When we scoured the market last year to find the most affordable new cars in Canada, we discovered that Hyundai’s Elantra is the lone compact sedan that swims with the tiny econobox fishes like the Nissan Micra.
The Elantra is not the cheapest car in the land, but its value proposition is off the hook. No wonder the streets are teeming with shiny new ones, whose low entry price makes the Elantra a fetching bargain. Yet it’s anything but a destitute buy with its standard air conditioning, heated front seats and Bluetooth connectivity.
Recognizing a bargain, Canucks made the Elantra the second-best-selling automobile in the country, eclipsing the perennial Toyota Corolla and nipping at the heels of the top-selling Honda Civic. Well, it was until the sixth-generation Elantra arrived for 2017.
“The 2013-2016 models look like the Starship Enterprise inside. Now it looks like the 1970s with all the knobs,” posted one owner who had traded in a “fluidic” designed older Elantra for a pointy 2018 model.
Canadians can be a fickle lot.
While the previous-gen Elantra was a big sales hit, it had some weaknesses – literally. Its unibody structure fluttered more than an economy car today should and its limp suspension exhibited lacklustre ride and handling characteristics.
By contrast, the all-new 2017 Elantra’s body rigidity improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to beads of aerospace adhesive applied to the car’s metal seams. Greater use of high-strength steel in the Elantra’s superstructure held the line on curb weight, with the base model coming in at just 1250 kg (2,755 pounds).
The rear twist-beam suspension was revised with longer and more vertical shock absorbers for enhanced impact damping, while better subframe isolation, sound-deadening material in the wheel wells, and thicker windshield and side glass all contributed to a quieter interior.
The broad and bright cabin creates a sense of spaciousness that exudes luxury in this class. The low hood and narrow windshield pillars give the driver good forward visibility, and the side windows are big enough to easily check blind spots. The tall trunk is a little tough to see over, however, thanks to the fastback profile that suggests it’s a hatchback, but isn’t.
The commodious cabin – which meets the EPA’s mid-size criteria – is laid out nicely with well-marked buttons and bright gauges. As noted above, the dashboard has a retro look to it, somewhat akin to an old BMW. To complete the vintage feel (perhaps inadvertently), the plastics look to be a grade lower than what the newest competing models use.
Power is supplied by a new four-cylinder engine utilizing the Atkinson cycle, which boosts fuel economy at the expense of horsepower and torque output. The “Nu” 2.0-litre gas engine makes 147 hp and 132 lb-ft of torque, both underwhelming numbers compared to the class leaders. The engine mates with a six-speed manual transmission or a six-speed conventional automatic.
Soon after the Elantra’s early 2016 release, Hyundai worked up a Sport variant that went beyond shiny alloys and a badge. Engineers tucked in a 201 hp turbocharged 1.6-L four cylinder tied to the stick or a seven-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission. They also grafted a multilink rear suspension in place of the torsion-beam setup, while spring and damper firmness were dialled up and the brakes were enlarged.
All 2019 Elantras received exterior renovations with a reshaped hood, fenders, and front and rear fascia. Interior changes include an improved centre console with new controls, updated gauges and a storage tray. All trims beyond the base model come with forward collision warning, automatic emergency braking, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist and a drowsy driver monitor.
For 2020, the Elantra got a new continuously variable automatic transmission (CVT) featuring an adaptive-style shift logic that provides a shifting feel similar to a conventional geared transmission, but with better fuel economy. It replaces the six-speed automatic.
Driving the Elantra with the regular 2.0-litre four is an exercise in patience. Zero to 97 km/h comes up in a wheezy 8.7 seconds with the automatic; you can shave a half-second off if you find one with a manual gearbox. A turbocharged Sport will do the deed in 6.6 seconds – virtually matching a Honda Civic Si.
The Elantra’s rigid unibody forms a solid foundation for the suspension system, which absorbs road imperfections without transmitting unflattering creaks and shudders. The electric steering could use some tuning, however, since some drivers note it requires frequent corrections to keep the car tracking straight on the highway.
Brake pedal feel is decent and stopping power is easy to modulate. Bear in mind that the base model employs rear drum brakes, a cost-cutting move that doesn’t seem to compromise stopping distances greatly. The Sport’s dual-clutch automated transmission is a little clunky in operation, while the CVT in 2020 models works slickly.
Despite the standard engine’s reliance on the Atkinson cycle to sip gas, the Elantra hardly distinguishes itself as an economy champ. Owners report averaging 8 litres/100 km (35 mpg) in mixed real-world driving, although CVT-equipped models can do better.
Elantra owners rave about the quiet and comfy cabin, the bounty of technology and safety features, and tremendous bang for the buck compared to most everything else out there (with the exception of the closely related Kia Forte). On the cons side, some of the interior plastics look and feel a little cheap, the steering has a propensity to wander on the highway, and the standard engine delivers sleepy acceleration.
“I have never driven such an unresponsive, boring vehicle in my life. I can’t pull out in traffic of any kind since it won’t go when I push on the gas,” posted one annoyed driver online.
In terms of reliability the Elantra is one of Hyundai’s better products, although owners of older 2011-2013 models have reported worn piston rings that can lead to engine replacement. The sixth-generation models use the Nu 2.0-L engine, which doesn’t exhibit the same problem. Not that there aren’t some niggling issues just the same.
Owners of 2017 and 2018 models have noted the standard engine may not warm up rapidly and provide enough cabin heat in cold weather. While dealers have replaced plenty of engine thermostats, Hyundai went further by issuing a technical service bulletin (TSB 18-HA-002) that specifies software changes to presumably coax the fuel-efficient engine to warm up quicker.
Buyers of pearl-white Elantras have noticed an issue with the paint peeling off from the leading edge of the hood and roof. Dealers haven’t always been keen to fix the paint under warranty, owners have noted. Finicky door-lock actuators have rendered some doors useless, requiring replacement of the electrical component. Another common complaint is a rough-performing engine, which may be traced back to faulty ignition coils.
Newer models appear to have these problems licked, but a few owners of 2020 Elantras equipped with the CVT automatic transmission already have reported the CVT failing at low mileage. For longevity’s sake, we trust the conventional six-speed automatic found in the 2017 to 2019 models to go the distance.
Despite the setbacks, the vast majority of Elantra owners are delighted with their cars and the unassailable value they get for their money. It’s a big reason why the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada named the redesigned Elantra as the 2017 Best New Small Car.