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.

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