Test Drive: Elantra Eco sacrifices performance for fuel economy

Not so very long ago, choosing a compact or subcompact Hyundai meant sacrificing comfort, performance and refinement — at least in comparison with cars of similar size and shape built by Ford, Chevrolet, Toyota, Nissan and Honda. The tradeoff was the Hyundai’s lower cost and longer warranty. Some car-shoppers undoubtedly took note of the fact a new Hyundai cost about the same, or even less, than a comparably equipped competitor’s model with a few thousand miles on its odometer.

Having driven several Hyundai Elantra compact sedans in recent years, we’ve seen close-up how much they’ve improved. They’re just as smooth, quiet and well built as their competitors’ models, falling short only in road feel and cornering.

Our latest Elantra was a 2018 Eco — the Elantra line’s fuel-economy champ. It’s rated at 32 mpg city, 40 highway. (For maximum fuel economy, the Hyundai of choice is the Ioniq hatchback, available as a hybrid, plug-in-hybrid or all-electric car. The base model delivers up to 59 mpg and costs about $4,000 more than the lowest-priced Elantra.)

The Phantom Black test car had a sticker price of $21,560, almost $3,000 more than the base SE we drove several months ago. The Eco has two major differences: a 1.4-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder engine instead of a 2.0-liter normally aspirated Four; and a 7-speed dual-clutch automated transmission instead of the conventional 6-speed automatic.

The SE is rated at 29 mpg city, 38 highway — acceptable numbers for a roomy compact car with a fairly large trunk. The standard engine has more horsepower than the turbocharged unit, but less torque. More importantly, the 6-speed performs much more consistently than the dual-clutch gearbox does. So the Eco’s relatively slight edge in fuel economy comes with a high price in terms of performance — not to mention its higher price.

Of course, the Eco has more standard equipment than the SE, so the more valid comparison is with the SEL, which starts at about $19,000. Among its standard features are blind-spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert, rear-view camera with dynamic guidelines, a 7-inch display, satellite radio, Android Auto and Apple Carplay, Bluetooth hands-free phone system, steering-wheel-mounted audio and cruise control, heated front seats, and hands-free smart trunk.

The Elantra lineup also includes the Sport version, which comes with a 1.6-liter, 201-horsepower turbocharged Four. Starting at about $20,000, it can be fitted with the dual-clutch transmission or a 6-speed manual gearbox.

While some automakers are struggling to move their small sedans and hatchbacks, Elantra sales are about the same as they were in 2017 through August. Sales reached 198,210 last year. Still, Elantra sales are likely to fall short of the model’s best years, 2012-16, when annual sales exceeded 200,000.

Major competitors include the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Nissan Sentra, Mazda3 and Volkswagen Golf. The Elantra is rated a Top Safety Plus by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

2018 Hyundai Elantra Eco

Price: $21,560

Engine: 1.4-liter turbocharged inline Four, 128 horsepower, 156 lb.-ft. torque

Transmission: 7-speed EcoShift dual-clutch automatic

Drive: front-wheel

Weight: 2,857 lb.

Suspension: MacPherson strut front, coupled torsion beam axle rear

Wheels: 15×6-in. alloy

Tires: 195/65R15 all-season

Seating capacity: 5

Luggage capacity: 14.4 cu. ft.

Fuel capacity: 14 gal.

Fuel economy: 32 mpg city, 40 mpg highway

Fuel type: regular unleaded gasoline

Steven Macoy ([email protected]) is a longtime car enthusiast and full-time editor who lives in Bethel, Conn.

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