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July 18, 2011

First Drive: At Hyundai, the Accent is on Value

2012 Hyundai AccentYou can't blame the folks at Hyundai if they sound a bit self-congratulatory these days. For the first time ever, the United States is the Korean automakers' #1 global market, spurred in part by the success of their redesigned Elantra (up a whopping 121% since it debuted at the L.A. Auto Show in November). 

Now, they're hoping for lightning to strike again in the subcompact segment, with a brand new version of the Accent, which is now showing up on dealers' lots around the country.

Bigger Vehicle and Better Value

The new Accent is larger than its predecessor (it has a longer wheelbase and length and more interior volume), and has been classified by EPA as a compact. So here is a car that is priced like a subcompact and has the economy of a subcompact - but gives you the room of the next segment up. (When comparing the Accent to other models, Hyundai puts it in the subcompact category even though EPA classifies as a compact). The Accent is larger than the Fiesta, but nearly 200 pounds lighter.

Accent_19 And like the Elantra, Accent's new look exemplifies Hyundai’s “fluidic sculpture” design language, which in the words of its design team, tries to "create the impression of constant motion and surface tension." Translation: it’s more aerodynamic than its predecessor, and this is just one factor that contributes to its impressive gas mileage (40 mpg on the highway).

Thanks to research indicating that passengers had difficulty getting in and out of the backseat of the 3-door Accent hatchback, Hyundai has replaced replaced it with a larger 5-door model, eliminating that problem entirely.  

Both models sport a rising belt line; another one of those “car terms” I needed to have defined for me. Basically, it's the line (which may or may not be visible) that runs from the bottom of the side windows back to the trunk. Today's aerodynamically designed cars tend to have belt lines that rise up in the back, like a wedge. This helps them makes them more fuel efficient.

Technological Advances Result in 40 MPG Gas Engine Standard

Hyundai had a lot to say about the fantastic mileage achieved by all Accent models. Some of that is due to the aerodynamic design; but the biggest reason is a lot less sexy: a 1.6 liter Gamma GDI engine that is more powerful (yet 40 pounds lighter) than the previous model’s Alpha engine. 

GDI stands for "Gasoline Direct Injection." This is an acronym I've been hearing a lot on the automotive circuit lately. The folks at Hyundai say that Accent is the first subcompact to feature this innovation. 

Other features that help Accent achieve its outstanding mileage are: an aluminum block and head (lighter than the cast iron combo on the previous Accent), Dual CVVT (continuous variable valve timing), and Electronic Throttle Control (ETC). Body parts of high strength steel makes the Accent light as well as safe.

The result is a 138 horsepower five-passenger vehicle that delivers 40 mpg on the highway. This is 18% better than previous manual transmission’s high of 34 mpg, and Hyundai's marketing people are quick to point out that you don't need to purchase a special ECO package to achieve this benchmark; this is the standard mileage on Accent's base model -- and it's the same whether you opt for the manual transmission or the automatic (both are six-speed).

Interior Roominess

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The first thing I noticed when I climbed into the Accent were the chrome accents and an illuminated dash, which gave the interior an unexpectedly upscale feel.

My passenger and I were also surprised at how roomy it was. Hyundai says Accent's front seat has more legroom space than Camry and Avalon.

Backseat passengers might not be so pleased; but I'm afraid that's par for the course for today's small cars and sedans. Hyundai describes Accent as a five-passenger vehicle, and there are indeed seatbelts for three passengers in the back -- but I wouldn't want to go on a long road trip as one of three adults back there.

I liked the car's multiple storage areas: an overhead sunglass compartment, dual cupholders, map pockets and bottleholders. I was impressed by the large 8.2 liter glovebox (compare that with 5.0 liters on the Fit and 6.0 on the Yaris). I was especially taken with the sliding armrest on the center storage console, which allows short drivers (like me) to adjust it to a more comfortable position.

As for cargo capacity: Hyundai's spokesguy claimed the hatchback was large enough to hold four sets of golf clubs. Unfortunately, I did not get an estimate for bags of groceries, or warehouse store boxes of detergent. (Note to self: next time I go on one of these drives, I should stop at a supermarket and buy a week’s worth of groceries, just to see how well they all fit.)

Driving the Accent

I got to put the car through its paces on a long, twisty route that snaked through the canyons above Pacific Coast Highway, and I truly appreciated having that 136-horsepower engine, especially when the route took us up a steep hill. Accent delivered better than some larger vehicles I've tested on similar drives (i.e., the Ford Focus), with no loss of power.

I also appreciated the responsive power steering and tight turning diameter, which made a difference handling the hairpin curves on some portions of our route. One nice feature is called "hillstart assist control," which minimizes backward rolling on steep ascents.

The ride was comfortable, relatively quiet -- and felt very safe.

And it should. Accent's safety features include six airbags, stability management, and traction control. Accent is also the only subcompact that comes standard with four-wheel disc brakes, which give it the shortest breaking distance in its class.

But perhaps the best part about the vehicle is its low price: The MSRP for a fully loaded five-door Accent is just $16,795 (and the four-door sedan with premium package is even a few hundred dollars less).

I guess it's no wonder that Hyundai's sales are up. That trend will probably continue with this vehicle.

2010by Donna Schwartz Mills
Contributing Editor

Donna Schwartz Mills is a Los Angeles-based writer who also contributes to CBS Digital Local Los Angeles, the Yahoo! Motherboard and her personal site,SoCal Mom.

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