It’s time once and for all to shake the stigma of inferiority that still dogs Hyundai. Introduced in the U.S. market to compete against the Yugo in the trickle down 1980s, the $4,995 Hyundai Excel flooded the market before being plagued with quality problems that persisted into the Accent, its 1995 successor.
Hyundai wanted to be a major market player, which is why it introuced the legendary 10 year/100,000 mile warranty, which was unheard of in the late 90s. This plea for trust is paying off big time, enabling the Korean automaker to flush out its product line with quality cars that are getting snatched up in the U.S. Hyundai’s U.S. market share spiked right as the recession hit, jumping from 3 percent in 2008 to a peak of 5.1 percent in 2011, according to Automotive News. It's currently at about 4.8 percent.
While the stylish midsize Sonata sedan had a lot to do with Hyundai’s market inroads, the compact Elantra remains its best-selling vehicle.
Fully redesigned in 2011, the Elantra best embodies the Hyundai models of today: above average fuel economy, superlative safety and warranty-backed quality, all while still retaining excellent value.
It has the roominess of a midsize, the fuel economy of a subcompact, and enough style on the surface and under the hood to make you feel like you’re driving something more than a $18,200 car. The unassuming design has a dipped down nose like a Mazda but with a taller cabin like American makes.
While the Mazda3 is the sportiest of similarly priced compacts, and the Civic is the old standard bearer with over a dozen trim options, and the Ford Focus is the stylish global best-seller, the Elantra is the most inexpensive and best warrantied.
But it doesn’t feel cheap.
Winner of the 2012 Car of the Year, Hyundai’s compact sedan gets a modest refresh for 2014. The sedan gets sharper exterior finishes and more interior noise dampening, while the coupe, the GT and the sedan Sport model get a more powerful 2.0-liter engine with direct injection. The centerstack is more balanced, with vents on either side of the control panel, and less cluttered dials.
The fuel-efficient 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine gets moving fast enough and automatic transmission is smooth and predictable. Behind the wheel there are three drive modes, Comfort, Normal, or Sport that tighten the steering up to Sport mode. Pair this with Hyundai’s 6-speed automatic transmission with SHIFTRONIC and you can push the car to its sporty extreme or take it easy and let the car do the work. Using the manual automatic is fun in the city or in merge situations, though the automatic is perfectly capable. It’s nice having options.
The EPA forced Hyundai-Kia to restate fuel economy estimates down by about 2 mpg average for 2012 and 2013 models and now Hyundai appears to be erring on the most conservative side of fuel estimates, at least for highway mpg. On one 25-mile commute on mostly highway miles, the Elantra averaged 45 mpg at 41 mph in ECO mode. That’s as good as many hybrid sedans. On the return trip in heavy traffic, and driving at 31 mph in regular mode, the Elantra got 37 mpg, or one mile shy of the EPA estimate. Around town, I got 31 mpg, which is 3 mpg better than the estimate.
Road noise isn’t an issue as it was in the previous model thanks to noise-dampening adjustments to the suspension, and the cabin is one of the roomiest in the compact class, even though people over 6'2" in the rear seats might have their scalp tickled. The trunk has the most volume in the class, and folding down the 60/40 seats means you can haul a bike or two.
My test model came with the Preferred Package ($975), which included a very capable hands-free option with voice commands, a small 4.3-inch screen and rearview camera that did the job(and foretells what size will likely be used on standard 2018 models when the government mandate begins) steering wheel audio controls and heated front seats, along with a few other refinements. All of it was well worth it for that price, bumping it to just over $20,000 with destination.
With each drive during my week-long loan, I appreciated the Elantra more. It has plenty of appeal to sustain Hyundai and consumers until its next full redesign for model year 2016 or 2017.
2014 Hyundai Elantra SE
28 mpg city/ 38 mpg highway
Base price: $18,200
Price as tested: $20,110 (including $810 destination)
Parting shot: Hyundai’s best seller strikes the right balance between value, size, comfort and fuel economy.