The Hyundai Elantra was the bread-and-butter model for Hyundai, competent rather than outstanding.
But, like other recent product from the Korean company, including the Sonata and Santa Fe, the latest model, launched at the end of last year, is a big step forward.
With a clear focus on quality, Hyundai is turning out new vehicles that compete with, and in some cases exceed, what is coming from their major competitors - for Elantra that means the tough market dominated by the Toyota Corolla.
And all that is being done still within an extremely competitive price range, especially taking into account what they are offering, particularly in safety.
The new Elantra is no exception.
At this stage it comes in only a four-door sedan, with one engine. A hatchback and diesel engine are to be added. The sedan breaks the conservative mould of the previous somewhat ungainly-looking model.
Its curves and swoops give it a strong European look and the overall package is well balanced. Particularly at the rear, where the Elantra sports a small BMW-Audi appearance, it is a car that exudes character and solidness. It also does not look small - a big bonus for those who want their choice to appear value for money. That size is repeated inside with plenty of room for four adults. The rear will take three across, although the fit is slightly tight. A short bootlid actually hides generous space - the Elantra will take up to 460 litres of luggage without the split rear seats being folded down.
The test car was the top model Elite which sells at $32,990. A manual standard Elantra starts at $27,990.
Your extra $5000 actually buys a lot of equipment, including leather seats, door trim and centre console, additional functions for the power windows, an MP3 CD player with six speakers, cruise control, automatic-dimming rear-view mirror, trip computer, rear armrest with cupholders and a luggage net.
Interior trim quality and textures are top notch - forget the hard plastics of previous models - this is one area Hyundai has made huge advances in.
In safety terms, the Elantra also scores highly. Base models and the Elite get the firstaid kit, fire extinguisher and safety vest.
They also share the full kit of airbags - front, side and curtain.
Where the Elite scores better is the standard stability program and electronic brake assist, although both get ABS braking.
Both models also share the 2.0-litre engine with twin camshafts, 16 valves and variable valve timing. The result is 105kW in power and 186Nm in torque.
The variable valve timing is set to produce healthy pulling power in the lower rev range, which gives the Elantra a solid feeling of performance. It will rev healthily and without fuss, but feels to be working easier on the open road and around town.
The Elantra is fitted with a four-speed automatic (a five-speed manual is available on the entry model) which does not have a separate slot for a manual change.
Instead, a grated slot guides the gear level across from drive to third, and it can be shifted downwards.
That may put off some buyers who want a true manual shift slot, but it actually works well and is less complicated than trying to remember which way the lever shifts to change up or down.
Frankly, the transmission performs well left to its own devices, shifting at low revs on small throttle openings, but crisply when the extra urge is needed.
All this is achieved with only a muted noise from the engine bay and a smoothness that makes the Elantra feel a lot more expensive.
It also does not feel as quick as it is, that achieved by the low noise levels, quiet ride, lack of wind noise and good low-down urge.
Suspension is pretty much standard for this market segment, but it is the way you do it that separates individual models.
Ride quality is excellent - up with the best of the Europeans and does not come at too much expense over handling. Bigger 16-inch alloy rims and lower profile tyres have little effect. Handling is neutral at normal speeds, gently tending to understeer when pushed hard. Good feel from the steering means the Elantra can be pushed quickly through the bends. Hyundai has got the ride/handling combination exactly right in my view for this sort of car and its buyers.
While it may lack real sharpness in its handling, the ride makes up for it - surely what is wanted by Elantra owners. Stability control combined with excellent braking, although a tad sensitive until you get used to it, provides the back-up that is needed. The Elantra deserves to do well and should not be judged on previous models. Apart from its sharp pricing, it offers new owners a lot of pleasure.
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