More than an accent, it's almost a new language.
by Bob Plunkett
Base Price (MSRP) $8,999
As Tested (MSRP) $10,184
Hyundai's Accent is one of the lowest-priced cars you can buy, and yet it's protected by one of the best warranties in the business. It was thoroughly re-designed last year to provide more interior room, a smoother-running powertrain, and better isolation from whatever mechanical noise remained.
Now, this already-improved Accent roars into 2001 with a bigger, more sophisticated engine for GL and GS models. Horsepower is up 14 percent, and torque 9 percent, with the same refinements introduced to the smaller engine last year.
And yet the Accent's base price remains at its 1999 level.
The Accent lineup consists of a three-door hatchback (Hyundai prefers to call it a three-door sedan) available in L ($8,999) and GS ($9,399) trim levels; plus a GL ($9,899) four-door sedan with essentially the same content as the GS hatch.
Despite all the improvements Hyundai made last year to its 1.5-liter four-cylinder engine, this engine now powers only the base-level L, and is available only with a five-speed manual transmission.
GS and GL are now powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine.
GS and GL come standard with a five-speed manual transmission, but can be ordered with a four-speed electronically controlled automatic for an additional $600.
Air conditioning is a $750 option for all models, although on GS and GL it can be ordered as part of a $1,150 package that also includes a CD player and power mirrors, locks, and front windows.
The current Accent is longer and wider than its pre-2000 predecessor, with a shape and face that look decidedly European in style.
Designers at Hyundai's California styling studio contributed to its appearance. As with other recently revised Hyundai products--like the sporty Tiburon and the mid-size Sonata-Accent integrates forceful and edgy styling devices into its shapely profile.
The overall form consists of a low-slung wedge marked by a steeply raked windshield and a tall wrap of window glass, with a fast slope to the front hood and a brief back deck. Hard-edged lines on the hood sweep inward from thin windshield pillars to a bold horizontal grille, featuring egg-crate segmentation and flanked by clear-lens headlamps. A body-colored bumper underscores the prow design, and fog lamps drill into the low front air dam, directly below the headlamps.
More sharp lines stretch from the headlamps to the blunt tail, forming shoulders pitched above the relatively flat door panels. Otherwise, Accent's slab sides are interrupted only by modest flared rings around wheel openings. At the rear, oversized delta-shaped taillights resemble forms common on current European touring sedans.
When the Accent was re-designed for 2000, the wheelbase was stretched 1.6 inches, and the body grew 1.9 inches wider. Mostly, this resulted in more headroom for the front seats and slightly more legroom in back. With the current Accent's tall ring of windows, large bucket seats, and multi-level console, front-seat riders do not feel squeezed together in a tiny cubbyhole, as they do in some subcompact competitors.
Form-fitting front bucket seats feel substantial and supportive. Packed with high-density foam, they feature swoopy indentations and firm side bolsters. These seats move in multiple ways to conform for leg length, seat height, lumbar curve, seatback tilt and headrest position. Also, the driver's seat on GS and GL editions contains a right-side armrest that folds up and out of the way when not needed.
Three-point seatbelts adjust for shoulder height at pillar-mounted anchors on each side. Front door panels wiggle in wavy forms and include an integrated armrest and a generous map pocket low near the floor.
The instrument panel orients the driver with large gauges set immediately forward of the steering wheel. These consist of a speedometer and tachometer, with flanking dials indicating fuel level and engine temperature. White markings and red needle pointers over a dark gray field assure both an attractive appearance and easy readability.
Air vents stand at each side of the instrument panel, and at the middle of the dash a stack of controls for audio and climate systems features large and easy-to-use rotary knobs. The glove box is an ice-chest-size bin that drops down from below the passenger-side airbag, looking as though it could swallow a couple of six-packs of soda.
The back bench provides three-point belts and indented spaces for outboard riders, plus a two-point belt on the center hump. On GS and GL models, the seatback splits 60/40 and folds to increase cargo capacity for the flat-floored trunk.
The driver's seat is comfortable, and adjusts to fit even a tall frame. High off the floor, it also provides excellent visibility through tall windows all around.
All controls are close at head, stand in logical positions and operate easily. The surfaces of the doors and dash, coated in soft-touch synthetic material, feel refined, even sophisticated, which is unexpected for the class.
Clearly a small, inexpensive car requires some compromises; it simply can't be as roomy, powerful, or refined as a larger car and or one costing more money. But with Accent, Hyundai has kept the compromises to a bare minimum.
Unexpected is the gutsy performance from even the base-level engine. The 1.5-liter single overhead-cam inline-4 delivers surprisingly lively performance through the lower gear ranges, where it develops an abundance of flexible torque. Although you must shift quickly out of first gear, second and third gears invite a long run-up to higher rpms, scooting the Accent into the fast lane. And all the while the engine's sophisticate hydraulic mounts filter out the harsh vibrations that plagued an earlier generation of Hyundai products.
We were introduced to our Accent during the subcompact commuter's terror time, entering crowded, multiple-lane I-5 in San Diego. Traffic was thick, but we quickly merged into the flow, then cut from one lane to another to expedite a rush out of town. Distracted by the maze of so many larger vehicles, we were well beyond the Coronado Bridge exit before realizing that our little machine competed well against everything else on the freeway.
We did not test the newer, 1.6-liter twin-cam engine, but we have every reason to expect that it would perform even better. Compared to the 1.5-liter's 92 horsepower at 5500 rpm, the bigger engine produces 105 at 5800. More important, the 1.6-liter generates 106 pounds-feet of torque instead of 97 for the 1.5-liter, but at the same usefully low 3000 rpm. That means an even faster launch into traffic.
Our little 1.5-liter Accent was also relatively quiet inside the cabin, as the stiff structure of the body worked in concert with plenty of sound-deadening insulation and double door seals to block out noise from the motor and surrounding traffic.
Of course, the whole package weighs only 2255 pounds, which explains in part why Accent feels zippy. There's not much mass to move. That power-to-weight ratio is combined with low-resistance aerodynamics and maximum benefit of the engine's torque through good gear ratios. Like we said: zippy.
Rack-and-pinion steering quickly interprets animated action from the steering wheel. The relatively long wheelbase and four-wheel independent suspension with MacPherson struts up front creates a nimble and surprisingly smooth-riding platform. Geometry for the front suspension is optimized with a high castor angle, to reduce front-end lift when accelerating, or nose-dive during braking. A front stabilizer (anti-roll) bar checks body roll from side to side when turning. A sophisticated sub-frame mounting for the front suspension components -- rarely found in this price-conscious class -- tempers road noise.
Later in the drive, as we worked through coastal peaks east of San Diego, our Accent revealed it could handle a series of mountain switchbacks with a poise and agility unexpected from such a low-rung economy car. The experience led to the realization that Hyundai's smallest product can actually be quite fun to drive, which is not an attribute of most of the other machines in this class.
Hyundai Accent does not behave like the bottom-dollar economy car that its low price tag implies. It's much better than that, with sophisticated mechanical equipment and comfortable amenities.
To demonstrate its confidence in the new Accent, Hyundai supports it with a warranty that goes well beyond the competition. Accent's powertrain is insured for 100,000 miles, and a 60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty shields against other defects. There's even five years of roadside assistance with lockout and emergency towing service. The warranty alone should put Accent on anyone's shopping list. Add in strong performance and nimble handling, and competitive pricing makes Accent an impressive value.
© New Car Test Drive, Inc.