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Knockin' on Civic's door Elantra a compact contender, but will it get a chance?

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Things are tough in the compact car segment.

The top-selling Honda Civic (all-new for 2001), the still-strong Toyota Corolla, the ancient but cubic-metres-of-car-for-the-dollar champ Chevy Cavalier and the brilliant all-rounder Ford Focus make it tough to gain a foothold.

Nissan Sentra, Mazda Protege and Chrysler Neon don't make it any easier.

That the new Hyundai Elantra could, in a perfectly fair world, compete head-on with any of the above isn't really the point.

The point is – will the market give it a chance? The old Elantra was already a decent car. I raced one (well, I drove it a few times; the other guys on the team raced it).

It handled, went and lasted fantastically. The all-new 2001 model is better in every regard.

Hyundai trumpets its "sophisticated European styling." Okay, but I doubt Citroen or Peugeot will be sending delegations to Korea to see how they did it. It's smooth and slick, though, thoroughly modern-Asiatic, if not exceptional, with a neat little grille that reminded me of a Triumph TR-2A.

Inside – again, no design breakthroughs, but handsome, nicely laid out and spacious, thanks to a longer wheelbase than before.

Hyundai follows proper ergonomic principles with large-enough round knobs for HVAC, correctly located below the more-frequently-accessed radio.

They throw this away by specifying a dreaded Clarion radio with buttons you need to file your fingertips to a point to operate. Forget about gloves in winter.

It might be worth the effort if the sound was not so muddy.

Trim material quality, fit and finish will surprise those who haven't been in a Hyundai since the days of Pony and Excel – no-one other than Volkswagen (the unchallenged leaders in this field) does it any better at anything remotely near this price level.

That said, four of the eight plastic plugs hiding the screws which hold the armrests to the door trims had fallen out of the car. Maybe the cold weather had shrunk the bits, but Hyundai needs to have a sharp talk with its supplier.

Shame that the driver's seat offers no cushion height or tilt adjustments, as does the little brother Accent – I found the cushion too flat for comfortable long-distance motoring. At least the standard tilt steering wheel moves far enough upward to offer real choice – so many wheels in Asian cars seem designed for power boats, not cars.

Plenty of room in the back seat, for two adults anyway; three riders are possible, each getting a three-point belt although only the outboard pair get headrests.

Sufficient toe-wiggling space under the front seats too, and I actually found the rear seat cushion contours better than the front. The rear seat-back split-folds for added cargo flexibility, while those orange dots on the rear seatback indicate ISOFIX-compatible child seat anchors.

Elantra offers a 2.0-L four-cylinder twin-cam 16-valve engine.

The 140 horsepower put it at or near the top of this class, and while the peak torque of 133 lb-ft comes in at a fairly high 4,800 rpm, the broad torque curve makes for effortless performance.

Mechanical as opposed to hydraulic valve lifters help reduce fuel consumption, while a reinforced block, aluminum oil pan and hydraulic engine mounts are all aimed at quieter running. They work too, as the engine is nicely quiet and refined.

The overall sonic signature is marred slightly by a fair amount of road and wind noise.

My test car had the four-speed electronic automatic transmission, which boasts a "neural network with fuzzy logic." But it works, exceptionally well, shifting smoothly when cruising around, more crisply when you're pressing on.

The torquey engine could probably handle a less intrusive shift schedule, though – on a fairly steep hill near my home the car would shift out of lock-up torque converter mode, then into third, when the engine seemed perfectly capable of taking it in fourth-overdrive.

Copying Honda is normally not a bad thing for any car maker to do. But it must be avoided when it comes to shift quadrant design. Pull the Elantra's lever back from Park, and the first place it stops is in 3, rather than Drive, where 99 per cent of anybody's driving is done. "Drive" just has to be the "default" position.

HIGHS * Strong performance * Interior quality * Excellent handling LOWS * Seat cushion * Radio design * Automatic shift quadrant layout Handling has become something of a Hyundai forte – here, they have directed their devotion (and money) to Porsche's engineering consultancy.

The Elantra's all-independent suspension delivers fine handling, good body control, and a smooth ride.

The steering is light, direct, very pleasant. The brakes, discs up front with drums at the back, work well within the limitations of the lack of ABS, even as an option.

Hyundai has simplified the Elantra line-up for 2001.

The handy little wagon is gone; the sedan is offered in base GL ($14,875) and up-level VE ($17,525) trim, which are effectively identical except for equipment.

The GL has a five-speed manual, with the autobox a $1,000 option. The VE comes only in automatic, and brings power windows, locks, heated mirrors, cruise control and air.

Apart from the latter, which is a dealer option on GL, you cannot get a manual Elantra with the power goodies, which seems odd even if that's how the market seems to want it.

While these prices are good, and this end of the market is very price-sensitive, Elantra isn't orders of magnitude cheaper than Civic or other strong entries in this crowded field.

But Elantra deserves a good, long look.

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

E-mail: jim @ jimkenzie.com

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