Hyundai is chasing the frugal car buyer and has the prices to prove it.
The obvious case in point is the penny-pinching family's dream car, the 2010 Hyundai Elantra Touring ($13,999-$22,899). This four-door hatchback is aimed squarely at the Toyota Matrix, Dodge Caliber, Mazda3 Sport and Volkswagen Golf, to name four.
And with sales sweeteners thrown in, the Hyundai has a clear advantage over all of them except the Caliber. Even then, the Caliber's edge is only a few hundred dollars.
So the Elantra Touring is a deal. But it's an injustice to end the story there.
This wagon competes exactly where a huge percentage of Canadians buy. Entry-level vehicles account for 60 per cent of the passenger cars sold in Canada. These are the cars Canadians need and afford.
If several years of consistently good scores in reliability studies from Consumer Reports and others are to be believed, this Hyundai and others will be dependable for years.
Sure, Hyundai does not have the cachet of the best brands and that shows in resale values. Automotive Lease Guide says Hyundais retain less than 35 per cent of their original value after four years. Subarus, by contrast, hold 41.9 per cent after four years and is ranked first in resale in Canada among mainstream brands. Honda is second at 41.6 per cent.
The Elantra Touring is, officially, a four-door with a hatchback at the rear. But let's be real. It's a useful little station wagon.
Moreover, compared to, say, the Matrix and Caliber, the Elantra Touring is better finished under the hood and inside the cargo bay. Also, the rear seat folds flat (60/40) without removing the headrests, as required in the Matrix. The Hyundai's visibility rearward and to the sides is better, too.
This little Hyundai is also amazingly big inside - with more leg, hip and shoulder room front and rear than the Matrix and Caliber, though the Matrix has a slight edge in head room. The Hyundai also has more overall interior room than the Caliber and the Mazda3 and more cargo room than the Matrix and Caliber.
Under the skin is a European-based Hyundai platform called the I30, not the mechanical bits and pieces of the Elantra sedan. Yes, the drivetrain - a 138-horsepower, four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic - is shared with the Elantra, as is the independent suspension, front and rear.
But the engineered hard points, floor pan and other key elements were developed for a European market that values driving as an enjoyable pastime in itself, rather than a commuting chore.
The Elantra Touring looks quite nice, too, although the design is obviously a form-follows-function affair. The vertically stacked taillights represent the design highlight, though there is attractive sculpting in the sides, too.
Inside, the cabin easily holds four adults and their gear. Back-seat room is a standout, and the quality of the materials, the fit and finish are all well done.
The blue lighting for the instruments and controls is welcoming and the centre stack has big knobs and buttons to control the radio and climate control. An MP3 plug-in is easy to access in this day and age; it is high up, beside the radio controls. The downside to this interior: You can have it in any colour you want, as long as it's black, relentlessly black.
This is a nice little hatchback for driving, though. The optional Sport version, with its firmer suspension settings, might even turn out to be too stiff for many drivers.
Most, I suspect, will be very happy with the less-expensive Touring settings. The four-wheel disc brakes are firm, but not grabby.
The 2.0-litre four under the hood has adequate power, though with a full load, or driving up a steep hill, it has to work and, when it works hard, it gets noisy. Another gear for the four-speed automatic in my tester would take better advantage of the available power.
Fuel economy is competitive: 8.9 litres/100 km city, 6.4 highway. That is, the Matrix and Vibe are better, the Mazda3 and the Spectra5 are about the same and the Hyundai has an edge over the Suzuki SX-4 and VW Golf.
The Hyundai's variable-assist power steering is acceptable, though I'd like more precision and feedback. Antilock braking is standard on even the base model.
Hyundai Canada only offers side and side-curtain airbags on pricier models. It is the same story for electronic stability control; it's there on up-market models.
2010 HYUNDAI ELANTRA TOURING L
Type: Compact four-door hatchback
Base Price: $13,999; as tested, $16,494
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/136 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.9 city/6.4 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Suzuki SX-4, Toyota Matrix, Dodge Caliber, Mazda3, Volkswagen Golf, Kia Spectra5, Saturn Astra, Subaru Impreza