Payne: Elantra Sport is Hyundai’s joy ride

Posted by hpayne on January 27, 2017

Detroit News auto critic Henry Payne flogged the Hyundai

I’m a fan of fast-food joints that take burgers to a higher sizzle — places like Shake Shack, Five Guys, Culver’s, In-N-Out, Smashburger. Fast, flavorful and affordable, they each have their own twist on the meat (pun intended) of the American market.

Compact sport coupes and sedans are my favorite cars for the same reason.

They take the most common of auto appliances and turn them into treats for the average enthusiast: Ford Focus ST, Volkswagen Golf GTI, Volkswagen Jetta GLI, Hyundai Veloster. So I’m happy to announce a delicious new entry in this sedan-eat-sedan world: the Hyundai Elantra Sport.

My preference is for the hot-hatch versions of the breed. The ST and GTI are the best of a group that marry sport with sporty utility — that is to say, roomy storage in the rear without an SUV’s performance-killing ride height. I mourned when Subaru nixed the all-wheel-drive WRX hatch for the current generation.

But for those who prefer sleek coupe shapes to boxy backs, the sport sedan is more aesthetically pleasing while offering similar performance punch. My favorite sport sedan (actually the coupe version) of all time sits in my garage: the Honda Civic Si. Maybe “PR” is a better badge — for “pocket rocket.”

My mouth is watering over the next-generation Si revealed at the Los Angeles Auto Show. Based on Civic’s superb, all-new chassis, the racy-looking Si will be turbo-powered. Honda is being stingy with further details, but last-gen Si’s are a healthy baseline on which to measure Hyundai’s entry.

The Elantra Sport has been around, too. But like the Toyota Corolla S and Chevy Cruze Sport, it was a pretender — a frozen patty burger dressed up with onions, cheese, special sauce and pickles. With this sixth-generation Elantra, Hyundai has gotten some serious nutrition to keep up with King Civic.

Complementing this progressive decision is Elantra 6.0’s inherent goodness. With chassis stiffness improved 40 percent over 5.0 thanks to more high-strength steel and structural adhesives, the new compact is rock solid. And Hyundai knows it.

For the base Elantra test drive, Hyundai handed us the keys and unleashed us on the intimidating twisties of California’s Cuyamaga Mountains. In this sports car-friendly testing ground the front-wheel drive Elantra passed with flying colors. Only its solid-rear axle and huffing-puffing 2.0-liter, 147-horse four-banger were lacking

So for Elantra Sport, the engineers ripped out the four-banger and rear torsion beam and strapped in a 201-horse, 1-6-liter turbo-4 and multi-link suspension. Interestingly, this is the same drivetrain that outfits the Veloster, Hyundai’s scrappy, three-door hot hatch. Hyundai has high hopes for its uber-Elantra, so it handed media the keys and unleashed us on Tire Rack’s diabolical autocross course outside South Bend, Indiana. Our testers had a manual transmission, bolstered seats and flat-bottom steering wheel.

Now these Hyundai boys are really getting cocky. Maybe too cocky.

The one performance tweak the Elantra is missing is a limited-slip differential; autocross courses punish cars without them. I’ve autocrossed the front-wheel driven VW GTI and Civic SI and they are sensational — their limited-slip differentials distributing torque, mitigating front-wheel spin and launching their funboxes from corner to corner.

So good is the Honda that both my sons got their start in track-racing at Waterford Raceway at the wheel of an Si. But the GTI hatch is particularly noteworthy. Throw in torque-vectoring (to cancel out the inherent push in front-wheel drive), an Audi A3-based MQB chassis and a jaw-dropping 258-pound-feet of torque, and the unfair V-dub just isn’t even playing by the rules.

You gotta love the Elantra for competing. Sure, the open-diff Elantra is a tire-squealing mess out of corners with its front claws squirming to gain traction. But its turbocharged, 1.6-liter delivers a back-slapping 195-pound feet of torque compared to the Civic’s 174 to help make up some of the difference. More importantly, its specs stack up well against other class competition — the Mazda 3 (also with an open-diff) and the 210-horse Jetta GLI sedan.

So give the Sport a B for performance effort. Which ain’t bad since everything else about it is an A.

Where the SI and GLI’s narrow grilles telegraph their subcompact class, the Elantra’s fascia strives for more. The V-dub may share Audi bones, but the Elantra has stolen the Audi’s wardrobe.

The Sport’s big Audi grille comes at you with more war paint than the base model — darker lips, blood-red eyes and swollen gills channeling more air for the turbo within. The muscular flanks and coupe-like roof taper to sophisticated taillights and a duck tail. This Eliza Doolittle talks high class.

It’s classy inside, too. The $20,000 Elantra recently snagged a trophy for one of Ward’s 10 Best user experiences — the cheapest car to do so in a class with an average price of $60,000. Everything is intuitive, from the crisp German-like display gauges to the excellent knob-assisted touchscreen. Want clever touches? Hyundai goes the extra mile with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity (which not even its luxury brand Genesis yet offers) and an ample forward space to set your smartphone, change, snack, whatever.

Then Hyundai wraps all this goodness in the class’s quietest interior. Maybe it’s too quiet for the Sport.

Despite modifications that allow the exhaust system to growl, it’s still channeling a whispery turbo. This bad boy could use a little more personality — like my Si’s exhaust flap that opens over 6,000 rpm — BWAAAAGHHHH! Or maybe the Sport’s terrific double-clutch automatic tranny could bark on upshifts and rev-match on downshifts like the V-6 Camaro. Every burger should have some spicy sauce.

But these are small details in an otherwise impressive debut. The Sport is a well-rounded meal loaded with standard features: heated front seats, connectivity apps, 18-inch wheels, push-button start, leather seats, 7-inch touchscreen and rear-seat tables with tea set (not that last one, just seeing if you were paying attention).

With the Sport, Hyundai proves it’s more than an appliance maker. This is a burger with sizzle.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport

VEHICLE TYPE FRONT-ENGINE, FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE, FIVE-PASSENGER SPORTS SEDAN
Power plant Turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder
Transmission Six-speed manual, 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic
Weight 3,042 pounds (manual)
Price $22,485 base ($24,855 manual with Premium package as tested)
Power 201 horsepower, 195 pound-feet of torque
Performance 0-60 mph, 6.4 seconds (manual, Car & Driver)
Fuel economy EPA 22 mpg city/30 mpg highway/25 mpg combined (manual); EPA 26 mpg city/33 mpg highway/29 mpg combined (auto)

Report card

HIGHS PEPPY TURBO-4; EXCELLENT FEATURES
Lows Limited-slip differential, please; pocket-rocket junior varsity

Overall:★★★

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