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2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco First Drive

From Montgomery, Alabama to Detroit on two tanks

Todd Lassawriter, photographerThe Manufacturerphotographer

ROYAL OAK, Michigan - The editor of a popular online green-car publication expressed surprise when I told him I drove the entire 993 miles between Montgomery, Alabama, and Detroit in hair shirt Eco mode. He chose to drive his route, which was much longer than mine, the way he'd drive any other car. But in the 2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco, as in most new cars of this ilk, the differences between Normal and Eco feel minor. You're dealing with Hyundai's turbocharged 1.4-liter Kappa four-cylinder engine feeding the front wheels through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, a combo that provides barely adequate acceleration until boost builds. You must anticipate lazy throttle tip-in no matter the mode. The rest of the Elantra lineup uses a 2.0-liter inline-four from Hyundai's Nu engine series, combined with a conventional six-speed torque converter automatic.

Eco and Normal modes are defaults for this Hyundai Elantra, so if you leave the car in either, it will start up in that mode. Leave it in Sport, and it defaults to Normal. I saved the Sport mode for my local drive on the weekend after reaching Metro Detroit. In Normal, Eco, or Sport mode under half-throttle, the DCT makes the 1-2 shift about 5,000 rpm, and under Normal or Eco, shifts 2-3 again at about 5,000, while the Sport mode hangs on to 5,500 rpm.

All of this was epilogue to my road trip. Unlike my green-car journalist friend and others' Elantra Eco road trip, I didn't have time to make the most of the usual vehicle-launch festivities. I left the Hyundai assembly plant on the outskirts of Montgomery about 1:30 p.m. Central time on a Wednesday and crossed the Ohio-Michigan border about 1 a.m. Friday. Though Hyundai posed them inside the factory, the Elantra Ecos we all drove away were not fresh off the production line. My car's odometer showed 783 miles and 2.4 miles on the trip odometer.

From the factory's rural location, I drove back to downtown Montgomery to find the Rosa Parks Museum and take pictures in front of the historical marker near the museum's entrance.

It's the spot, near a bus stop, where on December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to obey the driver's orders to sit at the back of a city bus to leave space up front for white customers. After she was arrested, local civil rights leaders organized a 382-day bus boycott that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregated bus seating is unconstitutional. But Parks and her husband could not find employment in Montgomery, so they moved to Detroit.

My own return to Detroit would have been all interstate if not for an impulse detour in which I headed northwest off I-65 near Decatur, Alabama, to spend Wednesday night in Muscle Shoals. Sadly, while there I did not take the time to tour any of the town's 10 music recording studios.

I did, however, find nouvelle cuisine in Muscle Shoals. The Wild Lilly is in a small building that looks pre-fab, on a part of Michigan Avenue that looks like a light-industrial section of town (just off Woodward Avenue—Motown has left its mark on Muscle Shoals). I arrived about half an hour before closing and ordered dinner at the bar. For a while, I was the only customer ("the locals go to church on Wednesdays," the waitress told me). Based on my pork chop with baked macaroni and grilled asparagus (and yes, I paid full price), I'd highly recommend The Wild Lilly.

I got the recommendation from my wife, who I was chatting with using the Elantra Eco's standard Apple CarPlay feature (it comes with Android for Auto, too). I used Apple's Siri voice recognition, all controlled through the Elantra's infotainment screen, to navigate my way north and to trade phone calls and texts (Siri reads and records them for you).

Making phone calls and listening to/dictating texts proved seamless, though using the map is not quite as intuitive. On two occasions, I drove at least a half-hour in the wrong direction before resetting the CarPlay nav. That's all on Apple, not Hyundai. If you want the more reliable Google Maps app, you'll need to use Android Auto.

Muscle Shoals and nearby Florence proved popular destinations on this Wednesday evening, but I found a newer chain motel in Florence. The next morning, I stopped for breakfast at an AUTOMOBILE staple, Waffle House, a couple of miles away. I was surprised to see a black Tesla Model S parked at the end of the restaurant's parking lot and even more surprised to meet its owner seated at the counter.

"Elon Musk bought me my car," he told me. A community banker and car guy, the owner invested in Tesla stock before the Model S came out, so proceeds paid for the car. It's been pretty reliable, he said, though it needed a new rear power unit. Fortunately for him, Tesla handled pick-up and drop-off of his loaner car without incident.

From the Florence, Alabama, Waffle House, I headed northeast—well, west first, as this was the first of two times Apple's Siri misunderstood my directions—to Nashville. I had my first fill-up at a Shell station about a mile shy of the Lane Motor Museum.

I had driven 433.3 miles on the first tankful, at an average speed of 44 mph. The computer estimated my fuel efficiency at 45.7 mpg, though by my calculations, 11.4 gallons of regular unleaded equaled 37.9 mpg. I don't know whether the trip computer was zeroed out exactly when Hyundai filled the tank prior to turning the car over to me, so I zeroed out Trip A at the Nashville Shell station to get an accurate reading on the next tankful.

While enjoying the eclectic mix of rare cars and bicycles during my first visit to the museum, storm clouds started pouring rain. I left a bit after 2 p.m. and tried to beat Nashville's burgeoning rush hour. The 45 minutes I lost to Siri's directions that morning would have helped.

High winds and rain slowed me as I drove northbound on I-65 to Louisville and on to Cincinnati and Dayton. The Hyundai Elantra Eco is a pleasant enough place to be, with interior space befitting of a midsize sedan. The tech-material cloth seats are heated, which I did not need, and are a bit drab in a mousy kind of gray. Padded door inserts are covered in a gray pattern that doesn't match anything in the seats. Fit and finish is excellent, though the surfaces all are of a hard plastic devoid of the soft touchpoints you'll find in the latest Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cruze, which, by the way, get better fuel mileage in certain variants, though at higher sticker prices. The driver's door armrest and the upper door panel offer no respite for one's left elbow on long drives.

Hyundai surprise-and-delight features include standard blind-spot detection, lane-change assist, rear cross-traffic alert, rear camera with dynamic guidance, and a trunk lid that opens automatically if you stand in front of it for a couple of seconds with the smart key in your pocket.

On the interstate, the Eco mode's lazy acceleration doesn't matter except when exiting rest stops into traffic. Steering offers some feedback, which was helpful when the heavy rains created deep puddles on the freeway, though the steering lacks feel on fast corners. The car yaws through 50 mph on/off-ramps, and the fuel-efficient 15-inch tires start to scream before the understeer gets serious. Nothing to concern anyone looking for an efficient, fairly comfortable daily driver, though. The dry-clutch seven-speed DCT serves up plenty of slippage, like an improperly disengaged third pedal, though it's smoother than the notorious dual-clutch in the Ford Focus.

North of Dayton, Ohio, as the clouds started to clear, I hit a sort of perfect mileage storm. I was 220 miles from home, 218 miles from my exit, and had 217 miles fuel range remaining. That would get fouled up a few exits north, when Siri gave me the wrong directions to a Culver's fast-food restaurant, so I had to stop for gas about 1:30 a.m. on the west side of Detroit, near Zug Island.

Range is impressive. I had driven 550.3 miles between the Nashville and Detroit fill-ups. The dashboard readout indicated I managed 46.9 mpg, though real fuel mileage was 43.3 mpg. I don't trust fuel mileage computers in general, though, and real fuel efficiency still was 8.3-percent better than the EPA highway estimate.

The 2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco was my personal grocery-getter/errand-runner for the weekend, and on Sunday I capped my Elantra Eco road trip with a drive down Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit. I topped off the tank Monday morning for a final fuel mileage count. Since the Zug Island fill-up, I had driven 147.8 miles, mostly in the city, and the dash readout estimated 36.8 mpg. I refilled just 4.4 gallons, for real fuel mileage of 33.8 mpg.

Since Montgomery, Alabama, I had used 28 gallons of regular unleaded to drive 1,121.5 miles (plus 2.4 miles on Trip A when I took delivery of the car), for an average mpg of 40.1, one-tenth better than the Hyundai Elantra Eco's EPA highway number. For its price it's easy to overlook the 2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco's shortcomings and consider it a reasonably comfortable highway cruiser well-suited to long, straight freeway trips; a good alternative to diesel compacts with questionable EPA fuel economy numbers.

2017 Hyundai Elantra Eco Specifications

On Sale: Now
Price: $21,350 (base and as tested)
Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4, 128 hp @ 5,500 rpm/156 lb-ft @ 1,400-3,700 rpm
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch automatic
Layout: Four-door, five-passenger, front-engine FWD sedan
EPA Mileage: 32/40 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H: 179.9 x 70.9 x 56.5 in
Wheelbase: 106.3 in
Weight: 2,857 lbs
0-60 MPH: N/A
Top Speed: N/A