First Drive: 2013 Hyundai Elantra Coupe

It's impossible to find a coupe, of any size, price or degree of musculature, that doesn't have the word "sporty" attached.

That's true even of the most affordable, earnest coupes, which we all know -- despite automakers doing their darnedest to convince us otherwise -- are just starter sedans with fewer doors and the barest sprinkling of visual or performance tricks.

The upshot is that, reliably, the goodness of the coupe in question hinges entirely on what the donor sedan brings to the party. It's why the Honda Civic, despite some dissipation in the current model, has tended to be the most trustworthy platform for a cute, bulletproof, and reasonably peppy two-door.

So it is that the first-ever Hyundai Elantra coupe, on the petite heels of last year's sedan, performs as expected, no more and no less. The sedan that drew gasps from journalists in Detroit when it was unexpectedly named North American Car of the Year is sassily styled, packed with features and happily average in terms of dynamic performance. Yet that Elantra's thorough competitiveness, in a class that had transformed itself in record time -- the Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Kia Forte, and Subaru Impreza were also all-new or revamped -- was a big deal for a South Korean maker whose previous compacts had barely dented the critical or sales charts.

And that somewhat patronizing take aside, it's clear that cars like the Hyundai are night-and-day better than they were even a decade ago: Back when parents could still feel a bit queasy over putting sorority-bound offspring into a small and seemingly easy-to-crumple box.

Moms and dads, whose names and good credit will often back this Hyundai's monthly payments, can not only rest easy with this coupe, but they won't mind driving it themselves.

Driven east from La Jolla, California's Torrey Pines Lodge to the dry peak of Mt. Palomar, the Elantra coupe stated its claims in looks, comfort, efficiency and value.

In this class, the bottom line is often the bottom line, so let's get to it: The Elantra coupe starts at $18,220 for a basic GS model with a six-speed manual transmission. The high-volume Coupe SE with a six-speed automatic will set you back $21,520. Adding the $2,350 Technology Package, with its impressive 7-inch touch-screen navigation system, back-up camera, premium audio, dual-zone climate control and keyless pushbutton start, kicks the price to $23,870.

Hyundai's now-familiar Fluidic Sculpture, the tastefully wavy surfaces that wash over Sonata, Elantra and Azera models, also adorn this wedgy coupe -- including looping wheel arches that recall the Nissan Leaf. Flipping the usual script, though, the Elantra sedan actually seems more dramatic and different than this two-door.

Dimensions are nearly a wash between the pair, with the coupe just 0.4 inches longer than the sedan, and riding the same wheelbase. (The new five-door hatchback GT version, which rounds out the Elantra lineup, is nine inches shorter than the sedan and drops two inches in wheelbase).

Yet inside, the Hyundai's passenger and cargo space not only top its compact rivals, but also best the midsize-based Honda Accord and Nissan Altima coupes. That includes a surprising 14.8 cubic feet of trunk space, compared to the Altima's meager 8.2 cubes and the Accord's 11.9.

Like its sibling, the coupe is pulled by a 1.8-liter, 148-hp four-cylinder with all the latest stuff: direct injection, dual continuously variable valve timing, an offset crankshaft, even a maintenance-free timing chain rather than a vulnerable belt.

That engine pairs the highest specific output in its class, with 82.2 horsepower per liter, with the best fuel economy, at 29/40 mpg with the six-speed manual transmission; or 28/39 mpg with six automated speeds.

The 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque beat the Civic's respective 140 and 128, but fall shy of the 156 horses and 144 pound-feet of the Kia Forte Koup and its larger 2.0-liter four.

Unlike the cost-cutting, rear-drummed Civic coupe, the Elantra puts disc brakes at all four wheels, shod with 16-inch or optional 17-inch alloys.

Weighing as little as 2,729 pounds, the automatic Elantra can hum to 60 mph in roughly 7 seconds flat -- despite the boggy throttle and transmission management that's becoming an annoying hallmark of this mileage-obsessed class.

The coupe's interior offers a mild nod to its more freewheeling position in the lineup, with a bit more seat bolstering, available alloy pedals, and standard heated front seats. But with the sedan already boasting one of the most sophisticated, feature-packed interiors in the class, the coupe is fine as is.

That includes the handsome, intuitive center stack, with its horseshoe-shaped control layout, optional navigation system and a fan knob whose knurled-metal ring recalls none other than Bentley.

The SE's cabin also nails the standard-feature list, with a sport-tuned suspension, leather seats and trim, a sunroof, the 17-inch alloys, aluminum pedals, rear spoiler, Bluetooth, iPod and USB hookups, tilt-and-telescoping steering, a free 90-day satellite radio trial and more.

Rear seats offer just enough head, knee and hip room for two fully formed adults, though the high, hard center perch is best left unoccupied.

On a dry desert run that skirted the Mexican border -- crawling with literally dozens of Border Patrol agents in S.U.V.'s -- the Elantra's operating word was "pleasant." As in, pleasantly comfortable, frugal, quiet and compliant.

Note that the word "sporty" didn't appear in that sentence. Hyundai would disagree, but the Forte Koup, from its corporate cousin, has a splash of cornering attitude and buzzy urge that the Elantra can't match.

The Hyundai's manual transmission has a sticky, chunky-gated feel that's a ways off the smooth standard of Honda or Mazda sticks. The six-speed automatic's lever can be shifted manually in its Sportronic mode, imparting a bit more driver involvement. Though as in other Elantra models, the automatic shifts well before the 6,500 redline in either manual or automatic mode, which a company engineer said is done for smoothness and durability's sake.

The coupe's non-independent, solid-axle rear does add Hyundai's new "V-Beam" suspension, which integrates the stabilizer bar within the torsion beam. This two-door also gets mildly revised suspension tuning, and shares an upgraded steering knuckle with the 2013 sedan.

While the Elantra's five-door GT version adds a gimmicky Sport button that adjusts (unconvincingly) the level of power-steering assist, I actually found the coupe's steering to be the most natural of the Elantra triplets.

As mentioned, makers of ultra-affordable coupes play up sport and adventure; how else are they to make a case versus a sedan? But that message is usually carried more via body style. The firm, fresh-faced drivers you'll see in the Elantra Coupe will appear sporty and free, but that's because they're on the way to see Kanye, not to some crushing after-work affair.

For enthusiasts who demand more additions, beyond the subtraction of two doors, Hyundai executives essentially promised a Turbo or other performance edition of this high-value coupe.


2013 Hyundai Elantra Coupe

On sale: July 2012
Base price: $18,220
Powertrain
Engine: 1.8-liter DOHC I-4; 148 hp @ 6500 rpm, 131 lb-ft @ 4700 rpm
Drive: Front-wheel
Transmission: 6-speed automatic, 6-speed manual

Measurements
L x W x H: 178.7 x 69.9 x 56.5 in
Legroom, F/R: 43.6/ 33.3 in
Headroom, F/R: 39.8/ 37.1 in
Cargo capacity: 14.8 cu ft
Curb weight: 2687-2877 lbs
EPA Rating (city/highway): 29/40 (automatic), 28/39 (manual)

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