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March 1, 2006

Review: 2006 Hyundai Accent CRDi

“Surprise and delight the customer” may be a common marketing goal these days, but it’s unusual to find a car that genuinely fits the bill.  After all, we expect a Porsche to be fast and an Expedition to have enough room for two basketball teams.  During the six weeks of testing for Car of the Year 2006, one vehicle stands out in my mind long after the dust has settled on the roads of Forest Hills, and it takes the bulbous shape of the new Hyundai Accent CRDi.

The Hyundai Accent is difficult to pigeonhole partly because of its size.  It splits the difference between subcompact and compact—halfway between a Honda City and a Honda Civic, for example.

Within that compact frame, it manages to fit an interior that’s sufficiently roomy for four, and merely sufficient for five.  Fabrics and plastics may have been done on a budget, but everything you touch exudes a solid feel, from steering wheel to switchgear.  All pieces are placed for ease of use, and nothing looks cheap or flimsy.  The light gray trim gives the interior a roomier feel.  There’s even a smattering of metallic trim on the dashboard, surrounding a decent Sony audio unit.

That’s the delight part; the real surprise is under the hood.  Where you would usually find a small-displacement gasoline engine, the Accent instead has a common-rail diesel.  Nearly silent at idle and pleasantly whining in action, the 1.5 liter CRDi powerplant is thoroughly modern, with 16 valves and a turbo.  It generates an enormous 241 Nm of torque at a mere 2000 rpm, a figure that’s usually seen in large-displacement gasoline V6 engines.  For a vehicle that weighs in at less than 1200 kg, that is a lot of force.  Simply put, you will not experience such a rush of pressed-to-your-seat acceleration in anything less than a BMW 530d.

If you want to drive normally, be gentle on the throttle, and shift up at 1500 rpm.  That way, the car delivers decent acceleration and sips fuel parsimoniously.  Then the devil whispers into your ear, and your right foot goes to the floor.  Once the torque kicks in at 2000 rpm, the car rockets forward and you have the comical effect of shooting past all other traffic, a la Looney Tunes’ Road Runner.  The gearshift is crisp and smooth, an ideal counterpart to that engine.  In-gear acceleration is similarly superb, making short work of overtaking.  The Accent is able to climb steep uphill grades in third gear; most competing vehicles huff and puff even in first.

The Accent is quick to react to steering inputs, although the steering provides no feedback at all.  In excess of 140 km/h, the car’s lightness will begin to show.  The brakes stop the car efficiently, but they don’t quite inspire the same confidence as the engine.  So best to keep within normal driving speeds, even if all other traffic now seems impossibly slow.

One factor that’s stretching the Accent’s reach is price.  Its PHP768,000 list price has it shooting past the subcompacts and into compact territory, where a multitude of attractive alternatives awaits.  For that price, though, you get a car that’s well-equipped: electric power steering is standard, as are remote entry, power everything, 60-40 split-fold rear seat, and genuinely useful fog lamps.  ABS and airbags are the only notable absences.

With the Accent, Hyundai takes the compact sedan game into a different direction, and the result is for us, the biggest automotive surprise we’ve had this year.

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