By Jim Bray
South Korean carmakers have come a long way in a relatively short time. And they've earned their current success by offering cars that are built well, competitive in price and even more competitive in features.
Hyundai, the subject of this particular rant, has developed from the old and unloved Pony and Stellar of the 1980's, and their later and rather bizarre "relax, you'll get there someday" jingle I took to mean that, undoubtedly unconsciously, Hyundai was admitting their cars were lacking in oomph. Yes, Hyundai used to be a joke, automotively speaking.
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Now, however, Hyundai and its stablemate Kia are doing to the Japanese (and other) carmakers what the Japanese carmakers did to the Once Big Three – and, later, the European luxury car makers – starting back in the 1970's. They're beating them at their own game, and they're doing it by building vehicles people like and want to own, not just because they may undercut the competitions' prices.
With cars such as the Sonata and Elantra, Hyundai has taken on the Camry/Accord and Corolla/Civic niches head to head and with utility vehicles such as the Santa Fe and Tucson they're going head to head with the Rav4/CR-V and Highlander/Pilot markets as well.
But one thing Hyundai didn't offer until recently (not counting its more up market Genesis entries) was a car designed to quicken the pulse of the "practical enthusiast", the he/she/it for whom driving is more than just getting from here to "there and back again" (sorry, Tolkien..), but who still wants a vehicle that offers at least four doors and works as more than just a corner carver.
I'm talking about the sports sedan/hot hatch market – cars like the Civic Si, the Mazda3 and – the granddaddy of them all - the VW Golf/GTI, the standard by which all others must be measured.
Hence the Elantra Sport (sedan) and the Elantra GT Sport. GT in this case doesn't necessarily mean Gran Turismo; instead, Hyundai has designated the moniker as denoting that it's a hatchback. The "hot" part comes from the rest of the name: Sport. This is the hot hatch version of the Elantra Sport sedan. And it's a nice one!
I spent a week in Hyundai Canada's Elantra GT Sport during some particularly awful winter weather, so I never had a chance to really stretch its axles - but since I drive a reasonably hot "hatch" (wagon) every day I could at least audition it side by side and get an idea for how it stacks up under such conditions.
It stacks up very well, except for one niggling thing that bugged me so much I might look elsewhere were I buying: it has no manual hand brake!
Laugh if you will - and there are arguments to be made that an electronic parking brake is better and that I'm a silly oaf for saying I might not buy a car over such a minor issue. But really missed it and it made my trips to snowy parking lots a lot less entertaining.
Naturally, my dear wife felt the opposite.
If you're an old stick in the mud, you can get a mechanical parking brake on the lower trim levels - but then you're giving up the Sport stuff….
Other than that, though, the Elantra GT Sport is a lot of fun. It has adequate power, handles like it should, and comes equipped with pretty well everything you could want other than a Jurassic joystick at your right hand.
The Elantra GT, according to the company, was designed in Europe and "fine tuned" on the iconic Nürburgring race circuit in Germany. This shouldn't be surprising, because Hyundai/Kia hired famed designer Peter Schreyer away from the VW group years ago.
And it shows. I've often said that German cars feel almost as if they're carved from a single block of metal – they have this solidity to them that's quite remarkable – and the current Elantra comes as close to imparting that impression as any other non-German car of which I can think. That's high praise.
The GT Sport starts at a couple of pennies shy of $27,000 CAD, that version coming with a mostly nicely shifting (but just a tad rubbery) six speed manual transmission. For about two grand more you can have a seven-speed double clutch automatic transmission with paddles. The latter is probably fine, but if you're going to do this, especially if you aren't in stop and go commuting every day, you really should opt for the stick, which also features a nice, light clutch.
The Sport's engine is downsized from the "garden variety" Elantra's, but that's not a bad thing because, instead of a two litre, normally blown four cylinder engine you get a 1.6 litre turbo four and that little beaut ups the Elantra Sport's oomph from the regular car's 162/150 (HP/Torque) to a more interesting 201/195, with both horses and torquey things coming on at lower revs (lots lower, in the case of the torque).
The Sport also gets bigger wheels and brakes, and a better suspension - 18 inch alloy wheels (up from the more pedestrian Elantra's 17's), larger front and rear discs, and an independent multi-link rear suspension that helps the hot little hatch handle like a hot hatch should.
Steering feel from the electrically-powered rack and pinion setup is fine, as is brake pedal feel. I didn't notice torque steer from the front engine/front wheel drive configuration, either. And the traction control and ABS stay nicely in the background unless you really demand their presence.
Inside, the cabin is a model of attractive efficiency and ease of use. This combination is becoming harder to find these days, because cars are getting so complex that manufacturers are hard pressed to design interfaces that don't drive you nuts. Carmakers tear out their corporate hair coming up with knobs, dials, track pads, cascading menus and the like, to let you access all their vehicles' ins and outs, the result of which is that the vehicle can contribute as much to distracted driving as your smart phone can.
Hyundai continues to march to a different tune, using straightforward knobs, buttons and a touch screen that works well and won't send you poring over the manual. My only issue is that the centre stack LCD is just a tad far away from easy reach of the right hand for the more diminutive among us.
As one of the top end trim levels, the GT Sport gives you plenty of creature comforts, including a nice power-operated driver's seat. The front passenger seat is still adjusted manually, though, which seems like an oversight. But the seats are comfortable, there's plenty of room for four (five in an emergency) and because it's a hatchback with a split/fold second row of seats you can even haul a decent amount of stuff.
The audio system is good and includes six speakers and an eight inch touch screen LCD. It also includes Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, neither of which I can test because I have the world's first smart phone and it obviously isn't smart enough.
Naturally, Hyundai also crams in dual zone automatic HVAC, Bluetooth and USB/Aux connectivity, heated leather front seats and steering wheel, and steering wheel-mounted audio, cruise and telephone controls.
Add in niceties such as a nice panoramic sunroof, LED head and taillights, dual tipped sport exhausts and wireless charging, and you have a pretty decent package.
Hyundai doesn't scrimp on the safety stuff, either. The Elantra GT Sport comes with Blind Spot Detection with Rear Cross-Traffic Alert, seven airbags, ABS braking, electronic stability control/traction control and stability management. The nannies aren't as obtrusive as on some competitors, either, which is nice.
Sure, in the grand scheme of things automotive the GTI is still a more compelling drive than the Elantra GT Sport, but VW's been at this game for decades. Besides, a GTI that comes with all the stuff that's on the Elantra GT Sport will cost $32,000 or more, which makes it about five grand more dear than the Hyundai, all other things being equal.
All things aren't equal, of course, but kudos to Hyundai for crafting a fun car that's also practical and affordable. I can't wait to see what they have up their sleeves next.
Copyright 2018 Jim Bray
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