Review: 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited

By Chris Haak

Having reviewed more than a hundred new cars for this site, and having driven several hundred more over my two decades behind the wheel, it’s kind of hard for a car to make a good impression on me.  I’ve just seen too much, for better or worse.  So after having spent a week in Hyundai’s all-new 2011 Elantra, I was surprised and delighted about just how good a compact car can be.  It’s not perfect, but it’s clearly the best or second-best car in its class.

Hyundai entered the North American market selling cheap cars, then sold cheap cars with a long warranty that looked odd.  That morphed into cheap cars with a long warranty that looked bland.  And now, Hyundai is offering buyers cheap cars with a long warranty and dynamic, organic – and most importantly, original – designs.

The exterior of the Elantra is nicely styled.  Some may find it to be a bit overwrought, but I like the look.  Given the choice between the vanilla Cruze and the curvy Elantra, I’d go with the Elantra’s looks.  While the larger Sonata has a more coupe-like profile, it’s also spoiled a bit by some odd detailing, such as the chrome strip along the hood’s side edges, which actually emphasizes cut lines that are de-emphasized in most cars.  The Elantra’s trim proportions (with a front overhang that appears to be far shorter than the Sonata’s), along with its sculpted fender front and back make it look like its little C-segment body was wrapped tightly around a larger car.  I’m particularly fond of the car’s rear three-quarter view, which is why I chose that angle for the first photo in this review.

The Elantra’s trapezoidal grille, while still something of an unusual shape, looks far better to me than do similar designs in the Tucson and the Sonata Hybrid.  The 17 inch wheels in the Elantra Touring, though numerically small, carry low-profile 45-series tires, and fill the tiny wheelwells nicely.  Gone is the undulating swage line that was prominently featured on the last-generation Elantra.  Oh, and the Elantra Touring (ahem, wagon) that has only been on the market since 2009 sure looks dated and stodgy alongside the Elantra sedan.

Inside, you’ll find a similar organic theme to what you encountered when you looked at the car from across the parking lot.  There’s decent legroom up front for taller drivers (I had my manually-adjusting driver’s seat adjusted about six inches forwardof its rearmost position during most of my time behind the wheel), and the rear seat offers reasonable passenger space for two.  There’s a third seatbelt, but only small people need apply.  Headroom for tall folks in the rear seat is at a premium; my noggin was against the ceiling.  There’s a handy fold-down armrest in the middle of the back seat (though no ski pass-through).  The rear seatback does fold 60/40, though, for longer items.  You’ll find a decently-sized trunk behind that seat.

Once situated in your seat, you’ll find that the steering wheel has really fake-feeling “leather” (which is likely not actually leather at all).  Speaking of the steering wheel, the button to hang up the Bluetooth phone is located on the edge of the bottom-left spoke, where it can be inadvertently pressed.  Though I didn’t lose any phone calls due to this, I did unintentionally press the button more than a dozen times during my week with the car.  An ergonomic win for the steering wheel is that the trip computer controls are located on another spoke on the wheel, which makes it easy to understand the computer’s operation, and keeps the driver’s hands where they should be.  The buttons on the steering wheel for the cruise control and redundant audio controls are large and easy to use as well.

The dashboard and door panels are covered by a decent amount of soft-touch material, at least in the sections where a driver and passenger are most likely to come in with them.  There’s more padding on the door panels in the $22,000 Hyundai Elantra than there is in the $34,000 Kia Sorento SX.  One annoyance about the door panels, though is, that the power window switches are angled toward the driver’s knees, and on two occasions, I inadvertently opened the right rear window with my knee.  It must sound like I’m clumsy with all of the accidental button pushing I’ve described in the past two paragraphs, but it’s unusual for me to experience that.

Falling under the “somewhat padded” category, there’s the center console lid.  It will hurt your elbow if you lean on it too much.  However, it is hinged and boasts a reasonably-deep storage compartment under the lid.  There’s another storage compartment in front of the gearshift.  That one is fairly small, but contains a 12-volt power point and the iPod/USB auxiliary audio connector.

Despite the semi-premium ambiance (again, particularly considering this car’s price point), there are a few curious omissions.  You can’t get power seats in a 2011 Elantra, regardless of the trim level or how much you want to pay for them.  You also can’t get automatic climate control (not even single-zone, much less dual-zone), and there is but a single engine choice available; the 1.8 liter four found in the test car.  The Civic, Cruze, Jetta, Forte, and Mazda3 all offer at least two engine options.

You’ll find some impressive details within the Elantra.  One of my favorites is that it the Elantra Limited has heated rear seats.  My $47,000 Cadillac CTS (don’t worry, I didn’t pay anywhere near that much for it) doesn’t have that feature, but a $22,000 Hyundai compact car does.  The color navigation system – which isn’t even available at any price on the larger Chevrolet Malibu – has a traditional touchscreen interface and good touch sensitivity.  The screen isn’t large, but it’s easy to use and has decent resolution.  It also gets bonus points for allowing destination entry and phone dialing on the screen (by passengers, not the driver) while the vehicle is moving. 

A few areas where the engineered-to-a-price-point shines through are the flimsy black plastic covering the inner workings of the gearshift lever, and the exposed black-painted steel front seat brackets with uncovered bolts.  Shorter drivers who have the seats adjusted forward won’t even see the bolts, but for long-legged folks like me, they’re obvious.  The A, B, and C pillars are all finished in hard plastic, which although it’s not cloth as in some more expensive cars, may be an upgrade from the furry cardboard headliner with its “woven-type” pattern.  Finally, the front seatbacks are covered in hard plastic rather than vinyl or leather.  That might help durability, but it hinders any pretense of giving a premium impression to rear-seat passengers, who had a moment earlier been delighted by the fact that they have heated seats.

Overall, though, there literally is nothing disappointing about this car’s interior if you look at the car’s price and the cars that it’s competing against.  Corolla?  Ha.

Blue lighting throughout the interior (particularly secondary buttons like HVAC, stereo, nav system, clock), but main gauges have white electroluminescent lighting.  Hyundai should consider ditching the blue backlighting, which looks like it was lifted from a 1995 Volkswagen or an old Timex Indiglo watch, and also doesn’t match the Elantra’s sophisticated and clear instrumentation.  I would, however, prefer blue backlighting to none.  Unfortunately, the power mirror controls, door lock switches, and window lock switch are not backlit.  At least the power window buttons are backlit, since among the three (mirrors-locks-windows), those are likely the ones you’d use most frequently.

I found the Elantra’s HVAC controls are easy to operate, but there was a learning curve getting used to the fan and temperature controls being on the same big knob.  (The fan control is on a small knob in the center, and the temperature knob is larger and surrounds the smaller fan knob).  The upshot on this space-saving design is that it allows a narrower center stack, which in turn allows more knee room for taller drivers without a wide center stack intruding on the driver’s space.

Despite the Elantra’s adventurous shape, forward and even lateral visibility is fine, and there isn’t even an excessive amount of dashboard reflection on the inside of the windshield.  Rear visibility is a bit compromised by the high decklid and up-swept shape of the windows on the rear doors, but fortunately, my tester had a rearview camera with its $2,000 Premium Package (which also included navigation, premium audio, proximity key entry, and pushbutton start).  The Elantra Limited sarts at $19,980, and my tester had only the Premium Package, floor mats ($95), and an iPod cable ($35).  Tack on the $720 destination charge, and you get $22,830 as a final MSRP.

During a week with the Elantra in mixed driving, I observed combined fuel economy of about 26 MPG.  I was excited by the potential of driving a car rated at 40 MPG on the highway, so played some games (namely, resetting the trip computer while on pure highway trips at 65 MPH) to see if it was indeed possible to hit the big four-oh on the highway, at true highway speeds.  The outcome:  at 65 MPH with the cruise control on, I saw about 32-34 MPG.  Granted, that was on a rainy road, but I found it difficult to hit 40 without really babying it and keeping the car at or below 50 MPH.  Your mileage may vary, but proving that I’m not crazy, the EPA’s and its official 29/40/33 (city/highway/combined) economy rating is getting 31 MPG, with a small sample of eight drivers in eight states and a city/highway mix of 54/46.

You’ll win very few races in the Elantra, unless you happen to catch your victims unaware that they are racing.  With its efficiency-optimized powertrain, the six-speed automatic (thank you, Hyundai, for using a conventional automatic rather than a CVT) likes to shift before the engine reaches the upper end of its operating range.  And when you do manage to get it there, it’s not exactly the quietest production of 148 horsepower and 131 lb-ft you’ll eaver hear.  The Elantra’s steering was a bit firm on center, but lightened up the further from the center you turned the wheel.  I found the car’s ride to be a bit firm relative to some of its competitors, but nothing to jar teeth fillings free.  Occasionally, I’d hear clomping sounds when traversing rougher pavement; perhaps more sophisticated damping or more compliant suspension would have reduced that.

For its price and class, though, the Elantra makes a strong case for buyers in this price bracket to give the newest Hyundai serious consideration.  It’s stylish, comfortable, well-built (in Alabama, not Korea), comes with lots of equipment, and gets very good gas mileage.  Sure, we can nitpick here and there about various things, but for $22,830, you shouldn’t expect perfection.  Right now, the Elantra is about as good as it gets in the compact class, and that’s great news for car buyers.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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  1. Fantastic review. Thank you!

  2. I bought this car (limited edition) in June of ’11. It is a nice ride. There are many features that I like but I want to write down the one’s that I don’t like about the car;

    1.) The front middle A/C vents cannot be shut-off.
    2.) There is no light in the glove box or console.
    3.) When I wash the car there is water somehow seeping in and builds-up on the bottom door ledges, front and back.
    4.) There is a pause on sudden acceleration with the engine.
    5.) The bluetooth connection can be very contrary at times.

    Other than that, I agree with the posted review, it’s about as good as it gets in the compact class for the price..

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