First drive: Hyundai Elantra 2012 in South Korea
“Real” journalists with Western passports fly to foreign destinations every other week, fully paid for by carmakers, with 5-star hotel stays and business-class flights. For that, all they have to do is “review” a car. Of course, third-world jerks like me don’t get foreign invites all that often, especially since I reveal more than just the test-drive itself. The couple of invites that I did get, I couldn’t go mostly due to visa hassles. So when Hyundai’s UAE dealer invited me for a three-day trip to South Korea to test-drive the all-new 2012 Hyundai Elantra, I agreed of course. South Korean visas were easy enough to get even for me, and the trip was more than just a regular test-drive.
It turned out, only I and another person were going, along with a Hyundai dealer representative. After struggling through Dubai Airport’s security hassles, we made it into Emirates’ business-class lounge, had free food, onto the A380 business class, had more free food, then landed at Incheon Airport in Seoul and took a luxury-bus ride to stay over at the Sheraton-Walkerhill hotel and have more free food, some of it actually Halal, courtesy of Hyundai.
The first day was a trip to Hyundai-Kia’s R&D Centre in Namyang, the second day was the test-drive all over Korea, and the third day was a city tour. There was a mini-museum at the R&D Centre which displayed some old models such as the Pony and the Excel, so we could see just how far the all-new Elantra had come. Hyundai has gone from a copy-machine to a world-class carmaker in its own right.
Our test-drive was held outside Seoul, as the city itself can get severely jammed with traffic. So we were greeted with around 40 optioned-up cars parked outside a hilly golf resort. The new Elantra makes a strong first impression, which is rare in the compact segment. Since the outgoing Honda Civic, no other car in its class has made such a cracking design statement until this Elantra, and if you hear otherwise, you’d probably do well to avoid biased fanboys of other brands.
Stepping inside, the intricate design continues, featuring swoopy shapes and a fancy centre-stack lined with metal-look plastics and blue displays, while looking particularly upscale in the black-beige colour combo. Most of the materials were good, such as the generous leather on the door inserts, the nicely-perforated leather seats, the padded armrests and the soft-touch dashboard top. But some cost-cutting is evident, with the hard-plastic upper door sills, the plasticky sun visors, the cheap headliner and the cover-less cup-holders, though none of this would be noticeable to regular consumers. Aside from those bits, build quality is generally flawless.
The best bit is the excellent interior space, with generous headroom as well as legroom even in the back. Boot space out back is also sizeable, with a fold-down seatback and cargo net for extra practicality. According to specs, apparently the Elantra has more interior volume than even the Nissan Maxima!
There aren’t any real value-added features aside from the usual power windows, electric mirrors, power driver’s seat, sunroof, keyless entry and start, cruise control, basic CD/MP3 stereo with USB/AUX ports and two airbags. Stuff such as navigation, Bluetooth and side-airbags are reserved for other markets. I expect most GCC buyers would be happy as is, especially since pricing for a top-end GCC-spec model like ours would cost about Dhs 65,000, well below the base price of a Honda Civic.
The roads in Korea are varied and interesting. We drove up and down hills, in and out of toll highways, and bumped around on poorly-maintained small-town roads. The suspension setup feels slightly firm but fairly bearable on bad roads. You feel every pothole, and yet there is a mild occasional floatiness which seems to compensate. The Elantra comes with independent front suspension, but the rear is only a solid torsion beam-axle, so that doesn’t handle bumps as well as an independent rear would. On the smooth highway, the ride was fine, so it shouldn’t matter on Dubai roads. Road noise was only heard on some road surfaces, while not on others. And wind noise was never an issue, but then again, we drove on a wet day.
Driving behind a lead car in a convoy, we never pushed the limits of handling, but in general driving, there were no issues to report with grip and braking, even on slightly wet roads. The surprising bit was the meaty steering wheel, with decent feel and good response to small turning inputs. Even the throttle pedal and brake pedal feel were good, a rarity among modern cars with unresponsive electronic drive-by-wire controls.
The Middle East market will get a 128 hp “Gamma” 1.6-litre and a 148 hp “Nu” 1.8-litre, both 4-cylinder engines mated to 6-speed manual or automatic gearboxes. We drove the 1.6-litre automatic version, which was a reasonable engine, good on the fuel, burning only 8.6 litres/100 km on our mixed-driving trip, most of it aggressive. It offered very little acceleration when floored from, say, 80 kph to 120 kph, but once up to speed, it was fine cruising along, even if settling down at a high 3000 rpm. While the 1.6-litre models may become available in some GCC countries, the good news is that the UAE already has the 1.8-litre as the standard version in showrooms.
The 6-speed automatic gearbox works well too, always choosing the correct gears instead of picking a gear too high like the Chevy Cruze in the pursuit of fuel economy. The manual mode responds to inputs after a slight delay, but it works fine too as intended, on steep hills and dips. Considering how steep some of the hills in Korea are, we didn’t really have any issues climbing them, even with the dual-zone a/c on.
Overall, the 2012 Hyundai Elantra is a desperately-needed option in a boring compact segment with ever more expensive prices. As a package, it does not break new ground, but Hyundai has dropped a car with equal features, class-leading styling and more space than anyone needs, with pricing that beats everything except its own Korean counterparts. We bet the Japanese are very worried.