First Drive: 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT

Ah, the five-door hatchback: As popular in America as a Donizetti opera in Albuquerque, or charcuterie at your local White Castle. (Actually, a White Castle slider might be considered a form of charcuterie).

Taste in funky meats aside, more Americans do seem to have a hankering for a five-door, as evidenced by steady sales of the Honda Fit, and surprising response to appealing domestics like the Ford Focus and Chevy Sonic.

Hyundai's entry is built in Ulsan, Korea, but the Elantra GT was designed initially for the Euro zone, where it's known as the i30. Say goodbye to the pseudo-wagon layout of the previous GT (charming, but largely to auto journalists and wagon geeks), and hello to a more conventional hatch: The kind of smartly practical all-in-one that Europeans snap up like miniature Explorers.

Measured against the new Elantra Coupe, which clearly targets carefree singles, you're likely to see more budget-conscious couples and families opt for the GT.

Parked at Torrey Pines Lodge in La Jolla, Calif., the Arts and Crafts-style resort that hosted Tiger Woods' last major win, the 2008 U.S. Open, the Elantra is the class of car you'd expect to find in the caddy's lot. Yet Hyundai is itself the champion of making basic transportation feel at home in richer surroundings.

If creases and curls are your thing, the Elantra delivers, from its black-braced hexagonal grille and wraparound projector headlamps to its sine-wave character lines. Add a crouched stance, a chrome-molded beltline and looping fenders, and this perky hatch seems to marry elements of both Mazda3 and Nissan Leaf.

This Elantra is about nine inches shorter than the sedan or coupe, rides a two-inch shorter wheelbase, and is 1.4 inches taller. Despite the slim Euro proportions, a wheels-to-corners arrangement preserves interior space. Compared with the coupe, the GT gives up about 1.5 inches of front legroom, which might explain the standard driver's knee air bag; but adds more than an inch of legroom in back.

The rear hatch, however, is 50 percent larger than the coupe's already generous trunk, and folding the rear seats opens up a generous 51 cubes of Home Depot-hauling possibilities. In this class, only the Subaru Impreza squeezes out a nominal edge in cargo and passenger space.

Compared with the sedan and coupe, the GT's interior is the most unique, with a sort of floating-bridge front console in place of the sedan's hourglass design; subtly revised switches and an instrument panel capped in synthetic leather. Practical features include underfloor storage, front and rear bottle holders, a cooled glove compartment and front seatback pockets.

What the GT doesn't offer is the independent rear suspension of the European version, settling for the Coupe's new V-beam torsion-beam layout and its integrated, 22-mm stabilizer bar. But among the three American-market Elantras, only the GT gets Sachs dampers, and Hyundai cites unique, sportier suspension tuning.

For whatever reason, automakers are equipping and pricing five-door models at the top of their American food chains, and the Hyundai is no different: The GT is the only Elantra to offer Hyundai's new Blue Link telematics system and an optional, segment-first panoramic sunroof.

The GT is also pricier at $19,170 to start, a roughly $1,600 premium over the sedan and $1,000 beyond the coupe. For any model, add $1,000 for an automatic trans. Max out an Elantra GT, with an automatic shifter and both Style and Technology Packages -- the latter a $2,350 upgrade with touch-screen navigation, rear-view camera, keyless push-button start, premium audio and dual-zone climate control -- and you'll hit $25,270.

Matching other Elantras, the GT gets the smooth-revving 1.8-liter four with direct injection, 148 horses and 131 pound-feet of torque. Buyers can have six-speed manual or automatic transmissions, the latter with manual-shift ability.

That's enough grunt for a 0-60 mph squirt in the low 7 seconds, with an electronically limited peak of 118 mph.

The automatic-equipped GT we tested did shy from redline, upshifting from first to second around 5,900 rpm, and from second to third at about 6,100 rpm, in either manual or automatic mode -- both well below the 6,500 rpm redline.

Hyundai says the GT, at a manual-clad 2,745 pounds, is 175 pounds lighter than a Focus hatch, and undercuts the Mazda3 by 151 pounds. High- and ultra-high-strength steel, which comprises 57 percent of the GT's chassis and body, helps keep weight down. And EPA-rated fuel consumption for the automatic model matches Mazda's new, Skyactiv-equipped 3, at 28/39 mpg, and tops every other player, including the Focus, VW Golf, Impreza and Toyota Matrix.

The GT's other unique trick is its Driver Selectable Steering Mode (or DSSM), a steering-wheel mounted switch that adjusts the level of electric power-steering assist through comfort, normal and sport settings. Yet unlike many hands-on systems, DSSM is hands-off when it comes to recalibrating the throttle, suspension, steering ratio or transmission shift strategy.

We've often complained of drivers -- and automakers -- who confuse steering heft with feel. And the Hyundai system seems to highlight this brand's ongoing confusion in that regard: If buyers don't like the resistance of the steering wheel -- e.g., the "handling" -- they can just change it. But that change does bupkis to improve the car's actual handling, roadholding or feedback through the wheel.

As you might suspect, the GT's "comfort" setting is over-assisted, "sport" is artificially stiff, and "normal" is the one you'll set and forget until the day you sell the car.

That said, the GT was a smooth sidekick on rolling roads east of San Diego. The GT feels quiet, solid and above all stuffed. Hyundai's touch-screen navigation system equals or betters those of many luxury brands, and its pleasing audio systems also belie the cars' affordable price.

And while differences are subtle, the GT also seemed more willing than the coupe or sedan to stick its nose into faster corners.

People who associate the word "GT" with Mustangs or Volkswagen GTIs may chuckle at the Hyundai's use of those high-po initials. But for buyers who seek a hatchback for its versatility, value and features -- typically a much larger audience than the hot-hatch set -- this GT gives Hyundai and Elantra fans another reason to smile.

2013 Hyundai Elantra GT

On sale: July 2012
Base price: $19,170

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:
169.3 x 70.1 x 57.9 in
Legroom, F/R: 42.0 in/ 34.6 in
Headroom, F/R: 39.8/ 37.1 in
Cargo capacity: 23 cu ft (rear seats up) 51 cu ft (seats folded)
Curb weight: 2745-2784 lbs
EPA Rating (city/highway): 28/39 (automatic), 27/39 (manual)

danwat1234
Hmm, it shifts shy of peak RPM and redline? I have a similar experience in a 2012 regular Elantra, automatic from 1st to 2nd gear in automatic mode. Who knows, it may be the firmware, after all the guy in this youtube video managed for it to shift close to redline in manual mode from 2nd to 3rd. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zlTSL34e1YcBut from 1st to 2nd it looks like it shied away.
gene1@yahoo.com
We just purchased a 2013 Hyundai Elantra GT. All I can say is WOW! A great car.
tumbleweed2
The only KIA/Hyundai that doesn't look like it was forced through twizzler machine. Much the better for it in appearance. Still don't want one though.

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