Rarely does a car enter the Philippine market with so much buzz that it becomes the undeniable beacon for the brand. Honda has the Civic, Toyota its Corolla, Ford competes with its Fiesta and Mitsubishi has the Lancer as the bread and butter model. For Hyundai, the Elantra has seemingly taken over the cudgels in bannering the Korean brand. And it doesn't take much to find out why.
I used to race against MP Turbo-prepared second-generation Hyundai Elantras in the late 90s. Back then the car had the performance potential to make it stand out among the crowd. For one thing it had ABS--a novelty at that time. Fast forward 12 years later and we now have an Elantra that is just as packed with go-fast-look-good goodies. And being more reasonably priced than most of its competitors, it is no wonder why the Japanese are having a hard time coping with the ongoing Korean invasion.
The latest variant of the Elantra is this 1.6-liter manual that's supposed to be the entry-level variant but, as I've discovered, nothing much about it can be considered entry-level. From looks alone you know you're getting a big car. Its lines closely resemble that of its big brother, the Sonata's. Hyundai's fluidic design language brings out the best features of this car--the modern and aggressive front, the broad sculpted sides and a bulbous rear that reminds you of that shapely derriere plastered on those Coca-Cola billboards on EDSA.
Inside, the same amount of attention to detail as the exterior went into the design, the fit and finish of the Elantra. Though mostly made up of plastic, it's the basically the chiseled kind you can live with on a day-to-day basis. Even the seats share the same molded design language as the rest of the car. Aside from the single-DIN, iPod-ready JVC head unit, which seem to be out of place, the dash looks pretty clean and well organized. And with a sunglass pocket, two vanity mirrors and a cavernous trunk, there isn't really much left out of the equation.
Driving the 1600 Elantra is likewise a revelation. Power from the Gamma Multipoint fuel injected Dual-Continuously Variable Valve Timing (MPI D-CVVT) engine is ample and spritely. With 128 horses and close to 157Nm of torque at the driver's disposal, it feels alive and easy to motivate. Low-end acceleration is quite delightful making it perfect for weaving in and out of traffic despite its sizeable dimensions. On the other end of the stick, steady highway cruising reveals an astounding 24km/L fuel economy figure based on the car's onboard computer. Keeping an eye on the instantaneous fuel consumption display lets you see when fuel use drops down to zero--that is when you back off the gas while in gear. So with the Elantra, as with many of the newer cars nowadays, you can actually forget about going to neutral when you want to save some precious drops of gasoline.
If you do care to do some extensive driving you will find that at least the pedals are easy on the calves. The six-speed (yes, it actually has six forward gears!) manual shifting action is precise and direct, which unfortunately can't be said about its steering. Even if it feels light with an electric motor doing assist duties, it doesn't have the throwback you would have been used to if you grew up with a car on hydraulic power steering. It's basically like playing with a pre-force feedback gaming wheel.
At least the ride isn't as vague. In fact, it feels composed and planted with bumps easily soaked up by the MacPherson strut fronts and Torsion Beam axle rears. I used to own an FD Civic and I can say that the Elantra rides that much smoother and gentler on the bum.
But the real ace up this 1.6-liter manual Elantra’s sleeve is its price. At P798,000 this variant is a certified steal. Fleet managers will surely look hard for a package as complete and as value-laden as this, while starting families now have an option to go up the ranks and bypass the smaller fuel misers that cost some tens of thousands of pesos more. Of course, the Elantra also gives boy-racer wannabees a fresher platform to work with.
Basically the only things that give this 1.6-liter MT Elantra away are the rear drum brakes, the less than fashionable 16-inch wheels, the aforementioned aftermarket stereo and the dull steering feel. Everything else seems to have come from the same 1.8-liter assembly line in terms of quality and that speaks well about Hyundai’s product planning intentions.
We can't wait for the next generation of updates the Japanese are planning for their sub-compacts. With the Elantra around, however, it will take some tedious number crunching to weigh what matters most to the customer. So far, the Elantra has the bases well covered.