Summary: The Hyundai Elantra Touring is a family-friendly, small station wagon with a Volkswagen look and feel. It offers most of the features of Jetta Sportswagen, for about $4,000 less.
I'm a wannabe history teacher, so this will be a long review. Try to bear with me, or skip ahead. And full disclosure - my car is the 2009 Elantra Touring SE. After six months and 5,000 miles, it is time to write a full review and try to spread the good word about Hyundai's new, global compact car platform that somehow had the good fortune to be brought to the US (one version of it, anyway).
I think this is going to be the longest car review ever (and I told my editor not to bother cutting this post). So if you want really good, edited reviews of this car from around the world, please see them hereherehereherehereherehereherehere and here! They are all good! And even the picky reviewers at The Truth About Cars liked the Elantra Touring, here.
One of my favorite movies of this soon-to-be-finished decade is Layer Cake (2004). Remember the strong nine minute opening? Daniel Craig introduces himself as a successful cocaine dealer who operates in plain sight in a Kesington flat (across from the Queens Arms pub), and supported by an apprentice (Tom Hardy), his muscle (George Harris), and an Irish boss (Colm Meaney). Craig, leading a film cast for the first time in his career, and looking like Steve McQueen more than ever, tells us that he's ready to quit the drug game.
We see a transition from night to day. Craig exits his flat to join his three colleagues in their car. They speed-off to a massive country club....in an Audi RS6 Avant station wagon.
In an American crime film, there is simply no way that vehicle appears as the ride for our criminal protagonists.
The European station wagon. It has been available in the USA in one form or another since the Mercedes Ponton back in 1960. In the late 1960s Mercedes continuted to offer wagons on a special order basis with the 230 wagon. Volvo, Audi, BMW, Volkswagen, and Peugeot all followed Mercedes and offered wagon versions of their cars beginning in the 1970s.
Flash forward 40 years later, and the same European manufacturers (minus Peugeot) are still selling small quantities of wagons in the US. Volkswagen offers two front wheel drive wagons, with either gasoline or turbodiesel engines. Audi offers three premium rides in a variety of FWD and AWD configurations. BMW and Mercedes each offer two wagons with rear or all-wheel-drive. And Volvo offers three wagons with either FWD or AWD. Off the top of my head, there are at least 18 wagon models to choose from from these European car makers. While sales of European wagons are low, the selection is pretty high, ranging from the $25,000 VW Jetta Sportswagen, to the Audi A6 Avant and BMW 530xi wagons, both of which top-out around $60,000.
Even the now-defunct Saturn brand, brought three Opel wagons to the US. They offered the SW2, the LW300, and the short-lived, Mexican-built Astra (which is sold in Australia and Europe under the Vauxhall and Opel brands).
And last year, Cadillac surprised a lot of people by introducing the CTS Sport Wagon, the fastest and most powerful station wagon ever produced by an American company. And it's a hit!
In a country that has been avoiding station wagons since the late 1980s, there can't possibly be room for more models, right?
Enter the east Asian car makers.
Japanese automakers realized back in the 1980s, that the only sure way to anchor themselves into the European market was to offer what European families want: station wagons (also called estates, combis, avants, tourings, and crossover wagons (CW's)). Since the 1950s, American buyers have been marketed and encouraged to upgrade from coupes to sedans to wagons (and later minivans and SUVs). Since the 1970s, European buyers have been encouraged to upgrade their car sizes in a more direct path - from 5-door hatchbacks to 5-door wagons, in an enormous variety of shapes, sizes, and nationalities. Hatchbacks and wagons in Europe are currently sold by 17 major manufacturers, each offering several platforms and models. Just take a look at any parking lot in western or central Europe to see how hatchbacks outsell sedans. With fuel costs and annual gas guzzler taxes as steep as they are, Europeans are forced to buy maximum interior room for their money - and that's not a bad thing at all. I sure wish I grew-up in the hatchback version of the Toyota Corolla or the 4WD Turcel wagon, rather than the Corolla sedan back in the mid 80s.
Which brings me back to the Japanese competitors. Beginning in the early 1980s, Japanese brands did the simplest thing they could to break into the large European wagon market. They made wagon versions of their ubiquitous sedans that would soon become best-sellers in the US. Wagon (or "estate") versions of the Maxima, Camry, and Accord quickly appeared in the US and Europe. But Japanese makers also looked to their domestic market for two other body types they could sell in Europe and occasionally the USA. What's interesting is that these two body types are still massively popular in Japan, and among Japanese car enthusiasts worldwide.
The first is the 'tallboy' wagon or minivan. The tallboy is essentially a compact sedan turned into a hatchback, but with a higher roof line. It's basically an urban minivan. Enthusiasts in the US were lucky to see a few of these cars. One notable example was the 1984-1987 Honda Civic Wagon (called the Shuttle in the UK). It was truly odd, featuring a funny pop-up center vent cluster and an arguably distracting instrument panel with a 'grid paper' graphic design. It was also the first Honda in the US to be offered with four wheel drive. Honda had a strong following in the US from its start in the late 1960s. But not many mechanics or prospective owners wanted to deal with the auxiliary valve added to each cylinder of the CVCC engine.
More Americans remember the boxy 1983-1986 Toyota Turcell 4WD wagon. Larger and more spacious than the tiny sedan on which it was based, the Turcell wagon was actually larger and a hair less powerful than the E80 Toyota Corolla sedan of the same era. Although it barely produced 80 horsepower, it had a more powerful and torquey all-wheel-drive system than the Honda Civic Shuttle (however, the 4WD system was only supposed to be used in wet conditions, as the system had no center differential for full-time use). Its very distinctive rear end will live in the memories of Generation X for life.
In the years since, we have seen a few more. The Mitsubishi Eclipse tallboy was briefly sold in the USA as the Eagle Summit. The first Honda Odyssey was a 1990s version of the Civic Shuttle. And today, there are two tallboys on the US market, the Mazda 5, and the Kia Rondo.
Japan's second space-maximizing design innovation was born out of pro-automobile government legislation beginning in 1948. We know Japanese cars for their many hatchbacks, tallboy minivans, all-wheel-drive rally racers, and world-renowned GT coupes. But the most popular vehicles in the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) have been minicars, called kei cars. Japan's mercantilist / protectionist flavor of capitalism led the government to promote car buying by the nation's young working and middle-class. High gasoline prices, annual taxes, and insurance were discouraging car buying, and many young people were choosing scooters and motorcycles instead. So Japan strongly encouraged an entry-level class of minicar with maximum length, width and engine size regulations. What the government didn't do, was impose a strict height limit, so by the 1960s, manufacturers were making tall, boxy urban vehicles that carried quite a lot of cargo, but got impressive fuel economy. When Subaru introduced the first 'kei van', the Sambar, in 1961, it opened the flood gates on boxy designs that continue to this day. The quartet of customizable Nissan 'Pike Factory' kei cars made their way into US car magazines in 1989. But it would be another 12 years of market research and internet-fueled consumer demand before kei cars came to the USA as Scions, the Honda Fit, and the Nissan Cube.
Today, the Asian, Bermuda/Caribbean, and European markets have several kei cars available such as the Daihatsu Move (and abut 4 other Daihatsu models), the Suzuki Wagon R (which won the sales crown in Japan 1998-2001), the Suzuki SW microvan, the Subaru Stella, and the Honda Life, which might come to USA due to Honda enthusiast demand which also brought us the Fit. But Japan keeps most kei cars to its domestic market, and they continue to be the best-selling class of automobile in Japan today, as fuel prices, taxes, and insurance are as high as they've ever been. What's interesting is that for years, the Japanese assumed that the rest of the world would not want kei cars because they're ugly. But now they are in-demand in from India to southern California for being economical, cute, and practical. They are probably the chiuauas of the automotive world. One company in Tokyo lets US buyers import the kei car of their choice for $15,000 plus a hefty importation fee.
Asian Wagons Gain Acceptance
Japanese manufacturers rarely try to produce a European-style sedan or wagon. Historically, intruding on European turf with a car asking to be compared to European models is asking for trouble. The Volkswagen family (VW, Seat, Skoda) produces solid 5-door front-wheel-drive hatchbacks for the masses. The french trio of Reneault, Peugeot, and Citroen produce refined front-wheel-drive cars in various shapes and sizes. If a consumer becomes wealthy enough, he or she can always upgrade to the rear or all-wheel-drive luxury of BMW, Mercedes, and Audi. And if the driver is an oddball, Subarus, Fiats, and Afla Romeos are available throughout Europe. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, and Mitsubishi have gradually improved their front-wheel-drive cars so they feel better on the road, but admittedly, they just don't have tight, balanced feel of the German or French cars. In fact, over the last 10 years, Honda and Nissan have occasionally tossed engineering common sense aside and produced 300HP front wheel drive sedans for the power-hungry US market (see the Acura TL and Nissan Maxima). But at least they knew such overpowered front-drive sedans would never sell in Europe.
Eventually, good car engineering came to Europe from a Japanese car maker. Surely there must be debate as to when this happened, but my vote is with the third generation European Honda Accord in 2003 (brought to the USA as the Acura TSX). It had what premium European sports sedans and wagons had: an aluminum inline-4 engine with variable valve timing, four-wheel disc brakes, stiffer coil springs front and rear, a soft-touch dashboard, classic analog instrumentation seen through a leather 3-spoke steering wheel, 17-inch alloy wheels, sunroof, and a price around $30,000 USD. While not cheap, it is the price Europeans are willing to pay for that level of refinement and sportiness. And being built at the Honda plant in Swindon, England, it could be accepted as European-designed and built. It became a hit in England, Germany, and other parts of northwest Europe. It couldn't crack Volkswagen's Spanish or Czech markets. But the Accord Tourer, the wagon version, is arguably the best Honda in Europe. It gets a lot of attention from American Honda enthusiasts who would rather drive their families in a diesel wagon than the bland CR-V.
And when Subaru released its third generation Outback in 2004, the game was really afoot. It was a beautifully balanced wagon with true off-road capability, and quieter than most Japanese midsize cars.
In Europe, the length of your hatchback is likely a reflection of your family size. Take Peugeot for example. They offer the 206, 306, and 406 models (soon to all end with an 8, it seems). All are available as hatchbacks or station wagons (with the 406 also offered as a luxury cope and sedan). My girl's cousin in the Czech Republic has a 206sw as his company car, for example. Every European manufacturer offers both hatchbacks and wagon versions of those hatchbacks in more than one platform, ensuring that individuals and families can find a car that is perfectly sized for their needs and tax / fuel budget.
The Hyundai i30 hatchback. It has Volkswagen's full attention.
After years of selling compact sedans and SUVs, Korean manufacturer Hyundai decided to produce a global hatchback that would be targeted at the Asian and European markets. Even more bold, it would compete directly with Volkswagen (namely Volkswagen's most popular cars, the Fox, Polo, Golf and Jetta). Once Hyundai had a design office in-place in Russelsheim, Germany and a factory ready to roll in Nošovice, Czech Republic, work began on Hyundai's first lineup of global cars, the i10, i20, i30, and i30cw.
Everyone knows global platform sharing is the cost effective way to go in the car business. I think GM pioneered that in the 1950s. Ford improved upon it in this decade. And now Hyundai, the world's fifth-largest car maker, is following that philosophy. Hyundai's "i" series represents new branding and a new product line for the next decade. There are actually seven global models already. In addition to the mini i10, the subcompact i20, the compact i30, and the stretched i30cw, there is the ix35 compact SUV, the midsize i40 sedan, and the midsize ix45 SUV.
We in the US and Canada are getting four of these vehicles. The i30cw is the Elantra Touring. The ix35 is the 2010 Tucson. The i40 is the 2011 Sonata sedan. And the ix45 is the upcoming next-generation Santa Fe SUV. The German-designed vehicles, the i30 and the ix35 are the most European vehicles Hyundai has offered in North America. Actually, I think along with the Genesis coupe, they are the best cars Hyundai has ever offered in North America. The reason comes down to balance and much improved engineering.
Hyundai Elantra Touring: A Small European Estate
It is understandable why Hyundai USA is unsure how to market the Elantra Touring. It's a wagon, but you can't say 'wagon' in the USA. I have seen it advertised as sporty, like a Mazda 3, or practical and roomy, like a Toyota Matrix. The Touring is a big hit in Canada, where the similar Mitsubishi Lancer wagon was a hit nearly ten years ago. And the Touring seems to be gaining popularity with American surfers.
A common theme in Hyundai's advertising is that the Touring has 65 cubic feet of cargo room with the rear seats folded down. That's twice as much space as the Mazda 3, and more space than either the Nissan Murano crossover or Hummer H3 SUV. That's impressive. And Hyundai did it without having to resort to a space-saving torsion beam rear suspension. Instead, they brought a full-size multilink suspension in the rear (similar to the one used in the Tucson SUV), kept the spare tire and a sub-level of storage inside the car, and still managed to create a wide, near-flat cargo area. One way they did this was to bulge-out the B pillars by a few centimeters so the car has a little extra interior volume in the middle. You can't detect it from outside the car, but you might notice if you sit in the back seat and compare the B pillars in front of you to the C pillars behind your head (also notice the room between the B pillars and the front bucket seats).
Plus, the roof slopes upward and upward to the B pillars, and then gently slopes down to the D pillars, much like two other European cars in the Hyundai/Kia portfolio, the Kia Cee'd and the Kia Rondo. For a compact car, the Touring features a lot of headroom. I'm 6'3" and I can still wear a dress hat in the front or rear seats.
So given the tall roofline, the Touring is closer to the Toyota Matrix than the Mazda 3. But the Touring has a longer wheelbase than the Matrix - nearly 4 inches longer, and that translates into more cargo room, more rear passenger room, and slightly better stability.
Compact Is The Old Mid-Size
And I think this is the biggest take-away from the Elantra Touring: it's a family car. It is classified as a 'compact' car by the EPA and the EU. But it also qualifies as a 'small station wagon' under the EPA regulations. And if this was 20 years ago, the Elantra Touring would be just as big as the mid-size cars of the era. For example, the second generation Toyota Camry (1987-1991) had a wheelbase of 102.4 inches. Today, the sixth generation Camry has a wheelbase of 109.3 inches, while the compact Toyota Matrix has last decade's 'mid-size' wheelbase of 102.4.
And how does the Elantra Touring compare to contemporary mid-size cars? In the list of wheelbase lengths below, only the Jetta, Matrix, and Elantra Touring are classified as compacts. The cars at the bottom of the list are mid-size.
2009 VW Jetta Sportwagen - 101.5
2009 Toyota Matrix - 102.4
2009 Subaru Outback - 105.1
2008 Mazda 6 Wagon (discontinued) - 105.3
2009 Elantra Touring - 106
2009 Ford Fusion - 107.4
2009 Mitsubishi Galant - 108.3
2009 Nissan Altima - 109.3
2009 Toyota Camry - 109.3
So while the Elantra Touring has the dual classification of 'compact' and 'small station wagon,' it is, by both 1980s and 1990s standards, the equivalent of a mid-size family car. With a back seat as big and spacious as the new Subaru Forester, a long list of safety features, and a ton of cargo space, the Elantra Touring is a competent family car. And it makes sense that in the UK, the i30 wagon is marketed as an 'estate.' In a typical two-car British suburban household, it would likely be the bigger car.
And yet, while the Matrix has a 36-foot turning radius, the longer Elantra Touring can do a circle in a tighter 34.2 feet - the same radius as the Ford Focus sedan. How'd they do that?
Extra Safety Comes Standard
The Elantra Touring has the distinction of being the first compact car in the USA to feature both traction control and electronic stability control (ESC) as standard features. While ESC will be mandated for all compact cars beginning in 2012, Hyundai beat that mandate by nearly 3 full years.
Six airbags. Antilock brakes. Four wheel disc brakes. It's all standard. The stopping distance from 60MPH is a sports car-like 125 feet. That was a feature my new car just had to have.
The Interior: Korea Meets Germany
The interior of the Touring really is a mix of Asian and European design. For starters, the headlights and direction indicators are controlled by a single wand, just like every Japanese car. But like a European car, the radio sits high in the center stack, with clear time and temperature also displayed. Much to my delight, the clock can be set to 24 hour format, and the temperature can be displayed in either Fahrenheit or Celsius. XM Radio is standard. And while it would have been nice to have either a subwoofer or two additional speakers in the rear hatch, the standard 170-watt system and six speakers (four in the front, two in the rear doors) is adequate for most drivers. Perhaps down the road, the Touring can get the Infinity system featured in the Genesis Coupe as an option. But the Touring's system has the same seamless iPod integration, which both controls and charges all iPods ever produced, except the iPod Touch and iPhone. We hear that Hyundai is working to ensure the system works with absolutely every iPod in the future.
The seats are manually adjusted, but cradle both the driver and front passenger well. The driver seat is 8-way adjustable, while the passenger seat is a 4-way. The plastic molding on the back of each bucket seat reminds us that this is a family car that can hold large items. But if these seats had a big black knob instead of a lever to adjust the seat angle, you might mistake them for the seats in the VW Golf. The Hyundai's seats feature a polyester fishnet pattern, which is supposed to make the seats breathable, odor resistant, and more sporty overall. That texture won't be everyone's favorite, but so far, I like it. Better still, it hasn't pulled, pilled, or frayed thus far. I prefer seats that cradle you so that your thighs are angled slightly upward, so your knees are slightly higher than your bum. Not all cars allow that, but in my experience, Subaru, BMW, Volvo, Volkswagen and this Hyundai does.
Nice Japanese/Korean family car features abound in the interior. The glovebox has an adjustable vent to allow air conditioned air to cool beverage cans. The center console is big enough to store a GPS device and charger cable in the lower compartment, and pens and a stack of post-it notes in the upper compartment. Just like any Toyota Camry made after 1990, there is a rubber-lined sunglass compartment overhead.
Some reviewers were turned-off by the rubber sun visors. I quite like them. As opposed to fabric-lined visors, which show more wear over time, the rubber visors in the Touring look clean and do their job well. And the springs inside them are a little too strong to serve their purpose. They certainly stay stuck to the ceiling when not in use.
The dashboard is a mix of good and bad. I love the soft-touch material that surrounds the center stack, glovebox, and tops the door panels. It's a premium car feature. But the hard, black plastic in the center stack surrounding the radio and climate controls is not a premium feature. It attracts shiny fingerprints too easily. If Hyundai had spent more money here, they could have used a higher-quality plastic, similar to the material used in the steering wheel. Softer plastics usually translate into 'cheap,' but it becomes clear that the softer materials in the Touring's interior are the more durable and fingerprint-resistant surfaces. And I hate fingerprints.
Speaking of rubber, there is more to be found if you look closely. The door armrests seem to be surrounded by a rubbery trim, and the insides of each door are surrounded by a thick rubber gasket. Seeing exposed rubber around the doors is a clear sign of an economy car. But compared to the exposed steel I see around the doors in the current Ford Focus, I prefer Hyundai's extra protection from road noise and the elements.
It looks like there's an extra rubber gasket around the inside of each door.
The outer edge of each armrest is a rubbery material as well. The window lift buttons are unique and stylish.
The European and Asian versions of this car get electronic climate control systems. Hyundai opted to give the Elantra Touring big climate control knobs, similar to the Genesis Coupe. And just like the Coupe, there are electronically-controlled buttons to direct air flow. That's a nice upgrade from the Elantra sedan, which has an extra knob attached to a steel cable to control airflow. The air conditioning in the Touring is adequate, but the fan strength always seems a bit on the weak side.
My new car had to have a sunroof and heated seats. The Elantra Touring offers both in a single SE package (which also adds those awesome 17" wheels). One package, three great upgrades.
Heated cloth seats. Gotta have 'em.
My new car had to have front air vents that could be closed. The Touring has that feature. Being able to close any of the four front vents is a feature which only used to exist in larger vehicles, like SUVs and minivans. But the Hyundai / Kia family seems to be expanding it to all their cars. The Kia Rondo has that feature. And the Hyundai Genesis Coupe has it as well.
Again, the back seat is huge for a compact car. It has more leg room than a Toyota Camry or almost any other mid-size car. There is a folding center armrest with two beverage holders. It has the usual required headrests, child car seat anchors, and 3-point seat belts. There are no air vents for the back seat. But for those who want to add LCD monitors, there's a ton of room for that.
And while the center stack is made of hard black plastic, there is a handy storage compartment at the top of the dash, which just happens to accommodate a toll tag perfectly. You can even stick the tag to the inside of the compartment door, and just flip it open when you go through an electronic toll booth. The Genesis Coupe has this feature as well. And it's the perfect place to rest a GPS device on a beanbag mount.
The Touring was designed in Frankfurt, Germany. And I think its inspiration was the Mark IV Golf (1997-2006). And the feature of the car that emphasizes that point is the lovely gauge cluster in the Touring.
Here is the gauge cluster in the 2004 Jetta and Golf. Note the informtion display between the speedometer and tachometer, and the temperature and fuel gauges above it:
And here is the Elantra Touring:
All German makers, except Porsche, aim to design dashboards that have a straight horizontal line, and rectangular vents. The VW Jetta pictured above is no exception. The Hyundai seems to get its curvier dash and tall vents from Japanese SUVs and minivans. But the steering-wheel sized hood and through-the-wheel gauges is straight out of 40 years of European automotive history, from Alfa Romeos, to the French brands, to the VW / Audi / SEAT / Skoda family. And the blue LED information display between the tachometer and speedometer is a direct copy of the VW display from just a few years ago (VW has since switched to red illumination for the Mark V and VI Golf, to mimic Audi's interior design theme).
The best feature about the Touring's controls and instrumentation is its next-generation LED lighting. White-on-black electroluminescent displays are reserved for luxury cars. But the Touring's bright blue LED lighting is crisp and contemporary, again underscoring that this doesn't look like the interior of a $20,000 car.
The Touring's steering wheel feels great - almost like a premium vehicle. I really couldn't own a car that didn't have audio control buttons on the steering wheel. And it's telescopic, another premium touch. But I'm still trying to figure out what is up with its leather coating. It seems to be glued in-place rather than stitched-on (same with the leather on the automatic gear shift). The stitching doesn't seem to be functional. And I'm still not sure if it is real leather (Hyundai says it is). After some thought, I think it's kangaroo leather (which is a very thin, durable hide used in soccer shoes - and I wonder if that's a continuation of this car's Australian theme?). It's definitely better than the standard rubber steering wheel in the Kia Spectra or Hyundai Accent. And it is a notch below the beefy, padded leather wheels from the Volvo S40 and BMW 3 Series. Surely on a $20,000 dollar car, I'll take it. I just wish it felt more like the leather steering wheels in $30,000 cars.
Chassis, Suspension, and Wheels - All Top Class
The Touring's greatest feature is what it rides on - a European platform with independent suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and beautiful 17" wheels fitted with Kumho KH-16 low profile dry/wet tires. If you want a similar setup on another Asian car, you will only find it on the Mazda 3, Subaru Impreza, Subaru Legacy/Outback, Nissan Altima Coupe, Mitsubishi Lancer, Acura TSX, and Hyundai Genesis Coupe. Otherwise, you have to look to Europe for similar configurations (most notably the VW Golf and Jetta).
The sweetest wheels and tires yet on a Hyundai family car.
And this translates into a very Volkswagen-like handling. The Touring does not have the low center of gravity nor the power of the Mazda 3. But its road feel and handling dynamics is very similar to the base VW Golf and the Jetta Sportswagen.
When I first test-drove the Touring in April 2009, I was immediately reminded of the Mark IV and Mark V Golf (I've driven both). The steering wheel has a tight feel, not loose like a Town Car. Steering is precise and road feedback is outstanding, despite being an electric power assisted system. The trick, I think, is that the power assist is moderate, requiring a firm grip on the wheel through turns. Throttle is fly-by-wire, a Japanese luxury car feature that has finally trickled down to the masses. Brakes are pretty much the same as in the base Genesis Couple - powerful, with excellent feedback and little fade in emergency stops.
Suspension in the front is the usual MacPherson struts. The rear is multilink with an additional stabilizer bar the Elantra Sedan does not offer as standard. In addition, the coil springs on all four wheels are firmer than the sedan (24% stiffer in the front, and 39% in the rear).
The i30 platform is well balanced, rattle-free, and can be thrown around just like the Golf. Due to the low profile tires, high-speed turns are greeted with a lot of tire squeal. But if you ever do hear the tires squeal, Electronic Stability Control will take action to keep the car on the intended line. What impresses me with the i30cw / Touring is that while it is not a 'hot hatch', its extended frame stays stuck to the road without a hint of losing rear traction. It passes my 'front-wheel-drive rally car' test. Like the Ford Focus, VW Golf, and Citroen C4, the Touring is loads of fun to drive and earns the trust of the driver through elevation changes and sharp turns. Hyundai has made a true driver's car.
Korean manufacturers obviously have a reputation of making cheap cars with mushy handling. But the latest generation of European-designed Hyundais (the Genesis Coupe, the i30 / Elantra Touring, and the new ix35 / Tucson) break free of that stereotype. These are beautiful handlers, not unlike Ford's European stable (Fiesta, Focus, Kuga, Mondeo, Fusion).
Hyundai made sure the i30 would be a hit in Australia. And it made several best cars lists two years running.
Hyundai says that the i30's suspension was fine-tuned on Australian roads. But they could have easily been the old parkways and two-lane highways of New York and New England. As we'll see in the next section, the Touring's dated drivetrain doesn't hinder its ability to deliver a very fun ride at sub-interstate speeds.
The Drivetrain: Good not Great
There is much room for improvement in the Touring's drivetrain. By no means poor, the Touring's drivetrain is a mixture of contemporary and older technologies. Hyundai had to cut costs somewhere, and in my opinion, it is found in the iron-block Beta II engine, the same 2.0 inline 4 that powers the Tiburon coupe, the Elantra sedan, Kia Soul, and the first-generation Tucson. With 138 horses and 136 foot pounds of torque, the Beta II provides adequate power without guzzling fuel nor generating too much torque (which can wear out tires in a front-drive car).
Zero-to-sixty in about 9 seconds. That's not going to win any performance awards. But this run would have shook apart an E80 Corolla.
The Beta II is a descendant of the basic engines Hyundai has built for over 20 years in its Ulsan motor factory, albeit with a lot of refinements. It is a small, iron block 2-liter inline 4 with fuel injection, alloy heads, an internal balancing shaft, and variable valve timing. Iron block. That irked me. I remember in 1989, when the Peugeot 405 mi16 was the first compact car sold in the US with a high-output aluminum engine. It was state of the art. And in the same year, Nissan developed the cute Pike Factory cars with small, economic aluminum engines, proving that they could take the heat and high revs of city driving. I must have thought at the time that my first car would also have an aluminum block. Over the years, aluminum blocks were offered by all manufacturers, until around the year 2005 when the majority of new engines were aluminum. Ford no longer makes iron blocks. Nor do any of the European car makers. But there I was, in the summer of 2009, and my first new car had an iron block. At first I felt cheated.
But how many pounds would an aluminum block save? 100? 200? I'm not sure. And let's look at the engine's best features. The Beta II, introduced by Hyundai in 2001, has gone through two major upgrades. It's extremely reliable. And it sits on hydraulic mounts (you can see one in the picture above on the left), which further minimize vibration and improve balance. The Beta II is Hyundai's workhouse. It powered the Tucson. A former colleague of mine bought a Tiburon coupe in 2004, and then started a family and bought a Tucson in 2008 - both powered by a Beta II. And Hyundai claims that this is not your daddy's bulky iron block. It is slimmed-down, so that the cylinder bores appear as bumps on the outside of the block. And with so many Beta II's on the road, they are easy to maintain and are a favorite among the Hyundai tuner crowd.
And let's keep things in perspective. A 10.1:1 compression ratio is very respectable for an engine of this size. And 138 horsepower is about the same power generated by the famous economy muscle car engine, the Dodge/Plymouth Slant 6. If 140 horses was enough to power my dad's old Dodge coupe, then surely I can manage the same power in compact wagon with a far more sophisticated suspension, braking system, and safety features.
The Beta II is being replaced by the Theta II, which is a direct-injection 2.4-liter inline 4. The Theta is a huge improvement over the Beta. It's an aluminum block. It features direct injection, the biggest evolution in fuel injection since the original Bosch fuel injector. And the results are self evident. The Theta generates 176 horses (over the Beta's 138), weighs about the same (if not less), and gets roughly the same fuel economy. It shows that Hyundai can engineer advanced motors just as well as Honda and Toyota. Speaking of which, Toyota has been the role model in the area of high-output small motors. Their 2-liter, 200 horsepower four-banger has powered every Lotus sports car since 1995. And they just gave their big minivan, the Sienna, a 2.7-liter, 187 horsepower aluminum inline 4, that also adequately powers the Camry and Highlander (although at 5,000 pounds, I'm sure my Touring would outrun the 4-cylinder Highlander). It's great to see Hyundai expand the Theta II availability. Unfortunately, due to timing, the i30 and the Elantra Touring are the last new Hyundai's to have the old engine installed.
So I have my eyes on Australia, where the i30 is a huge hit. If and when Hyundai puts the Theta in the i30, it will probably appear in Australia first, where motorheads demand horsepower. Then again, the turbodiesel version of the i30, the 1.6-liter CRDI, is a hit in both Germany and the Czech Republic, and I don't see their drivers complaining about a lack of power. In fact, Hyundai has released a special edition i30 for the German market, powered by the 1.6L turbodiesel. Drivers can opt for the 2.0L Beta 'petrol' engine, but since diesel is s much more accepted in Europe, it is outsold by the diesel engine. Even the German special edition i30 wagon is powered by a special 2.0L turbo-diesel, and doesn't it look awesome.
The Touring offers two excellent transmissions, a 5-speed manual and a durable 4-speed automatic. The performance edge clearly goes to the 5-speed manual, which is provided by American sport shifter maker, B&M (again, pretty impressive for a family car). In fact, aside from the 6-speed manual available in the Genesis coupe, the B&M 5-speed available in the Touring is Hyundai's best stick. Almost every reviewer describes it as a short-throw, comfortable, fun shifter that seems to be taken from a 1990s sports car, like the Nissan Z or Toyota Celica. Drivers with the 5-speed manual transmission can record a 0-60 acceleration time of 8 seconds (it's 9 seconds with the automatic). If they are orthodox in their shifting, they can get superior fuel economy as well.
I had to opt with the 4-speed auto, since I can't drive stick. And I'm pleased to report that while it is less fun than the stick, it does its job just fine. The last 4-speed auto I drove was a 2008 Subaru Forester. It was smooth, if a little quick to shift into 4th gear. The Hyundai Touring's automatic shifts very conservatively, presumably to improve fuel economy. After a quick shift from first to second, it takes a while to engage 3rd and 4th. You have to get the engine to rev above 3,000 RPM before the transmission commits to the final two upshifts. Each ratio seems fine, if you don't mind 1990s technology.
It may be a 4-speed, but the shifter feels high-quality and the gear ratios are excellent.
Compare this to the Volvo S40, which has a 5-speed automatic gearbox by Ford. The Volvo reaches 5th gear as soon as you enter a highway, around 50MPH, the Touring doesn't reach its final gear until you are driving over 60MPH for an extended period. And that final gear can take you all the way to the top speed of 100MPH. If you head onto the highway, get into the middle lane, and accelerate to what feels comfortable and quiet (without checking the speedometer), your speed should be between 50 and 60MPH. Some reviewers report that the engine is noisy and buzzy, but that only seems to be the case when the car is carrying a full load and driving uphill. On the highway, the engine is quiet. It cruises quietly at 60MPH at 2,600 RPM, and has the power to pass, albeit for short periods of time.
Update, January 5, 2014: I realize after 26,000 miles in this car, that it is have never revved above 3,600 RPM. The vast majority of my driving, has been at under 3,000. This car is mild mannered, motor-wise. A Honda it is not,
So about that improved fuel economy. This is where the Touring beats a lot of competitors. It has an estimated EPA fuel economy of 23 MPG city and 31 MPG highway. As of this month, I am recording 23 city, 34 highway, for a an overall average of 29 combined (some weeks it's 28, other weeks it's 29). That's the same overall fuel economy as a Ford Focus sedan, which has much less legroom and a small, 12 cubic foot trunk.
It's A Recreational Vehicle, Dude
The Elantra Touring is very much at home on a winding road when you're not in a hurry. Whether it's carrying a couple of surfboards in southern California, or visiting small towns in the Berkshires, the Elantra is a fun car to drive when you have plenty of leisure time to enjoy the scenery and put the car through some spirited turns and shifts. And for $20,000 fully loaded, it puts the Toyota Matrix and a whole lot of mid-size family sedans to shame. I recommend this car over any mid-size sedan except the Subau Legacy. It has what it takes to carry a family of four safely and competently.
Definitely Buy It Instead Of:
Volkswagen Golf (base), Volkswagen Jetta Sportswagen (gasoline), Toyota Matrix, Dodge Caliber, Suzuki SX4, Nissan Cube, Nissan Versa, Ford Focus sedan, Scion xD
Consider It Against:
Ford Escape (Mercury Mariner), Ford Edge, 2011 Ford Focus Wagon, Ford Fiesta, Kia Soul, Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, Mitsubishi Lancer Sportback, Subaru Impreza, Subaru Outback Sport, Mazda3 5-Door, Toyota Rav4, Volvo V50, Volkswagen Jetta Sportswagen TDI, Kia Rondo, Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Honda Fit, Honda Insight, Toyota Prius, Saab 9-3 SportCombi, Scion xB
If You Drive In Snow:
Then get a Subaru Outback. It's the only wagon I would choose over this one.
If You Like It And Want An Even Bigger Version:
Get the new 2010 Hyundai Tucson. It is based on the same Russelsheim-designed platform as the Elantra Touring. It has the more advanced Theta direct injection engine mated with a new, silky smooth 6-speed automatic transmission. It has the same seamless iPod integration, heated seats, power sunroof, the same cargo capacity, a slick GPS option, a leather seating option, and the added traction of part time all-wheel-drive. Don't be surprised if the new Tucson wins a few major American auto awards this year. The Ford Escape, as great as it is, is far behind the new Tucson (Ford will be bringing the Kuga to America to catch-up). And the Toyota Rav4 might as well be dropped from many prospective shopping lists. Hyundai is on a serious winning streak.