What It Is
Hyundai's five door hatchback takes on a compact market that includes the Mazda3, the Ford Focus hatchback, and the Subaru Impreza -- one that's very popular with young families.
Handsome, roomy, and handles well.
Gimmicky steering control, pernicious paucity of power.
A handsome, well-tuned European import that needs an all-American gluttony of horsepower.
Suffice to say, the cheap cars of our generation are better than ever before. For one, they're no longer a cross between a penalty box and a mobile detention center. For another, manufacturers are increasingly injecting some joie de vivre into their most practical of hatchbacks, a market segment that's been as dull as dishwater, save for the occasional Volkswagen GTI.
Note the Mazda3, a car that Mazda marketers physically cannot discuss without saying the phrase "zoom-zoom." (Must be something in the water in Hiroshima.) Or the Ford Focus, which wins praise for its European-developed driving dynamics if not so much for other things. Both of these are what Hyundai is aiming for with the Elantra GT -- a car that follows a similar lineage as the Focus, hailing from Europe, because Europeans are the sort of people who actually have some sort of automotive taste. Or so the theory goes.
And in true Hyundai fashion, on paper the Elantra has more interior room, better fuel efficiency, and a lower price than all those aforementioned cars. Still, driving is actually a factor now. Will the Elantra GT hold up? If it doesn't, it might just return to Europe, smoking Gauloises and reading Hemingway like any hostel-hopping slacker.
The last Elantra wagon/hatchback snuck into our shores alongside the last-generation as a doughy, doe-eyed wagonlet that looked like it had been left in the oven too long. This new car looks more like a hatchback than ever before: it's squat and tall, with sharply sculpted lines. In grey it looks like a toy that a particularly docile cat might chew on.
And while its European-derived front end is slightly different from the rest of the Elantra lineup, it's still instantly familiar as a Hyundai. In fact, its tapered hexagonal front end and chrome spears are a much more mature interpretation of the new Hyundai look.
In fact, the Elantra GT looks smaller than its competition; the Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf, and Toyota Matrix all seem to dwarf it. It's just eight inches shorter than the Mazda, and a mere six inches longer than Hyundai's own Accent. But Hyundai claims more interior volume than all of them, even if it's just by a few precious cubic inches.
This interior volume immediately makes itself felt with generous head- and legroom in front, though rear-seat passengers may find their toes pinched. The center stack isn't the same as on the Elantra Coupe and Sedan, and in some way -- despite the addition of buttons -- we found it more intuitive to use, with more generous vents and a refreshing lack of faux-aluminum plastic trim. The pass-through cubby under the HVAC controls is the epitome of convenience, and a marked improvement over the regular Elantra's flimsy door. And a glovebox that's cooled for your Gatorades? Surely you spoil us, Hyundai!
Of course, you could be even more spoiled with an available Style Package that adds a panoramic sunroof, which Hyundai will be the first to tell you that's not available on any other car in the segment. The Style Package also adds 17-inch alloy wheels and leather seats -- while a Tech Package adds Hyundai's excellent touchscreen navigation system and Bluelink, so drivers can bug real live humans about movie tickets.
In back, the rear seats flip down with a flick of some tabs, affording 51 cubic feet of room. A full-size spare kills the cargo party somewhat, but hidden compartments in the trunk floor are a nice touch. They're just shallow enough to hide a fistful of Pixy Stix, or tax forms from your ex-wife.
About 60 miles north of San Diego, Palomar Mountain Road is a beautifully scenic two-lane that climbs its namesake mountain while looking over the Pauma Valley and the charmingly named Hellhole Canyon Preserve, with more than 5,000 feet of constantly rising elevation. It's a stunning piece of terrain, a challenging road, and a great drive to highlight the Elantra GT's equally stunning lack of power.
In the automatic transmission models we drove, the engine constantly hunted for gearing, and the engine noise at full throttle sounded like a howl of protest. The Elantra GT has a Sport mode for the transmission that quickens the shifts and allows the engine to approach redline. On our drive, we found ourselves constantly using the shifter to keep the car at a constant speed. Lest you think we were the automotive equivalent of Sir Edmund Hillary, we also found that the lack of power on freeways made us shout, "needs 15 more horses!" and then a couple Hail Marys.
After the mountains we drove through Julian, famous for its pies, and other one-street mountain towns so rustic and quaint it looked like a musical might break out. And perhaps growing sick of our gripes about steering feel, Hyundai added to the Elantra GT something called Driver Selectable Steering Mode -- which, accessed from a button on the wheel, firms up or loosens the electronic power steering for Normal, Comfort and Sport modes. Sure, effort is increased, but not the elusive "feel" so craved by enthusiast drivers. Sport mode felt like a parody of actual steering weight, and quickly tired our forearms on the undulating two-lanes that snake in and out of the valley. Comfort attempted to emulate the one-finger steering of old American land yachts. And frankly, the entire system felt like a gimmick -- normal steering is more than adequate, accurate and comfortable for day-to-day driving, while the Sport setting should be used sparingly.
Based on decades of marketing hyperbole, one would reasonably expect a sporty suspension tuning in a European-oriented car. But while the Elantra GT carries different shocks than the Coupe and Sedan, in practice the differences were minimal. All cars held their composure fairly well across the cliff-side scenery, while the Elantra GT's tight chassis and comfortable ride made for smooth driving. Ardent thrill seekers should stick with the Mazda3 and Ford Focus Titanium, however, both of which also have more power.
If we could pick an Elantra GT to take home we'd spring for one with a manual transmission, which will better cope with the lack of power. We'd also spring for the fully-loaded Tech Package with the navigation system and that gaping panoramic sunroof. Overall, the Elantra GT is a great driver that might not handle the best in class but has enough features to justify its purchase.
But what we'd really like to see in the Elantra GT is a full-fledged Sport mode that brings together all the pieces and tightens up the steering, reprograms the transmission, and maybe even firms up the shocks (which will come at a price). At the very least, anything to eke out more power from what is otherwise a handsome, competent, and practical machine.
1.8-liter four-cylinder, 6-speed automatic or manual transmission, front-wheel drive, 148-hp, $18,395, 28 mpg city/39 mpg hwy