Friday, May 08, 2015

Test Drive and Full Review: 2015 Hyundai Elantra Remains One of the Best Small Cars You Can Buy

Aging is unkind. That holds true whether we’re talking about our national infrastructure, our physical being, or even our beloved smartphones.


That’s typically true of automobiles, too, though Hyundai bucks the trend with the 2015 Elantra. Now half a decade old, the Elantra remains one of the best cars in its class, delivering a combination of style, practicality, safety, and value that few of its competitors can match.

For this test, Hyundai provided an Elantra Sport dipped in Monaco White paint and featuring a black leather interior and an automatic transmission. An option package installed Blue Link connectivity and services, navigation, an Infinity premium sound system, and a set of floor mats, all of which bumped the sticker price to $24,750 (including the destination charge of $825).

Call me kooky, but I think that’s a bargain. And you’re not even going to pay that much, because the Elantra is an old car. That means Hyundai is offering excellent deals on the Elantra, including substantial rebates, low-interest long-term financing, and cheap lease deals. The question isn’t whether you should buy an Elantra. The question is why wouldn’t you?

Look at it. I like the Elantra’s styling even more than the Kia Forte and Mazda 3. This is one of those home runs that are always hard to improve upon with the next-generation vehicle, a flamboyantly seductive (for the class) design that made this version of the Elantra instantly desirable when it debuted for the 2011 model year. Park an Elantra next to a Honda Civic, a Nissan Sentra, or a Toyota Corolla, and it's truly difficult to understand why the Hyundai doesn’t lead the class in terms of sales.

There is genuine substance to this car, too. From the robust underlying structure that delivers a 5-star NHTSA crash-test rating and a “Top Safety Pick” laurel from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, to the Elantra’s available Blue Link services system, 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system with navigation, premium sound system, dual-zone automatic climate control system with Clean Air ionizing purification system, and Proximity Key passive entry system with push-button engine starting, this is an impressive set of wheels.

Some of these features are restricted to the Elantra Limited model, but that car has a less powerful engine than my Elantra Sport test vehicle. A 145-horsepower, 1.8-liter 4-cylinder engine is standard for the base Elantra SE and upscale Limited trim levels, while the Sport model gets a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder generating 173-horsepower. That is, it makes 173 horses unless you live in a state where Hyundai offers the Partial Zero Emission Vehicle (PZEV) version of this engine, which musters just 166 ponies.

A 6-speed manual gearbox is standard for the SE and Sport models, while the Limited has a standard 6-speed automatic transmission with an Active Eco driving mode and a Shiftronic manual shift feature. My Elantra Sport had the automatic, which costs a grand, and lacks nothing more than shift paddles on the steering wheel to impress even the most skeptical of critics.

Paired with the more powerful 2.0-liter engine, this excellent transmission underscores the Elantra Sport’s questionable performance benefit. This motor trades 4 mpg in combined driving for 28 extra horsepower and 24 additional lb.-ft. of torque. Based on a week of driving, I’d say Hyundai’s approach is misguided. What the Elantra Sport really needs is the turbocharged, 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine from the Veloster.

Another problem with the Elantra Sport is the car’s electric steering. Allegedly “sport-tuned” in comparison to the systems in the SE and Limited trim levels, instead it feels disconnected and vague on center, while just off-center it requires too much effort to turn the wheel, like there’s some sort of obstacle that must be surmounted before the car is willing to respond. Once you’re bending the car into a curve, the steering feels slow, lacks accuracy, and requires lots of correction. Without question, the Elantra Sport’s electric steering is the worst thing about driving the car.

Ultimate road-holding is impressive, however. The 17-inch, 215/45 Hankook Optimo tires go about their business with lots of grip and little squeal. But when driving the Elantra Sport down a concrete freeway this set of rubber also shimmied and shook the car, as the tires tramlined in the lane’s grooves. The Elantra has a solid rear axle suspension, which certainly contributed to the car’s tendency to bounce more than expected when driving through dips and over humps in the road.

Driving an Elantra Sport end up being a mixed bag. The transmission, brakes, tire grip, and roll control are very good, but the thirsty engine, listless steering, and 'boing-boing' suspension motions detract from what fun might be had. For these reasons, it might be better to get the Elantra in SE or Limited trim.

Either way, you get a roomy interior that the EPA claims is actually equivalent to a midsize car. The front seats are comfortable, especially with the 8-way power driver’s seat, but the rear seats have a low, unsupportive bottom seat cushion and Hyundai provides merely adequate room for a rear passenger’s legs and feet.

Stashing stuff inside of an Elantra is easy, thanks to a number of storage areas. The bin containing the car’s power port, USB port, and auxiliary audio input jack is covered to keep devices out of sight. The Elantra’s trunk is roomy, too, measuring 14.8 cu.-ft., or nearly on par with midsize family sedans.

Though hard plastic is the rule within the Elantra’s cabin, nothing about the materials absolutely screams “cheap.” Textures and tones compliment one another, and the interior is stylishly outfitted. Simple instrumentation and clearly labeled switchgear glows a soothing blue at night, and the 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system that’s added to Sport models with the optional Tech Package is a breeze to configure and use.

Despite its age, I recommend the Hyundai Elantra. Skip the Sport model, as it isn’t terribly sporty, the steering is a source of frustration, and it returned just 28.7 mpg on my usual test loop. Do know, though, that all Elantras are expected to be reliable and inexpensive to own while retaining a good chunk of their value over time.

Add top safety ratings, Hyundai’s outstanding warranty, and the raging bargains that are available, and choosing an Elantra over other compact cars is a no-brainer.

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