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Review and photos by Chris Chase
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In 2001, Hyundai made a significant leap forward in the compact sedan segment with the introduction of its third-generation Elantra compact sedan. At the time, this car was a big deal, earning accolades from the automotive press and faring very well in comparisons with other small sedans – it placed second behind the Mazda Protegé in a 13-car test by a big U.S. auto rag in November 2002 – accomplishments that would have been out of the question for the previous-generation car, not to mention most of Hyundai’s other models at the time.
But the auto industry is a fast-moving one, and this much-improved Elantra soon faced increasingly stiff competition. To wit: also in 2001, Honda launched a new Civic (which has since been redesigned – no, more like reinvented – once again for 2006); Toyota’s current-generation Corolla went on sale in 2002 as a 2003 model; Mazda replaced the excellent Protegé with the spectacular Mazda3 in 2004 and even General Motors got into the game for 2005 with its Chevy Cobalt and Pontiac Pursuit sedans, which replaced the ancient Cavalier and Sunfire. All of these cars made the Elantra’s drive for sales success – which also meant overcoming a reputation for poor quality – that much more difficult.
An all-new, bigger Elantra is expected in Canadian Hyundai showrooms later this year as a 2007 model, but the current model has held up well in the company of many new-and-improved competitors.
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Nothing changed looks-wise for 2006; the Elantra’s exterior got a mild facelift in 2004. While the styling is pleasant enough, it looks awfully plain parked beside the Mazda3 and new Civic, two cars that have elevated the style quotient of economy cars well beyond their modest price-tags. Inside, the Elantra still features a Saab-esque dashboard, with simple and intuitive controls. What’s missing are the ergnomic improvements that have appeared in Hyundai’s newer interiors (think the new Accent, Sonata and Azera); the radio controls are too small for gloved hands, and the HVAC dials are a reach from the driver’s seat.
Interior space is good up front; headroom is adequate even with the power sunroof included in my range-topping SE tester, and there’s lots of legroom for taller drivers. What’s not so nice are the front seats themselves, which offer little support to any part of the anatomy, despite height and lumbar adjustments. In back, legroom is good too, but headroom is lacking.
My tester’s four-speed automatic transmission – an option across most of the Elantra line, but a standard feature on the SE sedan I tested – works well enough, aside from an odd hesitation during the 1-2 shift, as the drive-train’s electronic controls throttle back the engine. All automatic transmissions do this, but most are better than the Elantra’s is at hiding it. There’s no manual shift mode, but the shifter does allow direct access to each of the transmission’s four forward gears.
The Elantra’s 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine – known as the “Beta” in Hyundai enthusiast circles – is as strong as ever, offering great midrange performance. This engine’s been around for a while, however, having powered the first Tiburon way back in 1997, and it shows. It’s not terribly smooth and lacks the refinement of the motors found in the Mazda3 and Honda Civic.
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Out on the road, the Elantra rides smoothly and quietly, but much of that comfort comes thanks to a soft suspension that wallows and whooshes its way over bumps and dips in the pavement. The front end dives dramatically under hard braking and spirited acceleration prompts lots of rear-end squat, but this car handles curves better than its straight-line ride suggests. Aside from a fair amount of body roll, cornering is confident, easy and even fun, once you’ve cut through the mushy turn-in that’s a consequence of the soft springs and dampers. The end result is a little car that drives like a much bigger one. That’s good if you’re in the market for a Buick on a budget, but it will miss the mark with drivers who value the sporting agility and baked-in fun of the Mazda3. The Elantra line-up is redeemed somewhat, however, by the firmer European-market suspension components fitted to five-door versions of the Elantra. The five-door’s hatch also offers a lot more cargo space than the sedan’s rather average-sized trunk.
For the $20,580 that Hyundai asks for the Elantra SE, it throws in ABS, four-wheel disc brakes, a six-speaker stereo, fog lights, alloy wheels, power sunroof, a leather trimmed steering wheel and shifter and the aforementioned automatic transmission.
This is on top of the power windows, locks and mirrors and air conditioning that are standard features on the mid-range VE model (the GL is the real stripper, with manual windows, locks and mirrors and no air conditioning). What’s not offered at all are side or side curtain airbags; many of the Elantra’s competitors offer them at least as options, while the 2006 Civic features both as standard equipment. Expect the next-generation to at least offer side and side curtain airbags, as both are standard on the newer (and cheaper) Accent GLS.
While the current Elantra is anything but current in terms of how it compares with many of its competitors, the fact remains that it’s still a strong value for a basic, spacious and reliable small car. If you’re willing to overlook the omission of side airbags and can get past the poor front seats and squishy ride, there really is a lot to like in the Elantra if all you’re after is a set of wheels at a low price. But to be competitive these days, a good car at a great price isn’t enough, and Hyundai knows it – the work the company has put into its newest Accent, Sonata and Azera are proof. With those cars, Hyundai has raised the bar, and this outgoing Elantra simply doesn’t have what it takes anymore to keep up with the rest of the automaker’s line-up, much less the rest of the super-competitive compact segment. It’s a safe bet, though, that the next Elantra will once again be a significant step up and well worth waiting for.
Technical Data: 2006 Hyundai Elantra SE
|Options||$125 (Silver Sage paint)|
|Price as tested||$22,065 Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives|
|Type||4-door, 5-passenger compact sedan|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel drive|
|Engine||2.0-litre 4-cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves, CVVT|
|Horsepower||138 @ 6,000 rpm|
|Torque||136 @ 4,500 rpm|
|Curb weight||1,195 kg (2,634 lbs)|
|Wheelbase||2,610 mm (102.7 in.)|
|Length||4,525 mm (178.1 in.)|
|Width||1,725 mm (67.9 in.)|
|Height||1,425 mm (56.1 in.)|
|Cargo capacity||368 litres (12.9 cu. ft.)|
|Fuel consumption||City: 8.8 L/100 km (32 mpg Imperial)|
|Hwy: 6.3 L/100 km (45 mpg Imperial)|
|Fuel type||Regular Unleaded|
|Warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|
|Powertrain warranty||5 yrs/100,000 km|
|Assembly location||Ulsan, South Korea|