| 11:21 AM EST

2011 Hyundai Elantra — The Fifth Generation Comes Fast

Hyundai's product onslaught continues with a new compact that's bigger, more stylish and more efficient than its predecessor. And its development cycle is faster than the competition.
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Hyundai launched the fourth generation Elantra in mid-2006. Just over four years later, the fifth generation model is ready; a clean-sheet design that promises the same mileage ratings from every model, not just some special efficiency version. It makes use of judicious carry over of some components and subsystems, but relies on fast turnover and a generous feature list to stay fresh and climb closer to the top of the consideration list.


Engine and Transmission

An all-alloy 1.8-liter multi-port injected inline four-cylinder engine carrying the "Nu" codename is mated to a six-speed transmission (manual or automatic). The block and head are made from aluminum, as opposed to the iron block and aluminum head of the 2010 model's 2.0-liter engine. The high-pressure die-cast head carries twin overhead cams and continuously variable valve timing. It also makes 148 hp @ 6,500 rpm and 131 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm. That's 10 horsepower more than before, though torque output drops 5 lb-ft from the old engine. There's also a two-step variable intake, 10.3:1 compression ratio, an offset crankshaft to reduce piston scuffing, a smart alternator that provides only the electrical power needed, and a lifetime steel timing chain in place of the previous engine's reinforced rubber cam belt. The engine's design also allowed Hyundai engineers to move the cowl forward for more front seat room.

Of greater importance, however, is the switch to a six-speed transmission. This reduces the drop-off in engine speed between gears, brings the gear ratios closer, and lets the manual gearbox have overdrive ratios on fourth, fifth and sixth gears. However, the majority of Elantras will be ordered with the automatic, which is a Hyundai in-house design. The 161-lb. automatic is 11 lb. lighter than the four-speed automatic it replaces, has 62 fewer parts, and is more compact. It has a torque capacity of 20 kgf.m (144.6 lb-ft), and the ability to manually select gears. This is in spite of a new, smaller torque converter that is 2.6 lb lighter than the one used in the old four-speed. (Hyundai has applied for 279 patents on the six-speed automatic.) Both transmissions and both trim levels (GLS and Limited) are EPA rated at 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway/33 mpg combined. Says Hyundai Motor America president and CEO John Krafcik, "We want to provide fuel economy without asterisks.


Body and Chassis

The new Elantra is 1.8-in. lower and 0.9-in longer than its predecessor, but sits on a 2.0-in. longer wheelbase. Though Hyundai likes to point out that the compact Elantra is classified as a midsize car by the EPA, passenger volume is actually 2.3 ft3 less than the 2010 model (95.6 ft3 vs. 97.9 ft3). Much of that difference is attributable to the 2011 model's sleeker styling. The body structure's 37% increase in torsional rigidity, however, comes from multiple sources. Hyundai greatly increased the use of high-strength steel on this model, but there are more pedestrian reasons behind this change, as well. For instance, the lower member of the cowl and shock absorber cover are now connected, as are the rear suspension cross member and spring mount. Plus, the connection between the rear spring and vertical member was straightened, while the horizontal cross member was both straightened and made larger.

The suspension attached to this structure is both familiar and different. On both the 2010 and 2011 models, the front suspension consists of MacPherson struts, twin-tube shocks, and a 23-mm anti-roll bar. It's in the rear that things change. In what might appear to be a sign of devolution, the multi-link independent rear suspension has been replaced with a torsion beam rear axle with monotube shocks and coil springs. That's because the torsion beam is more compact (it accounts for most of the 0.6 ft3 increase in trunk space), has fewer bushings attaching it to the body, is made up of fewer parts, both locates the wheel and acts as the anti-roll bar, and is lighter.

Also carried over is the motor-driven power steering system, though the overall ratio has changed from 15.37:1 to 14.2:1. For 2011, the power steering system has the added feature of being able to add or subtract up to 8.0 Nm of torque in response to signals from the electronic stability control system in order to keep the car on track. Four-channel ABS with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) carries over to the new car, but the size of the vented front brake discs has been increased to 11.0 in. from 10.8 in., despite a 62 lb decrease in the Elantra's curb weight. The standard 10.3-in. solid rear discs are carried over.



Cedric D'Andre, a young designer out of Hyundai's California design center, shaped the new sheetmetal. "I wanted it to have a family resemblance to the Sonata without making it the same," he says, "and used a strong shoulder line to emphasize this [resemblance]." Cognizant of the need to have a low drag coefficient (the Elantra's Cd = 0.28), D'Andre swept the headlamps back, but kept the teardrop-shaped front fender line (first seen on Hyundai's 2009 Blue-Will concept car) low and flush with the outer edge of the front wheels to reduce drag. It morphs into a character line that carries through the sills and rear fenders, creating yet another teardrop behind the rear wheels that helps cut turbulence. A hard edge on the wrap-around rear lights and a stamped lip on the rear deck support its aero effect. A Touring version of the Elantra (sold as the i30 in Europe) is scheduled to follow the sedan in a couple of years. Unlike its predecessor, the new version will have a fastback instead of a wagon-like rear end, and was designed in California, not Hyundai's European Design Center in Russelsheim, Germany.

The interior carries forward Hyundai's recent styling themes with a distinct wave form that sweeps forward at the center stack, and recedes on each side before sweeping into the door panels. Hard plastics abound, topped by soft-feel skins and highlighted by satin finish trim. Electroluminescent gauges dominate the instrument cluster. The A-pillars are made from a combination of plastic, fibrous tissue and volcanic rock for greater scratch resistance, easier cleaning, and a surface visually more like cloth. Hyundai engineers are quick to point out they're also significantly less expensive than wrapped pillars.

Hyundai has its eyes set on eventually eclipsing Honda and Toyota. Short product lifecycles, lots of standard features, a limited number of option packages, and eye-catching styling have combined with Hyundai's go-getter image to attract new buyers to the brand. The Elantra is just the latest entry in this battle for dominance.