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2012 Hyundai Elantra Road Test

Abundant Style and Comfort, Elantra packs in the value

What It Is/Who It's For
Hyundai's small sedan is big enough for a small family and priced to capture those who appreciate a great value.

Best Thing
The 2012 Hyundai Elantra offers good fuel economy, sure, but it also looks good inside and out.

Worst Thing
Neither engaging nor sporty drive

Snap Judgment
The 2012 Hyundai Elantra is an appealing choice, offering ample flair and a thoughtfully designed cabin to pair with the practicality.


Introduction

Petite Filet when you're expecting flank: This is Hyundai's proposition. It was not so long ago the Korean automaker was synonymous with cars that were a little embarrassing to drive, but those days are gone and replaced with a Korean renaissance, one in which dealers are continually short on supply. The formula is simple enough. Take the key elements modern consumers are looking for in any given segment, and focus, hone in, and deliver what are often best-in-class results. The 2012 Hyundai Elantra is a good representation of the formula come to fruition.

After our Automotive.com team got to test drive the Elantra around Los Angeles and Orange Counties, I figured I'd take it for a more grueling test: A weekend trip to Las Vegas. I was banking on the big sky and commanding Friday night silhouettes of desert mountains to allow for insular focus; really, what better way to bridge the gap between man and machine? Also, I knew once Sin City got its reins around me, that "insular focus" and my evaluation abilities would be narrowed.

Inherently, there's a comical aspect to rolling into one of the most notorious cities this side of Mars, behind the wheel of a you-name-it top value and safety pick. But driving that long stretch of desert road, even Orion's Belt seemed to be admiring the new Elantra. Thankfully, one thing Hyundai does well is give you a lot of style for your however-you-earned it dollar. Today's Elantra was early in showcasing Hyundai's newer "fluidic sculpture" design language, lending swoopy lines and a more aggressive stance that give the illusion of motion even when the car is at rest. Generally this is applied on much pricier sports cars, but there's no reason economical compacts should maintain the bland aesthetics that have defined the class for a generation. And that's a good thing, too, with automakers drastically improving the field with the newest offerings, it should come as little surprise that good gas mileage and a semblance of comfort alone won't get many cars rolling off the lots. In fact, the 2012 Hyundai Elantra is pitted against formidable competition. No longer just a class of Corollas and Civics, cars such as the Ford Focus, Mazda3, and Chevy Cruze are all making a strong case for consideration.

Make people want to get in the car, and once they're in, make sure they don't want to flee. Inside the 2012 Elantra is pretty nice, too. And roomy, which is not something you expect when stepping into a car in this class. The cabin is simple, but thoughtfully designed. Seats are comfy, the GLS we drove had a well-designed center console, and unlike Honda and Toyota, the buttons and controls appear modern and fresh, not legacy parts leftover from the automaker's models of past generations.

The 2012 Hyundai Elantra features a 1.8-liter engine capable of producing 148 horsepower, competitive for the class. The Elantra does have some faults. While the engine has enough power for the class, the car isn't especially engaging or sporty. Much of our driving was in LA traffic mixed with open highways on the way to and from Las Vegas. Suffice it to say, we fell short of EPA estimates for combined mpg.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

Safety and Technology

For 2012 the Elantra is available in GLS and Limited trims. The GLS is priced at $15,195, and the Limited starts at 20,445. Our GLS was priced just above that, at $16,575 and came with a comfort package and included: 16-inch steel wheels (entry-level models get 15-inch steel wheels); telescopic steering and a 60/40 split folding rear seats; automatic transmissions have a hillstart assist and an active ECO system that improves already good fuel economy, though we had the manual six-speed transmission. Our GLS trim also a six-speaker stereo (all trims) with CD, XM radio, iPod cable, and daytime running lights.

All models get a standard array of safety features that only a few years ago would have been commonplace only for luxury cars; features include electronic stability control with traction control; four-wheel disc brakes with ABS and brake assist; front, front side-impact and side curtain airbags; tire pressure monitoring, and active front head restraints. In IIHS crash test ratings, the 2012 Hyundai Elantra received a "good" rating, the highest possible, in front-impact, roof strength, and in side-impact crash tests. LATCH points are easy to reach on the seats.

The Commute

All of our editors had a chance to take the 2012 Elantra home for a night or two, and the general consensus was Hyundai's subcompact was generally free of drama. The clutch is light, easy to use but with little engagement feel. We averaged mid to upper 20s fuel economy on what was primarily city driving, or freeway driving that often mimics the city's stop and go nature, with the exception of a few hours on the way back from Las Vegas. We did notice that the car lugs a bit in the low gears and is slow to react after initial gear switches -- something that took a couple drives to get used to. The suspension was tuned for comfort, though rough patches of road were hardly tamed by the Elantra's suspension. Interstate 15 from Los Angeles to Las Vegas may not be the smoothest around, but noticeable bumpiness was a consistent companion.

The Elantra we drove didn't have the large screen and Blue Link telematics packages with navigation like many other Hyundai models, but then again, it only cost $16.5k. Every time we got into the car at night, we noticed how striking the interior looks after dark. Hyundai really nailed it on this one, the instrument panel and gauges, the climate and audio controls all have a beautiful blue backlighting that looks sporty and modern, and far surpasses what Honda and Toyota are currently doing. But the Elantra doesn't stand alone here, the new Ford Focus and Mazda3 both have notable interiors, and have managed that fresh and modern aesthetic.

Noteworthy is the car's six-speaker stereo. I didn't notice it until Lana Del Rey's Blue Jeans came on and for a moment, or four, the volume dial really got to stretch. I felt like she was in the car, so there's something good going on in that audio system. Controls were easy to use, although there seemed to be an awful lot of them, 22 buttons, switches and knobs in total. Needless to say, sound was better than what is often found at this price point. Hyundai's compact also boasts comfortable seats for passengers of all sizes, though with taller passengers in back, headroom can be snug. The pedals are well placed, and visibility is good overall.

The Grocery Run

The Elantra's cargo space, at 14.8 cu.-ft. is notably good for its class, and even bigger than some mid-sized vehicles, such as the Honda Accord. Folding the seats is easy, and while they don't fold completely flat, you can still slide in long and awkward objects such as a snowboard, skis, or golf clubs. The trunk is fairly deep, making it even more useful. Along with my fellow road-tripper, we were able to easily load a couple of carry-on sized bags and a couple of grocery bags with goodies for the trip into the trunk, with over half of the cargo space still unused. Another perk of having a car of this size is you can fit neatly into compact parking spaces. The Elantra is low enough, and the rear doors wide enough, that kids will have no issues entering and exiting the car. A couple of taller adults can even sit comfortably in back, three would be a squeeze, but OK for shorter rides.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

It came as little surprise that the Elantra is a good road tripper. While wind noise was never an issue, we did hear considerable road noise on the highway, as we did in our commutes. The jerkiness and lulls in the transmission experienced on the lower end were replaced with velvety shifts at higher speeds. In truth, the 2012 Hyundai Elantra is not very sporty, and it's far from engaging. While it won't have you pining for open two-lane roads, it won't have you complaining either, which is sort of a victory for a car priced under $17,000, that looks good and is efficient. A big improvement from the previous generation, the new Elantra is a car you certainly don't mind driving, but it doesn't have the ride quality of the Mazda3, nor does it have the interior of the Ford Focus. While it trumps a similarly priced Honda Civic, the Mazda3 and Ford Focus -- also competitors -- will run you quite a few more Benjamins than the Elantra, and no car may be more balanced. If Hyundai can figure out a way to make the Elantra fun to drive, we'd expect the competition to quiver and combust.

Summary

If you're looking for a sound content-for-your-cash value, the 2012 Hyundai Elantra is a major consideration. With many standard safety features, good fuel economy, ample power, sharp design inside and out, and unexpected roominess and cargo space, the Elantra is a winner. The Elantra blends comfort and style, while appearing fresh and modern. However, if you're looking for a sport-tuned ride, or an engaging drive, you're better off looking elsewhere. Shoppers new to the brand will appreciate Hyundai's industry best warranty.

Spec Box
Price as tested: $16,575
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 29 mpg
EPA Highway: 40 mpg
EPA Combined: 33 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 422.40 miles per tank
5 Year Cost of Ownership: Excellent

Notebook Quotes
"Power steering still feels too soft at higher speeds. Joy, though, when navigating tight spots" - Joel Arellano, Assistant Editor

"It has a nice engine but shifting the manual still feels mushy." - Jason Davis, Associate Editor

"The trunk is huge. It's far bigger and more usable than I was expecting in this class. I am a huge fan of the electroluminescent blue hue Hyundai uses for its interior lighting. It looks modern and is easy on the eyes." - Jacob Brown, Associate Editor

"Really quiet when idle. The gauges are extremely crisp, easy to read, almost childlike in their simplicity. The seat doesn't go forward enough, and the shifter feels as if it's not attached to anything." - Blake Z. Rong, Associate Editor

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