If you're looking for a practical, inexpensive wagon with European driving dynamics, you might want to visit your local Hyundai dealer. Seriously. The 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring shares most of its name with the Elantra sedan, but the two are actually different vehicles. The wagon - which is 1.2 inches shorter but rides on a wheelbase two inches longer - is based on the European-market Hyundai i30 CW.
Happily, Hyundai didn't bother watering down the European driving experience for the United States. From behind the wheel, it's immediately obvious that you're not in a typical Korean economy car. The clutch engages positively, and the well-weighted gear lever has a standard B&M Racing short-throw shifter.
The wheels and the front brakes are one inch larger than the biggest you can find on the Elantra sedan, and a 13.8:1 steering ratio is much quicker than the sedan's leisurely 15.4:1. To sharpen reflexes and provide the Touring with surprising cornering balance, the wagon has a moderately stiffer front suspension and a vastly stiffer rear. Stability control is standard.
The 138-hp, 2.0-liter in-line four is shared with the sedan. Its meaty torque curve and short, closely spaced gearing helps the Touring feel faster than it actually is.
Fans of high revs might be disappointed by the engine's boominess, and they might want to take note of the Hyundai's mediocre EPA ratings (23 mpg in the city and 31 mpg on the highway) before redlining every gear.
In typical wagon style, the cabin offers significantly more cargo space than the sedan, and rear passengers are treated to more head- and legroom. Included in the Touring's standard equipment is a well-integrated iPod interface, steering-wheel-mounted radio buttons, cruise control, and power windows, locks, and mirrors. A premium-sport package adds seventeen-inch wheels, a power sunroof, and heated front seats. A four-speed automatic is optional, but it likely reduces the fun factor - this Hyundai's most surprising standard feature - considerably.
2009 Nissan Versa 1.6
Half the Hyundai.
Half the Hyundai.
For little more than half the price of the Elantra Touring, you can buy a Nissan Versa 1.6, although destination charges bring the total to just over the five-figure mark. A small sedan with a big back seat, the cheapo Versa is also one of the best-handling front-wheel-drive economy cars around. Its skinny tires may have modest limits, but great chassis tuning makes the best of them with surprisingly neutral cornering balance.
Unfortunately, you can't drown out any annoying interior rattles with the stereo, because there isn't one. There's one way to unlock the car - via the driver's door. There's also only one way into the trunk - with a key. And the lock broke on our test car. Harrumph.
Let's be honest - if you can't afford a couple of bucks for a radio and a remote trunk release, you can't afford a new car. The Versa 1.6 is a lot of car for the money, but the regular Versa - radio and all - is, too. Even without marketing-stunt pricing.