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Second-hand: Hyundai Elantra

The Elantra played an important role in Hyundai's success in Canada. The nameplate first appeared in 1992, attached to a frontdrive, fourdoor sedan that could have doubled for a Toyota Corolla.

  • Driver

“I was in an accident in January, 2000. An 18-wheeler did not stop at a stop sign and I hit him at the left-front (corner), offset impact at 55 km/h. TV cameras were running in three minutes,” a Hyundai Elantra owner posted on the Internet. “After I got out of the car, the TV people were disappointed because I was not hurt.”

In the man-bites-dog tradition, when a Hyundai scraps with a tractor-trailer and the driver lives to tell the tale, it’s apparently news to the local Eyewitness News affiliate.

To chronicle the evolution of the Elantra is to plot the maturity of its maker, the multi-billion-dollar conglomerate Hyundai. From one-time unknown to perennial underdog to legitimate global automaker, South Korea-based Hyundai has made inroads in the North American market in a relatively short time.

It managed to shake off its poor-boy image (who can forget the paint blistering potty-mouth in the film Glengarry Glen Ross whose worst insult involved driving a Hyundai?), win some races and consequently win over the buying public.

CONFIGURATION

The Elantra played an important role in Hyundai’s success in Canada. The nameplate first appeared in 1992, attached to a frontdrive, fourdoor sedan that could have doubled for a Toyota Corolla.

Hyundai’s entry in this hotly contested segment had all the right stuff: a sweet DOHC 1.6-litre engine, optional four-speed automatic transmission, well-tailored upholstery and a finely cut retail price.

In its second year, Hyundai offered a larger 1.8-litre powerplant — mated to the automatic exclusively — to quell complaints that the car was underpowered (a lament that had become a Hyundai cliche).

The refreshed second-generation Elantra arrived in 1996, and this time the sedan was joined by a smartsized wagon. The models were slightly larger, returning considerable volume for their still-tidy dimensions.

The new Elantra came with Hyundai’s own 1.8-litre, DOHC four-cylinder, good for 130 hp and 122 lb-ft of torque (the smaller motor had been designed by Mitsubishi).

The inside story improved immensely with the 1996 redesign. The dashboard and controls incorporated a fluid design that was pleasing without being ovoidweird like the Taurus.

Seating was excellent: firm but comfortable, with adjustments for lumbar and thigh support. One magazine called the 1996 Elantra more Germanic than Asian in terms of its personality.

The fact that a Hyundai could even muster a personality was probably news to some.

The Elantra acquired more personality in 1999 in the form of an engine transplant, when a 140hp 2.0-litre got stuffed under the hood. The model got a mild Phyllis Diller facelift, too. The third generation arrived in 2001 a car we’ll examine another day.

ON THE ROAD

Tired of being characterized as the 98-pound weakling who always gets a mouthful of sand at the beach, Hyundai made sure the Elantra had a fighting chance by endowing it with decent horsepower.

Even the premiere model, with 113 horses, could hit highway speeds in less than 10 seconds (with a manual transmission). Sound suspension geometry and decent tires ensured the Elantra could round a skidpad generating 0.79 g better than an Audi A4, pointed out Car and Driver magazine. The ride was lumpy, however.

The second-gen car with the 1.8-litre motor was not much quicker as it had gained weight. Still, it won accolades for its more refined drive-train, quiet demeanour and (there’s that word

again) Germanic handling. “Hyundai” and “fun to drive” were not mutually exclusive anymore.

Where the first-generation Elantras were noisy and unpolished, the newer cars were better behaved. Hyundai did a lot of work quelling noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), although it still had a way to go to catch segment leader Honda.

In a comparison test of several 1999 models, the Elantra GLS performed strongly (its 2.0-litre motor outmuscled everybody at the beach), yet it ranked only sixth due to some roughly finished edges and thrashy engine.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

Reader D. Garside submitted a grocery list of repairs involving his 1996 Elantra. It wasn’t particularly long, but then again, the handwriting was neat and tiny. Temperature

gauges, wheel bearings, batteries, alternators and automatic transmissions were all replaced twice on this hapless vehicle.

“Need I say more?” is all Garside handprinted at the bottom of the litany.

To be fair, many owners’ comments painted a rosier picture. Except one, who chose to write about the paint. “I just hate the colour. It’s called Chameleon. It looks more like a liver colour. They don’t make the colour anymore.”

If you ever wondered why they don’t offer more automotive hues inspired by organ meats, now you know why.

Generally speaking, the first-generation Elantra (1992-95) are more problematic than the second, and not just because they’re older. Owners complained of a higher frequency of repair than normal, but many were not specific.

Reader Allan Cornish has owned all three generations and, despite chronicling a long list of repairs to his 1992 model and an automatic transmission replacement on his 1997 wagon, he judged the Elantra acceptable and a good bang for the buck.

As used-car buys, Elantras are priced well but seek out the latest model you can afford and benefit from Hyundai’s escalating build quality.

Like organ meats, the fresher the Hyundai, the better.

We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadlines: Dodge Spirit/Plymouth Acclaim by Nov. 6; Nissan Pathfinder by Nov. 20.

Send your comments to Mark Toljagic, 2060 Queen St. East, P.O. Box 51541, Toronto ON M4E 1C0. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

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