Often, inexpensive cars try to make up for their economy ambience with strange or garish interior design. But the Hyundai Elantra interior is subdued, clean and efficient. 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 or leather; most cars in this class have 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 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, outboard rear passengers will be happier if the center spot is empty. But that's true in all subcompacts, 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. For 2004, the speedometer and tach have separate faces. The purplish backlighting makes them quite legible at night or in full mid-afternoon sunshine, but they're a bit further apart than we'd like.
Heating, ventilation and air conditioning are adjusted with rotary controls (easier to use than the sliding type), and the dials are set in the preferred location (below, rather than above, the stereo). For 2004, the dash vents have been enlarged, with separate controls. Also new is a small, slide-out felt-lined storage bin below the driver's side vent.
Switches for the headlights, wipers, and cruise control are still mounted on stalks, within easy reach, and a remote trunk/hatch and fuel-door release are standard. Yet most ancillary buttons have been redesigned for 2004. The window, side mirror and central locking controls have been relocated to the driver's door panel, and the moonroof switch has been simplified. The hazard-light switch is now located square in the center of dash, where it's easy to find. The overhead floodlamp has been moved from just above the windshield to the center of the car, providing better light distribution. There's now a second power point below the lighter.
The only gripe involves the stereo. The slick Kenwood system in our test car sounded fine, but the buttons on the faceplate are tiny (perhaps this explains why Hyundai provides the remote control). Moreover, the flashing, multi-color graphics may impress video game freaks, but we found them to be annoying and at least a little distracting when driving during darkness.
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 a 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 the sundry stuff kids seem to require for a day trip. With the seat folded, the rear side doors make access to cargo much easier.
With the rear seat in place, the hatchback provides 26.6 cubic feet of cargo volume, more than double the space in the Elantra sedan's trunk (12.9 cubic feet). With the seat folded, the five-door offers a class-topping 37 cubic feet of stowage. It's remarkable what you can squeeze into the Elantra hatchback'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.