Test Drive--Hyundai Accent
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