Car makers are finally taking the compact sedan segment very seriously. After years of domination by the likes of the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic, they’re now facing serious competition from both east and west. And one that’s made the most impact is the Hyundai Elantra. Far and wide, it has stolen the show locally with a long wait list and an even longer list of satisfied owners. But is the Elantra just all flash and no substance? After spending two weeks back-to-back with the 1.6 GL MTand 1.8 GLS AT, all I could say is: the competition should be very afraid.
Knowing that the compact car segment is both finicky and style savvy, Hyundai is smart enough to gift the Elantra a head turning exterior. Wearing the brand’s “Fluidic Sculpture” design philosophy, the Elantra looks like it’s shaped by the wind. It’s characterized by dynamic contours, muscular wheel arches, and a sleek roofline. The smooth, flowing lines also lead the Elantra to have a very aerodynamic body: a co-efficient of drag at an exceptionally low 0.28—lower than most gasoline-electric hybrid cars.
Upfront, the Elantra carries a hexagonal grille. Together with the swept-back headlights, it gives the Elantra a compact and athletic face. The assertive stance is complimented by wrap-around brake lamp clusters and a sleek glass-printed antenna. The top-of-the-line GLS ups the style factor by adding front fog lamps, 205/55R16 tires, and LED repeaters on the side view mirrors.
The two trim levels: GL and GLS are even more differentiated by its interior trimmings. The GL has less content and less pizzazz. The GL’s center console is in matte-black, while the GLS boasts of a high-gloss piano black finish. The GLS also boasts of adjustable rear headrests and a dash-integrated audio system with CD/MP3 playback as well as aux, USB input, and six speakers. Meanwhile, the GL makes do with an off-the-shelf 1-DIN head unit and four speakers.
Thankfully, whatever model you choose, the Elantra showcases Hyundai’s newfound expertise in interior packaging, lighting, design, and craftsmanship. The cockpit is driver-centric with a pair of large, telescopic clusters dominating the instrument panel. This assures of excellent legibility and ease-of use. Sandwiched between them is a multi-function display that shows different performance and system gauges including a trip computer with reading for instantaneous or current fuel consumption. And ensuring the best driving position, the Elantra comes with a six-way manually adjustable driver’s seat and tilt/telescopic steering wheel.
Another nice detail in the Elantra is the climate control system. Designers have implemented an intuitive system of stacked dials to control fan speeds and temperature. All in all, the system takes little more than a cursory glance in order to be able to use without taking your eyes off the road. All the dials and controls (sans the wiper and light stalks) feel like quality pieces with nice finishing and solid actuation.
Aside from the wonderfully ergonomic interior, the Elantra boasts of a “class above” status when it comes to interior room. It’s by far the roomiest model in its segment with a total interior volume echoing cars in the mid-sized segment. In fact, there’s ample room for five adults with elbow and knee room to spare. Its trunk volume, at 419 liters, easily trounces the other cars in the compact car segment as well and there’s a 60/40 split-fold function (at least for the GLS) for added flexibility when the need arises.
There are two engines available for the Elantra, both of which are designed with fuel-efficiency and refinement in mind. In the GLS is the all-new 1.8-liter Nu engine which replaces Hyundai’s aging 2.0-liter Beta. It’s a whopping 33 kilograms lighter and 18 percent more fuel efficient than its predecessor. And despite giving up 200cc in displacement, the 1.8-liter still manages to deliver 150 horsepower and 178 Nm of torque--figures actually comparable to the Elantra’s other 2.0-liter rivals. On the other hand, GL models receive the 1.6-liter Gamma engine which is good for 130 horsepower and 156 Nm of torque.
But the engine is only part of the Elantra’s fuel-efficiency story. This car makes use of Hyundai’s new gearboxes: a six-speed manual (GL) and six-speed automatic (GL and GLS). The automatic feels right at home switching gears for the Elantra and it’s lighter, more compact, and contain fewer parts than the old five-speed automatic. Hyundai also uses just a single control unit for both engine and transmission to improve smoothness, and the computer will actually cut the juice to the engine between shifts to increase fuel efficiency. During our week-long test, the Elantra managed 10.0 km/L for the 1.6 GL M/T and 9.09 km/L for the 1.8 GLS A/T in purely city driving; respectable but not exactly out of this world.
Hyundai may have styled the Elantra with something of a sporty bent, but make no mistake: this isn’t a compact corner carver. The good news is that the automaker isn’t painting the Elantra as the next great gift to motorsport. Instead, you’re greeted with a very comfortable, very capable commuter from behind the wheel. Steering is on the light side thanks to an electric power steering. Meanwhile, the suspension is appropriately tuned for comfortable commuting, managing to hit the sweet spot of neither too soft nor too firm for fielding broken pavement or the occasional twist in the tarmac. It must be said that the GLS does feel much more composed and surefooted through the corners compared to the GL. Plus, the GLS boasts of disc brakes all around, while the GL uses a front disc and rear drum combination.
When the 1.6-liter is equipped with a manual, the long gear ratios keep the Elantra from feeling as peppy as its automatic-equipped counterpart. The clutch is predictably soft and the shift action is surprisingly precise. That said, after ducking behind the 1.8-liter automatic, you’ll have a hard time finding an argument for the row-your-own Elantra. Shifts from the six-speed slush box are quick and smooth for a car in this price range. Slightly shorter gearing and the transmission’s ability to keep the engine in its power band makes for a car that feels much quicker than its power should allow. It’s a world apart from its manual transmission counterpart.
For the entire buzz surrounding smart technology in compact cars, Hyundai seems to believe that cost will still be the most important factor in buying a compact car. Thus, even in the range-topping GLS guise, the Elantra comes loaded but not overwhelmingly so. It doesn’t have automatic climate control, leather seats, or Bluetooth hands-free; but it does boast of a price tag at less than a million pesos (P 818,000 for 1.6 GL M/T, P 888,000 for 1.6 GL A/T, and P 958,000 for 1.8 GLS). And perhaps, Hyundai is on to something here. While other car makers are pricing their compact cars way too close to compact crossovers or MPVs, Hyundai is keeping its Elantra feature competitive and price sensitive. Needless to say, it’s great news for first-time car buyers and those on a budget; and bad news for its overly costly, overly complex competition.