EL SEGUNDO, California — Some years back, I made a good living writing about inexpensive cars for a web site that I won’t name because their head honchos changed our contracts to screw us out of residuals just before laying us off. Not that I’m bitter.
Anyway, my yearly update on the pros and cons of America’s cheapest cars was hugely popular and I became something of an expert on which cars deliver good value for 15 grand or less and which ones don’t. Believe it or not, the Accent was usually on the “don’t” list, largely because the Nissan Versa was (and still is) nearly impossible to beat—but this was well before the redesigned 2018 model made its debut. When I learned we had a stripped-down $15,880 2018 Hyundai Accent SE coming in, I jumped at the opportunity to write the review.
If you haven’t driven a cheap car in a while, the Accent SE may come as something of a shock. For one thing, it’s pretty decent to drive. Power comes from a direct-injected 1.6 liter four with a healthy 130 hp on tap. It’ll scoot just fine if you keep it on the boil. The SE model gets a manual transmission—an automatic costs $1,000 more—but it has six speeds instead of the expected cheap-car five. The feather-light clutch, easy (if slightly long) shift throws, and even ratio spread provide a perfect counterpoint to those who say a manual is too much trouble in traffic. It even has a hill-holder function that keeps it from rolling back on inclines. EPA fuel economy for the stick is 31 mpg combined, but I saw just over 37 mpg in my regular routine of speeding on freeways, cruising quietly through the suburbs, and sitting in stop-and-go traffic feeling sorry for myself and wondering why I ever moved away from western New York, where nothing is ever more than a fifteen-minute drive away—provided you don’t hit a deer.
The chassis is not a strong point, which has less to do with the Accent’s price than the fact that it’s a Hyundai. The South Korean automaker has only recently straightened out its steering systems and that directional goodness has yet to make its way down to the Accent, which wanders annoyingly on the freeway. I’m not looking for the precision of a Honda S2000, but I prefer a car that goes where I point it. Sound insulation is quite good and the suspension is decently sorted out, though body roll combined with the imprecise steering feel can make sudden sharp curves a bit of a sphincter-tightening experience. For 95% of the driving most of us do, though, the Accent is unfailingly pleasant.
Furthermore, the standard-equipment list is nowhere near as parsimonious as you might expect. Thanks to the economies of scale, the SE model comes with most of the equipment that buyers of pricier Accents will want: Power windows, mirrors and locks, Bluetooth phone connectivity, cruise control, a rear view camera, even air conditioning. The back seat is reasonably roomy and the warranty is epic, offering 5 years/60,000 miles of coverage on the whole car and 10 years/100,000 miles on the powertrain. The stereo is pretty basic—AM/FM/Bluetooth only, with no XM, Apple CarPlay, or Android Auto—and the wheels are stamped steelies with plastic covers. Still, the Accent SE is hardly the motoring equivalent of living in a cardboard box.
Equipment aside, the Accent presents quite nicely. The exterior is handsome enough and the interior plastics and fabrics are of shockingly good quality. The cabin trim is the same as in pricier versions of the Accent, and most of the switches and dials work with smoothness and precision. It really doesn’t feel like a base-model car.
Of course, one could argue that the Hyundai Accent isn’t a base-model car. In terms of equipment, trim and price, it parallels mid-level models from the competition.
The aforementioned Nissan Versa? Now that is a proper base-model car. The el-cheapo Versa S gets black-plastic door handles and side mirrors, crank-down windows, manual door looks, and cable-operated climate controls that go lunk-ka-thunk when you change from heat to defrost. No cruise. No split-folding rear seat. No USB ports. The transmission is an old-school five-speed manual and the interior was designed by people who scoured the Earth to find the cheapest-looking plastic known to humankind. The silver-colored trim rings that surround the shifter and stereo in pricier Versas have been deep-sixed, because who the hell do you think you are? Nissan even limits the base model’s color palette to black, white, silver and gray. You want a red one? Buzz off, cheapskate.
The Versa S does get A/C and Bluetooth; again, economies of scale. And like the Accent, the Versa drives well enough to make you ask “Why spend more?” It’s reasonably quick, acceptably comfortable, surprisingly roomy and pleasantly frugal. Compared to the Accent, it’s noisier but the steering is (marginally) better.
Most importantly, the cheapest Versa is a lot cheaper than the cheapest Accent—at $12,995, it’s about three grand less. And it turns out that if you equip a Versa with all the stuff you get in an Accent SE with an automatic transmission (Nissan doesn’t offer a stick in mid-level models), the two cars cost about the same.
Thanks to my days with Brand X Dot Com, I can give you the quick low-down on the best of the rest: The Chevrolet Spark comes nicely equipped for less money than the Accent, but it’s a much smaller car. Ditto the Mitsubishi Mirage, which is comically slow and dreadful to drive but gets amazing gas mileage, even with the foot-to-the-floor driving style its microscopic engine demands. The aging Ford Fiesta is the fun-to-drive choice for enthusiasts on a budget, while the Accent’s corporate sibling, the slightly-less-expensive Rio, presents just as nicely as the Hyundai and comes with a better stereo.
My point is that while the 2018 Hyundai Accent SE isn’t the least-expensive of least-expensive cars, it’s also not the cheapest of cheap cars, if you get my meaning. It’s a solid value for sixteen grand and a car that you certainly won’t mind driving.
2018 Hyundai Accent Specifications
|ENGINE||1.6L DOHC 16-valve I-4/130 hp @ 6,300 RPM, 119 lb-ft @ 4,850 RPM|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||28/37 (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H||172.6 x 68.1 x 57.1|