- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 15, 2007

REDONDO BEACH, Calif. — Last year, when Hyundai introduced its new Elantra at the New York Auto Show, there was not much hoopla. No stars to recommend the new compact sedan, just a stage full of people like you and me. People who could be customers for Hyundai’s new bread-and-butter sedan. Could be, that is, if you are looking for a smaller fuel-efficient car that offers value for money.

Because buyers are moving away from SUVs, smaller cars are on the move, and the fourth-generation Elantra comes right in time. The new model was on par with Hyundai’s 24/7 product plan: seven all-new products in 24 months, when it arrived on the market last fall; the Elantra being No. 7 when it joined the Tucson, Sonata, Accent, Azera, Santa Fe and Entourage.

The Elantra was designed under the direction of Joel Piaskowski, the talented chief designer of the Hyundai America Design Center in California. He was responsible for the HCD-8 and HCD-9 concept cars that were introduced over the past few years. Early last year, he said in an interview with me: “We do not have a history, but we are working on it now.”

In 2006, Hyundai did really well and the former generation of the Elantra scored five stars in the J.D. Power Initial Quality rating. But that model was not very attractive. That problem has been solved by Mr. Piaskowski and his staff when drawing the new model. The new Elantra has leapt ahead in both design and technology. So much so that the new model can compete with well-established name plates, such as the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla. Hyundai even claims that the Elantra provides more interior space than either Japanese competitor.

Last month, I was able to see if that is true when driving the Elantra for a week’s stay in the Beach Cities, south of Los Angeles. My companion was the red Elantra SE, equipped with a 2.0-liter 16-valve CVVT engine that delivers 138 horsepower and has 136 foot-pounds of torque and that is teamed with a five-speed manual transmission.

Get behind the wheel and you immediately notice that the Elantra has really grown in size with some inches in height and width adding to a roomy cockpit and allowing a somewhat raised driving position. The interior is well executed and feels good and you do not have to search for buttons at illogical places.

The gauges in the instrument panel, as well as the display and buttons on the center console, are blue, a color that Mr. Piaskowski used in his HCD-9 concept, with LED lights, which he said was very expensive: “Blue is very difficult to duplicate and match. But it has a cool and soothing effect and it prevents aggression on the road.”

The Elantra itself will not evoke aggression. It is not a sport sedan, but it drives well, the engine performs nicely and the four-speed automatic is a good match. The car feels agile and comfortable with an independent suspension that offers enough stiffness to be firm. So you can be at ease when you have to mix quickly with the fast traffic on the freeway, and feel happy to cruise on the Pacific Coast Highway.

And that is obviously exactly what Elantra customers will be looking for. Hyundai offers them not only good quality, but also value. The car in ES trim costs $15,595 excluding $600 destination fee. For that price you get dual front and side air bags as well as curtain bags, active head restraints and seat belt pretensioners for the seats.

The 16-inch alloy wheels house ventilated disks in the front and solid disc brakes in the rear, assisted by ABS and electronic brake force distribution. And then there are a lot of features such as power lock/windows, mirrors, remote keyless entry with alarm, cruise control, fog lights, air conditioning, a tilt and telescopic steering column, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, center console with arm rest, split folding (60/40) rear seat, rear center armrest, plus an AM/FM/CD audio system. And on top of that, the Elantra will not cost a fortune when you have to fill it up.

Of course, in daily life it is hard to match the 28/36 miles per gallon city/highway mentioned on the sticker, but even with my somewhat thirsty driving style, I was coming close with an average of 27.9 mpg over 661 miles.

And that is not bad at all.

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