It's interesting how $4-a-gallon gas can change things. While there aren't many rational people that would argue that expensive gas is a good thing, it has certainly has been good for the subcompact segment. Until a few years ago, the segment was populated by the literal and figurative bottom-feeders of car companies, with hard plastics; skinny tires; underpowered, buzzy engines; and very few amenities. Not anymore. Honda's cleverly packaged Fit set the pace and was followed by Ford's Euro-engineered Fiesta, and the Mazda2. Suddenly, leather, iPod connectivity, Bluetooth, and other niceties formerly reserved for the luxury class became available on these "entry-level" models. Hyundai's Accent went from being a competitive option to one that was looking increasingly dated in the face of newer, more stylish competitors.
Now that Hyundai has finally gained respectability with consumers and critics with such models as the Genesis, Equus, Sonata, and new Elantra, the automaker is looking to dominate the subcompact segment with its all-new 2012 Hyundai Accent. No longer an also-ran, second-tier competitor, the new Accent has upped its game substantially. In equipment, style, and pricing, it poses the most serious and credible threat to the Fiesta and Fit to date. The one casualty of this re-imagining is the three-door hatch. In fact, the only three-door models in the segment are a version of the Toyota Yaris and Fiat's recently introduced 500 subcompact, which isn't offered in any other style.
So what's there to get excited about with Hyundai's new entry-level offering? Try the segment's only direct-injected engine, which also now happens to be the most powerful, at 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque. That bests the next-most-powerful Fiesta by 18 horsepower and 11 lb-ft. The 1.6 liter DOHC engine also features dual continuously variable valve timing on the intake and exhaust camshafts. With all this technological wizardry, the Accent still manages a segment-leading 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. True, certain trims of the Fiesta manage the big 4-0 on the highway, buy Hyundai is proud of and quick to point out that the Accent's fuel economy ratings apply across the board, regardless of body style, transmission, or trim level.
Speaking of transmissions, it's six speeds for everyone, whether you're of the shift-it-yourself or slushbox persuasion. Automatic models also include an Active Eco button that further optimizes fuel efficiency up to 7 percent in real-world driving, Hyundai claims. However, the fuel frugality in this mode usually comes at the expense of throttle response and overall driving enjoyment.
As if class-leading power and fuel economy weren't enough, Hyundai is also claiming head-of-class cargo capacity, besting even the capacious Fit by 0.6 cubic feet with the rear seat up. However, the Fit's clever interior packaging does give it a 9.8 cubic-foot edge in hauling volume with the rear seats folded.
But wait, there's more. The Accent also features the only segment-standard four-wheel disc brakes. Nearly all its primary competitors have rear drums, save for the Fiat, which is a more premium offering a la the Mini Cooper.
In terms of size, the Hyundai boasts the longest wheelbase in the segment at 101.2 inches, roughly three inches longer than most of its peers. Overall length is also on the longer side, with the hatch stretching 162 inches from stem to stern, and the sedan totaling 172 inches. Only the Fiesta sedan is longer, at 173.6 inches.
Although the new Accent five-door is narrowly edged out by the voluminous Fit in overall passenger volume at 90.1 cubic feet versus 90.8 cubic feet, it bests the Mazda 2 and Fiesta by 3.7 and 5.7 cubic feet, respectively. The sedan is slightly smaller at 89.7 cubic feet, but hardly enough that anyone will notice.
In terms of styling, the Accent five-door most closely resembles the Fiesta. In fact, when we first laid eyes on it, many of us said, "Looks like a Fiesta with the Elantra's nose." And we mean that as the highest possible compliment, as the Fiesta is regarded by many as being the handsomest subcompact hatch. The rear has a hint of the BMW 1 Series hatch (which isn't sold in the U.S.), but overall the Accent hatch has a smart, contemporary look that should appeal to a broad spectrum of the car-buying public. The sedan likewise has a fresh look, but it's not quite as bold and distinctive as the slightly larger Elantra, and the rear angle has a slight mini-Buick look to it. Regardless, both models are a major stylistic improvement over their nondescript predecessors.
Although the Mazda and the Fiesta are the current staff favorites among the subcompact class, the new Accent looks to be a strong contender for our affections. Rest assured, as soon as we can get our hands on one for a first drive and comparison test, we plan on pitting it against the current class leaders.