Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Economical Hyundai Elantra PZEV is Best Value in Midsize Class

Economical Hyundai Elantra PZEV is best value in midsize class

MILL VALLEY, California -- It was a trip in memory of the Coast Miwok Indians, the gentle hunter-gatherers who inhabited this place for nearly 5,000 years until the late 18th century, when Western civilization wiped them out along with many of the giant redwoods that once provided bark to cover Miwok huts.

There were no paved roads back then. But there are many now -- some of them winding, twisting, arching, running perilously close to cliff edges, leading to the moral equivalent of a tree museum: the Muir Woods National Monument, one of the last surviving groves of primordial California coast redwoods, now protected by the National Park Service.

It was appropriate, under the circumstance, to take a car that was not as harmful to the ecology of the place as Western civilization had been to the Miwok Indians, whose people and culture have been "indirectly eradicated," according to some local historical accounts. I chose the 2008 Hyundai Elantra GLS PZEV -- with PZEV being a California designation meaning "partial zero emission vehicle."

I'm puzzled by the concept of something being partially zero. But I suppose it's something like PZIP, which, when applied to the documented history of the Miwok Indians, could stand for Partially Zero Indigenous People.

But I digress.

This is a car column, after all, and this week's subject vehicle, by all conventional definitions, certainly qualifies as a car. It has an in-line, four-cylinder, 132-horsepower engine to power its front-drive wheels. It has four wheels. There also are four side doors and a rear end with a traditional notchback trunk. The transmission in the subject car is a four-speed automatic.

But another characteristic of the Elantra, its size, is more difficult to describe. The car began life in 1991 as a compact that looked and felt like a compact. But largely in response to the growth of American bottoms and torsos, as well as in reaction to automotive rivals such as the Ford Focus, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla -- all of which have been enlarged to accommodate the widening of America -- the Elantra has expanded its girth too.

The Elantra now is a mid-size automobile, actually on the lower end of mid-size. That means the new Elantra offers genuine rear-seating comfort for adult passengers. That's good news for most adults who have suffered the agony of a cramped, back-seat ride in a compact car.

Also good is that the Elantra's marketing turns out to be more truth than hype. The car does not pretend to be hot or hip. Instead, it proudly presents its credentials as an economy-mobile. Its marketers tout it as the "best value in its class" and as being a "class above the competition." In both cases, they are right.

The Elantra GLS is a relatively inexpensive, high-quality car with a base price of $13,625. Compare that with base prices for the Ford Focus ($14,705), Honda Civic ($14,810), Suzuki SX4 ($14,770) or Toyota Corolla ($15,250).

It was a good drive as test drives go. The Elantra GLS PZEV proved competent on Marin County's twisting, winding roads. Its handling was sure, albeit lacking the precision that some throttle jockeys demand in everything, including minivans. But drivers mindful and accepting of the fact that the Elantra is an economy car meant to be used as an economy car will find little to complain about with this one.

It is the genuine article, much as the Miwok Indians who once lived in, loved and honored this place were genuine articles, real examples of how humans, if left to the better angels of their nature, could live in peace with their environment.

Who knows? If ever we are wiped out by some invading force, or eliminated through our own carelessness and selfishness, and, somehow, a sample of an Elantra is discovered and cranked to life, future anthropologists might conclude: "Aha, Hyundai. This was a company that cared."

Warren Brown / The Washington Post

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