Hyundai Accent is light on the budget

Frugal buyers intent on saving money at the gasoline pump and the car dealership shouldn’t overlook the Hyundai Accent hatchback.

The three-door 2008 Accent has been the top-ranked, gasoline-powered, compact hatchback in government fuel economy ratings, with a city rating of 27 miles per gallon and a highway rating of 32 mpg when fitted with manual transmission.

Better yet, the soon-to-be-arriving 2009 Accent hatchback, with a mildly tweaked four-cylinder engine, has an even higher rating: 27/33 mpg for a combined city/highway rating of 33 mpg.

Hyundai’s entry model, the Accent 3-Door hatchback has a starting manufacturer’s suggested retail price, including destination charge, of just $11,645 with manual transmission and $12,645 with automatic transmission for 2008 models. For 2009 Accent hatchbacks, base prices are $100 higher.

It’s worth noting that the low starting prices include items not normally found on base models of small, entry-level cars: a generous amount of standard safety equipment, including six air bags as well as a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty on powertrain components and five years of company-provided roadside assistance.

In comparison, the 2008 Toyota Yaris 3-door model starts at $12,210 with manual transmission. But curtain and side air bags are optional on the base Yaris. The Yaris also only comes with three-year/36,000-mile standard warranty coverage for its powertrain components.

By comparison, the popular Honda Fit hatchback with five doors includes the standard air bags that the Accent has but pricing starts at $15,220 for a 2009 model with manual transmission, and the standard powertrain warranty coverage is good for just three years/36,000 miles.

Unfortunately, there are no federal government crash test ratings for the Accent hatchback to show how much passenger protection is provided by the safety equipment. And while Consumer Reports magazine lists the Accent’s predicted reliability as average, another annual survey released in August put the Accent hatchback at the top of the small-car hatchback segment in durability.

Specifically, the Accent topped the Scion xA and Chevrolet Aveo in J.D. Power and Associates’ Vehicle Dependability Study that measures problems experienced by original car owners of 3-year-old vehicles. So, Power’s study relates to the 2005 Accent hatchback.

Accent buyers must get accustomed to riding in a lightweight car.

The test Accent, a 2008 SE 3-Door with manual transmission, weighed just under 2,500 pounds.

Doors closed with a less-than-solid sound, there was buffeting and some noise that came into the interior from nearby semitrailers, and the Accent SE felt light traveling on its uplevel, 16-inch tires.

But in normal driving, the Accent didn’t overtax its 110-horsepower, 1.6-liter, four cylinder engine with continuously variable valve timing.

Using the five gears in the manual transmission carefully, I worked to get decent get up and go in city traffic as I tapped the engine’s 106 foot-pounds of torque that came on at 4,500 rpm. On the highway, the Accent’s four cylinder became buzzy as I sought to pass other cars on uphill sections of road.

But, looking at the gasoline gauge after days of driving, I didn’t mind the performance-vs.-gas-usage trade off.

This car can travel nearly 400 mixed city/highway miles on a single tank of regular fuel. Even at $3.70 a gallon, a fill-up of the 11.9-gallon tank costs less than $45.

The Yaris hatchback has a 106-horsepower, four-cylinder engine producing 103 foot-pounds of torque at 4,200 rpm.

The front-wheel drive Accent comes with a MacPherson strut front suspension and a torsion beam axle in back. In the SE, the front stabilizer bar is thicker than in other models, and the suspension is “sport-tuned.”

But the handling still seemed more mainstream than sporty. The same is true of the power-assisted, rack-and-pinion steering.

Headroom in the Accent’s back seat is a commendable 37.8 inches compared with 33.8 inches in the back of a Yaris hatchback. But as in many small hatchbacks, three adults sit closely in the back seat of the Accent.

I wish the car looked a bit richer or sporty. Instead, it is plain and rather uninspired, inside and out. And the tester was the Accent SE with the larger wheels and tires. Base Accents ride on small, 14-inch tires.

Still, there were features inside the test car that surprised me.

For example, the Accent SE 3-Door had a fold-down, driver-seat armrest on the right side, and there were many bottle holders and cupholders in both front and back seats.

But the round dials for the climate control system felt flimsy, and the seats — especially the back-seat cushion — had a cheap foam feel.

I enjoyed the flexibility that the hatchback offered. With rear seats folded down, I had room to stow several suitcases and boxes. Maximum cargo room measures 15.8 cubic feet vs. 14.2 cubic feet in a Honda Fit.

U.S. sales of the Accent were up 56 percent through the first seven months of this year and are on track to be the highest since calendar 2008 when more than 71,000 were sold.

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