1997 Hyundai Elantra

  • Driver

The Hyundai Elantra is the second chapter of three so far in the story of the Korean company's evolution into a frontline, world-class, top-10 carmaker.

The subcompact Accent was the first, the new Tiburon sport coupe is the third.

The front drive compact Elantra — called "Lantra" in most other markets, to avoid confusion (and law suits) over Lotus's "Elan" trademark — is offered here in four-door sedan and station wagon configurations.

All are powered by a thoroughly modern 1.8 litre twin-cam 16-valve engine — Hyundai's own design; no more bought-out or licensed Mitsubishi bits in this engine room.

It boasts 130 horsepower at 6000 r.p.m. and 122 pound-feet of torque at 5000 r.p.m., with about 90 per cent of that peak value available from as low as 2300 r.p.m.

These are excellent numbers, although numbers don't always tell the story, as we'll see in a moment. The usual fives-peed manual or four-speed electronic automatic are the transmission choices.

Compact station wagons are among the rarest of body styles these days, as consumers seem to have abandoned them for minivans. We chose one for our test, just to exploit its

difference. And since most wagons do the take-the-kids-to-soccer-practice detail, we felt an automatic would be more representative of what typical customers would consider.

Hyundai has taken a cost-cutting imperative by basing the wagon clearly on the sedan but has turned it into a positive by making a curvaceous wagon that avoids the boxiness typical of the breed.

The deeply curved trailing edge of the back doors, mimicked by the shape of the rear quarterlight window and tailgate, isn't unique; the approach is also used by the Ford Taurus and Saturn wagons.

Coupled with sculpted side panels, it makes the Elantra wagon a strong design, with both fans and detractors. At least, it's not bland, although the Daimleresque fluting of the plinth above the licence plate frame on the tailgate is a bit precious.

The interior design is somewhat more conventional, with typical-for-the-times clear legible gauges, plus ergonomic steering column stalks and dashboard controls. The radio is perhaps a half-generation behind the times: it's located too low on the centre stack, and its buttons are too numerous, too small.

But everything is well executed, in what appear to be high-quality materials.

One innovation is what Hyundai calls "Sure-Bond" seat upholstery, whereby the fabric is bonded, rather than stitched, to the supporting foam material. It is supposed to last longer, with less fabric wrinkling, than conventional attachment techniques.

That evaluation will have to wait. Meantime, I found the firm, well contoured seats comfortable and supportive, although Lady Leadfoot found her lower back getting sore after an hour or so behind the wheel.

That said, she enjoyed "bopping around" in the Elantra wagon, the least of reasons being that the car fitted her slight frame perfectly.

Rear seat riders, oft-neglected in small wagons since their folding rear seats typically have thinner padding than their sedan counterparts, are well accommodated in the Elantra wagon.

The tall roofline means that even with the nice, chair-high seats, there's plenty of headroom. As long as the front-seat occupants are moderately cooperative, knee, foot and legroom are also plentiful.

Unlike some swoopy wagons, the Elantra's cargo room isn't seriously compromised by the curvy body. The one-piece tailgate opens wide, yet is nearly vertical when closed, making the hold boxier than you might expect. If you've ever tried loading a TV set into an old Audi Avant or a new Ford Taurus wagon, you'll know how important this is.

If more room is needed, the Elantra's 60/40 split-folding rear seats can increase it in two stages backrests down alone, or with seat cushions tumbled forward first. You can attach the seatbelt buckles to clever fake seat belt tongues when the seats are folded, to prevent the buckles from getting lost under the seats when you switch back from cargo to people-carrying mode.

I know the Elantra engine is strong — it was good enough to power an Elantra sedan to a second place in the Enduroseries Touring Car championship this season.

But it seems this automatic, despite modern electronic control and a power/economy switch that, in the former position delays up-shifts and keeps engine revs higher for better acceleration, saps even more performance than slush-boxes usually do. It shifts okay in normal use, but is deadly slow to engage a gear when you select drive from neutral. The engine revs willingly and isn't unduly noisy; it just doesn't seem to deliver as much puff as it does with a manual transmission.

The MacStrut front and multilink rear suspensions are both affixed to the unit body via sub frames, the added weight thereby generated justified by reduced noise, vibration and

harshness. The ride quality is very good and, indeed, quiet.

Power-assisted rack and pinion steering initiates the car's nimble handling, aided by well tuned springs and dampers, and chunky Michelin tires.

Both Elantra sedan and wagon are offered in two trim levels, GL and up-level GLS, with extra goodies as expected in the pricier versions: upgraded trim, higher-spec radio, that sort of thing. Dual frontal air bags are standard on GLS, optional on GL.

More significant is the fact that the GLS wagon comes only with the automatic transmission something odd must have popped up during Hyundai's market research to show that buyers of toy-laden wagons only wanted automatics, while toy-laden sedan

buyers wanted the choice. Hmmmm.

One expects a station wagon to be practical; the Elantra adds the plus of stylishness. It has an excellent chassis, and appears well built. It could use more power — what car couldn't? — but it should meet the expectations of anyone attracted to the

car in the first place.

I've always thought small station wagons make a huge amount of sense. You get the fuel economy, nimbleness and parkability of a small car, and the cargo-hauling capacity of a much larger vehicle. If you don't want or don't need a minivan, a small wagon is an ideal choice.

My GLS automatic ABS-equipped Elantra wagon listed at $20,755. Ouch, it's even harder to think of a $20,000 Hyundai than it was a $25,000 Toyota Corolla. The GL, starting at $14,995, is better value, but still has to contend with Ford's nicely reworked

Escort wagon, which is hundreds cheaper still, and includes dual air bags.

Nonetheless, the Hyundai Elantra wagon is a strong contender in what is admittedly a small field.

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

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