Pros: Excellent fuel economy, value-packed (except base GLS), sleek styling, good rear passenger space, surprisingly nimble handling.
Cons: Noisy inside, not as quick as some rivals, air-conditioning and telescopic steering wheel aren’t standard on base GLS.
The 2012 Hyundai Elantra is the unlikely leader of Hyundai’s styling revolution. After all, we’re talking about the economy car class here, a function-over-form segment that’s historically been about as stylish as a hospital gown. But whereas the midsize Sonata’s curves and creases remain polarizing, the Elantra’s flowing lines have an undeniable grace that set this small sedan apart. The Elantra isn’t just stylish for an economy car-it’s stylish, period.
Fortunately, for the typically pragmatic shoppers in this segment, the Elantra’s got a whole lot more going for it than just style. Fuel economy is excellent, even matching the smaller Accent at 40 mpg highway. Unlike some other small cars we could (and will) name, the Elantra’s got room for real adults in its back seat. And like its predecessors, this Elantra generally delivers more features for the price than its rivals, though the base GLS is thin on standard amenities.
Now, we wouldn’t pick the Elantra first for a cross-country road trip-the car’s relatively low weight precludes much in the way of sound-deadening material-and it’s not the best for passing or merging on the highway, either. But in most other respects, this Hyundai comes up aces. Indeed, its revolutionary styling turns out to be just the proverbial icing on the cake.
Comfort & Utility
The 2012 Hyundai Elantra sedan keeps it simple with just two trim levels: GLS and Limited. Note that a two-door coupe with mostly the same features is available as an early 2013 model.
The GLS includes 15-inch steel wheels, a height-adjustable driver seat, a tilt-only steering wheel, full power accessories, a trip computer, manual climate control without air-conditioning and a six-speaker audio system with iPod/USB connectivity. That’s about it.
As for the Limited, it’s got all sorts of standard equipment, including 17-inch alloy wheels, fog lights, a sunroof, leatherette door trim, a leather-wrapped shift knob and steering wheel, heated front and rear seats, air-conditioning, cruise control, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel, Bluetooth connectivity and a sliding front-seat center armrest.
The GLS’s shortcomings can be rectified via a couple optional packages that add 16-inch wheels and many of the Limited’s standard features, such as Bluetooth, a tilt-telescopic steering wheel and cruise control. The Limited is eligible for an exclusive Technology package that tacks on push-button start and a 7-inch touchscreen with a rearview camera, a navigation system and a 360-watt sound system.
The Elantra’s front seats vary significantly depending on whether you get the standard cloth upholstery or the Limited’s leather upholstery. The cloth seats are on the soft side, while the leather-trimmed seats are pleasantly firm. The GLS’s tilt-only steering column won’t please long-legged drivers; we’d recommend adding the available telescoping function if you can. The Elantra’s gauges are crisp and stylish, and we like the attractive LCD trip computer that comes standard in every Elantra. Most controls are easy enough to figure out, though the dashboard’s hyper-stylized center panel is definitely a case of function following form. Materials quality is above-average for this class-it’s not too often that you find a soft-touch dashboard in an economy sedan, for example, but the Elantra’s got one.
The Elantra’s back seat is a little tight on headroom if you’re unusually tall, but there’s a bunch of legroom, which gives the rear compartment an airy feel that the Cruze and Focus can only dream of. Trunk space is a formidable 14.8 cubic feet.
Although the bare-bones GLS doesn’t get standard Bluetooth, it does come with a decent six-speaker stereo that accepts iPods and USB devices, which is admirable given its low price. But the technological centerpiece of the Elantra is the optional navigation system, which comes bundled with a 7-inch touchscreen display, a rearview camera and a 360-watt premium audio system (the base system has 172 watts). The touchscreen interface is generally intuitive, and we applaud the display’s crisp, modern look. It’s just unfortunate that you have to get the pricey Limited model in order to be eligible for the navigation package.
Performance & Fuel Economy
The front-wheel-drive Elantra has but one engine: a 1.8-liter inline-4 rated at 148 horsepower and 131 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a six-speed manual or an extra-cost six-speed automatic that’s standard on Limited. Although the manual isn’t very rewarding, we can’t recommend the automatic enough. Its responsive downshifts are just so refreshing in an age when most transmissions would rather stay in their top gears to maximize fuel economy. Of course, the Elantra manages great fuel economy, anyway, at 28 mpg city/38 mpg highway, so there’s proof that you don’t have to give up one to get the other. The 1.8-liter engine certainly doesn’t make the Elantra quick, by the way, but it’s a very civilized engine, even at high rpm.
The 2012 Hyundai Elantra comes with standard stability control and four-wheel antilock disc brakes. The latter are a great standard feature for this class, as many rivals come with inferior rear drum brakes. The Elantra also has six airbags (front, front-side, full-length side-curtain).
In government crash-testing, the 2012 Elantra got mixed results. Elantras manufactured after mid-2011 scored five stars out of five overall, including four stars in frontal impacts. However, those manufactured before mid-2011 scored four stars out of five overall, including subpar three-star protection from frontal impacts. We recommend checking out www.safercar.gov for the exact details.
The independent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found no such issues, awarding the Elantra its highest rating of "Good" in all categories.
The lasting impression the Elantra leaves is that it feels like a true lightweight, and that’s because it is. On the bright side, this gives the Elantra a nimble character in tight spots that recalls classic Japanese compacts like the older Civics. However, it also means that the Elantra doesn’t steamroll down the highway with the same quiet sense of purpose as the aforementioned Cruze or Focus, and obstacles like train tracks can send unseemly shivers through the Elantra’s structure. But, overall, we find the Elantra’s mix of ride comfort and handling rather appealing. It’s one of the better-driving compacts you can buy.
Other Cars to Consider
Chevrolet Cruze – The Cruze is relatively heavy, which is partly why its standard 1.8-liter engine lags behind the pack in fuel economy. But the optional 1.4-liter turbo turns the already dynamic Cruze into a real contender.
Ford Focus – You usually get what you pay for when it comes to economy cars, and the Focus is one of the most expensive. Sure enough, it drives almost like an entry-level luxury car-a Volvo, say-with uncommon refinement and athleticism for this class.
Mazda 3 – With the new SkyActiv 2.0-liter inline-4, the 3 has vaulted close to the head of the class in fuel economy without losing Mazda’s traditional performance edge. Worth serious consideration if you don’t mind the big smiley face of a grille.
The Elantra Limited with navigation is tempting, but it costs well into the $20s when all is said and done. We’d stick with a GLS and add the Preferred Equipment package, which includes Bluetooth. It’s a lot of car for the money.
In November 2012, Kia and Hyundai adjusted the fuel economy ratings on some 2011-2013 models. This article has been modified to reflect the accurate EPA ratings.