Payne: Hyundai Elantra gets more tech, less style

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

I think I speak for red-blooded males everywhere when I say we wish Angelina Jolie would do her “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” thing every six years. But after that turn, Ms. Jolie — determined to build her resume as an important actress — expanded into roles with less curvy costumes, like determined mom Christine Collins in the 2008 film “Changeling.” That role earned her an Oscar nomination, if not the hearts of red-blooded males.

Which is kind of where we are with the Hyundai Elantra.

You’ll remember the popular Ms. Elantra from her sexy 2011 turn as the siren of compact sedans. Folks couldn’t get enough of this hot little number with its curvy hips, cheekbones and big come-hither headlamps. The Elantra sold like, well, like tickets to “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.”

Six years later and Elantra has ridden its lovely curves to third-best seller in the segment behind only the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. It’s made its name. Time to explore more mature wardrobes to showcase its other skills — like sophisticated handling, high-tech accessories and a hushed interior.

I give you the restrained, handsome 2017 Elantra. Plain, lightly-creased hips, small headlamps — a car distinguished by the family’s trademark full mouth established by luxury sibling Genesis. Hello, you must be Genesis Jr.

Which is probably a good thing, because Elantra — like everything else in compacts these days — is walking upwind into the full fury of King Civic. Civic (you’ll recall from my fan boy ravings last October) just dropped a bomb on the segment.

Stung by criticism that its beloved compact had become bland vanilla, Honda unleashed an army of designers, engineers and marketeers to create a masked, swoopy 2016 Civic superhero benchmarked against the Audi A3. The Civic will run circles around mere mortal compacts while getting best-in-class fuel economy, best interior volume and first-in-class Apple CarPlay/Android Auto connectivity. And if that’s not enough, it’ll come in a sedan, wagon, coupe, hotter Si and hottest Type R configurations.

It’s North American Car of the Year. Car & Driver Top 10. First-Team All-Everything.

Next to the Civic, the more understated Elantra looks like Civic’s nerdy-if-not-unattractive college roommate. After all, car companies can only muster the resources for epic re-inventions every so often. For its ’17 remake, the Elantra may not rip up the red carpet, but it will solidify itself as one of the best role players in the segment.

How far Hyundai has come. I remember my first Detroit auto show in 2000 when my kids asked to see “the most affordable thing on the floor,” and I took them to see tinny Hyundais with manual roll-up windows and Kmart prices.

Elantra is still a Blue Light Special, but it now boasts technology features that luxury makers shouted about not long ago. It was just a year ago that we car guys were drooling over the new, midsized, $38,950 Genesis luxury sedan and its bag of tricks including adaptive cruise-control, lane-keep-assist and voice-control navigation.

The fully equipped, $27,710 Elantra Limited can match that and more. Class-first mirror-and-seat-memory settings. Class-first rear-heated seats. Class-best cabin quiet. I’d applaud its Apple Car Play-Android Auto feature, too, but the system on my test car was glitchy and lacked the dexterity of systems in the Civic or Chevy Cruze/Volt. But remember, this is a compact car that starts at just $17,985.

The firsts are all the more impressive because King Civic has selfishly set the standard for virtually every other stat in its class, from rear-seat room to tying your shoelaces in the morning (OK, I made up that last one). In short, if it’s a Civic you want — but without the Hollywood styling and with buttons for infotainment (I’ve seen grown men run screaming out of Civics after a day operating its slider volume controls) — then the Elantra is your cup of Joe.

In its quest to be a big player in one of the dog-eat-dogiest spaces in the market, Elantra has solidified its place as a must-drive, all-around player in the league with the enduring Civic, Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla.

Personally, I am a hatch guy and my compact druthers tend toward the more athletic Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf. But this is also an area where new-gen Elantra really focused itself. Though it did not get a full makeover like the Civic, Elantra has gained considerable stiffness with more high-strength steel and a 40-fold increase in structural adhesives.

The changes were immediately evident through San Diego’s Cuyamaga Mountains, which may be the most-traveled testing roads in the country. I’ve flogged the Golf R, Porsche Panamera and Cayenne Cadillac CT6 there in the past year to prove their handling chops. With Hyundai’s North America CEO Dave Zuchowski in the back seat, Car & Driver’s Ron Sessions and I took turns trying to make him dizzy by hurling the eager Elantra from switchback to switchback. Sessions was particularly merciless — driving like his pants were on fire — but Zuchowski was having as much fun as we were.

Only at the hard limit did the Elantra’s rear, torsion-beam suspension cry uncle (hey, Hyundai’s gotta save money somewhere), but Hyundai will address that in the upcoming Sport model which will get an independent rear suspension as well as a much-needed, 200-horsepower mill upgrade from the Elantra’s 2.0-liter, 148-horsepower engine (an Eco model gets a mousy 124-horse, 1.4-liter turbo four).

Which is a good start. Because to ultimately compete against King Civic, Hyundai will have to commit to a full compact army. Civic dominates the segment because it not only makes a great appliance, but it can also go toe-to-toe against the segment athletes like VW GTI and Subaru WRX with the Civic Si and Type R.

Like a well-rounded actor, Elantra will be a segment giant when it fills out its portfolio with more performance variants. In the meantime, however, it is checking the right boxes from safety to tech to chassis development. All for an attractive Kmart price.

And I’m betting that, like Ms. Jolie, the Elantra is still saving a slinky suit in its closet.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Email him at hpayne@detroitnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @HenryEPayne.

’17 Hyundai Elantra

Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger sedan

Price: $17,985 base ($27,710 Limited model as tested)

Powerplant: 2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder

Power: 147 horsepower, 132 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: Six-speed automatic; six-speed automatic (as tested)

Performance: 0-60 mph (NA)

Weight: 2,767 base (2,976 lbs. Limited model as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 26 mpg city/36 mpg highway/29 combined (base manual); EPA 29 mpg city/38 mpg highway/33 combined (base automatic); EPA 28 mpg city/37 mpg highway/32 combined (Limited automatic)

Report card

Highs: Fun to drive despite solid rear-beam; a compact with memory seats/mirror!

Lows: Sexless compared to previous gen; almost as good as a Civic


Grading scale

Excellent ★★★★

Good ★★★

Fair ★★

Poor ★