First Look: 2011 Hyundai Elantra

First Look

The upcoming small-car war is speeding up faster than arrest warrants for Julian Assange of Wikileaks fame. Both domestic and foreign automakers are preparing their best for the predicted onslaught of car buyers looking for something that's both eco-friendly and sporty. No easy task. With the Chevrolet Cruze just hitting the streets and the 2012 Ford Focus going on sale this spring, Hyundai has launched their all-new Elantra sport compact to much acclaim and expectations.

Oh yes, the next generation Honda Civic will be joining the foray shortly as well. To start with, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra is, for lack of a better word, outstanding. It accomplishes everything the automaker intended it to do. More importantly, it's the best compact currently on the market. Here's why: Unlike previous Hyundai models and compact cars in general, the new Elantra greatly benefits from the new "fluidic sculpture" design language, no longer an utter embarrassment to be seen driving it or having it parked on your driveway.

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In fact, the Elantra looks better, in our opinion, than the larger Sonata and may even have the best design for its class. To make things easier on everyone, the Elantra is available in seven configurations and only two trim packages: GLS and Limited. The lower-end GLS trim comes standard with quality cloth seats, a two-tone dash composed of soft-touch materials, and an overall flowing console design that takes design cues from the exterior. Translation: it's not for everybody, but certainly an improvement over what Hyundai previously offered.

The Limited trim comes standard with a seven-inch touch-screen with navigation, audio, and iPod integration controls. There's also XM NavTraffic and NavWeather systems that allow drivers to be updated with everything from traffic updates to stock market reports. A 360-watt, six-speaker stereo system with an external amp also comes in Limited trim as well as a rear-view camera, though hardly needed due to the car's solid rear visibility. Unlike the GLS trim, the Limited comes with double-stitched leather seating - something not typically seen in compacts.

For both trims, the controls are well-placed and feel much more substantial than one would imagine. I'm talking about Toyota-like quality throughout. There's even a three-layer door system and plenty of insulating foam in place to keep out wind and road noise. It's difficult to imagine the next generation Civic topping this. Perhaps the most significant attack weapon of the Elantra is its ability to out-flank the competition in fuel mileage. Regardless of which trim one buys, the Elantra has a drivetrain that returns 27 mpg city and 40 mpg highway.

Powered by a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine with 148 hp and 131 lb-ft of torque, it's mated to either a six-speed automatic or manual transmission. Not only does it earn ULEV (Ultra Low Emissions Vehicle) status, but the engine has more power and fuel efficiency than the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, and even the Mazda 3. However, Hyundai isn't trying to make the new Elantra into the next fan boy racer, but rather an all-around solid piece of reliable transportation in every relevant category. On sale since the beginning of December 2010, the 2011 Elantra has a base price of $14,830.

Upgrade the GLS with the automatic and 16-inch alloys along with what Hyundai calls the "Popular Package" that includes A/C, cruise control, and power everything, expect to pay just over $17,000. As the hype for hybrids seems never ending, it's nice to see Hyundai prove that gasoline engines are still capable of providing excellent fuel numbers along with a real driving experience (read: not a Toyota Prius). More importantly, the new Elantra unleashes the dogs of war against the current competition and is the hands-down winner.

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