Friday, October 26, 2012

Curve Control: Hyundai Elantra

"Polarizing" is the word that comes to mind when I think of Hyundai design. They're way too curvy for my taste. This is a brand replete with deep grooves, undulations, peaks, valleys, and divots to spare. When compared to sister company Kia, well, there is no comparison. Kia design rules (with the exception of the upcoming Quoris luxury sedan—WHAT HAPPENED?).

Still, I was pleased to take the keys to a black Elantra on my latest rental excursion, if only to satisfy my curiosity. South Korea has been making great gains in the market because of these two brands. But have they been a part of the sea change that's sweeping the economy class (as exhibited in cars like the new Ford Focus)?

From the outside, they really tried hard. But a bit more restraint would have helped with curve control here. The contour lines on the body sides are too sharp. And the front fascia lacks personality. Still, it makes a statement that nothing from Honda, Toyota, or Nissan can make. And many people dig the swoops that have become the Hyundai signature.

On the inside, the curves continue, but more successfully executed. After driving the Focus back to back with Elantra, it was nice to be able to make some immediate comparisons. I did find the Hyundai's control logic much more intuitive. I particularly like the concentric climate control knobs that make it very easy to adjust fan and temperature without looking. Same goes for the big audio knob. I've come to expect two things from Enterprise: 1) dirt; 2) broken stuff. And the Elantra continued the tradition with a faulty USB connection and spots on seats in spades (so, again, no iPhone charging). And a note on the Blue gauge lighting—hard to focus on at night.

The cabin is roomy, but remember, I've been in a couple of FIAT's lately. Still, my developers and me were all able to get comfortable and were satisfied with the number of bins, cupholders, and other bits that make the short ride to the factory pleasant.

While Hyundai has certainly advanced aesthetics, ergonomics, and comfort with Elantra, possibly besting Japan's best efforts, the driving experience is yesteryear. The four banger is punchy and noisy. It has plenty of torque, but reminds you of that fact with an unflattering note from the other side of the firewall. The ride is a little soft, erring on the side of cush. Braking performs as you would expect and fuel economy is excellent.

But after driving the Focus, the difference is apparent. Focus wants to be driven. It teases you with an angry engine note and rewards you with a firm, controlled ride. The Elantra gives you a more comfortable, better-trimmed interior with superior ergonomics, at the cost of a tepid driving experience.

The competition is getting stiffer. Consumer expectations in this class are growing (almost unreasonably). The Americans and Japanese are coming out with replacement models at breakneck speed. But I don't think Hyundai is worried. They've made quantum leaps in quality improvements since they came on the U.S. scene back in the eighties. This Elantra is a nice car. One can only imagine what they have on the drawing board.

Monday, October 8, 2012

It Went By in a Blur

My Sunday arrival in Chicago left me with limited off-airport rental choices. The local Enterprises were all closed, so I was forced into a $60 one-day rental of a Ford Focus SE at Avis. Avis, apparently, is French for "more than twice as much as Enterprise".

Still, this Focus was newer than most of my recent rentals at E. Only 8k on the odometer and it was spotless. I've learned the price you pay for the Enterprise discount is a propensity toward filth and broken equipment. At least around here, that seems to be the case.

And I realize this is a big leap from my base model excursions of the past few weeks. I'm sure Avis considers the Focus a "standard" size (not economy, not compact). But I never question a free upgrade. And it's not killing me to go a little upmarket and upsize - as long as I'm getting good fuel economy. Focus returns on that promise at 36 highway.

I'm a big fan of the globalization of Ford products, and the fact that us Americans can now enjoy the better Fords that have delighted Europeans for years. The new designs are headed in the right direction. The Focus is clean and sleek on the outside. I do find that the sub-Fusion models, however, still need more presence in the front fascia. The slit grille and giant, black air ducts say economy car to me, while Fusion-on-up models are going all Aston Martin on us.

Inside, the Focus reflects no pretenses that it isn't an economy car. It's all functional and cold. Black plastic. Faux matte metalwork. Low-rent door panels. Don't expect to be coddled. Overall, it's attractive and logical with a techy look heavy on convolutions. The angled audio controls are big and cheap looking. And both the gauge cluster and radio have submenus which hide functions that most cars expose - like the ability to disable traction control. This one had no USB connection, but there was an auxiliary input. Too bad it was so hard to find (in the glove box and not visible when the box door is open).

Once on the road, these quibbles seem minor. Because the Focus is... umm... focused. I've heard the hype about the driving experience and now I understand. The engine stays a little angry - in a good way. The 2.0 liter four cylinder has a surprisingly good engine note that provides a nice rumble in the background, not unlike the VW GLI. Power is easily accessed above 4,000 RPM though downshifts are a bit reluctant. Stomp the gas at a green light and don't be surprised by some tire chirp. The ride is firm and European, but the seats keep you comfortably in place. Steering feedback is good and cornering is flat and willing. The driver side view mirror adds a lot of wind noise, but I did find that the cabin was pretty well insulated from other outside noise. You don't expect Lexus hush at this level.

I wish I had more than a day with Focus. 24 hours isn't enough to evaluate fuel economy, tote the developers around, and jam its trunk full of groceries. But the time we did have together, I enjoyed. It's smart looking. It wants to be driven. It's well equipped for the price and comfortable enough for long trips. Way to go, Ford.

I handed the keys back to Avis this morning, apologizing for the unbelievable amount of bird shit resulting from my parking choice at the hotel. $60 a day is absurd, so the Enterprise van picked me up from Avis and took me to my next victim - at $144 for four days (compact). And surprise, surprise. An upgrade to a Focus competitor. Stand by...