184 Miles in a 2011 Hyundai Elantra
Board: Cars and Drivers
So with a massive increase in business travel and an improvement in the economy it is time to ramp up the rental car reviews. I have never rented a car through Newark, which has historically been a connection point for me, not a destination, even for a short period of time. My new employer will spring for an intermediate car while traveling, and with a business rate of $69 a day being the best corp travel could get me, I was very much relieved to find out my rental would be a brown 2011 Hyundai Elantra with only 700 miles on the odometer.
Exterior: A- Kudos needs to be given to the folks at Hyundai. On the exterior the Elantra more than whispers Honda Civic in its lines and styling, but it is more aggressive than the rather vanilla looking Civic and the upcoming 2012 version. The paint was of good quality, as was fit and finish. Nice touches found in more expensive cars like a painted to match shark fin antenna and excellent lighting were well appreciated.
Interior: C- There are some things Hyundai got very right, there are other things, not so much. The Elantra has a highly stylized interior, and there is some very faint similarity between the Chevrolet Cruze and the Elantra center stack, but the whispers of similarity fades very quickly and there are other influences here, including the split dash of the Honda Civic.
At first glance some things appear to be of nice quality, even for an economy car, but live with the Elantra for a few days and you’ll be left going, I don’t get it. The headliner looks nice, but is cheap in texture in appearance. Now one could complain about any car in 2011 about having some hard plastic surfaces, and the Elantra isn’t short on them. The seats were very comfortable, but had narrow thigh supports, or perhaps my 40 something butt is getting too darn big. The steering wheel is a very nice size, with large buttons for cruise control and the trip computer, but the material you hold on to, along with the shifter felt cheap. Either better plastics or some leather wrapping would vastly improve the quality, especially the shifter which felt very cheap.
Instrumentation was mixed. The instrument cluster was very classy, great visibility and highly functional. The center digital display for engine temp, fuel and trip computer was nice, if not a little dated in appearance. The blue on black display for the Infotainment system left a lot to be desired. It is great that in a car of this price range you get an infotainment screen, but I found it hard to read. The split dash for the time and temp display above the infotainment system was a case of form over function, and gave the appearance of this being layered onto what could have been a very clean dash as an after-thought – and well done after thought.
But the real sin comes in the ergonomics of the center stack. I wear a 17” 34/35 shirt. I don’t have short arms. I couldn’t reach the infotainment stack and controls without leaning forward. The buttons on the right side of the widely gapping ‘V’ style of the upper stack made the right side buttons hopelessly out of reach for many drivers. The cabin temp/fan controls were also a case of form over function, in a dial in a dial arrangement. It looks great, but in application it isn’t.
This is how bad the center stack is forward. If I reach out at full arms length, I can’t touch any of the controls, however if I raise my arm upward, still fully extended, I will touch the steeply raked windshield before I reach the rearview mirror to adjust the day/night feature. This is just awful and requires a driver to go from an optimal driving position to a distracted one to do something as simple as change the radio station (at least in this model that lacked steering wheel audio controls).
The rear seat appeared rather roomy and easily swallowed up two hard travel cases with room to spare. But the Elantra has a low roofline and headroom looked like it would be cramped in comparison to the generous legroom.
The trunk was shockingly large for the size of the car, capable of swallowing up huge gobs of equipment I was carrying. The trunk was line with “acceptable” material for the class, but nothing of super quality. I would really question how long the thin, molded plastic floor is going to hold up long term.
Driveline: B, OK, I must remind myself this is an economy car barely in the C segment in size. The engine is acceptable, and of what I’ve read 0 to 60 time is in line with the class from 8.5 to 9.5 seconds, and I’d speculate it was right in the middle. The engine eagerly will rev up during highway merging, although it starts to sound unrefined in the high RPM range. Lift your foot off the gas and the engine continues to surge, with the throttle returning to its new input rather slowly and noisy. Clearly done to squeeze every drop of fuel economy out of the car, but it could use more refinement.
The tranny is well mated to the engine and the chassis and under highway speeds didn’t do a whole lot of hunting and seeking from 6th gear. Hyundai makes some darn good automatic transmissions and overall does a great job of programming.
The trip computer offered an “eco” mode, I’m going to assume this changed electronic tuning and shift points to get that 40 MPG highway as rated. The engine felt neutered in “eco” mode with a noticeable loss of power and a bit more effort. The Elantra is much more fun, even dare I say, tossable, in non-eco mode. However that came at a massive price. Forget 40 MPG, I couldn’t even get the city rating of 29 MPG. Driving mostly on the highway at speed, I only eked out 27.6 MPG during my time in the Elantra. Yikes! That isn’t good at all.
Handling: C-, well this is mixed and gets two totally different answers. At lower speeds and urban running the Elantra is a joy to drive. It is outright tossable, the steering is light and crisp, and the suspension swallows up even the worst potholes New York state could offer, although at times there was a fair amount of noise in the cabin. You’d think this would deserve far more than a C-, but wait, there is more.
The brakes are very grabby even with a light touch. They feel like they need better programming and feel to them. They are excellent in their stopping power, but initial application can be almost terrifying.
The second thing is tossing the steering wheel around made a groaning noise in the model I was driving. I don’t know if this was the steering box or rubbing of plastic, but not something I would expect from the highly anticipated and praised Elantra.
On the highway, the Elantra becomes a different car from the city and not in a good way. I was driving in some strong winds and despite the Elantra’s very aerodynamic shape it was battered by highway crosswinds and 18-wheelers. At some points I needed to have a death grip on the steering wheel and the car was hopelessly pushed around. A crossing of the Tapan Zee Bridge was downright terrifying on my return trip to Newark. The same suspension that eagerly swallowed up potholes at lower speeds transmits harsh imperfections into the cabin, and unsettles the chassis. On one bridge divider on the Jersey Turnpike I was launched out of my seat, my head hitting the headline and the whole car bounced about a foot. Not impressed.
Overall: C, I don’t get it. I just don’t get it. I have read a couple so-so reviews but the Elantra has received high praise, and I can’t say that all of it isn’t undeserved. It is a huge leap ahead of the outgoing 2010 model, and that can’t be lost. However the defense of the Pontiac G6 as being vastly better than the Grand Am it replaced still doesn’t make the G6 a great car. There is still a lot of room for improvement in the Elantra.
Now I’ll readily admit that I did have one that was a rental, and although well equipped it lacked many of the premium features that a loaded Elantra is known to have. Maybe with more of those features I would feel different.
The 2011 Chevy Cruze is a vastly better car – BUT – it is also $2Kish more. The question then becomes, is the $2K extra worth it on a Cruze – I don’t know as I haven’t had any long wheel time with a Cruze, only a lot of time exploring a stationary one.
The 2012 Ford Focus will likely be priced closer to the Cruze, and will also benefit from additional improvements. The Jetta is a horror of decontenting, the Corolla for now is outclassed completely (a refresh is coming in 2012) and there is growing concerns that the 2012 Civic is going to be a mild refresh. In that respect the Elantra is off to a good start. There is a LOT that could easily be refined, but given its highway behaviors, bad ergonomics, and not delivered MPG I would say pass.