THE more small cars I drive, the more I'm convinced that the idea of "entry-level luxury" is a giant scam.
You pays your money and you gets your upscale badge with a downscale interior. Everything's an additional extra, be it Bluetooth handsfree or heated seats. These machines are, as they say in the U.K., all mouth and no trousers.
Or, you could quit being such a social butterfly and buy something that's actually luxurious. Something with sharp styling, a well-appointed interior, and a feature list that's longer than Santa's naughty list. Something like this, the Elantra GT.
So forget the entry-level part. You don't need to pay a premium to drive something premium.
Hyundai will sell you three different kinds of their compact car: sedan, coupe or hatchback. The GT is the latter, and replaces the useful, if somewhat dowdy, Elantra wagon.
With a shorter wheelbase than the sedan, this new hatch doesn't have quite the capacious practicality of the out-going model. Mind you, just look at it!
Hyundai's corporate styling has never looked so good as on this euro-styled compact hatch. It's athletic-looking, seemingly poised to leap off down the road, and the blacked-out panoramic sunroof is a touch you'd normally find on something like a Jaguar XK.
Alloy wheels are de rigeur add-ons in the compact segment, but Hyundai's done something unique here, with chrome inner linings to the five-spoke 17-inchers. It might be a bit blingy for more conservative buyers, but taken in a combined effect with the rest of the swoopy styling, these little details give the Elantra GT curb-presence in spades. Kinda like those fancy badges are supposed to do.
Remember the Pony? Hyundai doesn't. The inside of even a base-level Elantra should have lux-brand interior designers sitting up and taking notes.
It's simultaneously a clean and simple layout, nicely accented with chrome, and absolutely crammed to the gills with technology. Bluetooth? Standard. Heated seats? Standard. Cruise control, iPod connectivity, satellite radio and an air-conditioned glove box?
Step up to the higher trim levels and you start getting niceties like that panoramic sunroof (a segment first) and leather that's of at least the same quality as you'd find in Hyundai's Lexus-fighting Genesis sedan. Touchscreen navigation comes packaged with a rear-view camera that's cleverly hidden under the "H" badge on the rear hatch.
Drawbacks? Not many, though rear-seat headroom caps the comfort level at around five-foot-11. It should also be noted that getting the rear seats folded flat is a minor kerfuffle. Flipping up the seat bases and then folding down the seat backs required positioning the front seats just right, and you have to remove the headrests - quite annoying.
With a 1.8-litre engine that pumps out a very reasonable 148 h.p., the Elantra GT isn't quite going to have luxury levels of power, but it's perfectly adequate, and very efficient. Note that this motor has a timing-chain - no major timing-belt change for those who keep their cars long term.
In the city, the GT is fairly sprightly to drive, with a six-speed automatic transmission that's quick-shifting. A feature unique to the GT is the variable-assist steering: you can adjust this between Normal, Comfort, and Sport.
Naturally, Sport is the one yours truly would keep selected, but those wanting a more wafting driving experience will appreciate the lightness lent by leaving things in Comfort. While slightly artificial feeling (the steering ratio remains the same overall), it's a neat party trick, and luckily is a "set it and forget it" feature - once you've figured out your favourite setting, it'll be remembered.
Compared to the sedan and coupe variant, the GT feels the most nimble, a product of its shorter wheelbase and some unique suspension components. Dare I say it's more fun to fling around than the supposed sports-hatch Veloster? I think I just did.
Of course, start loading the little car up, and the power-to-weight ratio begins skewing away from "adequate" to merely "tolerable." On the North Shore's hills, and especially when laden with passengers, the automatic transmission has to do some fancy footwork to keep up with accelerative demands.
The good news? While max-throttle is a bit buzzy, it's only at the top of the rev range where the Elantra can feel a bit loud. Mid-range engine operation is really quite quiet for a supposed economy car.
As mentioned, Bluetooth handsfree, iPod connectivity and Satellite are all a part of the standard audio package on the base GL model, and all GTs have the same six-speaker setup. You won't pay extra for steering wheel mounted audio controls either.
The entire suite of safety systems is standard as well: anti-lock brake system, electronic brake-force distribution, vehicle stability management, electronic stability control and a traction control system. Get all that? There will be a test later.
Moving up from the $20,769 GL ($21,969 for the automatic), the GLS adds 16inch alloys, fog lights and that panoramic sunroof, as well as a few interior goodies like a power driver's seat. You can still option this mid-range car with a manual transmission, if you so choose.
The top of the range SE ($25,969) is automatic only, adds leather seats and opens up the option of adding the technology package for an extra $2,000. Along with navigation and rearview camera, this adds an intelligent key and pushbutton start - and you still won't have broken the $30,000 mark!
Official fuel economy figures for the six-speed automatic are 7.3 litres/100 kilometres city and 5.0 l/100 km highway (the manual is slightly less efficient). I'm happy to report that my tester was just as miserly on fuel as these figures would indicate.
Sharp styling; huge feature list; low cost; efficient powerplant; nippy handling.
Not as peppy as numbers would indicate; fiddly-folding rear seat.
The checkered flag
A little bit of luxury in the compact segment. Why pay more to get less?
Competitors Mazda3 Sport ($16,895)
Mazda might be a small company, but their compact hatchback is a veritable sales juggernaut. It's still the fun-to-drive champion and new Skyactiv technology makes it as efficient as it is zippy.
On the other hand, Mazda has a long way to go in the in-car entertainment field.
Their navigation system is particularly out-dated, and Hyundai's interior feels a little more upscale.
Toyota Matrix ($16,795)
Value shoppers traditionally turn to traditional brands, and nobody's more traditional than Toyota. Their Matrix is a Corolla's-worth of efficiency, resale and reliability.
You can even get this practical little hatchback with all-wheel drive if need be. However, unless you're willing to spec up to the larger-engined XRS, you won't find much joy in the driving experience.