Generation by generation, a car usually evolves slowly as the technology under the nameplate gradually improves. But in a single stroke, the new Hyundai Elantra has leapt ahead, and now it's right in the mix with small sedans such as the Honda Civic and the Toyota Corolla.
The Elantra has certainly grown in size, as a couple additional inches in height and width help deliver 97.1 cubic feet of interior passenger volume--more than in either the Civic or the Mazda 3. The newfound spaciousness affords the raised driving position that is trendy in small cars. The interior also looks and feels good, with blue-illuminated gauges and soft-touch plastics on the dash.
There's no particular magic under the Elantra's skin, but everything is done very well. Structural rigidity has improved 49 percent, the suspension calibration has more roll stiffness, and even Hyundai's 138-hp, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine now delivers an additional 4 mpg when matched with the four-speed automatic transmission. The Elantra isn't a sport sedan, but like a Ford Focus, it always feels composed, even when you throw the corners of Mulholland Highway at it.
The Elantra really sets itself apart from its competition with its comprehensive list of safety features. It's the Hyundai way to wait until new technology is affordable and then to make it standard equipment, so four-wheel disc brakes, ABS, side-impact air bags, and even curtain-type head-protection air bags don't cost extra on the Elantra.
Hyundai has become a favorite with the kind of people who sharpen their pencils before making their purchase. These days, Hyundai gives them value and quality, not cheapness. It's a great leap forward in automotive evolution.