Image: 2011 Hyundai Elantra
Hyundai
The new Hyundai Elantra costs less and performs better than the best-selling model in the compact segment, the Honda Civic.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 4/14/2011 10:46:41 AM ET 2011-04-14T14:46:41
REVIEW

Given its reputation for quality and dependability, the Toyota Corolla has long been a darling of compact-car buyers in the U.S.

In fact, Toyota customer loyalty has become so blinkered lately that those buyers are willfully ignoring poor reviews and even a shattering series of recalls and are continuing to buy Corollas based on their experience with Toyota vehicles that were built in the past.

But today there are other suitors vying for their affections, including the new 2011 Hyundai Elantra. At first, having a Hyundai in the family might seem like a bad idea, given the automaker’s past reputation for spotty quality and copycat engineering in previous models. But all that’s in the past and the Elantra that’s asking you out on a date today is improved, suave and gainfully employed. It’s an invitation that car shoppers should consider seriously.

After all, the Elantra is a handsome devil. Just take a look at its dynamically flowing lines, with a slashing character line rising from behind the front wheel and encompassing the front and rear door handles on its flight rearward over the back wheel before plunging into the taillight lens.

The result is a car that strongly echoes the design of the mid-sized Sonata, which earned its own well-deserved acclaim. The contoured headlights lend a thoroughly contemporary style to the Elanta’s front end, and the emphatic wheel arches, chamfered corners and channeled fog light openings visually minimize the front overhang that visually puts the cart before the horse of so many front-drive cars.

But the real news is beneath that handsome hood. For years, Honda has been legendary for its engine design prowess, a skill that led the company to remind anyone who would listen that the company’s full name is Honda Motor Co., with the emphasis on “motor.”

During Hyundai’s two decades of tribulations in the U.S. vehicle market, among the various mispronunciations of the “hun-day” name was for many owners to say it as “hon-day,” in a less-than-subtle attempt to confuse the relatively lightly regarded Korean newcomer with its established, and esteemed, Japanese rival. (Even the Hyundai logo on the hood looks like an italicized version of Honda’s “H” logo.)

This was understandable. Honda has set the benchmark for engine technology, design and performance for decades. Until now, that is. The new Hyundai Elantra boasts more horsepower, more torque and better fuel economy than the 2012 Honda Civic.

Its transmissions — both automatic and manual — have more gears as both are six-speeds. The bottom line is the Elantra costs less and performs better than the best-selling model in the compact segment, the Honda Civic.

Of course, my friends at Honda will quickly point out that, well, they have an app for that, so to speak. Honda offers a high-efficiency version of the Civic that edges out the Elantra’s 29 mpg city, 40 mpg highway EPA fuel economy rating, although it will probably account for 2-3 percent of Civic sales based on the history of such models. And Honda offers a sporty, pricey Civic Si hot-rod version crammed with the bigger, thirstier engine from the Accord, which is definitely faster than the Elantra.

But Hyundai’s engineers have outdone Honda’s by giving every Elantra exemplary fuel economy and performance, at no extra charge. Sure, the difference in fuel economy is slight, as is the difference in horsepower and torque, the number of gears and the performance. But overall I think the Elantra outdoes the Civic.

For Hyundai to unseat Honda in any of these categories is unexpected. For Hyundai to upset Honda in all of them is shocking because it speaks to the Elanta’s excellence and the determination of its engineers to do the job right. No automaker lucks into a victory over Honda.

It’s not that Honda’s quality has declined, but rather that the automaker has long been the benchmark of most manufacturers in terms of fuel efficiency, performance and clever engineering. Those competitors have long targeted Honda, but they rarely landed a shot, until now.

Also, as the best-selling model in the segment, the Civic is a natural point of comparison for many shoppers. Other models — such as the Toyota Corolla and the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta — are out of the running because of those companies’ apparent contempt for customers by offering cars that have been cheapened to the point of insulting shoppers’ intelligence.

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The new Chevrolet Cruze matches up well, on the strength of a handsome cabin, and only the 2012 Ford Focus presents a more impressive alternative to the Elantra. But while the Focus is almost indisputably the top car in the segment, that leadership does not come cheaply. Consumers who are unable or unwilling to spend an extra couple of grand on a fabulously attired Focus may conclude that the close-second Elantra represents the smarter value.

Unlike many competitors, the Elantra is only available in a single body style — a four-door sedan. A compact wagon, the Elantra 5, based on the previous generation car, is also available, but that is currently an out-of-date vehicle that isn’t comparable to this excellent new Elantra model.

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Others have found great success selling three- and five-door hatchbacks in the compact segment, but so far Hyundai is satisfied to concentrate on the mainstream four-door sedan portion of the market. The Elantra’s lively dynamics suggest that a fun sporty version of the car would be well-received, especially if it were available in the hatchback style that defines the “hot hatch” segment.

As more customers drive the Elantra (and the Ford Focus), word may leak out to drivers who’ve been the faithful to other brands (to their own detriment of late). They’ll be thrilled to discover that they need not tolerate ugly hard cabin surfaces, numb, disconnected steering, soggy suspension and grumbling, thirsty engines just because they want to buy an economical small car.

The Elantra’s still standing out there on the welcome mat with the flowers. Go ahead and let it in.

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