2003 Hyundai Elantra Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
One of the best cars in its class.
The Hyundai Elantra is handsome, comfortable, versatile, and fun to drive. It would be a decent car if it cost thousands more. For under $15,000, it's a genuine bargain. Elantra comes with one of the most powerful standard engines in the subcompact class, and is among the quickest. It handles as well or better than the other cars in its class and has the sporty feel we like in a compact.
The interior is nicely finished and more comfortable than most of the cars in its class, including the big name brands. The list of standard equipment is as long or longer than that of cars that cost thousands more, and includes side airbags. Measured by build quality, it meets or beats most of its competitors. We believe it will surpass most buyers' expectations.
Sedan and hatchback models are available, the latter combining the practical advantages of a small wagon with the sleek look of a sedan. The hatchback is hard to beat for its functionality and its good looks, but most American buyers prefer sedans. So for 2003, the Elantra GT is available with either the sedan or hatchback body style.
Concerned about reliability? Hyundai's warranty is one of the best available. The basic warranty lasts five years or 60,000 miles for the original owner, with free roadside assistance throughout. The engine and transmission are warranted for 10 years or 100,0000 miles; and Hyundai protects Elantra from rust-through for five years or 100,000 miles.
Hyundai Elantra is offered in two trim levels and two body styles. The base Elantra GLS came only as a four-door sedan. For 2003, the up-market GT is available as a five-door hatchback and a sedan.
All models, GT and GLS, share the same 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine rated at 135 horsepower, making the Elantra among the most powerful cars in its class. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. An automatic transmission is optional ($800) for either model.
GLS sedan ($12,499) comes with an impressive array of standard features, including air conditioning; power windows, mirrors and locks; and a center console with armrest. Safety features are anything but economy grade: front-passenger side-impact airbags come standard and there are rear headrests and three-point harnesses at all five seating positions.
Elantra GT ($14,149) expands on the GLS sedan's standard-equipment list. Fashioned in the spirit of a European sports sedan, the GT comes with a firmer, sport-tuned suspension, five-spoke aluminum alloy wheels, and fog lamps. Four-wheel disc brakes replace the disc/drum combination on the GLS. Leather seating surfaces are standard, too (try finding those on any other car in this price range), as are a 100-watt, six-speaker stereo with CD player; cruise control; remote keyless entry; and a rear-glass wiper and washer. Even the shift knob and steering wheel are leather-wrapped, and the instrument lights glow purple (Dude!). The GT sedan adds a rear wing-type spoiler.
Both GT body styles list for the same price. Hyundai says it added the sedan in response to customer requests, but we prefer the more daring styling and increased carrying capacity of the hatchback. With its big hatch opening and split folding rear seat, the five-door is remarkably versatile for a car its size.
Other options are limited, and must be purchased in packages, which Hyundai calls accessory groups. Accessory Group 2 for GLS ($400) adds cruise control, remote keyless entry, and an alarm. Group 3 ($925) includes the contents of Group 2, plus traction control and ABS. Group 4 ($1400) starts with Group 2 but adds an upgraded stereo with CD player and a power moonroof. Group 5 ($1925) gives you the works: cruise control, keyless entry, alarm, CD, moonroof, ABS and traction control. On the GT, the power moonroof costs $650. For $1175 you can buy the moonroof plus traction control and ABS. Port-installed accessories for both models include woodgrain trim ($225), carpeted floor mats ($78), mud guards ($60), a sunroof wind deflector ($62), a cargo net ($38), a spoiler for the sedan ($100) and a cargo tray for the hatchback ($70).
Hyundai last re-styled the Elantra for 2001, and it hasn't changed it much since then. It's an aerodynamically efficient design, boosting fuel economy and reducing wind noise.
From the front doors forward the sedan and hatchback are identical, featuring a distinctive chrome-lipped grille and prominent twin trapezoid headlamps angled back in a black background. The lamps were designed to cast a broad pattern of light.
From the door pillar on back, the hatchback is distinct from the sedan. The hatchback boasts a more expansive glass area, and its roof trails back into the rear hatch, fastback style, rather than dropping suddenly toward the trunk. The hatch ends with the small spoiler lip above the taillights and rear bumper. It reminds us of the previous-generation Saab 9-3 hatchback.
Compared to the previous-generation (pre-2001) Elantra, the current model stretches 2.3 inches longer in wheelbase, providing more leg room inside. Headroom is also better both front and rear. Just as significantly, the engine is mounted with hydraulic attachments in a new front subframe, greatly reducing the amount of drivetrain vibration that reaches the cabin.
Often, inexpensive cars try to make up for their economy ambience with strange and/or garish interior design. But the Hyundai Elantra interior is subdued, clean and efficient. The interior in our test car was finished in dark gray and basic black, and we found it surprisingly appealing. There's very little hard plastic in the Elantra, and the soft stuff has a richer feel than we've been conditioned to expect in cars of this ilk. Even the center armrest is padded and covered with cloth; most cars in this class use a hard plastic center armrest.
The front seats are terrific, offering precise adjustments. They are large and neither too soft nor too hard, providing adequate support without inflicting pain. The driver's seat adjusts for height both front and rear, and both front seats have adjustable lumbar support. The front shoulder belts are also height adjustable (a feature shorter people will appreciate).
The rear seats in the Elantra sedans are roomier and more comfortable than those in the Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Mazda Protege, and Ford Focus sedans. Hyundai provides a combination lap/shoulder belt in the center position, whereas the class standard remains a lap belt only. Certainly, your outboard rear passengers will be happier if the center spot is empty, but that's true in all compacts and in some far more expensive cars, such as the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4.
The gauge binnacle and control panel sweep in front of the driver and down toward the center console. The gauges themselves are backlit with a purplish light on GT models. The purple glow adds interest, and the speedometer and standard tach are quite legible at night or in full mid-afternoon sunshine.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning are adjusted with rotary controls, rather than the cheaper, more difficult sliding type; and the dials are set in the preferred location, that is, below, rather than above, the stereo. The stereo buttons are on the small side (we've rarely found buttons that are too big), but they are as large and easy to operate as those in some more expensive cars (the Volkswagen Jetta, for example). Switches for the headlights, wipers, and cruise control are mounted on stalks. A remote trunk/hatch and fuel-door release are standard.
Hyundai will probably emphasize the new GT sedan in its promotion and advertising, but in our view, the more desirable Elantra is the GT hatchback. The five-door design makes particularly good sense for young families that own only one car and must use it for multiple tasks. After a week of running errands in hatchback Elantra, we can't understand why Americans have saddled this body style with such a negative connotation. With the rear seat up, there's room enough in the cargo compartment for beach gear or all the sundry stuff that kids on a day trip seem to require. With the seat folded, the rear side doors make access to cargo much easier.
It's remarkable what you can squeeze into the Elantra five-door's cargo bay. We fit a dozen 10-foot pieces of wood molding and a couple of two-by-fours entirely inside the car, with the hatch closed. Then we did it again with plywood sheets cut to 40 X 70 inches, including the remnants. With the hatch tied partway open, the possibilities include full sheets of plywood or a 27-inch TV in its carton.
The Hyundai Elantra is among the quickest cars in its class. With 135 horsepower and 132 pounds-feet of torque, the Elantra GLS and GT deliver more than enough oomph to hustle through traffic, pass with confidence or rush through mountain passes at faster than posted speeds. It's capable of accelerating from 0 to 60 mph times in the mid 8-second range. That's quicker than a Honda Civic LX, Mazda Protege, Nissan Sentra GXE, and Ford Focus SE.
For years Hyundai borrowed its engine designs from other manufacturers. The company now develops and manufactures its own engines. The Elantra's 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine boasts most of the latest high-output technology, including dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, multipoint electronic fuel injection and coil-direct ignition. A cast aluminum oil sump, a stiff engine block and eight crankshaft counterweights reduce mechanical noise and control vibration.
But there isn't much grunt at lower engine speeds. Most of Elantra's power comes in the last 2000 revs before the 6400-rpm redline. That means you'll need to work the transmission, shifting often to get the most from the power plant. Enthusiast drivers prefer to do exactly that. But if you're used to an engine with more low-end torque, and you don't let the Elantra wind out, you might wonder where the goods are. And when you find them, you might be disconcerted by the ruckus of a hard-working four-cylinder howling near 6000 rpm. The Elantra nets an EPA-estimated 24/33 mpg City/Highway when equipped with the five-speed manual. That's good gas mileage, but the heavier weight of the Elantra means some of the other cars in the class are a bit more fuel-efficient.
We didn't try the Elantra with an automatic, but experience testing hundreds of other automobiles suggests that a car with these power characteristics is better suited to a manual transmission. Unless you absolutely hate shifting, or do most of your driving in heavy traffic, we'd recommend the five-speed.
What impressed us most was the Elantra GT's balance of ride and handling, which replicates the style of a good European sedan. Some cars that cost $25,000 don't have speed-sensitive power steering or a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension, but the Elantra has both. The steering requires only a light touch during parking maneuvers or in tight quarters, yet it firms up at travel speeds and gives the driver a good idea of how well the front tires are gripping. The rear suspension keeps the tires firmly on the pavement, even on bumpy roads, to keep the rear of the car from bouncing around.
This all adds up to maneuverability in traffic, secure, reasonably precise handling on curving two-lane highways, and a ride that is neither floppy nor buckboard stiff. Only on freeways with a rapid succession of excessively uneven expansion joints does the Elantra tend to get bouncy. The Elantra doesn't suffer from the flexing and rattling that is the bane of some other five-doors, however. It's decently screwed together and satisfactorily solid. The weakest link in the Elantra GT's handling is its hard, wear-resistant all-season tires. A set of speed-rated performance tires would make this subcompact even better.
Four-wheel disc brakes, vented in front, do a good job of stopping the Elantra, and it can stop more quickly than the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, according to published reports. We recommend opting for the anti-lock brakes ($525), which comes bundled with traction control; ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control in an emergency braking situation, while traction control enhances stability when accelerating.
The Hyundai Elantra is one of the best subcompacts available. It's more comfortable and more enjoyable to drive than many of the name-brand cars in its class. There's very little about it that seems cheap. The Elantra is quieter than the Honda Civic. In the workaday grind the Elantra GT is better than acceptable. It's good. It can run with comparably equipped competitors in nearly every respect except the size of the monthly payments, where it runs ahead.
Hyundai has made big gains in reliability and build quality, and any concerns in that regard are eased by a comprehensive warranty and roadside assistance plan. Measured by the price-benefit ratio, the Elantra is arguably the best bargain in its class. We strongly urge anyone who puts a premium on value to put this Hyundai on their test-drive list.
GLS sedan ($12,499); GT sedan ($14,149); GT five-door ($14,149).
Ulsan, South Korea.
Options As Tested
full-carpet floor mats ($78); ABS and traction control ($525).
Elantra GT five-door ($14,149).
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