2017 Hyundai Elantra First Drive Review: 30 years in the making

MY17 Hyundai Elantra

It’s hard to believe that Hyundai is celebrating its 30th anniversary in America, and even harder to believe that the 2017 Hyundai Elantra sedan is a sixth-generation vehicle. A lot has happened to Hyundai and the Elantra during those decades, and the majority of it has been good.

Hyundai had the best sales year in its history, coming in over 760,000 units for 2015. It has a productive U.S.-based plant in Montgomery, Alabama, along with plants in South Korea, and has big plans for 2017, including multiple car launches, new concepts, and an all new hybrid and plug-in hybrid that are rumored to be a Prius killers.

MY17 Hyundai ElantraAs far as the Elantra, it’s sold over one million units in the past five years (a total of 2.5 million in its lifecycle), finishing in third place for 2015 behind the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic. Quite a feat in a really crowded small-car segment. Elantra accounts for 30 percent of Hyundai sales, which makes it vital to the company’s business plans. The Elantra is built at both Hyundai’s Montgomery, Alabama, plant as well as in South Korea, and will remain an affordable choice, with the 2017 featuring a base price of $17,150, $100 less than the outgoing model.

There are plenty of reasons why the Elantra does well; it delivers in every category: design, features, performance, and value, which are trademarks of the Hyundai brand. So when the time came to step it up for 2017, Elantra had a lot to live up to in every category.

We’re happy to report that, after our first drive in and around the San Diego, California, area, the Elantra will please not only current owners, but also some diehard Toyota and Honda enthusiasts looking for something different.

MY17 Hyundai ElantraThree trim levels — SE, Eco, and Limited — are the lineup for this year. The SE entry model comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission, and for $1,000 over that sticker you can get a six-speed automatic transmission with Shiftronic. Both trannys are matched to an all-new 2.0-liter Atkinson-cycle inline four cylinder that makes 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque. Fuel economy numbers are 29/38/33 city/highway/combined, or slightly better than the outgoing model.

MY17 Hyundai ElantraWhile we are overjoyed that Hyundai has shunned the CVT that a lot of competitors (Honda and Toyota) use for fuel economy reasons. We never really liked a continuously variable transmission, and probably never will, so bonus points for a real six-speed. The Limited model (starting price $22,350) also features the same engine as the SE, but comes standard with the automatic. The power numbers are comparable to Civic (non-turbo) and Corolla, but when the Sonata Sport makes an appearance this coming November at the SEMA show, it will show the compact segment who’s boss. (Not counting the 345-horsepwer Focus RS, but that won’t be price comparable).

The Sonata also will be available as an Eco model, which is slated to come to showrooms in a few months. The Eco model will feature an all-new Kappa 1.4-liter turbocharged direct-injection powerplant with an EcoShift seven-speed dual-clutch transmission. No prices yet, but Hyundai claims 128 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque starting at a low 1,400 rpm will be on tap. Fuel economy is projected to be 35 mpg combined.

Our usual road-test writeups start with exterior styling, but in this case, we’re leading with performance. Why? Because we were highly impressed with the driving characteristics of this compact sedan. Hyundai has gone above and beyond creating a vehicle that doesn’t make you feel as if you’re being punished because you can’t afford a BMW. The ride and handling we experienced on the drive are comparable to (and in a few cases better than) some high-end luxury vehicles.

IMG_9114Handling isn’t just about suspension pieces anymore. It starts deep inside with the body structure. For the Elantra, giant advancements over the previous model include drastically increasing the reinforcements through the use of advanced high strength steel and structural adhesives. The body is nearly a third stronger than before, and both torsional rigidity and bending have been improved greatly.

Structural adhesives are playing a larger part in car production today. Where the 2016 Elantra used 10 feet of structural adhesives, the new model features almost 400 feet. Dow is the manufacturer of the adhesives used in the Elantra; it’s called Betamate, and the benefits include reduced vibration and road noise, a lighter vehicle, and improved overall strength for better crash protection. Structural adhesives are a staple of the aerospace industry, from which car manufacturers normally get their trickle-down technology.

IMG_9106In the case of the Elantra, it’s helped make the suspension changes more relevant. While the rear is still a torsion beam solid axle (value conscious decision, obviously, and in line with the segment), the placement and size have been modified for better response. In front, the McPherson strut layout now features an isolated subframe for improved ride quality. No item is too small to evaluate for NVH reduction. Even the dash panel hole sizes in the Elantra have been reduced by almost a third, along with a noise liner inside the rear wheelwell and different under-carpet foam. The result is that, in Hyundai testing, the Elantra beat the Civic, Mazda3 and Focus in wind, engine, and idle noise.

On the road, we never expect much from a compact sedan. Its job has always been to move the common man between home and work without drama or expectations. Put in a decent driver’s seat, a good audio system, and some creature comforts and the owner is happy. Get behind the wheel of the new Elantra, however, and you’ll never settle for common again. To complement the suspension, the Sonata features standard (with the automatic transmission) Drive Mode Select that allows the driver to choose between Eco, Normal, and Sport settings. What this does is change the steering input and torque/shift mapping depending on your driving style. Sport will delay upshifts, provide quick downshifts, deliver torque sooner, and tighten the steering for more feedback. If you spend your commute in stop and go traffic at 25 mph, you won’t feel much difference. But when you’re taking the Elantra to the lake or the mountains, and start pushing it hard, you’ll see how balanced it feels, how smoothly it shifts, how composed it remains in corners, and how much fun it is to drive. And you can have all this for under $20,000. We can honestly say the new Sonata is a driver’s car.

Hyundai ElantraInside, this compact car looks and feels like a much bigger, much more expensive ride — at least the Limited model we drove. There were no entry SE models to check out. Hyundai says the Elantra’s interior space actually qualifies it as a midsize sedan, beating the Ford Focus and Mazda3 in interior room, but on par with the Nissan Sentra and Toyota Corolla. Standard features on the SE include remote keyless entry, cloth seats, air conditioning, power windows and door locks, tilt and telescoping steering column, center armrest with storage compartment, and height adjustments on both the driver and front passenger seats (hallelujah!).

IMG_9137For another $1,800 (automatic transmission is $1,000 and the Popular Equipment package is $800), the Elantra includes a 7-inch display that deletes the CD player (who cares) but adds what we’ve all been waiting for: Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, which allows you to hook up your phone and mirror its screen for almost all the apps. The Pop package also adds steering wheel audio controls, Bluetooth hands-free phone, heated outside mirrors, and more. To go whole hog, add the Tech Package to the SE for $1,300, and you get LED DRLs, Blind Spot Detection with cross traffic alert, pushbutton start and a smart key, heated front seats, dual automatic climate control, and more. All these additions will put the total at $20,250 (not including $835 destination).

We know what you’re thinking: well, for about $2,100 more, I could get the Limited model that has a lot of those features plus four-wheel disc brakes, LED taillights, chrome trim, leather seating, power driver’s seat, dual USB charge ports, and more. That would be a wise decision. However, the Limited offers two other packages: a Tech Package for $2,500 (nav system with eight-inch touchscreen, Infinity audio with Clari-Fi technology — highly recommended as we love the one we have in our long-term Sedona minivan — a power sunroof, heated rear seats, and more). The Ultimate Package for $1,900 adds adaptive HID headlamps, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, smart cruise control, lane keeping system, and driver’s seat and mirrors memory. Now your total is $27,710, or about 10 grand more than the entry SE. When you think about it, that’s a lot of content, technology, and safety for those extra Benjamins.

IMG_9111We spent more than a few hours inside the Elantra, and if hadn’t seen the price, we would clearly think we were in a $35K-plus ride. The quality, fit and finish, level of quietness, bounty of amenities, Infinity audio system, and comfortable leather seats (soy foam-based) with memory function on our Limited test vehicle would make us happy every time we got in it if we were the owner.

2017 Elantra (30)In addition to all the great interior features, Hyundai is jumping on the technology democratization bandwagon. What that means is bringing technology features to the masses so everyone can benefit, not just the wealthy. Now you can equip the Elantra with state-of-the-art driver-assist technologies like lane departure warning and assist, blind spot detection, cross traffic alert, and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. Hyundai Elantra is the first in the segment to offer this feature, which uses radar and a camera (called sensor fusion) to look ahead and detect a pedestrian. The vehicle will either slow or stop completely, depending on distance and speed. With the inclusion of these features and the new structural integrity, Hyundai is expecting to receive a five-star safety rating from NHTSA and a Top Safety Pick Plus from the IIHS. We have no reason to doubt it will achieve those goals.

MY17 Hyundai ElantraNow it’s time to look above the skin. We saved design for last not because we don’t like it, but because there are so many great features to talk about on the rest of this sedan. Turning our attention to the primary reason for purchase, exterior styling, the Elantra is clearly styled to please the public. No giant, funky grilles, no oddly shaped back end. It’s an evolutionary look that is clean, modern, and mainstream. The front fascia with Hyundai’s signature hexagonal grille is more open and athletic without being overly aggressive. The headlamps are standard projector beams or available HIDs with active lights. And the optional LED DRLs do look cool at night.

From the profile, Hyundai has kept the coupe look and toned down the character line for more elegance. It’s also added available door handle lighting and side mirror turn indicators, along with 17-inch wheels and tires on the Limited. In back the Elantra’s turned up tail acts as a built-in spoiler, and LED taillights are available, along with the hands-free Smart trunk that opens automatically when it’s programmed on and you have the smart key in your possession.

IMG_9125For 2017, the car is about an inch wider and almost an inch longer, and the new design gives it a low 0.27 Cd rating to help with fuel economy. Along those lines, the lower front fascia features wheel air curtains that move air from the front to the side through a slit by the foglamps. This airflow acts as a curtain around the front wheels to reduce turbulence. An underbody cover and rear bumper spoiler also help with airflow and fuel economy savings.

About the only feature we didn’t like is one we’ve been griping about on both Hyundai and Kia: the connectivity system is due for an update. The voice recognition isn’t good, and the navigation system gave us wacky directions. We got lost on our drive route, and we selected the pre-programmed driver’s switch point to get us back on track. We assumed shortest route was chosen, because it actually took us on a dirt road! The good news is the Elantra was capable off-roading! (Don’t tell Hyundai we did this, but we were following the nav system.)

MY17 Hyundai ElantraOverall, this is one terrific ride. In a compact sedan shootout, the Elantra would be a serious contender for first place. Sounds as if we should be doing a compact car comparison soon. Gotta check with the chief Buzzard on that one. Stay tuned.


Photography Courtesy of HMMA and © Team Killeen