The Brand New 40 MPG Sedan

A Victory & Reseda review of the 2011 Hyundai Elantra

You can no longer refer to it by name.

There is a reason behind making this audacious statement. In my realm of social media, I receive many feeds from Facebook, Twitter and Google+ from my automobile sources. They speak in an institutional voice that is necessary to convey a condensed message within the constraints of these outlets. It is the art of language distilled in a short burst of words, hashtags and shortened URLs.

Within this context, whenever Hyundai refers to their new Elantra on Twitter and on Facebook, it does so by its biggest claim: 40 MPG.

The idea of having a vehicle claim such fuel consumption figures without the assist of an electric motor may seem too good to be true. It is possible, given the advancement of engine technology, transmission design and advanced engineering and design. Given the fact that Hyundai has been pushing the envelope on many fronts, the time was ripe for them to shoot for a new threshold on fuel efficiency.

There is another factor in play regarding the new Elantra – a personal one. My first drive of the Elantra back in April of 2007 was simply an introduction to what has become my "go-to" compact car. In one of my subsequent drives, a 2010 Elantra GLS achieved a personal fuel economy record of over 33 MPG. With the many positive experiences behind the wheel of Hyundai's compact sedan, including the joy of seeing other friends taking delivery of their own Elantras, you’d expect the bar to be set quite high given the promises made by the new model.

Based on sales over the past two months, the Elantra may have already cleared the bar. Monthly sales have hovered around the 20,000 mark – something that hasn’t been seen by any single Hyundai model in a very long time.

2011 Hyundai Elantra 7

But, is the new Elantra better than the old one? More importantly, is Hyundai’s claim of excellent fuel economy true or not?

There is no question that Hyundai wanted to change the way compact cars are perceived. They did so by thoughtful engineering and design. As much as I enjoyed the upright, curvy and comfortable Elantra of yore, the new one went right for my heart. In doing so, Hyundai went for a lower, more angular aesthetic to challenge the status quo amongst compact sedans.

When you look at it, you will notice how Hyundai’s "Fluidic Sculpture" design language has been translated very nicely onto the Elantra. It shares the same design language as the reigning Vehicle of the Year, the 2011 Sonata. Compare the two and you will find some striking similarities in every shape, fold and angle executed between these two sedans. The result is a compact that stands out amongst the usual suspects – a sharp looking and handsome vehicle designed for optimal efficiency.

My GLS example came with a set of handsome optional alloy rims and aggressive Continental tires. It just makes the Elantra a truly nice little number to admire – even from a distance. Perhaps the most stunning feature that caught everyone’s eye here was the Indigo Blue Pearl finish that was lavished on this sedan.

2011 Hyundai Elantra 12

Inside, the Fluidic Sculpture theme continued with a scaled down version of the Sonata's cabin – with a few twists. Instrumentation was easy to read and the controls were right where I needed them to be. I found the quality of materials and touch points a bit better than expected in the Elantra.

Compared to the previous generation, the Elantra's seats were more in tune with the driver. There’s superb legroom both front and back. Tall passengers will lose headroom with the new model’s angular coupe-like roofline compared to the last Elantra. Open up the wide lid of the trunk and you get a massive space to throw two week’s of clothes and goodies for a nice, long ride.

The new Elantra was also my first opportunity to test out two features I had not been able to utilize in previous Hyundais (and Kias): The Bluetooth and iPod integration. My reasons were simple: The phones I previously had were never compatible with the Bluetooth on these vehicles and I never bought the right cord that would work with my iPods.

Now with a phone that has much better Bluetooth connectivity, I was able pair it perfectly with the Elantra. The Bluetooth system worked better than I anticipated, but there is a lag in connecting every time I started up the car. That can get annoying after a while.

As for the iPod integration – can I get a "hallelujah?" This Elantra was provided with one for me to try out. I love how it worked well with the audio head unit and the remote switches on the steering wheel – not to mention the sound quality from the audio system overall. However, it only gave me just only one menu to work with. I was able to fiddle with the menus to get to the podcasts I downloaded from iTunes to play through the Elantra's audio system.

2011 Hyundai Elantra 17

Under the hood is Hyundai's new 1.8-liter DOHC 16-valve engine came as a surprise. Sure, the size dropped by 200cc, but it gained some power. With 148 horsepower on tap, it can do the job. A six-speed automatic was tacked onto the new mill. One issue I found when merging onto the highway, the engine would get "boomy" about 4,000RPM while in first gear. Then, it would take a long while for first gear to kick down. In all, I was let down by the gearbox on the Elantra, given how it was designed for optimal fuel economy in the first place.

My confidence in the Elantra was restored when I started really feeling the car at speed. The previous model was a nice car to drive overall as it simply got the job done competently. The new Elantra ratcheted everything up a notch. The ride maintained excellent solidity even on rough surfaces. It handled exceptionally well as it corners and tracks like a sports coupe. You can take this into a cloverleaf or a windy road without fear or resistance.

There was a strange mix of numbness and responsiveness in the steering. Perhaps it is because of the "motor-driven" steering system on the Elantra – something of the norm these days. However, put on the brakes and you'll see why Hyundai did their homework on this car. The stopping action was sharp and sure.

The ultimate test for the Elantra was to prove Hyundai’s claim of 40 MPG. Unfortunately, I was unable to reach that lofty number. I did reach 33.1 MPG on one drive, just .3 MPG short of the old Elantra’s record. Not to make excuses, but I found myself driving more in and around town than outside of it. With an overall average of 30.7 MPG, the Elantra proved to be a better daily commuter compared to other compacts driven for this blog.

The flip side to the entire fuel consumption picture is the small fuel tank that is on board. Yes, compacts are supposed to have small tanks, but I consider 12.8 gallons quite small for any sized car.

Despite some of its shortcomings, the Elantra is a strong choice in an increasingly competitive market segment. As a result, the Elantra leads all models within Hyundai. This shift in model leadership signals a sea change in the marketplace as it veers away from mid-size sedans, such as the Sonata, for smaller, more fuel efficient products.

Within the compact segment, the Elantra achieved what was considered to be the impossible: Outselling the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic on a month-to-month basis. While the two traditional market leaders were challenged by various factors from the fallout of the earthquake in Japan to soldiering on with an older design – as in the case of the Corolla – the Elantra simply lured buyers by its handsomely advanced looks and the promise of optimal fuel efficiency.

Yet, the Elantra placed third amongst compacts in June sales – behind the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and the 2012 Ford Focus. You’d think that the Montgomery, Alabama-built Korean sedan would be an outright leader with its fine cabin space and design. Not when you have two other globally designed, domestically built compacts vying for the same customers.

While I was out and about in the Elantra, it just seems that every time I'd look in the mirror a Cruze would creep up behind me. Could it be a sign of change, perhaps? After all, the Cruze could become the best selling car in the USA by the end of this year – period.

If the Cruze is taking over the driveways of this country, does the Elantra have any sort of advantage in the marketplace? It does. For some, the sticker price of this GLS at $18,500 may seem a bit much for a car in its class. Think about it: You can get a Cruze LS with nearly the same level of equipment for over a hundred more dollars – without slapping on a set of alloy rims. If you equip a similar 2012 Ford Focus, you'll end up with the SE model at over $20,000. That is too much to pay for a compact sedan! Plus, the Focus is cramped in the back seat.

2011 Hyundai Elantra 8

The reality is that the new Elantra still retains a value advantage amongst its competition. However, you may end up with a better deal if you went with some of the carryover models that remain in the market – namely the Toyota Corolla and the Kia Forte. With all-new models in its class, such as the Cruze, Focus and the Honda Civic, things in the compact car realm just got more interesting. Add the upcoming Dodge compact (via Fiat) and the future Corolla replacement – this segment will be as hot as the mid-size sedan one was in 2007.

Still, which compact car would I choose? Without having driven anything else outside of the Corolla – the Elantra would be a pretty good choice. It has a lot going for it. As for replacing my "go-to" compact car…the new Elantra is taking its place in that lofty position right now.

As for not breaking my fuel economy record…or, reaching 40 MPG as advertised…if I could just let off the gas enough and take it out of town somewhere (time permitting, of course), I’ll give it a go. But, hey, I tried…

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Hyundai Motor America.

All photos by Randy Stern

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