First Drive: 2011 Hyundai Elantra

The compact sedan segment is such a practical bunch of cars. According to Hyundai, about half of buyers choosing one of these cars are downsizing -- and their number one reason is fuel economy.

This is clearly a thrifty group of people. And while all of the cars in this segment get good or great fuel economy, the Elantra beats them all. It does so without a downsized, turbocharged engine (Chevrolet Cruze), twin-clutch automatic (Ford Fiesta), or direct fuel injection -- but instead with smart aerodynamics, a small four-cylinder with dual continuous variable valve timing, and six-speed transmissions (automatic or manual). Importantly, all Elantras achieve the same EPA figures (29 mpg city, 40 mpg highway). No "eco" package is needed (as in the Cruze and Fiesta.)

There's another area in which the Elantra has all of its competition beat: styling. With apologizes to Toyota, no self-respecting young person could get excited about the Corolla. The Civic, now at the end of its life cycle, has a futuristic design that went one step too far -- and seems to appeal to George Jetson more than it does to Elroy. The Chevy Cruze is a good car, but it carries the baggage of a lifetime of crappy compacts from the General. The Mazda 3 is fun to drive, but its silly smiling face is a deal-breaker for many. And the Volkswagen Jetta may look grown-up and elegant, but it can't compete on price here. When it tries, it's equipped with an engine from the 1940s and an interior of Play-Skool quality. (Slight exaggerations, if only.)

In fact, if it weren't for the forthcoming Focus (and the new Fiesta, both of which compete with the Elantra) we could go so far as to say that this Hyundai is so far ahead of everything in its class, it's playing by itself. There is no longer a single compelling reason to buy a Corolla. The Civic is just fine, if you love the way it looks. The Mazda remains a fun choice, but it looks and feels like a toy by comparison. And the Jetta? If you want the real German car, you need to pony up the extra money for the wagon or forthcoming GLI, both of which have high-quality interiors, but neither of which can compete on price.

Hyundai has cracked the code of the compact economy sedan. This category of car isn't about making a sport sedan, and it's not rocket science to make a car that's nice to drive, well-equipped, reliable, and price-competitive. To its benefit, Hyundai seems to be the only player that understands how important styling is.

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I have the 2011 Elantra with automatic and actually get 41 on hwy with 2 people on board. I got 35 with 2 people pulling a small trailer with 2 kayaks. Don't really do much city driving.
I agree with Longo. The only thing to get excited about in these cars is the mileage. So what can we expect in the real world. 35 average and I am buying one asap. Tell me 30mpg tops and I have think about it. I will be driving mostly highway, 84 miles round trip.
"According to Hyundai, about half of buyers choosing one of these cars are downsizing -- and their number one reason is fuel economy."So then, were's your mpg report from the test dirive?You simply divide gallons used into miles driven and give us the number!We all know that the window sticker says 40 mpg, what we all want to know is how far off is that number +or-To start off with the statement that this segment is all about mpg's (I agree) and then drop the subject to go off on another "looks like this or looks like that" tangent is a waste of our time.Fill it up, cruise out onto the freeway, set the speed at the posted limit and take your lead foot off the gas, sit back and relax for an hour or so, turn around and drive back to the same pump, re-fill and do the simple math, give us the mpg number...that's what we all want to know.
Sounds like an impressive car, and it looks like it would cost about twice as much as the previous Elantra. I've driven a Mazda3, and while it does look like a toy, I disagree that it FEELS like a toy!
The Civic's biggest problem is that it is 6 years old. The new Jetta is deliberately "cheap". When the global version of the Cruze came out a couple of years ago the leading Australian car mag rated it N0.3 behind the Golf and Focus in a broad test of compact cars from Asia and Europe. From memory the Civic placed mid-field, the Corolla placed 11th (out of 13), and the Versa came dead last. 4th and 5th were the Mazda3 and Hyundai i30 (a compact hatch on the same platform as the Elantra). The US version of the Cruze get's a fancy new rear suspension and the trick 42 mpg powertrain, and so is arguably an even better carat least as good as the old (European) Focus, if not as good as the new one (which finally has better engines and transmissions). The Elantra? Will continue to be seen as "underrated" by the aggrieved Hyundai fanboys. As good as the Cruze? Maybe, maybe not. Let the war begin.
OMG Jason, you've hated the Civic's styling from day one. It's still a pretty decent compact considering it's like 6 years old. I am not a huge fan of the Elantra's interior styling, it looks kind of pigeon toed. Both the Cruze and '12 Focus have much more handsome interiors, and the Ford also looks alright on the outside too. Still an impressive car, and I can't think of any reason to buy a Corolla anymore

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