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Review: 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE sedan (third place)

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This review is part of an eleven-car comparison of compact sedans. The Elantra is ranked in third place of eleven.

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For many buyers, the most important consideration for an economy car is, well, its economy. And Hyundai has historically been a standout in these areas. First it sold cheap cars that were inferior to the competition, then it sold cheap cars that were on par with their competitors, and then it sold cheap cars that were better than many competitors.

With its reputation solidified, Hyundai has felt comfortable raising its prices. The Elantra, last redesigned in 2011, eased off on the heavily discounted value while amping up the style; the car retains a distinctive and relatively sophisticated look for a compact economy sedan. The Elantra also offers decent interior volume, a comfortable and well-constructed cabin, good gas mileage, and the sort of generally solid feel that used to elude models in this class.

And although the Elantra is no longer the off-brand mega-discount alternative, it's still one of the better buys in this class, and it retains Hyundai's famous extra-long warranty coverage.

What the Elantra isn't is sporty. Upgrades to the car's steering since its introduction have made it feel more natural to drive, but this isn't a zesty, zippy car. It also isn't luxurious, without a plush interior or cushy ride. And it doesn't have quite the interior volume of a few competitors.

But there's nothing about it that's downright noncompetitive. And if you're looking for simple affordable transportation, the Elantra stands above competing small cars.

If you want something beyond simple affordable transportation, though, there are other small cars that offer standout qualities in a few other areas.

Unobjectionable

The Elantra has unusual dashboard styling that makes an impression when you first open the door. But the quality of the interior is solid, with nice materials and good panel fit. The ambiance isn't luxurious, but the car is pleasant. And a redesigned instrument panel has improved the car's ergonomics since 2011, when styling interfered with functionality; the Elantra now has particularly user-friendly controls.

Most Elantras are missing an advanced infotainment system, which is found on a growing number of competitors. Two Elantras were tested for this review: a fully-loaded Limited, which included the optional navigation system that doubles as an infotainment screen. The system is well-designed and feature-laden but costly, and offered only when bundled with many other features, at a total price of over $25,000.

The second car, a base SE model priced $5,000 less, has an optional small touchscreen radio that doubles as a backup camera display. This system is user-friendly but far less sophisticated than on many competing cars.

The Elantra has comfortable front seats that are trimmed in rich fabric on the SE and perforated leather on the Limited. The rear seat is decently comfortable but lacks the adult-friendly leg and head space found in some competitors. It's adequate but not pleasant for more than short trips. The car does have a roomy trunk for this class, though.

On the road, the Elantra has a slightly busy, bumpy ride but it's still decently pleasant. The SE model with no options has 15-inch wheels that yield the best ride; the tested SE had larger 16-inch wheels and the Limited's are 17 inches. Handling is decently nimble but not sporty. The Elantra has three available steering modes – normal, sport, and comfort – that change the weight and responsiveness of the steering. None is truly sporty, but all are decently responsive and natural. This represents an improvement over earlier Elantras.

The tested Elantras have a decently peppy 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine; Sport models have a larger 2.0-liter that are punchier and quieter but less fuel efficient. The EPA estimate for the 1.8-liter Elantra is 32 miles per gallon in mixed driving; the tested Limited model returned 34.4 mpg during a weeklong test. Note that the Elantra used to advertise higher fuel-efficiency ratings, but that was based on an erroneous calculation that Hyundai has since corrected.

Good value

The Elantra doesn't sell with the big discounts that once helped make it a standout bargain, but they've increased as the car has aged. An Elantra SE comparably equipped to the other cars in the comparison – with an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen – has a sticker price of $20,110, and buyers can expect to haggle roughly $2,000 off that price. At that price the Elantra also includes a rearview camera and heated front seats.

The Elantra has aged pretty well, though; it doesn't look or feel like one of the oldest cars in this class. And upgrades to the steering, the reworked instrument panel, and a continuous increase in the car's list of features have also helped keep it current.

It's not an outstanding automobile in many particular ways, but it's a worthy small car nonetheless.

Overall grade: B+

More from this comparison:
- Next review: 2014 Mazda3 i Touring (2nd place)
- Previous review: 2014 Dodge Dart SXT (4th place)
- Rating the eleven compact sedans
- Ranking the eleven compact sedans
- Introduction to this comparison

More about the 2014 Hyundai Elantra SE:
- Photo gallery
- Report card -- how does it compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
- Report card -- how does it stack up for different types of buyers?

Vehicle tested: 2014 Hyundai Elantra
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $17,200
Versions tested: SE, Limited
Version base prices (MSRP): $17,200, $21,650
Vehicle prices as tested (MSRP): $19,395, $25,335
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP): $20,110
Estimated transaction price as comparable: $18,245
Test vehicles provided by: Joseph Harley at Pohanka Hyundai of Capitol Heights, Md.; Hyundai Motor America

Key specifications:
Length: 179.1 inches
Width: 69.9 inches
Height: 56.3 inches
Wheelbase: 106.3 inches
Weight: 2,818 pounds
Trunk volume: 14.8 cubic feet
Turning circle: 34.8 feet
Engine (as tested): 1.8-liter I4 with 145 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 28 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 38 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 32 miles per gallon
Observed mileage during test: 34.4 miles per gallon
Assembly location: South Korea
For more information: Hyundai website

See also:
Review: 2013 Hyundai Santa Fe Sport
Review: 2012 Hyundai Accent SE
Review: 2013 Hyundai Azera

* Prices as comparable reflect vehicles equipped with the same features, when possible: an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen.
** Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.

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