Hyundai Elantra: From oddball to excellence

By Deon Schoeman 30 September 2011

Not that long ago, at least in automotive terms, the only praise the Hyundai brand – and the Elantra in particular – might have attracted would have recognised its value-centred virtues. But things change and, as the latest Elantra proves, sometimes for the better. By DEON SCHOEMAN.

Korean brands like Hyundai and Kia must be a real inspiration to Chinese auto makers. Two decades ago, the Koreans were at the bottom of the automotive food chain. Today, they’re right up there with the best from Japan and the US, and knocking on Europe’s door.

The Hyundai Elantra is a case in point. What started out as an oddball, dumpy little car has grown up into this: a sleek, sophisticated and desirable sedan.

Now in its fifth generation, the Elantra competes head-on against some of the most established sedans in South Africa: icons like the Volkswagen Jetta and the Toyota Corolla which, between them, have dominated what used to be the biggest passenger car segment in the country.

Even  five years ago, you wouldn’t have mentioned the Elantra in the same breath as those two, but the reality is that today, it’s well up to the fight. It has similar dimensions, a well-stocked interior, a raft of safety features and modern mechanicals.

In styling terms, the ugly-duckling Elantra has emerged as a striking, elegant swan. The flowing lines, wedged profile and pronounced shoulder line are a further interpretation of the Sonata’s design language. But the Elantra’s compact dimensions allow for a sportier, more aggressive presentation.

The front end, with its slim upper and larger lower air intake and those large, tapered headlight clusters, is unmistakably Hyundai. But the chiselled shoulder line is almost too pronounced and leads the eye aft to the high, rear deck.

The rear view is perhaps this car’s least flattering aspect, mainly because the sculpted bumper and extended rear apron make the car look bulbous and heavy-set. The swept lines of the tail light clusters provide some visual relief, while the rounded profile of the roofline emphasises the Elantra’s wind-cheating aerodynamics.

That this is a big car by C-segment sedan standards becomes apparent when one considers that the standard 17-inch wheels still seem too small for the wheel arches.

The cabin execution is another pleasant surprise. Gone are the “Seoul City By Night” days – the design here is ergonomically efficient and elegant, all crowned by a comprehensive array of standard features.

There’s just enough aluminium-look brightwork to lift the otherwise dark dashboard finishes, while the analogue instruments are a welcome, legible counterpoint to the digital displays for the trip computer, CD receiver and the climate control.

The steering wheel features multifunction controls for the audio system, and there’s also a USB socket for iPod and MP3 player connection.

The front seats are shaped for both comfort and support, and there’s enough adjustability to tailor a driving position to suit personal preference. The cloth upholstery looks smart and feels durable and the rear accommodation is comfortable for a car in this segment.

The rear seat back is split 60:40 allowing the capacity of the 420-litre luggage compartment to be increased.

Our test car was the 1.8 GLS model, which means it’s powered by a 1800cc four-cylinder engine with twin overhead camshafts and variable valve timing. The maximum output of 110kW is among the best in this class, while the 178Nm torque output is handy too. But it only arrives at 4,700rpm, which is a little peaky, especially at altitude.

The result is that one needs to make full use of the six-speed manual gearbox, and especially the first five ratios. Third to sixth gears are quite tall too – probably in the interests of economy, but at the expense of in-gear response and overall verve.

Fortunately, the shift action is pleasingly positive, so keeping the engine on the boil is no hardship, although you often need to gear down twice to get the revs into the power band. At 1,700kg, the Elantra is no lightweight, meaning there’s some initial inertia to overcome.

But give it stick, and use the full rev range, and the Elantra will reward you with brisk performance. Hyundai claims a zero-to-100 sprint time of 9.3 seconds, but at altitude, you can add at least another second or so to that figure. Top speed is of little more than academic interest (especially if you take our transport minister’s intentions seriously),but comes to just over 200km/h.

Road manners and ride quality will be more important for most Elantra owners, and the compact sedan shines in both departments. The chassis and suspension settings are comfort-biased, but provide good control and predictable responses, while soaking up poor road surfaces.

The steering is overassisted, even at speed, and lacks both the weight and feedback to deliver an involving drive. That’s a pity, because in an era of sophisticated software and force feedback, creating decent steering feel can’t be that difficult.

That aside, the Elantra turns in tidily enough, and sticks to the chosen line with tenacity. At the limit, there’s a mild tendency to understeer, but the Hyundai always feels in control and inspires confidence. Drivetrain and chassis find a good rapport, which allows for a pleasing overall balance.

The new Elantra must have the competition quaking in their shocks. It delivers in all the important departments – space, safety, spec and value. It also adds attractive styling and mostly satisfying dynamics to the package.

In fact, it gets most things right, including attractive pricing, a five-year warranty and a five-year service plan. All of which means we won’t be surprised if the Elantra tops the sales charts in this segment very soon. DM



Hyundai Elantra 1.8 GLS


In-line four-cylinder, 1,797cc, DOHC


Six-speed manual


110kW @ 6,500rpm


178Nm @ 4,700rpm

0-100 km/h    

9.3 sec

Top speed    


Fuel consumption    

6,5 l/100km (combined cycle)

CO2 emissions    


Retail price    




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