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2011 Hyundai Elantra

You don’t get a second chance at a first impression, so for an automaker it’s essential that you put your best sheetmetal forward. In the compact segment the main design brief is “don’t offend anyone – we’re trying to sell a gajillion of these things.” Inject a little style, a little danger in the mix, and you might alienate Uncle Bob and Aunt Sue. Then again, the right mix of creases, character, and attitude may just appeal to both your older relatives and also their young, Apple device-festooned offspring.

What the Elantra represents, then, is a volume car in a volume segment, packing the styling language to reset the bar in the class. Make no bones about it, with the awkward redesign of the Mazda3 the class needs a styling leader. The Corolla, the Civic, and the Cruze are more likely to induce a coma than excite your visual cortex. Remember how the first generation Honda Fit’s perky face allowed it to punch high above its humble station? Similarly, the first Mazda3 brought Italianette detailing to the masses, with just enough of a tribute to Alfa Romeo’s wonderful styling department to bootstrap it up a class. Elantra manages to have a similar effect – a charismatic and expressive face and a crisp suit of metal hugging its flanks. Look at how the creased edge of the trunklid blends into the C-pillar, and then continues to skirt above the windows before plunging down into the flowing headlight. Who puts a character line on the C-pillar and pulls it off?

It’s a shame the driving dynamics aren’t as Alfa Romeo as the lines. Not to say the Elantra is an unpleasant car to drive – on the contrary, it is resoundingly comfortable, very quiet, and eats up miles like a stoat chows down on voles. More on the ride comfort (and the stoat) in a second, but the reality is that the sharp lines promise some sportiness that’s just not there. For example, the powertrain provides class-leading power at a low weight, and looks wonderful on paper.

Nice marmot.

The motor, a 145 HP/131 ft-lbs lump, also sounds pretty good when you wind it up – snarling like a small but ferocious animal – a stoat, perhaps. Stoats were never domesticated to pull carts full of farm products, and for a good reason: have you ever tried to harness a stoat? Even if you manage to without losing half your epidermis to manic scratching, they just jump around and howl, no matter how many dressed rabbits you dangle in front of them on a stick. That cart’s not going anywhere. Likewise, no one’s going to mistake an Elantra for a beast of burden, particularly pointed up a long uphill grade. Hyundai’s spent a lot of capital lightening the chassis and motor, but it’s clear that the emphasis was on fuel consumption performance and not on setting a new FWD record at Nordschleife.

There’s two reasons why this shouldn’t be perceived as a knock against the Elantra. First, the sporty slot in Hyundai’s lineup is soon to be filled by the Tiburon-replacing Veloster 2+2 coupe, which fulfills all of the sporting aspirations of the Elantra’s and Accent’s shared chassis without overly complicating the lineup. This is a good thing, and it means that the Veloster has a very good shot at being more fun than a barrel full of stoats. The second is that it allows the Elantra to specialize in moving people around comfortably. They’ve pushed the wheels way out to the corners to grow the interior volume, and then poked and prodded the interior until it became a very pleasant place to spend a couple hours.

The Elantra GLS manual's interior was pleasantly dual-toned.

Particularly impressive are the ergonomics in general, which are always a compromise between the comfort of the hypothetical “average consumer” and the reality of placing your butt in the seat and getting comfortable. Seat bottom cushions are a good example. In most small cars, finding a seat bottom that supports more than 0.4% of your thigh is difficult at best. The Elantra’s made it at least halfway down my thoroughly average-sized (and shapely, I might add) leg, and I was secure and comfortable for the entire 6 hours that I was in the car. As notorious a fidgeter as I am, I wasn’t doing the numb-leg samba at all.

Since carving corners isn’t going to be high on the list of any Elantra buyer, other distractions are graciously offered to driver and passenger. Tunes, for example. With automakers working themselves into a stiff froth over infotainment systems, it’s nice to see that froth whipped properly every once in a while. BMW’s systems need an Enigma machine and several cryptographers to decipher, but the Hyundai’s multi-function touchscreen system (available as an option on both GLS and Limited trims) is about as intuitive as they get. Want to infuriate your date by insisting on playing Audioslave from your iPod on the way to the movies? Before she can dump you on the spot, you can pop open a door below the stereo, plug in your audio device, and hit play on the 7″ screen.

Optional 7-inch nav/infotainment system on the Limited trim.

The nav system is similarly facile. The best part?

Better than Taylor Swift. Sorry Taylor.

The HVA/C controls are still manual, rotary knobs, easily fiddled with and (once you’ve spent a little time in the car) without even having to remove your eyes from the road ahead. They look good too. We listened to the optional 360 watt sound system (the standard sound system is 175 watts with CD and iPod integration), and I can tell you that Them Crooked Vultures sounds phenomenal at a high volume with tumbleweed-studded scrubland whizzing past. I’m going to guess that more Elantra owners will be listening to Taylor Swift or the Eagles, but I assume that won’t change the experience.

The new Elantra also drinks through a tiny, tiny straw. Hyundai is very excited to point out that every Elantra is EPA-rated at 40 MPG on the highway, not just a special high-mileage trim. If nothing else, congratulate Hyundai for not playing a fuel-economy shell game with consumers. (“Find the 40 MPG Fiesta, win a prize! Step right up!” Except the prize is a $2,765 surcharge.) Hyundai seems very serious about their pledge to get a 50 MPG CAFE rating by 2025, and with a lean offering of trucks and a sizable capital investment in fuel economy maximizing technologies, they might actually get there too. (CAFE ratings involve some fuzzy math and a lot of backroom politics – for example, the EPA rating for the Elantra is 40 MPG, but the CAFE rating is 44 MPG. Now you know, and knowing’s half the battle!) How are they getting such fuel economy out of a large-for-the-class “compact” (it’s actually now classified as a midsize)?

The new Nu engine in the GLS trim.

Hyundai is very glad you asked – first of all, they cut weight out wherever they could. Higher strength steel was put where it was needed, and lighter grades were used in non-critical places. They cut 74 lbs out of the engine (mainly by switching to an aluminum block), and the new 6-speed automatic is 11 lbs lighter than the 5-speed it replaces. The some metal components like the valve covers and intakes were deep-sixed in favor of plastic, and the rear shocks in the torsion-beam setup are monotube units. All of this weight savings results in a power to weight ratio of 17.9 lbs/stoat HP, which is the best in class, and allows for a 17.7% increase in fuel economy over the smaller and less-powerful outgoing Elantra.

The base trim level also offers a manual transmission, a six-speed unit. Don’t even bother.

A better choice. Seriously.

Wait, what? Did I actually just type that? I did, and despite having been awarded the title of Defender of the Faith by the Hoonitarian Three-Pedalist splinter sect, I was slightly scandalized by the inescapable conclusion that the automatic is a much more satisfying (and seemingly quicker) method of ambulation. There’s nothing seriously wrong with the manual, it’s just that the automatic pops off quick, smooth shifts … even in SHIFTRONIC mode. With no sporting pretensions, the Elantra simply pairs better with the automatic. The transmission and engine share an ECU, allowing some clever tricks. For example, the throttle is automatically backed off slightly during a gear change, without the driver’s input, resulting in a very smooth transition. As my codriver pointed out, a SHIFTRONIC change will occur in the time it takes you to reach to the gear selector lever and back to the wheel – quick enough to be satisfyingly functional.

So we know what the 2011 Hyundai Elantra is (a stylish, comfortable, and efficient people-mover) and what it’s not (a sporty sedan begging for a manual). Any car is a compromise, a studied roll of the dice. Hyundai marked out a territory for the Elantra, identified its competitors, invested a lot of money in the car, and let the chips fall where they may.

The result looks auspicious – the Elantra is a sharp looking, well-screwed-together, and content-heavy car. It’s a stoat among voles. Even with a bevy of extremely competent compacts on the horizon, our gut is that Hyundai is going to sell a ton of Elantras to folks who’ll be quite satisfied with their purchases. And if the Elantra’s not your cup of tea, join me in eagerly awaiting the arrival of that potential-spiritual-successor-to-the-CRX, the Hyundai Veloster.

  • RichardKopf

    So it has just the one engine option? Also, it looks good in blue. White, not so much.

    • Han_Solex

      Yeah, one engine option, but in two slightly different flavors. If you're lucky enough to live in California or the Northeast, you get the PZEV certified one with 3 less HP and 1 less ft-lbs of torque. Same MPG rating. Everyone else gets the ULEV engine with 148 HP and 131 ft-lbs of torque. I liked the motor a lot – it sounded great and in a smaller car, perhaps Miata-sized, it would be AWESOME. But as far as the Elantra goes, that's pretty much the deal.

  • dculberson

    That looks surprisingly decent. Focusing on some of the styling details, like the bulging headlights, makes it look wrong. But the whole package actually makes the "wrong" parts work together pretty well.

    Hyundai took the best feature from the 3rd gen TL (the door handles lining up with the lower style line) and ran with it on their latest models. It's amazing to me that Honda abandoned that feature on the TL as it was one of its – if not the only – distinguishing characteristics.

  • BGW

    Is this a damnFirst Impression?

  • Stumack

    82.2 lbs/hp means this thing weighs 11,919 lbs. Seems porky for the class.

    • Han_Solex

      Haha, thanks. I'll edit that. I was so busy making a stoat joke there … sigh. The problem with scotch is that it's too good to have just one!

  • skitter

    As a devout tripedalist, I can only assume you are in with the stoats, who are in with the lemurs, who are all agents of the beige.
    /Strips epaulets, slaps with glove

    • zaddikim

      I'm a staunch Tripedalist myself (a practitioner, but not clergy), but there are numerous vehicles which are better enjoyed (yes, I said it) with a slushbox.

      If Rabbis can have meaningful dialogue with Imams, we can do the same with the Slushists.

      • skitter

        Dreams of Caterhams and Atoms betray my fundamentalism. It outstrips any progressive advocacy of synchros down to first, or zero-shift dogs. I should speak only for myself. If I selected the torque converter over an H-pattern with no great sins, it would reduce my motions, my appreciation, and my consciousness by half. Give me not ease but involvement. This is the heart of my meditation on harmony with my surroundings.

        I do not deny the ability of the Slushists or Dual-Clutchists or Sequential-Shiftests to be noble hoons. Anything driven hard is driven honorably. I am one hoon among many. Perhaps only for me, passing over an available manual is as love unrequited.

        • zaddikim

          I. Am. Floored. That has to be the best thing I've read all day.

          +million internets, and I'm going to bed now, because there is no way in bloody hell I can compete with that.

        • politics_nerd

          Where is this church, and what time and day are services? I am a believer!

  • Three cheers for Hyundai.

    After years of having absolutely no self image whatsoever, Hyundai might finally mean something. Remember the days of the Pony and the Stellar, robust, unflinching workhorses with zero panache but tried and tested Mitsubishi oily bits? You bought a Pony because you didn't understand how good proper cars had become. I mean, a car's a car, isn't it? Why buy prime steak when gristle will do the job?

    Today you can buy a Hyundai with confidence that the product has actually been developed. Optimised, even. It's staggering to see how far they have come, at a time where Toyota are hemorrhaging driver appeal like never before. It's Koreas game now, Japan are playing catch-up.

    • Han_Solex

      Especially when you consider Honda. Every time I've been in a new Hyundai, I think about the Honda-of-years-past, and then I imagine Soichiro Honda spinning in his grave at about 9,000RPM when he considers the current crop of Hondas that seem to have lost the plot entirely. Heavy, awkward, conventional. What happened to the company that said, "we don't need no stinkin' catalytic converters!" and using the power and magic of original thought and creative engineering, came up with the CVVC motor? The company whose most basic, cheap, frugal offering just happened to be entirely too much fun? (The CRX, of course.) With the death of the S2000, which was a remarkable car and a true successor to both the earlier "S" roadsters and also to Soichiro's vision, and bloating of the Civic line, they've lost me. It is very sad.

      • I can't yet play the Honda card, at least we get the crazy futurist Civic over here. But when that goes and the clever advertising campaigns stop, Honda will be dead to me.

  • damnelantra™[!]

    dont give in!

    • Han_Solex

      I was hoping you'd show up. Check the tags.

  • citroen67

    It looks so happy!

    BTW…nice "Lebowski" reference! 🙂

  • zsm

    It's a very nice review, I even got to learn some about zoology, thanks! One thing though is I doubt I could easily work the climate controls without looking. Basically dials, levers, sliders, toggle switches, and memory buttons make for controls like that. This seems to be lights, push buttons, and a knob. It's getting harder to find cars with eyes-free climate controls sadly.
    <img src="; width="360">
    That said this Elantra seems so much better than what our Honda minivan has in that regard.

  • From_a_Buick_6

    I'm seriously impressed by Hyundai these days. The Elantra was worth looking at starting around '01 (although I'm still glad I chose a Civic instead back in '02), and the outgoing model is a solid Corolla alternative. But this new one, wow. The Focus and 3 will be better enthusiast choices, but this absolutely blows everything else out of the water. GM took way too long to roll out the very ho-hum Cruze and I'm sure the forthcoming Civic will be another weird-looking disappointment from Honda.

    I've read a couple reviews recommending the automatic over the manual. As much as I love rowing my own gears, it makes sense in this class of car, provided it isn't a complete slug. My Civic is my around-town commuter and has the four speed slushbox. Yes, its horribly gutless and would be a lot more engaging with a stick, but it's so much easier to drive in traffic. Then again, I've got a standard-shift Mustang for weekends and road trips, so my left foot gets satisfied elsewhere.

  • Straight6er

    I continually find myself impressed by Hyundai as of late. The economy car world may have a new leader before long.

    Also +1 for Them Crooked Vultures. I have three CD's in my car ( iPod), this is one of them.

  • facelvega

    For me, the hoon question here, once we get as far as knowing this car isn't fun to drive, is whether it tells us anything about the veloster. In this light, it mainly seems to tell us that the most likely veloster power plant sounds good but is gutless in the torque department. Uh oh. Looks like we may have to keep waiting for the breathed-on Fiesta for a sporty small car in a price bracket way under the GTI/speed3/etc. Sounds like we may be up against another near miss, just like the genesis coupe before it.

  • I think you ought to put away the Redwall books before you do the next car review.

  • DerangedStoat

    An excellent stoat review with some amusing Hyundai analogies!
    (read often, but don't comment much, however I felt required to in this case!)

    @ Thrashy: haha, those books made me fascinated as a kid with all things stoat/weasel/ferret etc.

  • politics_nerd

    looks like a baby sonata. i love my sonata: 2011 phantom black with manual transmission.

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