The saying “good from far but far from good” used to apply to most Hyundai products. Their low prices and plentiful features grabbed your attention, but they were found wanting in terms of driving dynamics and overall execution. Now that Hyundai has well and truly moved beyond that reputation, the automaker is turning its attention to projects beyond its mainstream lineup, such as the nascent Genesis luxury brand and sporty cars like the Elantra Sport reviewed here.
Under-the-radar looks, lively powertrain, roomy interior.
Hyundai’s few past attempts at sportiness, including the Veloster Turbo and the now defunct Genesis coupe, weren’t nearly as good as this Elantra. It’s the brand’s best performance car to date—the title shared with the slightly more upscale and cargo-friendly Elantra GT Sport hatchback. It’s not, however, one we expect the Sport will hold onto for long, as the company soon will have the new Veloster N (along with other N models) and a new BMW 3-series competitor from the Genesis luxury brand.
For now, the Sport is a high-water mark. The transformation from regular Elantra-dom includes a 201-hp turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-four—replacing a 147-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder—with either a six-speed manual transmission or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, as well as a multilink rear suspension stepping in for a torsion-beam setup. Spring and damper firmness also is increased at all four corners, and the anti-roll bars are thickened for flatter, more precise handling. Hyundai also fits the Sport with larger 12.0-inch front brake rotors, fiddles with the electric power steering, and shortens the final-drive ratio. Cosmetic upgrades are few: front sport seats with debossed “sport” lettering, a flat-bottom steering wheel, a black headliner, specific 18-inch wheels, and a subtle body kit.
Based on these specs, the Elantra Sport makes a case for consideration alongside sport-compact veterans such as Honda’s Civic Si and Volkswagen’s Golf GTI. Our manual-transmission test car scooted to 60 mph in 6.6 seconds, stuck to our skidpad at an impressive 0.91 g, and stopped from 70 mph in 161 feet. Those numbers are neck and neck with the Civic Si sedan’s—well, the previous-generation Honda Civic Si’s. We have yet to test a 2017 Si sedan, but the two-door Si edges the Hyundai to 60 mph by 0.3 second, outgrips it, and outbrakes it. The more powerful VW GTI is a less fair comparison, being 0.7 second quicker to 60 mph and just as sticky as the new Civic.
Whereas earlier Hyundai efforts at performance-tuned suspensions in the Veloster Turbo and the Genesis coupe felt overly stiff and discombobulated, the Elantra offers decent wheel control over bumps and isn’t overly firm. The chassis is balanced for a front-driver, responding well to the driver lifting off the throttle to mitigate understeer and offering palpably high cornering limits. It is a fun car to drive, even if there isn’t nearly as much front-end grip as the newest Civic Si, nor does aggressive trail-braking net any oversteer in tight turns as in the Ford Focus ST.
And Yet So Far
The Elantra Sport’s performance numbers and its ride composure are the closest this car gets to the Si and the GTI, though, as the key controls aren’t as satisfying as those of the Honda or VW. Zero road feel makes its way through the chunky steering wheel. More understeer is in evidence here, as the Elantra will more often fail to turn as much as you want it to. The six-speed shifter suffers long throws and vague engagement, and the clutch is nearly as uncommunicative. This is a shame, because one must work the transmission quite often to keep the 1.6-liter engine in its happy zone above 4000 rpm. And while the four-cylinder makes good power there, it sounds like . . . nothing, really—just loud. Only the brake pedal stands out as excellent, with a firm action and immediate response.
Hyundai aimed for sporty with an all-black interior but hit dour instead. Even the interior door handles are made from black plastic. The rest of the monochromatic cabin is otherwise identical to other Elantra sedans, which is to say understated and functional, but all versions of the Civic, Golf, and Mazda 3 have plusher, nicer-looking innards. Outside, though, the discreet body kit, small turbo badge in the grille, and restrained dual exhaust outlets match the baby-sports-sedan maturity of Volkswagen’s Jetta GLI. But while the Elantra Sport just misses being great, consider that, compared with Hyundai’s improvements on its mainstream cars, the automaker’s progress on performance models is in its relative infancy.
Unfortunately, when it comes to the Sport’s $22,485 base price, Hyundai didn’t leave much room for excuses. Well equipped with a 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, heated front seats, a proximity key and push-button ignition, blind-spot monitoring, HID headlights, and LED taillights, this sedan offers a sole factory option: the $2400 Premium package that adds a sunroof, navigation, an 8.0-inch touchscreen, dual-zone automatic climate control, and two more audio speakers (for a total of eight). The Premium package puts the Elantra $110 above the similarly equipped 2017 Honda Civic Si sedan. Hyundai has drawn closer than ever before to cracking the sport-compact code with this sedan, but it’s not that close. Yet.