Can an automaker come back from the dead? This is not a rhetorical question, as some of the biggest names in the industry are currently up against the wall. They could learn a lesson or three from Hyundai.
When Hyundais were first imported here from Korea in the mid-1980s, their main attraction was price. Or lack of same. They were cheap, in all senses of the word, especially the most pejorative. Quality was not good. But rather than make excuses, or abandon the American marketplace, Hyundai learned from its errors and improved its product quality. Considerably. Hyundai's recovery was not an overnight success story. It took nearly twenty years. But now, while a Hyundai may still have an attractive price, it's also as good as anything else in its class, if not better -- and Hyundai competes directly with the Japanese automakers who are the standards for product quality.
It's all about product.
Product like the Elantra Touring, an interesting alternative to the big names in the compact segment. Like some of its competitors with similar cars, Hyundai is positioning the 5-door hatch Touring as a sporty and slightly upscale alternative to the common compact sedan. Compared to the regular Elantra sedan, the Touring has a more sport-oriented suspension tuning, although it's by no means race-ready stiff. Like the Elantra sedan, and unlike some big-name competitors, the Touring has four-wheel antilock discs as standard equipment; electronic stability control, a tire-pressure monitoring system, and full complement of airbags are also among its standard safety features. Air conditioning with cabin filtration and an audio system with XM satellite radio and both an auxiliary input jack and USB port are also standard fare. Power is from a 2.0-liter, 138-horsepower engine, matched to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.
All of those standard features are very good, but "features" on top of a sub-standard package, as has too often been done, don't make a good deal at all. No worries about that here. As I discovered during a pleasant week with an automatic Elantra Touring, it's a solid, well-made, and versatile machine that seems to pack more interior than possible into a small, stylish exterior. Although its suspension is tuned more firmly than that of the sedan, and more "sporty" than "sport", the Touring is fun to drive -- and if driving to activities that involve bulky equipment is a need, the Touring is capable of swallowing bicycles, camping gear, climbing gear, fishing tackle, and similar things easily. Need space, like driving, dislike crossovers, and have a budget? Consider a Hyundai Elantra Touring.
APPEARANCE: With the Elantra Touring, Hyundai has opted for a tastefully European-inspired look that should age well. It is unashamedly a two-box hatchback, modified in profile by an aerodynamically-sloping roofline. At the front, bright triangular headlamps flank a decorative chrome-trimmed top grille that is integrated into the hood shape, with a larger trapezoidal opening below the bumper line doing the real air intake work. Chrome-trimmed pieces at the front corners add a bit of upscale flash -- and are also easily-replaced protection from minor incidents. Alloy wheels and low-profile tires fill the wheel arches, and a strong upswept shoulder line and flowing sill line help give a toned, athletic look. The rear is dominated by vertical taillights that flank the hatch.
COMFORT: Inside, with the flowing lines of the instrument panel, and close position of the center stack, the Elantra Touring has the look of a more upscale car. A high level of standard equipment reinforces that impression. Materials and fit tolerances are very good. Yes, most everything's synthetic, but no demerits for that in this class. Front seat comfort is very good, aided on the driver's side by height-adjustability, unusual in the sub-$20,000 class. While the seats are manual, the windows, mirrors, and door locks are powered, with remote keyless entry standard. Headroom, both front and rear, will not be a problem. The rear seat has plenty of room for two passengers, with less in the center, as in most cars. A 60/40 split and the cargo access of a five-door hatchback make cargo duty a pleasure. There's even some compartmented space for small items under the load floor, above the compact spare tire. Useful interior storage includes a dash-top covered box, an air-conditioned glove box (!), and a console box with auxiliary audio jack and USB port (and an optional iPod cable priced much more realistically than I've seen in some luxury cars). All four doors have bottle holders.
SAFETY: Elantra Touring passengers are surrounded by a strong, rigid unibody structure with an occupant protection cell around the passenger compartment, reinforced roof pillars, front and rear crush zones, dual front, front-seat side, and full-length head curtain airbags. Brakes are four-wheel antilock discs, and, unusually for the car's modest price class, electronic stability control is standard equipment.
RIDE AND HANDLING: While the Touring's fully-independent MacPherson strut/multi-link suspension is set up more firmly than that of the standard sedan, it's still supple enough for everyday use on roads in states with deferred road maintenance budgets. It's stable and comfortable on the highway, and enjoyable on the scenic route. The steering never feels over-assisted, and a tight turning circle makes parking easy. The brakes work very well.
PERFORMANCE: With 138 horsepower (at 6000 rpm) and 137 lb-ft of torque (at 4600 rpm), the Elantra Touring's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine is competitive in its class. A modern dual overhead cam design with continuously-variable cam phasing, its broad torque band means that the four-speed automatic works well enough, although I'm sure the five-speed stick would be the way to for maximum driving enjoyment. Acceleration is good enough to keep up with traffic. Fuel economy, with EPA estimates of 23 mpg city and 30 highway, and 26 overall during my week, is reasonable if not at the head of the class.
CONCLUSIONS: The 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring is a worthwhile option in the versatile sporty-compact hatchback class.
SPECIFICATIONS 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring
Base Price $ 18,600
Price As Tested $ 19,745
Engine Type dual overhead cam 16-valve inline 4-cylinder with continuously-variable cam phasing
Engine Size 2.0 liters / 121 cu. in.
Horsepower 138 @ 6000 rpm
Torque (lb-ft) 137 @ 4600 rpm
Transmission 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase / Length 106.3 in. / 176.2 in.
Curb Weight 2969 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower 21.5
Fuel Capacity 14 gal.
Fuel Requirement 87-octane unleaded regular gasoline
Tires P205/55 R16 89H Kumho Solus KH16
Brakes, front/rear vented disc / solid disc, ABS standard
Suspension, front/rear independent MacPherson strut / independent multilink
Drivetrain transverse front engine/front-wheel drive
EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
city / highway / observed 23 / 30 / 26
0 to 60 mph est 9.0 sec
OPTIONS AND CHARGES
Carpeted Floor Mats $ 95
iPod® cable $ 30
Bluetooth® hands-free phone system $ 325
Destination charge $ 695
DRIVING DOWN THE ROAD
WITH CAREY RUSS