When the first Hyundai arrived on our shores in 1985, the company joined the car manufacturing game decades behind its Japanese competition and nearly a century behind Ford. This head start for Hyundai's competition is truly apparent. To make up for the lack of experience, Hyundai and sister company Kia have lured customers with low prices and a long 10-year/ 100,000-mile powertrain warranty. But, oh, what a long ten years that would be. In this crowd, the Elantra GT found itself at the back of the pack in nearly every category, with the exception of overall interior styling, where it beat out only the Focus. Having expected our Elantra to be the bargain of our group, we nearly cried when we realized that our test car wasn't much cheaper than the others. Granted, Hyundai offers some generous incentives matched only by the American-made Ford, but the lack of engineering know-how presented by Hyundai does not make up for the difference.
Hyundai engineers should spend a few weeks driving the competition so they might understand how far behind they are. Shifting through the gears in this car feels like stirring a straw through a convenience store slushie. Handling performance was comparable to Corollas and Civics of the 80's; while the ride was none too compliant, body control was poor, and the GT has a scary proclivity to pitch and bob in transitions. The steering also felt rather lifeless. We did come up with a neat trick to double the mushy brakes' performance; we dragged our feet out the door.
The Elantra's styling is a bit awkward, but at least it isn't embarrassing in a Pontiac Aztek kind of way. The interior is pleasantly designed, with white on black gauges that light up a very VW-esque blue and decent-quality dash and door materials. But the seat leather was so thin, we wondered if the cow from which it was taken was malnourished. The optional Kenwood CD player looks straight off the discount rack at Best Buy, and it has too many small buttons and is too complicated to use. This obvious afterthought of a stereo is out of place in the middle of an otherwise cohesive design.
It takes more than warranties and incentives to be a real player in this segment. GM tried the same formula with the Chevy Cavalier and Pontiac Sunfire, and those cars mercifully are dying at the end of this year. Toyota and Honda are not selling nearly 300,000 small cars a year each in the U.S. by simply making them cheap. Their success has come from decades of refinement, quality, and drivability. Hyundai needs to stop with the incentives and warranties and use that money toward research and development. If not, the Elantra could end up following the Cavalier, the Sunfire, a whole line of Daewoos, and the Dodo right into extinction.