In the small, rough parking lot at the bottom of the Edmands Path in New Hampshire’s Presidential Range, the first impulse of a hiker spilling out of the woods was to ask about my black Hyundai Accent.
I find the hatchback eye-catching myself. The small car is very nicely tailored, with a trim, rounded front and a neatly raked windshield. Accent’s roof line arches subtly to finish at a sloping back window that caps the car’s expansive rear hatch. Accent is handsomely monochromatic. The model I test-drove last week wore SE trim, with bold, five-spoke alloy wheels and a cowl-like spoiler shading the back glass. Its total sticker price was $15,280, although you can buy a starting-level Accent for around $11,000.
But much more than Accent’s appearance grabbed the hiker last week. Taken by its compact size, he asked about fuel economy. It’s the topic on everybody’s mind right now.
Yes, as you’d expect, Hyundai Accent earns very attractive EPA fuel-economy numbers. When equipped with a five-speed manual transmission, the car rates 27 miles per gallon in city driving, 32 mpg on the highway. If you pay the additional $1,000 to purchase Accent’s optional, four-speed automatic, city fuel economy drops noticeably to 24 mpg, while highway mileage gains a bit, to 33 mpg. Hyundai also sells a four-door sedan version of Accent, with a conventional trunk. Equipped with the same transmissions and the same, 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, it earns the same fuel-economy ratings.
Small cars today are riding a popularity crest as fuel prices surge closer to $4 per gallon. Across America, sales of little runners grew by 7 percent in the first four months of the year, while the rest of the auto market sank, according to the research company Autodata. The Accent did even better, much better. Through April, Hyundai Motor America, the U.S. arm of the Korean auto company, sold 14,329 Accents, an increase of 28 percent over the same period last year.
But don’t get the idea that small cars are taking over. Their popularity is growing, but people still purchase far more midsize models. The popularity of medium-sized automobiles remained stable through April, with Autodata reporting total four-month sales of 1,145,000. That’s 44 percent higher than the small-car tally of 795,000.
In fact, even accursed SUVs continue to sell in much higher numbers than small cars. When you lump together traditional, truck-based SUVs and newer, automobile-based crossover SUVs, the four-month sales tally across the United States was 1,376,000 SUVs. That exceeds the small-car total by 73 percent.
Of course, a higher percentage of those sport utilities are smaller models that don’t gulp nearly as much fuel as once-popular whales like the Ford Expedition, GMC Yukon Denali or Nissan Armada. We Americans still insist on accommodations in vehicles, like spaciousness and cargo capacity, but we’ll accept scaled-down accommodations when economics insists.
At Salem Ford Hyundai in Salem, N.H., that balance between size and thrift shows up as a buyer preference for Hyundai Elantra, reported Nancy Rodriguez, sales manager. The four-door sedan is a step up from Accent in both size and price, starting at $14,145 and running to $17,845. Elantra provides 98 cubic feet of passenger space, while Accent gives you 92 cubic feet. But with an automatic transmission, Elantra earns slightly better fuel-economy ratings than the smaller Hyundai Accent. The EPA puts its fuel consumption at 25 mpg city, 33 mpg highway.
Nationally, Elantra sales are more than double Accent sales. Its popularity is also growing, though slower than Accent’s ascent. Overall, Elantra sales have increased about 9 percent so far this year, Hyundai reports.
“We can’t keep Elantras in stock,” Rodriguez said. “For the price you get more car.”
Maybe so. But you pay more. Even though the two cars earn comparable fuel-use ratings, Accent is still the thriftier choice. An article I wrote recently for ForbesAutos.com, an online publication of Forbes magazine, ranks Accent as the fifth most economical vehicle you can buy. That’s when you add up all the costs of car ownership over a five-year span, from insurance and finance charges to maintenance and, especially, depreciation. Elantra doesn’t make the top-10 list.
My run up the Edmands Path last week illustrates why so many people willingly pay more for larger vehicles.
Three of us, plus one canine, made the two-plus-hour drive into the White Mountains in the Hyundai Accent. Sonya, a medium-build mongrel, filled the cargo floor beneath the rear hatch. That left the passenger compartment for day packs and boots and such. Under those conditions, a fourth adventurer would never have fit. Accent was filled to its limit.
We did not feel crowded. I even managed to curl up for a half-hour snooze on the back seat. What’s more, we wouldn’t have done any better in Elantra, even though it’s a size larger. The sedan’s trunk would have handled our gear, but frisky young Sonya would have demanded half of the rear seat. At least in the Accent, a hatchback, the dog was isolated from the rear-seat rider. Such versatility makes hatchbacks a much better choice than sedans, especially in small cars.
But unavoidable limits like the one I experienced last week make drivers think twice about purchasing a small car of any type. When you consider the trade-offs, the decision to go with a larger vehicle is quite reasonable. You exchange some greater expense for the more expansive lifestyle you acquire by eliminating some limits on mobility.
2008 Hyundai Accent
Vehicle type: 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive, compact 2-door hatchback and 4-door sedan
Price range: $11,395 to $15,995 (plus options)
Warranty: 5 years/60,000 miles basic warranty; 10 years/100,000 miles powertrain warranty; 7 years/unlimited miles corrosion warranty; 5 years/unlimited miles roadside assistance
Engine: 1.6-liter 4 cylinder
Power: 110 horsepower at 6,000 rpm; 106 lb.-ft. torque at 4,500 rpm
Base transmission: 5-speed manual
Fuel economy: 27 mpg city; 32 mpg highway
Wheelbase: 98 inches
Length: 159 inches
Width: 67 inches
Height: 58 inches
Weight: 2,365 pounds
Fuel capacity: 11.9 gallons
Turning circle: 33.1 feet
By Jeffrey Zygmont