I cannot believe I'm writing this, but driving the Accent reminds me of driving a 1980s Mercedes-Benz 190E. Okay, I may be hungry and suffering from low blood sugar, but I'm not totally insane. Let me first explain that, being the most ludicrously overengineered small sedan in the history, wrapped in a stunning body with the best proportions of any four-door car ever, the W201-chassis Mercedes 190E has earned a permanent spot in the Jason Cammisa Automotive Hall of Fame.
OK, now back to the insanity: when you drive a 190E, it feels like it weighs three tons and has a 7-liter V-12 under the hood. In reality, the car was a featherweight at 2700 pounds, and it was powered by a 2.3-liter four-cylinder.
Likewise, when you get into a Hyundai Accent, you think, "wow, is this really an entry-level economy car?" It feels so much more substantial than that -- and upon closer inspection, Hyundai pulled a lot of the same tricks that Mercedes did thirty years ago. The four-banger is smoothed by a flywheel that feels like it weighs 150 pounds, so it's slow to rev but hard to stall and smooth beyond its cylinder count. The long-throw, light-effort shifter feels spring-loaded so that even the limpest of wrists can easily engage the next gear. The steering uses a slow ratio and is lazy to self-correct, giving the feeling of a land-yacht-size luxury car. The suspension is soft and progressive, using lots of travel to absorb big bumps that would trip up sportier suspensions.
And the Accent is really sharp looking. It doesn't come close to the timeless, elegant design of the 190E, but not much does (and that includes all of Mercedes' current models). But the mere fact that I can reasonably compare an entry-level Hyundai to a Mercedes -- even a 30-year-old Mercedes -- speaks volumes about how far cars have come in the past three decades.
Jason Cammisa, West Coast Editor
Count me among the Accent fans in the office. I agree with Jason that the Accent feels more substantial than it is. There's a lot of storage space in the hatch area, and there's adequate legroom for passengers in the rear seat. I wouldn't want to drive an Accent (or any other B-segment car) with four adults on board all the time, but there's adequate power if you keep the six-speed manual transmission in the appropriate gear.
What surprised me most in the Accent is how much better it handled at speed than the larger Elantra sedan. I'm not impressed with the current Elantra sedan on the highway because the steering feels too light and it needs a lot of correction. The Accent's steering is a bit heavier, and the slow ratio matches my expectations for a car in this class. It's not a chore to keep the Accent on course at speeds up to 80 mph, which is rare in this class.
As of today, I prefer the Accent to the Ford Fiesta and the Honda Fit. But there's a revised Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa, a new Chevrolet Sonic, and a new Kia Rio slated to hit the streets in the near future. Just as the compact class became hugely competitive this spring, the subcompact class is poised for an all-out battle for sales in the coming months. It's never been a better time to shop for a small car in America.
Phil Floraday, Senior Web Editor
I was at the 2011 New York Auto Show in April when Hyundai unveiled the Accent, and I basically yawned. On the show floor at Javits Center, it looked pretty unremarkable. So I was quite surprised when I saw our Accent hatchback test car in our parking structure -- it actually looks good in the real world. It doesn't just look good, it looks great.
It also drives very well, for all the reasons my colleagues have outlined. What we have here is yet another Hyundai model that goes from the bottom of the barrel to the top of the heap in one fell swoop. These sorts of leaps from worst-in-class to vying-to-be-best-in-class are quite rare these days in the wider automotive world, because most cars are, quite simply, pretty darn good. Hyundai has taken stinker after stinker and transformed them into class-leading charmers. First the Sonata mid-size sedan, then the Elantra compact sedan, and now the Accent subcompact. I wouldn't have recommended a single one of them to a friend in their last generation; now, if someone is shopping in those segments, I'd admonish them to be sure to take a test drive at their Hyundai dealer.
Joe DeMatio, Deputy Editor