Tuesday, May 26, 2009

It Looks Boring Even in Red, but Consider It Anyway

"Boring is better than stupid" might be an axiom applicable to haircuts, aircraft design and your behavior at the office holiday party, but with a car as compelling as the 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring, it's a shame Hyundai didn't go for something a little more stupid in the way it looks.

Even in Chili Pepper Red, the otherwise exceptional Elantra Touring comes off like a diminutive Hyundai Veracruz, which is to say, a fine-looking and competent vehicle, but, yes, boring.

If the final version of the 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring had resembled its original design sketch, we think it would've been easier to get people to notice it rather than merely consider it. Because it's an exceptional car in its class.

Wagons Ho!
Hyundai is on a roll. First the Genesis Sedan shook up the luxury-sedan market, and now the 2010 Genesis Coupe promises to do the same with sporty coupes. The timing is right for the Elantra to make waves in the ever-expanding compact crossover market.

Based on the hot-selling Euro-spec Hyundai i30 CW, the 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring (that would be the code word for "wagon") has much to offer. The base price is $18,495 with a five-speed manual transmission (a four-speed automatic is an $800 option), and standard equipment includes electronic stability and traction control; four-wheel disc brakes (with ABS, brake assist and electronic brakeforce distribution); six airbags; USB/iPod auxiliary input; XM Satellite Radio; a tilt-telescoping steering wheel with audio controls and cruise control; power windows and mirrors; and more. Sheesh! Never mind the Subaru Impreza wagon or Volkswagen Jetta SportWagen; you don't even get all this on a base BMW 328i wagon for $36,000.

Command Performance
The Elantra's 141-horsepower DOHC 2.0-liter inline-4 has continuously variable intake-valve timing (CVVT) and is rated by the EPA at 23 mpg city/33 mpg highway/26 mpg combined. We can vouch for these ratings, as our worst/best/average fuel economy figures cooked up 23.6, 33.6 and 25.6 mpg, respectively. This has got to be some sort of Inside Line record for precise (and restrained) fuel economy.

CVVT gives this small engine good throttle response and adequate torque in everyday driving conditions. And when you put the spurs to it, the Elantra is no slowpoke, as the engine revs crisply all the way up to its 6,500-rpm redline. At the track we recorded an 8.7-second run to 60 mph (8.4 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip. Shift action from the five-speed manual is remarkably crisp and precise, maybe better than it needs to be. The clutch engagement is remarkably smooth and intuitive as well.

The brake pedal's effort and effectiveness are well matched. The 120-foot stops we recorded repeatedly are good for a wagon that weighs 2,998 pounds. The four-wheel discs are up to the task in this case, as some cars in this class come with rear drum brakes as standard equipment, which don't deliver the same resistance to brake fade. While there's some noise from the ABS during panic stops, most of it comes from the all-season tires. Otherwise, wind and tire noise are surprisingly restrained. The tires also offer good grip on the skid pad with a 0.81g performance, and prove predictable in the slalom.

With the standard stability control shut off, the 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring is willing to be chucked between the cones without threatening to spin. The balance between benign understeer (as the sidewalls of the tires flex) and mild oversteer (once the tires respond) is pretty unique in this segment, and entertaining besides. The chassis obviously has been tuned with fun in mind, although the stability control intrudes immediately and abruptly like an old-school system. If you want it sharper, consider the optional package of 17-inch wheels and tires ($1,500, which includes cast-aluminum wheels, P215/45VR17 all-season tires, a power sunroof and heated front seats). They look less boring, too.

The Tiller
As fun as it can be in certain circumstances, the Elantra Touring is held back by the ultralight effort of its electric-assist power steering (EPS). Hyundai engineers claim they've made big strides in tuning the EPS to feel more like a traditional hydraulic-boosted system, but we say they need longer legs. Chipping away at a fast corner in the Elantra is as vague and confidence-sapping as feeling for the light switch in a darkened hotel room.

It must be said that some buyers actually might prefer this lack of feel, although only the 2009 Toyota Corolla offers a tiller more dead than this one when it comes to feedback from the road. Luckily, the Elantra Touring's chassis and tires work well together, so you can almost forget about the vague feel of the steering unless your commute involves narrow, 60-mph sweeping corners.

Inner Qualities
Inside the cabin, we were happy to visually corroborate Hyundai's claim that the 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring offers the largest overall interior volume of any vehicle in its class, some 125.5 cubic feet. Rear-seat accommodations are ginormous, although they lack ventilation vents and the seatbacks can't be reclined. Even when the rear seats are occupied, you have 24 cubic feet in which to stow your luggage. With its 60/40-folding rear seats laid down flat, the Elantra Touring can gobble up 65 cubes of cargo. That's more than a Nissan Murano.

The driver seat is adjustable six ways, and the passenger gets by with four ways. It's worth repeating that the tilt-telescoping steering wheel is a notable addition in this class, especially because it makes the Elantra Touring more suitable for full-size American drivers. We get the thing that says a black interior means a sporty interior, as BMW has practically made it an industry standard, but it does the Elantra no favors. Have a look at a two-tone version, which is a no-cost option, and we think you'll agree it appears more upscale.

Meanwhile, all the knobs and secondary controls are placed well and feel substantial. The materials feel good and there are numerous cubbies and bins throughout the interior. The standard six-speaker, 172-watt audio system with CD changer, satellite radio and MP3 capability sounds OK, but we found ourselves turning the volume knob and then turning the volume knob again, only to discover we had already maxed the output. No distortion, no blown speakers — it just needs to go louder.

Sport Utility
Like most wagons, the 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring has the interior size and utility of a small sport-utility, the sportiness and feature content of a well-tuned sedan and the fuel economy of a compact car, and it delivers all this at a price that makes sense, with a warranty that can't be beat.

If you must, call the Elantra Touring a five-door or even a four-door hatch if the wagon thing is too much to wrap your imagination around, but consider test-driving one before you plunk down $30,000 or more on a vehicle that's overweight, overpriced and over the hill. The 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring might look boring, but it's certainly not stupid.

By Chris Walton

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