New Car Review: 2011 Hyundai Elantra

Front 3/4 view of blue 2011 Hyundai Elantra on rooftop parking garage
The 2011 Hyundai Elantra.

It's the one-two punch the Japanese have been dreading.

A little over two months ago, we reviewed the 2011 Hyundai Sonata...the upshot being that Hyundai, for 20 years the Korean underdog, had now built a credible competitor to the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord (and everything else in the family sedan segment too...Focus, Malibu, Passat...).

Well, just as Accord has Civic and Camry has Corolla...Sonata has Elantra...but it's better than that. The Elantra, the smaller of the two, is as good in its class as the Sonata in its and maybe better. It's reminiscent of the days when Accord and Civic were so good you couldn't begin to come up with a reason to buy anything else.

Rear 3/4 view of blue 2011 Hyundai Elantra sedan at night
Rear and side view of the 2011 Hyundai Elantra.

The fact is, the Elantra is every bit as good a car as the Sonata...it's just smaller and gets significantly better gas mileage (29 city/40 highway to the Sonata's 22/35...both equipped with automatic transmissions).

Now that paragraph above is a big deal, because I don't believe the Civic is as every bit as good a car as the Accord (though we haven't had a 2012 Civic at TireKicker World Headquarters yet), nor that the Corolla is every bit as good a car as the Camry. Once upon a time, they were, but it's been more than 10 years since I would have put my name anywhere near that assertion.

But the Elantra is. There are no penalties to be paid for its junior status. The styling is fluid and exciting, the power, like the Sonata's, more than adequate, the ride and handling ditto.

The one we tested was the top-of-the-line Limited with the Premium Package. You may remember, our Sonata was a one rung up from the bottom SE with only one option: Floor mats.

As a result, far from being an econobox torture chamber, this is what the interior of our Hyundai Elantra Limited test vehicle looked like:

Two-tone (tan & black) interior of the 2011 Hyundai Elantra
The 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited interior.

The Limited starts at $19,980, with ESC, traction control, ABS, four-wheel disc brakes, Electronic Brake Force Distribution and Brake Assist, a full complement of airbags and a tire pressure monitoring system standard.

Oh, yeah...and 17-inch alloy wheels, a power sunroof, fog lights, air, a six-speaker AM/FM/XM/CD/mp3 audio system with iPod/USB and auxilary jack, power windows, locks and heated mirrors, remote keyless entry with alarm, Bluetooth, steering wheel-mounted audio, cruise and phone controls, a tilt and telescoping steering column, trip computer, leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, leather seating surfaces with heated front and rear seats and a full tank of gas.

That Premium Package we mentioned above adds $2,000 for a nav system with a high-resolution 7-inch touchscreen, a backup camera, a premium audio system with external amp, automatic headlights and proximity key entry with pushbutton start.

$95 for floormats, $35 for an iPod cable, and we're done at $22,110.

Yes, I know that's only $1,305 less than the Sonata we tested. I'm fine with that. Seriously. Look at it another way. It's only $1,620 more than the Chevrolet Cruze ECO, gets 1 mile per gallon more in the city and two less on the highway (in our testing, we saw 26.9 in 80/20 city street and freeway driving in the Elantra versus 29.2 in the Cruze ECO).

If I was playing with my own money, I'd make the choice between the Sonata and Elantra based on size and room needed. And the Elantra is remarkably roomy inside for its size class, with a surprising amount of trunk space.

Pity Honda and Toyota. It's gotta be rough to have Hyundai make a strong showing in one segment this year. But two?

2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited

Base price: $19,980

As tested: $22,110

Likes: Styling, features, fuel economy.

Dislikes: Can I get back to you...or not?

EPA estimate: 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway.