Monday, December 29, 2008

2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring: Hyundai's brightest star isn't necessarily its biggest

When you think about it, the excitement is understandable. Of all the cars in Hyundai's fleet, the Elantra Touring is the first wagon. And since wagon popularity has been on the rise, it's no wonder Hyundai dealers are more than a little giddy.

But it might have been easy to miss the Touring since Hyundai also unleashed what many consider to be its most exciting vehicle ever: the Genesis luxury sedan. Yes, it's a headline stealer, but as good as that car might be, the Elantra is more practical, better on gas, less money and will sell, by comparison, like hotcakes.

Over the years, the mainstream Elantra sedan/hatchback has served to enhance the company's reputation of building well-designed automobiles for the sensible-shoes crowd. They're solidly constructed and relatively conservative.

The Elantra Touring manages to break free of the humdrum with clean-slate good looks and a sporty driving profile that contrasts its more practical nature.

Other than wearing an Elantra badge, there's virtually no sheetmetal that's shared between the sedan and the Touring, which was originally designed for the European market where compact wagons are even more popular. From its open-mouth front air intake to its oversized vertical taillamps, the Touring appears more sleek than utilitarian.

Interestingly, the tale of the tape reveals that the Touring is about an inch shorter and a half-inch narrower that the sedan, but enjoys a two-inch advantage in distance between the front and rear wheels. The result is more rear-seat leg room and less body overhang, especially in the rear.

Still, Hyundai says you can cram more stuff in back with the rear seat folded than in either the Toyota Matrix, Mazda3 or Dodge Caliber as well as some major heavyweight haulers such as the BMW 3-series or Audi A4 Avant wagon.

In its own economical way, the Touring tries to emulate its pricier German rivals by tweaking the steering and suspension to provide a sport-wagon driving experience and not a station-wagon driving experience. Significantly stiffer springs, larger front and rear stabilizer bars and short-sidewall tires are the order of the day plus the steering rack has been adjusted to deliver more direct "feel."

The sense of sportiness extends to the interior where a set of sport bucket seats with extra bolstering helps keep everyone in their place. The five-speed manual transmission (a four-speed automatic transmission is available) comes with a short-throw shifter from California-based aftermarket-parts company B&M Racing. Sporty doesn't mean brash, though, as Hyundai has installed additional sound deadening material to keep the experience a pleasant one.

So far, so good, but don't expect to find a fire-breathing dragon under the Touring's hood, just the sedan's 141-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder that twists out 137 pound-feet of torque. However, this powerplant has served the Elantra sedan well and should be capable of propelling the 3,000-pound Touring with adequate gusto.

Hyundai has graced the Touring with a veritable full load of gear including air conditioning, tilt and telescopic steering wheel with built-in audio controls, automatic speed control, keyless remote entry, eight-way adjustable driver's seat (including lumbar support), heated outside mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels and a complete range of safety gear. The Touring also comes with a six-speaker 172-watt sound system that also includes XM satellite radio.

In fact, the Elantra arrives so complete that the only options consist of a power sunroof, heated front seats and 17-inch wheels.

Hyundai has yet to announce the base sticker for its upcoming wagon, which is expected to arrive early in 2009. But you can be sure that, with its history of competitive pricing, not to mention its standard five-year basic warranty coverage, the Elantra Touring will become a highly sought-after model and another feather in the company's cap, along with the Genesis, of course. Whether you're a buyer or you work at a Hyundai dealership, there's plenty of excitement. And that's understandable.

What you should know: 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring

Type: Four-door, front-wheel-drive compact wagon

Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC four-cylinder (141 hp)

Transmissions: Five-speed manual; four-speed automatic (opt.)

Market position: Compact wagons occupy a small, but growing niche that's being filled by a variety of European, Japanese and North American manufacturers.

Points: Unique body styling improves on Elantra sedan; More powerful engine, turbo option would match extra cargo capacity; Exceptionally spacious interior; No leather interior, backup warning, navigation system options a surprise; Most of the automotive world adopting five- and six-speed automatic transmissions for this class, except Hyundai; Price, fuel economy, will be strong selling points.

Safety: Front airbags; side-impact airbags; side-curtain airbags; anti-lock brakes; traction control; stability control.

The numbers: MPG (city/hwy) 23/31 (MT); Base price $17,000 (est., including destination)

By comparison

Mazda 3 5-Door

Base price: $19,300

Popular hatch is fun to drive. New 2010 version arrives soon.

Dodge Caliber

Base price: $16,300

Bargain-priced base model shy on content. SRT4 offers big power.

VW Jetta Sportwagen

Base price: $19,700

Generously sized with loads of power. Diesel option available.

By Malcolm Gunn
Wheelbase Communications

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