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2011_Hyundai El

Reaching for the power seat adjustment, you find the Hyundai Elantra Limited doesn’t have one. It’s a singular bump against reality because the Limited otherwise is kitted out as a luxury car.

Heated rear seats are standard, an unprecedented feature in a compact, and what with the plush leather and navi screen and all, power seats would seem to be a cinch.

Then the same thing happens behind the wheel of a plainer model, the American equivalent of the GL that Hyundai sees as its best seller in Canada. This model merely has heated front seats. Again, you find yourself pawing the side of the seat before turning to the manual adjustor.

Finally it dawns on you that, however it’s decorated, this car feels as solid as a luxury model. Hyundai’s new factory in Alabama surely employs the company’s most advanced production techniques.

No Elantra has power seats, from the $15,849 base L to the $24,699 Limited with navigation. What matters more is that every version of the new car is far more substantial than any Elantra before it – with 37 per cent greater body stiffness – and better equipped with power windows and locks, six-speed transmissions, four-wheel disc brakes with antiskid, and stability control.

Steve Kelleher, president and CEO of Hyundai Canada, declared in the media introduction that the new car is a home run, destined to become Canada’s best-selling car, overtaking the Civic, Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla in the compact class.

Certainly it outclasses every previous Elantra. But what of the competitors? Others are pitching new compacts for 2011: Honda Civic and Ford Focus come into play early in the year, and Chevrolet Cruze already has demonstrated it has the stuff to top the standing.

The Elantra is likely to turn more heads, and hold more gazes, than any of the others. The stylists in Irvine, Calif., did good work. “We wanted to blow [Toyota] Corolla out of the water, to us it is the most milquetoast, most bland design,” said Cedric d’Andre, the French senior designer, after making the point the Hyundai designers set out to outdo the upcoming Civic in the battle for younger buyers.

Also supporting Kelleher’s homer case, Elantra boasts both best fuel efficiency in class, with Natural Resources Canada figures of 4.9 litres/100 km on the highway and 6.8 in the city and the most horsepower, 148.

Gone is the somewhat gloomy cabin of the 2010 model. It has given way to a brighter, highly functional design with rich cloth upholstery in the GL-level car we drove, leather in higher-priced models. (Note that the tan cloth in our car is not available in Canada, only grey – and enriching shades of grey is a challenge.)

Compact buyers seemingly treat their cars like purses or man bags. There needs to be a place for everything. Elantra’s roomy glove box matches Corolla’s nine-litre capacity, a cavernous bin at the rear of the console is larger than the Toyota’s, and Hyundai interior designers also found a way to build in more console tray space.

The distance between the front and rear wheels is 51 mm longer than in the previous Elantra with most of the benefit felt in the front seats. The tracks have been made longer so taller drivers and their passengers can slide further back – albeit manually – and sense they’re in a much larger car.

The rear seat is another bump against compact reality. Although fairly roomy – and a fold-down centre armrest with drink holders impresses – there’s not enough foot room under the front seats to stretch out.

Driving the new car inland from San Diego, following the Sunrise Highway at 6,000 feet elevation, impressed.

Noise levels are as low as any vehicle in the class. The steering is precise, with just a touch of heaviness dialled into the electrically powered assist. Elantra’s turning circle is a tight 10.6 metres for dancing through tight traffic.

The roads wind and plunge and climb. The car takes to this like nobody’s business, surprisingly enough, because the suspension appears to have been tuned for just such driving. The ride, on the other hand, will be a touch too firm for some drivers.

Not so sporty are the new 1.8-litre engine and six-speed transmissions (automatic or manual) engineered with fuel efficiency ratings as the priority. Acceleration will satisfy most compact buyers, but any seeking higher performance still need to turn to Mazda3 with its larger engine.

Is it a home run, as Hyundai Canada’s Kelleher declared? A ground rule double, let’s conclude, to end this with another baseball analogy. And the ball hit hard and bouncing over the outfield wall for a ground rule double, can win a game despite not being quite so spectacular as a soaring home run.

2011 Hyundai Elantra GL

Type: Compact four-door sedan

Base Price: $17,999; as tested, $20,694 (including freight and automatic)

Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder

Horsepower/torque: 148 hp/131 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.8 city/4.9 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Chevrolet Cruze, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Ford Focus, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra

source: theglobeandmail

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