Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Hyundai steps up battle of the small-car giants

Hyundai steps up battle of the small-car giants

Published December 10, 2006
By: Jim Mateja
Chicago Tribune

You fight fire with fire or, in the case of automobiles, minis with minis.

That's what Hyundai of South Korea has done for 2007.

Now that the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa have invaded the mini car segment that the Hyundai Accent plays in, Hyundai has raised the ante with a pair of new Accents: the GS and SE two-door hatchback companions to the GLS four-door sedan.

"We welcome Toyota, Nissan and Honda to this segment and trust that consumers will see the value and quality advantage that our continuous dedication to this segment provides," said Owen Koh, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America.

That's a nice way of saying Hyundai considers Toyota, Honda and Nissan carpetbaggers in a market segment the South Korean automaker has been in for years, though Toyota had been there with the Echo but dropped it and opted to focus on larger cars. It wasn't until a gallon of gas became more expensive than a bottle of designer water that the Japanese brought out new entries, or, like Toyota, came back into the segment.

Considering Toyota, Honda and Nissan typically attract more attention than Hyundai, the Korean company has a battle on its hands.

Having tested Fit, Yaris and Versa, we turned to the new Accent hatchback offered in GS and SE version. We tested the SE, which is about 2 inches longer and half an inch wider than a Honda Fit.

Nice styling touches include body-color grille, sideview mirrors and door handles along with a spoiler.

Small, yes, snug, no. But it would be wise for driver and passenger to stow their parkas in back to keep claustrophobia from setting in.

There's decent room in the back seat, providing you can get into it. It requires sliding the front seat forward and taking a really deeeeep breath.

Cargo room behind the seat is more than ample. A parcel shelf strapped to the hatchlid hides whatever is stowed beneath. Need more room? The second-row seat bottoms slip forward and lift up against the front seats and then the backs fold flat.

The cloth seats are well cushioned and supportive for the short commute or long trip. But the driver's seat is bowed like the letter "C." Unless you don't mind driving with your chin on your chest, you have to recline the back a little to snap your spine back into a natural position. It's best to also raise the headrest a tad to keep it from digging into your neck.

Keep in mind this isn't a family car. It's more of a low-cost, high-mileage commuter.

There were times when Hyundai was serving its apprenticeship in the U.S. that you could slam door or hood and listen to the metal twang and watch it shimmy. No more. Small, yes, but very solid.

The 1.6-liter, 110-horsepower 4-cylinder shows more than a little spirit taking off from the light and merging into traffic on the expressway.

Good spunk in an engine that boasts 32 m.p.g. city and 35 highway. With its 12-gallon tank, it could easily deliver a week's worth of commuting or a weekend's worth of cavorting before having to refill.

What drives people to the mini segment is gas prices, so 32/35 is a lure. Putting more time and distance between refills tends to not only lower fuel bills but also divert attention from the commotion upon acceleration.

The SE comes with a sports-tuned suspension complemented by 16-inch radials (14 inch on the GS). Good road-holding ability from a sporty little hatchback thanks to stiffer spring rates, larger stabilizer bars, larger radials and low-effort steering response versus the GS.

At higher speeds, however, the agility borders on light footed on twisty pavement, perhaps because those 16-inch radials are narrow profile.

There's also standard side-impact air bags as well as side-curtain bags. Data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that vehicles with the seat-mounted side bags and head-protecting curtains have 45 percent fewer fatalities in side impacts.

Though the car's small, it packs a number of storage areas, including the front center console, driver storage tray, storage pockets in the front doors and a rear storage tray. There's also the required dual cupholders and a pair of 12-volt power outlets.

The Accent SE starts at $13,915, the GS at $10,415. Standard equipment includes air conditioning, power windows/door locks/(heated) mirrors, remote keyless entry, rear-window wiper/defroster, illuminated vanity mirrors, AM/FM/CD audio system with six speakers and four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock.

The SE also comes with a five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty and a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty. In addition, Accent buyers receive 24-hour roadside assistance at no extra cost for five years. That includes emergency towing, lockout service and limited coverage for trip-interruption expenses. There's no deductible.

Only option on the test car was floor mats at $85. Missing was a power sunroof, which comes only with an audio upgrade at $1,250. If you prefer automatic, add $1,000.

Dealers also offer a number of accessories, from an MP3 player and iPod adapter to a plastic ground-effects package.

What you can't get, however, is a navigation system, not in a $13,000 hatchback aimed at attracting those on a budget.

Accent sales topped 41,000 units in the 2005 calendar year, but should fall a few thousand short of that this year, according to Hyundai spokesman Chris Hosford.

"There was a lengthy strike in South Korea this summer, and we aren't getting as many Accents as dealers want," he said.

Not to mention competitors Fit, Yaris and Versa.

"Sure they are having some effect, but they also are calling more attention to the mini segment," Hosford said.

Even more when gas prices skyrocket again--and they will.

Monday, December 11, 2006

'07 Santa Fe offers safety, style, affordability

'07 Santa Fe offers safety, style, affordability

Sunday, December 10, 2006
Newhouse News Service

Hyundai did it again.

The newly revamped, 2007 Hyundai Santa Fe sport utility vehicle is so well-appointed with safety features and standard amenities and has such pleasant V6 power that it can make consumers wonder why they'd pay more for another crossover SUV.

How much more?

Well, given that the newly styled and larger Santa Fe starts at $22,795 for a base, two-wheel-drive model with automatic transmission and $23,595 for an all-wheel-drive version, any mainstream, family-size SUV over $25,000 ought to force some comparison shopping.

Granted, a Hyundai badge may not be as impressive as a Toyota. The Santa Fe isn't as expressive as a Dodge SUV, either.

The Santa Fe doesn't have a V8, like some Ford SUVs offer, and it doesn't have the kind of off-road capability of a Jeep.

But for American drivers who stay on-road or at most travel dirt roads and paths, the new Santa Fe has appealing style, a five-star, federal government safety rating and, perhaps most importantly, an attainable price.

Don't worry. The Santa Fe doesn't look cheap. Headlights remind me of Audi, and rear-end styling is reminiscent of that on a BMW X3.

For 2007, the mid-size Santa Fe also is slightly bigger than before and offers third-row seats for the first time for a maximum of seven passengers.

The base and buzzy four-cylinder engine is gone. For 2007, there's a new, top V6 with 242 horsepower and a base, 185-horsepower V6. Both have higher fuel economy ratings than the predecessor V6s.

The best mileage rating for a 2007 Santa Fe with automatic transmission and two-wheel drive is 21 miles a gallon in city driving and 26 mpg on the highway, up from 19/25 mpg for a comparable 2006 Santa Fe. This is for a two-wheel-drive model with base, 2.7-liter V6.

The best mileage rating for an all-wheel-drive, 2007 Santa Fe also is up - to 19/25 mpg. This is the same rating as a two-wheel-drive, 2007 Toyota Highlander with larger displacement V6, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

I wouldn't have been so complimentary about a Hyundai decades ago.

South Korea-based Hyundai started selling cars in the United States in the 1980s. But quality was poor, and the brand got a reputation for cheap, less-than-durable models.

Officials sought to invigorate the brand and correct things in the 1990s, culminating in a best-in-the-industry new-car warranty that the company hoped would encourage shoppers to try Hyundai again.

This warranty - with limited, bumper-to-bumper coverage for five years/60,000 miles and limited power train coverage for 10 years/100,000 miles - still comes with every new Hyundai, including the 2007 Santa Fe. So does a five-year/60,000-mile roadside assistance program.

Better yet, this year's Initial Quality Study measuring complaints from car owners after three months of ownership by automotive researcher J.D. Power and Associates showed Hyundai now is third best in the industry, behind Porsche and Lexus.

But Hyundai's older models still bring down the brand in longer-term ownership issues. In Power's Dependability Study this year, which measured com- plaints after three years of ownership, Hyundai still ranked below average.

Company officials respond that as older models are replaced by newer ones, the overall dependability results will go up, too.

Certainly, the fit and finish and operation of the test, 2007 Santa Fe GLS built at Hyundai's new Montgomery, Ala., factory was laudable.

This was a base model with carpeted cargo and floor mats - a bit pricey at $90 - as the only option, so the sticker total was $22,885.

The base V6 wasn't overbearing in its power, yet it responded quickly to get the Santa Fe merging into traffic and passing others.

I just wish the four-speed automatic was a five speed, which could boost fuel economy further.

The ride was quieter than I expected. Hyundai boasts that at highway speed, the Santa Fe is quieter than Toyota's Highlander.

Many road bumps were nicely kept away from passengers. This second-generation Santa Fe has a new platform and new MacPherson strut front suspension.

But there was an occasional "grunch" sound that came from the front left wheel area when I'd pull into my driveway, and on potholed roads I sometimes wished for a tad more sophisticated suspension.

Standard tires on Santa Fes with the base engine are 16 inches in diameter. Buyers of the larger V6 get more noticeable 18-inchers.

Steering was mainstream in its feel, neither twitchy nor loose.

The Santa Fe sits up decently above the pavement. So at 5 feet 4, I had to boost myself a bit to get onto the cloth driver seat, but it wasn't a big chore. And I liked that I could see several cars ahead of me in traffic as I sat behind the wheel.

I also appreciated that even in the base Santa Fe has "active" front head restraints that help reduce whiplash injuries in a rear-end crash.

Other standard safety features are curtain airbags, side-mounted, front-seat airbags, traction control, stability control and anti-lock brakes.

But Hyundai doesn't offer, even as an option, a backup assist system to help drivers see what's behind them, and visibility is limited back there.

All Santa Fes, however, can be fitted with the optional third row for approximately $1,300.

Note that third-row leg room is more than what's in the third row of the Acura MDX, so kids and adults can sit back there.

Maximum cargo space is a competitive 78.2 cubic feet.