- The Washington Times - Friday, August 18, 2000

MODEL: Hyundai Elantra GLS

VEHICLE TYPE: Four-door wagon


MILEAGE: 21 city, 30 highway

Though they're tucked away in the growing array of choices available to the motoring public, few vehicles offer more of a return on investment than the small station wagon.

That's especially true in the United States, where buyers have unaccountably rejected four-door hatchback sedans, which are popular in more pragmatic jurisdictions in Europe.

Small wagons offer economy of operation, reasonable comfort for four persons and, best of all, luggage space that exceeds that of big sedans and limousines.

For example, the tested 2000 Hyundai Elantra GLS has passenger space that approaches that of a midsize car, and also offers 32 cubic feet of cargo space behind the back seat. That's about a third more stowage than in the trunk of a Lincoln Town Car.

Though the economy-oriented Elantra is no luxury car, it carries some of the same equipment. The GLS, with only a few options added, had air conditioning, a stereo with CD player, alloy wheels, power windows, door locks and mirrors, an automatic transmission, a roof rack and cruise control.

It lacked only remote locking, a power driver's seat and anti-lock brakes. But some of its minor touches exceeded those of some more expensive cars. The windshield wipers, for example, had a variable-speed intermittent setting, and the rear-window wiper was a two-speed.

Yet with all that, it had a suggested sticker price of $14,979. That's more than seven grand south of what the average car costs nowadays.

Part of the reason the Elantra is so cheap is that Hyundai builds its cars in South Korea, a leader in the low-bucks department. That distinction was enough to rapidly sell the company's cars when they first arrived here in 1986. But much of the luster vanished, along with sales, in a welter of quality deficiencies.

To regain its footing, Hyundai now offers one of the best warranties in the business five years or 60,000 miles on the whole car and 10 years or 100,000 miles on the engine and transaxle, along with five years of roadside assistance.

That, of course, is not much consolation if you spend a lot of time chasing back to the dealer for warranty repairs. But at least there is the comfort of knowing you're protected against a wipeout of your savings account.

Obviously, the hefty warranty is an interim measure until Hyundai proves that it can build a quality car.

The Elantra wagon looks as if it's at least headed in that direction. The test car was tight, with no obvious shortcomings in workmanship or materials.

Although the upholstery was done up in an odd purple-gray design, both the front and back seats looked sturdy and were neatly coved for comfort. Ergonomics were as good as you would expect on a quality Japanese car, with instruments and controls where you would expect to find them.

The engine is a 2-liter four-cyl-

inder, with 140 horsepower, which is more punch than you expect of a car in this price class. Refinement, however, is in short supply, announced by loud thrashing if you pump up the engine revolutions through the gears.

A five-speed manual transmission is standard, which should be attractive to people who value incremental increases in fuel economy. But the tested four-speed automatic likely would be the choice of most buyers, and it acquits itself well with smooth upshifts and no uncertainty in operation.

There are thoughtful design features in this little wagon, from seats that easily fold into a flat load floor in back to carry extra cargo, to a sturdy board that covers the spare wheel and looks as if it could easily handle a load of concrete blocks.

Handling is on a par with other compact economy cars. The suspension system is a trifle soft, making for some body lean in hard cornering. But the tradeoff is a good ride for this size car.

If you are truly practical, it should be pointed out that this Elantra offers about the same accommodations for people and cargo as the Volvo V40, which costs about twice as much.

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