And the Elantra delivers that in droves. Inside and out, there's not a cheap part and not a single bad angle. It looks elegant, expensive, and well-built. And it's more of the same from behind the wheel. The steering is path-accurate. The brake pedal feels positive, with immediate bite and response. Handling is excellent on smooth surfaces. The ride quality is surprisingly supple, with excellent body control. The cabin is quiet. The 1.8-liter engine produces 148 hp, but only 131 lb-ft of torque, so it needs lots of revs to keep up with traffic. That's no problem, since it's relatively quiet, smooth, and unobtrusive (under 6000 rpm, anyway-the highest couple hundred rpm on the tach are accompanied by a determined, somewhat harsh note). The six-speed automatic is ready, willing, and able to pull off big downshifts with the utmost of smoothness-and redline upshifts are similarly well executed. Unfortunately, the six-speed automatic has an unacceptably long first gear, making off-the-line getaways far slower and more labored than in, say, the Jetta or Cruze, both of which squirt off the line with short first gears.
The only cheap touch in the Elantra's interior is the hard plastic on the backs of the fold-down rear seats; it's easily scratched and will show its age quickly. Otherwise, every touch point is padded, and the leather-wrapped steering wheel on uplevel Elantras feels great. (So do the heated leather seats.) The climate controls are not only easy to use, but far better looking than anything else in this class (and the vent fan is surprisingly quiet.) The infotainment interface is merely okay unless you order navigation-some of the functions require multiple steps to access.
The back seat of the Elantra offers suitable amounts of space, but the sloping roof really cuts into headroom -- a problem that the other expensive-looking car in this class, the Jetta, doesn't have. But the Hyundai's interior materials are a world better than the VW's. And the Jetta's base 2.0-liter 8-valve engine is no match for the Elantra's 16-valve 1.8-liter, not in power or economy or refinement. The optional 2.5-liter five-cylinder is a far better match for the Jetta. Of course, it comes at a price -- in additional MSRP and diminished fuel economy
You won't mistake the Elantra for a Volkswagen GTI or a BMW 3-series from behind the wheel, but as a practical commuter, there's not much to complain about. And that's what this type of car is about -- comfortable, economical, and practical. Right now, it's without question at the top of its class, and until the next Ford Focus goes on sale, we have no doubt that it'll remain there.