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Accent on value in hatchback

With the practicality of station wagons, but definitely without the bulk of SUVs, hatchbacks have carved out a firm niche.

It's one that Hyundai joins at the lower end of the price scale with the new-for-2005 Accent 5.

Peppy and practical, this new version dishes up the value inherent in the entire Accent line – which also includes a three-door hatchback and four-door sedan – with only a few spots in need of improvement.

All Accents share a 104 hp, 1.6-litre engine. In base form, Accent 5 starts at $14,245 with a five-speed manual, $15,045 with four-speed automatic.

Stand-alone air conditioning adds $1,000, while a "Comfort Package" of air, power locks with keyless entry and security alarm, power windows and power heated mirrors is an additional $1,300. Top-end price is $16,345.

Even the base model includes variable intermittent wipers, CD with MP3 player and four speakers, and rear wiper. That last item is operated by a toggle switch on the dash, a great idea that eliminates the usual overload of front and rear wiper controls crammed on a single stalk.

The seating position is upright, with superb visibility all around, and the seats are more comfortable for longer distances than you'd expect.

Accent 5 weighs a mere 997 kg (1,024 kg with automatic) and the little engine has no trouble pulling it along – at 8.9 L/100 km for me – but I'd gladly accept a little bulking-up with sound-deadening materials. The engine is noisy, especially on the highway, where the constant drone becomes annoying.

On the up side, my tester's five-speed is among the best clutch/shifter combinations I've driven in this price range: efficient, taut and responsive.

The ride is very smooth for an economy car, and while you won't mistake it for a Porsche, it takes tight corners with considerable confidence. Brakes are front discs with rear drums, but ABS is not available.

Interior fit and finish are quite good, and while everything is plastic, it's also all textured and doesn't look chintzy.

But the otherwise sensible centre stack suffers a serious cupholder gaffe. When the holders slide out, the heater controls are completely inaccessible.

The rear seat is definitely small-car, but there's enough space for Bigfoot to slip his dogs under the front seats, which improves the comfort level.

He can bring all his luggage, too: the 85 cm, extra-deep cargo area opens to a sloping 150 cm when the rear 60/40 seats are folded down.

The hatch closes with a quick tug, and there's a handy squeeze release to open it back up again.

Once again, Hyundai has built a great little car for the price, and one that stacks up favourably against five-door rivals from Toyota and Kia, especially when you throw in the warranty: five years or 100,000 km comprehensive with Roadside Assistance, and seven years or 120,000 powertrain, with no deductibles.

Fix the cupholders, and I'm sold.

wheels @ thestar.ca jil @ ca.inter.net

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