Dismal little car. That’s what you’d hear 20 years ago when the conversation turned to Hyundai. The Excel wasn’t as terrible as a Yugo, or even as horrifically unreliable as sneering Peugeots, but it wasn’t exactly welcomed with open arms. Back then, even Japanese brands were still targets of xenophobia; who was this Korean company trying to fool?
Hyundai persevered, and now the South Korean industrial giant is making vehicles that garner good recommendations and carry one of the best warranties in the business. Hyundai’s Accent could be considered a spiritual successor to the unloved Excel, and it carries on that car’s basic formula of delivering a comparable car for less money than the competition. What do you give up to get a car that’s not stripped, yet still cheaper?
Recent history has seen Hyundais roll off dealer lots as well-equipped, attractively anonymous cars that lack engaging driving dynamics. That’s not so much the case anymore, as our time with the Accent has proven. The first check mark in the Accent’s plus column is styling that’s normal. It’s even dull, and that’s fine when faced with the ugly visages of any Scion, the ungainly proportions of a Versa, or the outright confusion of a Focus.
Deliciously conventional, the Accent has clean flanks broken by a strong stroke carved across its middle and a mildly sporting hatch profile. The 3-door we sampled carried the top SE trim level, coming with body color mirrors and door handles, a rear spoiler, foglamps, and handsome 16-inch alloy wheels as highlights among the nearly all-inclusive package of goodies. It’s base price was $15,280 with the only option being sporty floormats.
The Accent SE runs with a pack of cars that includes the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, and Suzuki SX4 wagon. All are less conventionally styled than the Accent, and on virtually every measure, the Hyundai is competitive. Measuring tape doesn’t tell the whole story, though.
Like the exterior, Hyundai’s not stretching to break new ground with the interior. Spend some time in the hell-box interior of an xB and you’ll cry tears of joy the first time you plant your tukas in the Accent. Rather than be different for the sake of it, Hyundai delivers a clean, simply operated human-car interface rendered in decent materials. The radio sits up high, easily reached, and just below it are three knobs for the HVAC – no fiddly rocker controls here. Because we’re lazy auto journos, we missed audio controls on the leather wrapped steering wheel, but the stereo is right there.
The seats are econo-car fare, though bolstered halfway decently and supportive in the right spots. Cloth upholstery in two tasteful patterns should endure at least until the warranty runs out in a decade. There are touches of bargain bin inside, however. The seat brackets, especially for the rears, are right out in the open, not dressed in like on some other cars, which adds a touch of cheap. The door panels are made of a plastic that will quickly become marred with scratches, too. Our sampler was already showing signs of wear in this area. Overall, materials are midpack for the class, with low-luster coverings on the dash and upper door panels, non-flimsy controls, and faultless ergonomics. It’s a richer feeling cockpit than you’d expect, and the simple gauge package is thankfully where it belongs, right in front of the driver.
Hyundai’s 1.6-liter four-cylinder kicks it with a DOHC 16-valve layout and a slightly gravel voice that’ll happily bellow all day. 110 horsepower and 106 lb-ft of torque have 2,500 lbs to bear, and when channeled through the five-speed transaxle, the Accent can even be mildly entertaining. The shifter isn’t a model of precision, but the startlingly chunky setup OEM’d by B&M feels good in the hand and the ridiculously oversized machined aluminum lockout ring is a conversation piece. Our favorite powertrain feature by far was the honest-to-goodness throttle cable. No drive by wire actuation here; press the pedal and you get a response without latency.
A sporty suspension tune is also part of the SE up-rating. MacStruts up front and a torsion beam out back are time honored ingredients for the sporty hatch recipe. Hyundai stuffed plenty of rubber under the Accent SE, wrapping the 16-inch alloys with 205s for plenty of stiction. SE-specific springs and shocks keep body motions in check while you’re flinging the Accent SE around by the scruff of its neck, exercising the model’s specific steering rack and stabilizer bar. Even with a disc/drum combo platter, the brake pedal is firm and confident. And while the Accent ultimately understeers, it’s got the moves and the traction to keep you grinning. The ride winds up being firm without being harsh, though the Accent can’t manage the supple chassis dynamics of a Volkswagen Rabbit.
Sharp responses aren’t everything, and the Accent works just dandy as a daily driver, too. Adults will fit in the rear seats, though the Accent will likely not be the staff car of an NBA franchise. Hatchbacks have winning flexibility, and the Accent happily hauled plenty of bulky items, construction materials or whatever for us. One disappointment during the Accent’s stay was fuel economy. While the EPA rates the Accent SE at 27 mpg city and 33 mpg highway when equipped with the 5-speed, we only acheived 27.5 mpg with a highway-heavy commute.
Maybe we were having more fun than we thought with the Accent, and that’s why we didn’t see the type of fuel economy we were expecting. Rare is the small car that can mix it up on a back road at the hands of a competent driver and give fits to the poseurs in sportier cars. We’re not sure we’d be as enthusiastic about the softer GS or GLS Accents, but the SE tickles our automotive enjoyment centers without creating an achy wallet.
©2008 Dan Roth / Weblogs, Inc.