By Chris Haak
With fuel prices still high – and volatile – US consumers are flocking in greater numbers to more fuel-efficient vehicles. According to research that Hyundai shared with a group of journalists this morning in Charleston, SC, the subcompact segment is expected to grow by over 80 percent from 2010 to 2013. Granted, the B-segment (subcompacts) still doesn’t sell in the numbers that the C- (compacts) and D-segments (midsizers) do, but it stands to reason that US consumers will embrace more “right-sized” vehicles more readily in coming years than they did in the go-go cheap gas 1990s.
The third of those three models, the all-new 2012 Accent, has just gone on sale, and Hyundai is proud of the fact that the 40 MPG rating is standard on the Accent and Elantra. In fact, the USB thumb drive that Hyundai provided is in the shape of an asterisk, a not-so-subtle jab at the fact that the Cruze Eco, Fiesta SFE, Focus SFE, and Civic HF models all charge a premium of between $1,900 and $3,650 to reach their 40-42 MPG ratings.
The new Accent is about more than just fuel economy, although that and the car’s value message are what Hyundai plans to use to sell the car.
I don’t generally think of myself as a car snob, though I must admit that from time to time, driving around in small, cheap cars, I sometimes feel more self conscious than I should. However, driving in and around beautiful Charleston in the Accent, I didn’t really have that sensation. I looked sympathetically at the poor sap in a yellow Aveo five-door, thinking that I was happy to be in a more modern, stylish, capable car than Daewoo effort that is the Aveo.
For 2012, the Accent moves away from its clean, conservative shape and embraces the fluidic sculpture design language that made its production debut on the Sonata, and which later found its way to the Elantra. It’s much easier to design an attractive larger car than it is to create a comely small car, because the small car’s minimal length makes it difficult to disguise a sufficiently-tall roofline. For an example of this issue, look no further than the Nissan Sentra, which attempts to draw on the Altima’s design language, but falls on its face a bit thanks to its short length and tall roof.
The 2012 Accent suffers from the same affliction that the Ford Fiesta does: it looks really shapely and sporty in 5-Door form, but somewhat tall and frumpy as a sedan. (That being said, the Accent sedan is probably the best-looking three-box subcompact sedan).
In profile, the Accent sedan looks like it took the door design (with an aggressively sculpted swage line that cuts along the door handle line and a rising beltline) from the Sonata and the C-pillar shape from the old Elantra. The front end shares the Hyundai family’s hexagonal grille, seen on the Elantra, Sonata Hybrid, Tucson, and soon to be seen on the Veloster, and boasts wraparound headlamps that add a sporty flair.
To my eyes, the five door is the looker of the group, because its longer roof allowed designers to ditch the somewhat stubby look of the sedan, and replace it with a nicely-shaped rear hatch that deftly blends sporty-looking taillights with the rear window and hatch opening. In the five-door, the window curves upward in its bottom-rear corner to connect with the top of the door opening – good for design cohesiveness, but somewhat bad for rear visibility. Of course, no rear camera (or navigation system) is offered, but the car is small enough that it’s still pretty easy to park. I didn’t drive the sedan, but sitting in the driver’s seat briefly, its visibility was somewhat better, despite a high decklid.
Inside, I didn’t expect a luxury car ambience (even a pretend one, which the Elantra Limited does a good job of emulating), and was not surprised nor disappointed overall. There’s reasonable space inside for such a small car; part of Hyundai’s value message is offering a car that is technically classified as a compact (if just barely) to compete against smaller offerings in the subcompact segment.
There is the expected hard plastic nearly everywhere; dashboard, door panels, console, and even the driver’s door armrest. The console lid armrest is padded, however, and slides forward and has a diminutive storage compartment within. Ford and Honda don’t even offer center armrests in their subcompacts, so it was nice to have one in the Accent. Really, though, the plastic didn’t disappoint very much (aside from the armrest, which was an unfortunate choice), and I really liked the fabric insert on the door panel in the Accent SE.
On the center stack, you’ll find piano black trim surrounding the radio and gearshift on higher-end models (SE 5-Door and GLS with the Premium Package), similar to what you’ll find inside the Sonata. However, the dashboard in the Accent is more conservatively designed than those in the more expensive Hyundais. Of note, while the Fiesta still has its share of hard plastic inside, it does have some soft-touch dashboard surfaces that go a long way toward improving perceived quality.
As noted earlier, there is no navigation system available (not that I blame Hyundai for that omission; I’m sure its take rate would be less than one percent), but there are some nice technology options. The SE 5-Door and GLS Premium Package models come with Bluetooth phone/streaming audio connectivity, and all radio-equipped Accents come with XM Satellite Radio. Note that not all Accents will come with a radio or air conditioning; that loss leader model will likely account for a very small portion of sales, and starts at $12,445 plus $760 destination charge. Other options not on the Accent’s list include a sunroof or leather seats. Hyundai’s research shows that those options would likely not be popular at all, so it figured that it wasn’t worth the trouble to offer them.
Hyundai prioritized ride quality over handling prowess when developing the Accent, and that’s evident as soon as you set off down a road with less-than-perfect pavement. Around Charleston, US 17 is in the midst of a pretty significant construction project, and with lots of temporary lanes and rough patches, the Accent was the opposite of harsh-riding. I spent my time – about an hour and a half behind the wheel – in a top-of-the-line Accent SE 5-Door, which has recalibrated steering and sportier driving dynamics than the garden-variety Accents do.
Yet, despite its larger size against all of its competitors, the Hyundai is lighter than all but the Yaris and Mazda2 – and it’s less than 100 pounds heavier than each of those two cars. Coupled with the Accent’s horsepower advantage over every other car in its class, power actually felt adequate, even to my impatient right foot. You won’t win drag races against V6 family sedans in an Accent, but you will almost certainly beat a Yaris, Aveo, Fit, Fiesta, Mazda2, or Versa, thanks to the Accent’s significant weight-to-power ratio advantage. While the Fiesta’s 120 horsepower is a bit of a handicap (unless you’re a momentum driver who prizes handling over power), the Accent allowed me to safely perform several passing maneuvers on two-lane roads without raising my blood pressure.
Hyundai engineers developing the Accent employed a number of weight-saving and fuel-saving tricks to not only get to that weight-to-power advantage, but also to hit the 40 MPG bogey. Fifty nine percent of the Accent’s body-in-white is high strength steel, which improves the car’s weight (not as much is needed for the same strength) and its safety. Measures such as the new Gamma 1.6 liter GDI engine (the only direct injection engine in the B-segment), electric power steering, low rolling resistance tires, a lower coefficient of drag, and a six-speed manual rather than the previous five-speed unit bring the Accent an 18.1 percent fuel economy improvement, from 34 MPG to the magic four-oh.
Part of what helps the Accent’s responsiveness is its gearing. Downshifts aren’t necessary nearly as much as they are in some fuel economy-optimized models such as the Cruze Eco. With the Cruze Eco, forget about increasing your speed while remaining in sixth gear; you need to drop several gears to get things moving. I’m convinced that Hyundai could quite easily change the gearing in the Accent to further improve fuel economy, because at 70 MPH in sixth gear, it was still turning 2,750 RPMs. Make sixth gear a very tall overdrive, and mid-40s are probably possible. Maybe Hyundai is keeping some more MPGs in ready reserve for future CAFE challenges.
Having driven enough cars to know that driver behavior is perhaps the single largest variable in observed fuel economy, Hyundai was smart to employ specialized creative solutions in both the manual and automatic Accents. For manual-equipped cars, Hyundai employs what it calls an EcoShift indicator. More sophisticated than an old-school vacuum-driven shift light, it actually tells you what gear you should be in, given throttle position and speed, in order to save fuel. Automatics get something called Active ECO, activated via a button on the left side of the dash, which smooths acceleration and enables up to a seven percent real-world fuel economy improvement. Of note, the Accent’s EPA testing was done without Active ECO turned on, because EPA testing is so controlled (and involves specific, very gentle throttle application) that it wouldn’t have made a difference. It’s nice that Hyundai bothered to include a feature that improves real-world economy rather than theoretical fuel economy that can be advertised everywhere.
The clutch took a few miles to get accustomed to; its takeup point is very close to the floor, and some other cars’ clutches are just easier to jump into and get used to. The gearshift had long throws, but was very easy to move from gear to gear with minimal notchiness. I’m certain that it would have been the perfect shift action for my wife, since she prefers long, easy throws. A feature that I wish they would have included is a [defeatable] hill-hold feature on the manual transmission cars. Some folks I know hate that feature, but I happen to like it. As it were, Hyundai included such a feature on the automatic-equipped Accent only, where it’s not really needed.
As noted above, the Elantra SE has recalibrated electric-assist power steering. At parking lot speeds, it felt overboosted and artificial. Once underway, however, it firmed up nicely, to the point that it’s among the better EPAS systems I’ve sampled in providing some road feel. Hyundai bestowed the Accent with class-exclusive four wheel disc brakes which, according to their own competitive testing, out-stop the competition’s disc/drum setup. The brakes had a decently firm pedal. There’s ABS with electronic brake-force distribution standard on all Accents, along with six airbags, stability control, and active front head restraints.
Pricing is competitive. When accounting for equipment differences using TrueDelta.com’s price-comparison tool, the Accent is $1,821 cheaper than a Yaris at invoice, $104 less than a Fiesta, and $429 less than a Honda Fit. Especially compared to the Yaris, you’ll really feel like you’re getting a superior car in the Accent, despite its lower price. Pricing ranges from $13,205 for a base sedan to $17,555 for a loaded 5 Door, with the sedan topping out at $17,255 and the 5 Door going to $17,555. The value message from Hyundai is important to their company, but it’s also clear that the company has no interest going forward as the cheapest entry in the segment.
As someone who has grown accustomed to nicer vehicles over the past decade, and hasn’t owned a car with cloth seats since 1998, I wish the Accent were available with some semi-luxurious options. But aside from that, there really is much to like about Hyundai’s new Korean-built subcompact. It’s stylish (particularly the 5 Door model), reasonably comfortable, well-equipped, spacious and powerful for its class, safe, and fuel efficient. With the Accent’s new design and engineering that improve nearly every aspect of the car, a buyer in this segment would be foolish not to give the Accent some serious consideration.
Hyundai provided airfare, a nice hotel, delicious food and drink, and the vehicles [with insurance and gasoline] in order for me to participate in this event.