, which unlocks the door when you touch the handle — meaning you don't have to pull your keys out of your pocket to unlock the door. It's a feature that you never knew you needed until you start using it.
Stunning interior delivers
The interior is simply stunning.
There's an elegant center stack that roughly resembles an hourglass. Throughout the cabin, waves of luxury roll through every surface, reflecting an emotive design. At the top of the center stack is a sliver of blue light that cuts out of the dash and relays information. At night, the cabin fills with a soft blue light that is easy on your eyes — and your night vision.
The instrument panel includes two chrome-trimmed gauges and the same blue lighting. Every individual piece looks and feels well crafted, and together, they combine into a masterpiece.
Even the comfortable seats offer just the right touch of environmental sensibilities with lightweight, eco-friendly foam. It's only a seat, but, somehow, you feel better about it. Then again, you also feel better because it's heated — in the front and back row.
Hyundai also has managed to help the environment another way: The Elantra hits 40 mpg on the highway and 29 mpg in the city. Unlike the Cruze and Focus, which reach 42 mpg and 40 mpg, respectively, those cars need special fuel-efficient models to do that. Hyundai does it with all of its cars — not a small difference.
Responsive, peppy engine
The little 1.8-liter dual overhead cam four-cylinder engine with dual-continuously variable valve timing provides 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque. Its performance on Detroit's streets was good. The engine is peppy and the six-speed automatic transmission in my test vehicle was extremely smooth — almost too smooth. It changed gears quickly and rarely rewarded me with that gear-shifting lurch. Lots of carmakers do this to improve fuel economy, but in the Elantra it was more noticeable. There is a manual override on the automatic that allows more aggressive drivers to get more out of the engine and the car.
On the road, the electric motor driven power steering was very linear and precise. I would have preferred more resistance the farther I moved the steering wheel, especially at highway speeds, when the Elantra felt a little twitchy.
However, it was comfortable on the highway and driving at low parking lot speeds, something to remember for people who drive in heavy traffic. It was also extremely quiet, making it all that much better to sit back and enjoy the 360-watt optional stereo system.
And a stereo is important — as this car is so good looking it should come with its own soundtrack.
Exterior is modern classic
Hyundai says the exterior is the next step in its fluidic sculpture design language.
No matter what you call it, the fifth-generation Elantra looks sharp. The wheels are pushed out to the edges, but not so far to disrupt the car's proportions. The small grille above and below the bumper help define the Elantra's face, while the angular fog lamps provide dimples to the car's smile. It looks modern and classic in the same breath.
There is also nice definition along the car's side, with the A-line moving through both door handles and then through the rear tail lamp. While it has all the trappings of the Sonata — the first fluidic design car to enter Hyundai's lineup — I like the Elantra more. The Sonata is almost overdone with all of the sharp edges. But with the Elantra, the designer seemed to know when to put the pencil down. Sometimes the best design happens when you stop.
Inside and out, the Elantra seems to offer more and more.
The Cruze and Focus may have set a new standard for compact cars, but the Elantra raises the bar even higher.
That's not good news for carmakers, which now have to re-evaluate their next compact offering.
But it's fantastic news for consumers.