Compact Elantra Combines Function with Style

Njuguna Kabugi | 2/6/2013, 12:47 p.m.

Hyundai Motor Company, the largest automobile company in Korea, is now one of the top carmakers worldwide. Hyundai has not only weathered the global economic downturn, it has set innumerable sales records while the competition has struggled.

It is all so easy to forget just how far Hyundai has had to climb to be a contender. The manufacturer entered the U.S. auto market in 1986 with a basic car that offered Americans an inexpensive alternative to buying a used car. The Hyundai Excel (called Pony in Canada), set a record for the most automobiles sold by a new import (126,000) in the first year of business in America.

The bargain-basement economy car had a rock-bottom price of $4,995, which was hugely appealing, until the bottom dropped out of Hyundai's image. The car buying public soon realized the Excel was woefully unrefined and unreliable. As sales collapsed, Hyundai became the butt of jokes by late-night talk-show hosts. Jay Leno quipped that filling up a Hyundai doubled its value while David Letterman joked how much it would frighten astronauts if the Hyundai logo were placed on the spacecraft's control panel.

Rather than drop out of the world's largest automotive market, Hyundai began investing heavily in the quality, design, manufacturing, and long-term research of its vehicles. It also introduced a 10-year warranty - an industry first. The Hyundai program was far more comforting than the industry's standard three-year, 30,000-mile warranty, and essentially guaranteed the car for its entire expected working life.

By 2004, sales had dramatically increased, and the reputation of Hyundai cars improved. In 2008, Hyundai had tied with Honda and Toyota, the perennial leaders in quality, and was only slightly behind Porsche and Lexus.

Sales are up more than 60 percent since the recession began and with every other automaker racing to roll out new models; can Hyundai continue its run of success for another model year? We think so, and this week's test vehicle, the Hyundai Elantra is proof.

Ever since the latest Elantra arrived last year, it has hit home run after home run. Its combination of affordability, sporty styling and performance, and roomy, attractive cabin led to the car being named the 2012 North American Car of the Year by juries of automotive journalists in both Canada and the United States.

The Hyundai Elantra looks striking with crisp, edgy styling. While most of the rest of the competition looks dated, the Elantra appears to have the sleekest exterior design in its class. The car is powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 148 hp. This all-aluminum DOHC engine with variable valve timing delivers 29 mpg city and 40 mpg highway, according to the EPA, trouncing most of the competitors.

The car readily keeps pace with fast-moving highway or city traffic and the optional six-speed automatic (a six-speed manual is standard) shifts smoothly and is always willing to downshift when you need more power. You feel bumps and ruts, but true harshness is damped before it reaches the cabin. The car stays flat in corners, but the ride is comfortable.

The Elantra seats up to five and has very accommodating trunk space. All the controls are clearly organized and labeled; whether you want to change the radio station, enter an address in the navigation system, or adjust the windshield wipers, everything seems to be right at your fingertips.

At $22,500, our test car sat near the upper reaches of the Elantra model. In Hyundai tradition, that price brings a staggering level of standard equipment; includes stability control, a power sunroof, automatic headlights, remote keyless entry, Bluetooth connectivity, one of the industry's most straightforward iPod interfaces, leather seats - all heated front and rear.