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Test Drive--Hyundai Accent

Some cars are proudly possessed of the stuff of pistonhead passion: raging horsepower, legendary handling, avant garde design, opulent luxury, noble pedigree, and engaging or even quirky personality.

Today's subject is not quite one of those cars. Today we are going to forgo our usual emphasis on speed, power, styling, passion, and all that and examine a car designed and built to be basic transportation with the accent (pun intended) on the "basic."

In other words, we're test driving a 2009 Hyundai Accent.

Besides giving us an excuse to go driving on a pleasant summer day, putting this little Hyundai through its paces presents us with a challenging series of philosophical questions: Does an inexpensive car also have to be a "cheap" and "chintzy" one? When a car's design is stripped down to the essentials, can it still be an object of Car Lust? What does our reaction to this most basic of rides tell us about ourselves? And, finally, can this paragraph possibly get any more pretentious?

The current-generation Accent is built on a 98.4-inch wheelbase FWD platform shared with the Kia Rio, and weighs in around 2,500 pounds. The engine is a fuel-injected 1,599cc inline four which produces 110 horsepower at 6,000 RPM. Though it occupies the bottom slot in Hyundai's product line, the Accent nevertheless has six airbags and ABS.

Our test subject is a base-level ("GS") three-door version with a five-speed, hand-cranked windows, no AC, and no stereo--and a four-digit MSRP. It's painted a fetching shade called "Tango Red" which, combined with its roundish profile, kind of makes it look like an Easter Egg on wheels. The styling could be described as "generic" if you're feeling grumpy, or "cute" if you're in a better mood. Either way, the design is executed with taste and restraint and there's a certain basic rightness to the proportions. It may not turn heads, but it doesn't hurt your retinas either.

Inside are decent front bucket seats covered in dark gray cloth. The dash and door panels are rendered in a matching plastic that looks better than it feels. The rear seat is surprisingly roomy--your humble narrator, a husky lad of six feet in height, fits comfortably--and back-row access is assisted by a passenger seat that automatically shifts forward as the seatback folds up.

The ergonomics of the driver's position are excellent. I had no trouble getting my large self comfortable behind the no-tilt steering wheel. While it lacks the full array of electronic and electromechanical gadgets (such as remote power mirrors) found in cars with five-digit price tags, the Accent's controls are arranged conveniently, and the gauges are easy to read. There's even a dead rest pedal for your left foot.

Fit and finish, inside and out, are superb. The car feels solid and tight. Hyundai justifiably makes a big deal about its 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, and the Accent certainly gives the impression that it will last well beyond that point.

The driving dynamics are pretty good for what the Accent is. Remember, we're talking here about an entry-level car optimized for cost efficiency--that is, low sticker price and high mileage--and not for performance or entertainment value. It won't corner like a CRX or accelerate like a V-8 muscle car, but then again it was never meant to. Still, the clutch and shifter are better than you'd expect at this price point, and while the brakes (front disc, rear drum) certainly lack the raw stopping power of four-caliper Brembos, they're adequate to the task at hand. The steering--power-assisted, believe it or not!--is precise and responsive, with good-but-not-great road feel, and there's no noticeable torque steer.

The springs are a bit on the soft side. This gives the Accent a surprisingly smooth ride over rough pavement, but you pay for that with a fair bit of body roll in hard-ish cornering. It's certainly not anyone's first choice for championship autocrossing, but fling it down a twisty back road, and the Accent comports itself well as long as you respect its limitations.

The only element of the driving dynamics that I can really criticize is the lack of acceleration, though it's not so much a flaw as it is a thing to be worked around. The horsepower-to-weight ratio is respectable, but the motor--which gives off a happy sound like an enthusiastic sewing machine when you open the throttle--has weak bottom-end pull. Maximum torque is only 106 foot-pounds at 4,000 RPM, and I suspect the torque curve is rather sharply peaked. The owner's manual recommends shifting "for optimum performance and economy" in a manner that keeps the engine between 2,000 and 3,000--well below maximum torque. Drive it by the book, and there's not a lot of get-up-and-go. If you're merging into freeway traffic or trying to pass on a two-lane road, you really need to downshift and get the sewing machine spinning over four grand. (Even then, you're no threat to the Camaros at the local dragstrip.) Anything Hyundai could do to beef up the lower part of the torque curve would be helpful.

The upside to this is fuel economy, which is commendable. The EPA rates the Accent at 27 MPG city and 33 highway. From my own (admittedly limited) observation, that's probably an understatement. I suspect you could blast around all day in full drive-it-like-you-stole-it mode and still not push the Accent's fuel consumption down much below 30 MPG.

So, though it's solid and competent, is this a car you could fall in love with? "Love" is perhaps too strong a word, but it's sure likable enough. What it might lack in excitement it makes up for with a pleasant demeanor and understated air of confidence. It won't tear up the roads like a GTI--but on the other hand, it costs about a third of what a GTI does, and beats the GTI by a few MPGs in fuel economy. You could do a lot worse.

The politicians and pundits are promising us that Chrysler and GM are going to be brought back from their present sorry state by producing smaller, fuel-efficient "little green cars." I don't know enough about business or economics or politics to say if that's likely or even possible, but I do think I can be certain of one thing: whoever may be tasked with designing one of those "little green cars" would be well-served to start by taking a good look at a Hyundai Accent GS. It could be your prototype.

--Cookie the Dog's Owner


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We have had our 2008 Accent for a year with nary a complaint. Ours is a step up from the basic which means you get A/C, floormats and a six speaker CD stereo with XM radio. All of what you say above is true. I will stress that the driver's seat with all the available makes it one the most comfortable seats for long distance driving. Last spring I drove it from Atlanta to north of Philadelphia in 12 hours with no sign of 'numb buttitis". Yes, it is a bit pokey getting up to speed but, then again, we like to drive around in MG Midgets ('74 and a '76) so the Accent is a rocket compared to them.

Oops, please add the word. adjustments, after available.

It's easy to gripe about a car that just has the basics... no power goodies, no sunroof, etc. But then, look at your payment book, and the low depreciation of an inexpensive car.

A $12,000 loan at 6% is a payment around $200 a month. When's the last time you've seen one of those? Then let's talk about the low gas bills!

This seems like a car from the 80s. A stripper, if you will, that is very hard to find these days. And is that necessarily a bad thing? I see aftermarket choices aplenty to dress this car up.

Perfect pizza delivery car!
There is something to be said for strippo basic transportation.
When I lived in Dayton, Ohio I bought a used 1984 Chevy Nova, a rebadged Toyota Corolla (this was pre-Geo). I bought it to save myself and my beloved Miata during the winter.
Stick shift, AM radio, no AC...
Great winter car, and good to take the basset to the dog wash place.
The drivers door lock broke, but we stuill drove it to a Reds game...thinking no self respecting "urban ute" would break into a car for an AM radio. No one ever touched it.
Probems were limited to a saggy headliner (wonder if that was GM's contribution to the car?), a blown head gasket fixed by the Chevy dealer (but they did try to talk me into a new rebuilt engine), white paint that could not be brought to any sort of luster (I've had three white Toyotas..all were like that) and a cloth interior which basset hair could not be removed with the most powerful of vacuums.
I loved the AM radio, but the only station I could get was Cincinatti's I learned a lot about the reds and the morning drive-time DJ was very funny.

Overall, Strippos are great fun. The lack of worry is indeed liberating.
But it's nice to have a "good" car to come home to.

Finally, I sold it for a decent amount.

@John B. - Sagging headliners are mainly due to cigarette smoke degrading the glue holding the fabric to the backing. If you were fortunate enough to get one where the previous owner didn't smoke in it, you wouldn't have this problem.

Virtually all GM (And other) headliners of the mid and early 80s dropped. This was caused by the disintegration of the foam rubber between the cloth and cardboard backing.

To repair, you remove the headliner assembly, scrape off all of the residue, use a good adhesive, and replace the foam rubber/cloth material with new stuff. I took my Fiero unit to a local upholstery shop, and he did this for $40, a bargain, but it still was an unnecessary repair.

My friends with a Phoenix, Regal, Celebrity, and 1/2-ton pickups all had the same problem. We later called the malady the "Big Top" syndrome, since it was like a tent falling on us LOL.

I have a Kia Rio, which, as you already noted, is built on the same platform as the Accent. The only real difference, other than the badge, is that the Rio seems to have a tighter suspension - past that, the acceleration, gas mileage, and interior layout are virtually identical.

Short story: It's not bad.

Long story: Nobody is ever going to confuse it for a Honda or a Toyota, but it does all right. As you noted, you have the spool the engine up considerably to get it to go anywhere (try going uphill with the A/C on if you really want an exercise in futility), but, outside of that, it's still peppy enough to keep one from getting run over. The ride is smooth and quiet enough to be comfortable. The back seats are big enough for a couple of kids, but I wouldn't recommend packing four 6'+ people in one; also, fitting large infant seats in the back can be somewhat problematic. Trunk space is reasonably ample.

Curiously, these aren't bad cars to work on. Kia gives you the shop manual for free at (you have to register, but it's no cost); I'm sure Hyundai does something similar. Everything under the hood is surprisingly straightforward - there's a little plastic cladding here and there, but it's nowhere NEAR as bad as most cars I've dealt with.

It's basic transportation. Considering how few people still make that anymore, that makes it pretty impressive.

This car has a lot more in common with the first GTis than the new ones do. A set of Bilsteins, a rear anti-roll bar, and some Traction T/As, and you've got a car that does what the 1983 GTi did for not many more dollars than the original cost 25 years ago.

Steaming the headliner.
The PO of the Nova was a non-smoker. The ashtrays were super clean...and I don't smoke so my nose is very sensitive to it.
No, I guess it was just GM glue.

It's amazing how hard it is to find a good, well-written review of a basic *anything* these days. Most any car mag or website seems to just review the mid to top level trims of whatever they're driving, and anything less gets a sneering half-mention as being "rudimentary" or "lacking," while the review then goes on to blabber and praise/bitch about all the high-tech crap that 90% of everyone out there either doesn't need or can't afford.

Personally I'd rather have the base model of a nicer vehicle than a cheaper car in top-level trim. By the time you're done adding on all those extra gewgaws and technological claptrap to the cheaper car, it costs as much as the base model of something that is at its core a better vehicle. Plus, all those extra features and things are just that much more electronic/mechanical stuff to potentially break and need (expensive) repairing.

Anyways, Kia and Hyundai...They're kinda like Toyota and Honda were back in the early 80s, aren't they? Nothing too fancy for the most part, but good practical transportation. It was a good recipe for Toyota and Honda back then, and even if their cars these days have gotten a lot fancier and more bloated, it's still paying them dividends in good reputation.

Reminds me of my old Metro... but with twice the horsepower.

(And I'm not mocking, that Metro LSi was a great car!)

My current car is a 2002 Accent with 130k miles on it which I bought new for just under $10k, and it's been a good car. The mechanicals have all been solid -- no major complaints there. A few expectable repairs - brake job, timing chain, battery, exhaust. I just had my first real breakdown (crank position sensor went) so I count that as a pretty good run.

Here are the downsides:
1) Winter. Between the car's low weight, the tiny (13") wheels, and the (usually adequate) brakes, going anywhere in snow or ice is a dicey proposition.

2) Interior. Those plastic doors are ok for the first year or two, but they show their age badly. Broken window cranks, interior panels, switches. The lights in my instrument cluster started randomly turning off, but that wasn't covered in that 10 year warranty. Not a deal breaker, but annoying.

3) Body panels. I have dents on my hood from acorns. No kidding. You could dent this car with a strong wind and a long feather. And to my dismay, it finally started this year. The body rot has begun. In the wheel wells, of course. I'll fight it as long as I can, but I know there's no saving it.

Still, seven years later and a new one is pretty much the same price I paid for mine. Hard to beat that. You could spend more and get less from a used car.

So great to see an article about a basic car - good practical and modest transportation. By current standards practically any of my cars would qualify as basic, and I'm completely happy with that. What is interesting to me is that late 80s early 90s civics and crxs had similar peak power and torque, while shaving a few hundred pounds off the envelope. The difference being that the Honda engines in the DX and CX series had good torque curves and they were well mated to the transmissions. These cars did not require much reving to get the job done. I remember driving my old 88 Dx with a full load of passengers and easily accelerating up a back roads hill in the 2500rpm range. It was remarkable to me, and the passengers who commented on how well the car . 100+ hp in a car under 2500lbs should be a completely happy combination of performance and economy. I would have thought that the Accent would have taken a similar approach and produced a little torque monster. But it sounds like they felt the need to emphasize Horsepower, I'm not sure what the logic would be in doing that aside from a marketing perspective... horsepower tends to sell more cars and sound more impressive than torque to most people.

Still this is a great car to know about. Nice to know there's an affordable little hatchback out there, to which I can direct friends. Oh and let's not forget it's a hatchback so it is inherently good!

I just don't get it. My main car is a '93 Accord sedan which gets about 35MPG on regular gas and about 30MPG if you really pound it. It comfortably seats five and the back seats fold down if you need it. It's got about 240k on the clock and has never burned any oil. It's got about 130HP and it's nice and quick. It weighs a bit less than 3000 lbs. Granted, it only has one airbag, but it is built like a tank and feels very safe and solid. With technological "advances" over the last 16 years I would expect a car of the Hyundai Accent with these specs to get around 40MPG. Otherwise it has absolutely nothing on my car; mine is superior in every conceivable way. What is up with the engineers/automotive designers these days? Is it the emissions requirements? Why does a little entry-level hatchback like this only make 33 highway? What has happened to the sprightly little Japanese econocars of the '80's and '90's? (Google 'Honda CRX HF' for more information) Add six airbags to one of those and watch how fast me and a billion others buy one. I just don't get why all of the cars these days suck so much worse compared to the real world gas mileage of the cars of 15-20 years ago. I know an '87-'91 Camry with automatic and the 4-cyl gets about 40MPG. How did we regress so far? Was it the SUV craze that just made all the auto designers give up on real fuel economy? Or was it making all of the 'compact' cars safe in a head-on collision with these gigantic behemoths? Or was it the emissions regulations and political BS? Someone please explain to me in detail why "compact" and "mid-sized" cars across the board of 20 years ago have so much better fuel economy. Please.

Kev, I'm with you. I share your wonder. I know this is going to sound complacent, arrogant, deranged and all that other crap, but the truth needs to be told. Hondas from the late 80s through the early 90s are god-like creations of unsurpassed magnificence. They are the pinnacle of design and performance in the automotive world. Honda achieved something mystically perfect in design from that time. it will be a golden era which we will look back on for decades to come and lament its passing. The lamentations will continue as each new car comes up short next to crx, civics, accords, and preludes of the golden era. Much like the original mustangs and camaros these cars will reach a sainted status.

The only thing we can do is preserve these wonders - maintain and restore. And try our best to be humble when we look at "modern" automotive offerings - remembering that they are mere mortals in comparison.

A fine car, but I simply can't live without an AC and stereo. Give it those, and I'd snap it up in an instant.

Yeah, John. Somebody told me that. I never actually had an 80s GM car to have that happen to me. I also hear 80s GMs had paint that would peel if the light in the garage shone on it for longer than a minute. It's a wonder that company still exists.

@Astereo - the thing is, cars without AC depreciate more, and are harder to unload. If you live somewhere where you really don't need it, and drive your cars until they fall apart, you can't go wrong. Otherwise, ya gotta have AC, even if you only use it to keep the fog off your windshield.

Stereo, on the other hand, is really optional as long as the wiring and the space in the dash for one is still there. You can still go to any Best Buy and buy a better stereo system than is usually offered on new cars, and at a better price. Mine even has a USB port in it, so I can plug in my iPod or a thumb drive. Imagine having your entire record collection on a flash drive plugged into a port in your glove box instead of having CDs all over your car. Priceless.

Kev - I personally suspect it has to do with the buying public's sudden fascination with "safety". It's not just the air bags, though they do add some weight. I'm willing to bet that the Accent, as well as any other car in the US nowadays, can handle a collision and absorb far more energy on impact than any econobox built in the late '80s.

That said... yeah, I hear ya. I don't get it, either. Granted, there's more weight on the cars, but you'd think the engines would be efficient enough to match it. Very strange.

Half of the headliner in my '92 Corolla started coming down around 2001. I blame the Texas heat. I tried peeling it back and tacking it down with 3M spray adhesive, but it never set up and cured. Just left a gooey mess. It's not just a GM thing, it's a chemical bond breakdown thing.

In desperation I put about 300 mini staples through the headliner into the fiberboard backing. Worked like a charm - each staple couldn't support much by itself, but in large numbers it did the job.

My ten year old niece referred to it thereafter as "the staple car".

Kev & Mochi,

The airbags and ABS do add weight. They have sensors and other electronics associated with them. Also, the crash standards have been beefed up as have emissions requirements. Engines have also been tuned for higher power output. All of those conspire to lower gas mileage.

Also, don't compare your mileage to an EPA rating. For instance, I get around 30 MPG out of a Mazdaspeed6 that is EPA rated for 25 MPG. That is mostly because of my typical commute and driving style. I also usually achieved higher mileage out of my 91 Mazda MX-6 than the EPA rating. The 93 Accord EPA highway mileage is 29 MPG. If one drove an Accent to optimize gas mileage, then I would expect that person would be able to exceed the EPA rating. Keep in mind that the Accent's 1.5 L motor is producing only 15 HP less than the 93 Accord's 2.2 L motor.

IMHO, you shouldn't get too wrapped up comparing apples and oranges.

One thing that didn't make it into the article that I should mention: there's no stereo, but the speakers and wires are all in place, so you can buy an aftermarket stereo and it'll drop right in to the dashboard.

basic transportation=best option for first car.

easy to work on and should be somewhat dependable as long as you do the proper maintenance

So how much weight? You can't compare model for model, but you can go for something similar in size. I give you the 2009 Toyota Corolla vs. the 1989 Toyota Camry. Virtually identical in size in every important aspect, almost spec for spec. Wheelbase, headroom, legroom, the same. You can look it up yourself:

1989 Camry
2009 Corolla

Where do they differ?

'89 Camry -
standard engine 2.0 liter making 115 HP
curb weight - 2690 lbs.
MPG (automatic) - 24/30

'09 Corolla -
standard engine 1.8 liter making 132 HP
curb weight - 2723 lbs.
MPG (automatic) - 27/35

So the new Corolla is 33 pounds heavier than a '89 Camry, has 200cc less displacement making 17 more ponies and getting 3-5 MPG better mileage. So no, they can't tell me they can't make a feather-light car that gets 50 MPG without hybrid technology like they already did in the 80s. They already make an even better '80s sedan.

Actually, the Corolla is slightly BIGGER inside than the '89 Camry was. That kind of backs up my argument that the current generation Corolla is the 80s sedan perfected.

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