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1996 Hyundai Accent

Sometimes a car will sneak up on you, catch you by surprise.

You’ll look at the specifications, know the manufacturer’s reputation, have a feel for what the competition offers at the same price.

But you get in, drive the thing, and say, Hey! This car is good!

A lot of us journalists were caught out when we first drove the Hyundai Accent in Nova Scotia last fall. But those were preproduction cars, carefully prepped for a press preview, and driven for just two days.

A longer session in a production Accent, on home ground, has reaffirmed my initial opinion: this is a terrific little automobile.

Not to look at, maybe. It’s those little caster wheels that make it resemble something from the Mattel catalogue. If I bought an Accent, I’d head straight for my tire-and-wheel store and see if after-market skins would make it look tougher.

Accent is offered as a two-door hatchback, like my tester, or a four door sedan. While they’re clearly the same car, there are few interchangeable body panels rather like BMW’s 3-series

coupe and sedan.

The sedan has microscopically more rearseat headroom, the hatch considerably more trunk space — the two-door clearly makes better use of its slightly shorter overall length.

On the plus side of the appearance scorecard, I admire Hyundai’s courage in bringing in bright colors. “Screaming green”, “flaming coral” and something called — I wouldn’t kid you about this — “violets are blue” may not be your cup of tea. If not, you can choose a nice deep green, like my tester.

Inside, the color continues, with random patterns of pastel shades on the cloth upholstery. Again, a pleasant change from the drab stuff most carmakers bring us. This sort of thing is very popular in Europe and the Orient, but so far hasn’t caught on here. Give it time.

The seat cushion is too short for those of average-or-longer leg length (Lady Leadfoot found it perfect). If you just can’t hide those giant thighs, you may wish for greater upward range for the tilt steering wheel. Otherwise, the driving position is fine, the seat is comfortable and supportive.

The dashboard design is straightforward and legible, the minor controls logical and smooth-acting.

Two trim levels, L and GL, are available in both body styles. The usual upgrades — remote trunk release, higher-standard upholstery, a standard radio — come with the GL.

But the most signficant difference is the availability (at $875) of anti-lock brakes, which are restricted to the GL for reasons that are not clear.

Dual air bags are optional on both trim levels for a more-than-reasonable $845. With ABS and bags, a GL two-door lists at $11,915, a few hundred dollars over a bagged-and-ABS’d Geo Metro, which I think is now the cheapest car you can buy with both features.

Trust me. The Accent is worth the extra money.

There’s a sensation of quality, of solidness, to this car that you won’t believe, especially if you’ve driven other Hyundais. Accent feels much more substantial even than the company’s larger Elantra.

Among the nice touches is a black dot pattern on the edges of the windshield, to relieve the abrupt break between glass and body. I first saw this in an Audi about 10 years ago. In the

Accent, the pattern also covers the part of the windshield above the rearview mirror, between the sunvisors, so those afternoon westward drives don’t sear your retinas.

The engine, Hyundai’s own Alpha series design (no longer a Mitsubishi joint venture) sports three valves per cylinder, said to improve lowend torque. The numbers make the case: torque

peaks at a low 2700 r.p.m.

If you don’t believe the numbers, believe the seat of your pants. The main characteristics of a hightorque engine are that you find yourself going a lot faster than you think, because you

don’t need a lot of throttle pressure to make the car go; the engine has a smooth-running, lazy nature; you don’t feel the need to downshift every time you encounter a hill no bigger than

a mole on your forearm.

Just as well. You don’t want to shift the Accent unless you absolutely have to. Transmission shift quality is the only serious flaw in the car. It’s looser, less precise, than the worst cable-linkage box Toyota ever made. You also have to be sure each gear change is pushed all the way home; miss by a fraction and the lever pops back into neutral.

(Memo to Hyundai transmission engineers: tear apart a Nissan Sentra and see how they do it.)

The engine torque allows relaxed gearing. The engine remains mechanically smooth right up to the red line; induction (air/fuel intake) noise gets intrusive over 4000 r.p.m., but there’s little reason to venture up there.

A resonance, typical of four-cylinder engines, sets in around 3300 r.p.m., but that’d take you over the speed limit in fifth gear, and you’d never do that with photo radar around, would you?

The power steering — standard on all but 2-door L models — is decidedly stiff when very cold. After only a few seconds to warm up, it becomes pleasantly light, direct and communicative.

Ride is very good for a small car, the MacPherson struts up front and multi link rear more than doing the job. There’s a fair amount of body roll in cornering, and the skinny tires don’t generate huge amounts of lateral grip. Still, the car is fun to toss around corners if you enjoy that sort of thing, pleasant and responsive if you don’t.

Nighttime driving reveals a weird low-beam pattern. There’s almost no light at all right in front of the car, then a bright band that starts about 10 metres ahead. It extends farther to the right side of the car than to the left, towards the shoulder, not oncoming traffic. That’s exactly where you want it; whether this is an accident or a design feature, I can’t say. The high beam pattern is conventional, and very, very bright.

Bright is also the only word that describes the future for the newest Hyundai. With a strong warranty and a roadside assistance program, the Accent has to rank as one of the best value-for-the-money cars on today’s market.

Hyundai Accent

MODELS AND PRICES

L, 2door $8,995; L, 4-door $9,995; GL 2door $10,195; GL, 4-door $10,695 (For 4-speed automatic transmission, add $700, all models)

STANDARD EQUIPMENT

L model: power steering (4-door only); child safety door locks (4-door only); centre console; front-door map pockets; passenger-side vanity mirror; remote fuel filler door release; height-adjustable shoulder belts; passenger-side walk-in feature (2-door only); folding rear seat back (2-door only); trip odometer; variable intermittent wipers; aluminum-coated, stainless steel muffler; dual remote sideview mirrors. GL model adds: power steering; tilt steering column; digital clock; cup holder; remote hatch/trunk release; driver’s lumbar and cushion tilt adjustments; split-folding rear seat back (2-door only); AM-FM anti-theft coded 2-speaker radio (2-door), AM-FM anti-theft coded 4-speaker cassette radio (4-door); tachometer (5-speed manual only); tinted glass; rear window washer/wiper (2-door only)

ENGINE

All models: 1.5 litre, 12-valve, OHC, 4-cylinder; 92 h.p. at 5500 r.p.m, 97 pound-feet (13.4 kgm) at 2700 r.p.m.

TRANSMISSION

Standard: 5-speed manual. Optional: 4-speed electronic automatic; front-wheel drive

DIMENSIONS

Manufacturer’s figures: WB 2400 mm; L 4103 mm (2dr) / 4117 mm (4dr); W 1620 mm; H 1394 mm; front headroom 982 mm; rear headroom 960 (2dr) / 964 mm (4dr); trunk capacity 460 litres (2dr) / 303 (4dr); fuel tank 45 L; weight 953 kg (2dr); 955 kg (4dr)

TEST CAR PRICE

GL 2-door hatchback, 5-speed manual transmission: $10,195 (excluding extra charges and taxes)

OPTIONS ON TEST CAR

None

EXTRA CHARGES

Freight and pre-delivery inspection $795; Ontario fuel conservation tax nil

SAFETY WATCH

Dual air bags opt. all models ($845); anti-lock brakes — opt. (GL only) $875; meets 1997 U.S. sideimpact standard — yes; theft deterrent system — n/a; height-adjustable shoulder belts — std.

TRANSPORT CANADA FUEL ECONOMY

5-speed manual, city: 8.0 L/100 km; highway: 5.7 L/100 km.

4-speed auto, city: 8.5 L/100 km; highway: 5.8 L/100 km.

Estimated maximum range (tank capacity x 100 / highway fuel consumption): 789 km (5speed); 776 km (4-speed auto)

PARTS BASKET

Cost of commonly needed parts, excluding installation: exhaust system, not including catalytic converter — $n/a; front fender — $n/a; taillight lens: — $n/a

WARRANTY

Entire car — 3 years, 60,000 km; powertrain and major mechanical components — 5 years, 100,000 km (no deductible, no transfer fee); rust-through — 5 years, no mileage limit; road-side assistance — 3 years, 60,000 km

COMPETITION

Lada Samara — only car cheaper, not by nearly enough; Geo Metro / Pontiac Firefly — dual bags standard, nowhere near as nice to drive; Suzuki Swift — dual bags and 4-cylinder engine, still no contest; Toyota Tercel — maybe better. Maybe. At the price, it better be.

RATING

Bold face denote’s Kenzie’s rating: 1-4: yeah, it’s a car; 5-6: it’s got price going for it; 7-8: good value; 9: great value; 10: where do I sign?

*

Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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