The all-new 2011 Elantra will stand out more than its predecessor ever did, with crisper, edgier styling from every angle. It very likely will never be described as dull, economy-class, boring, or cookie-cutter, although some of the creases in the sheetmetal could cut cookie dough.
From the rear the Elantra is very similar to its big-brother Sonata, so much so that in the distance or without anything for scale you have to be well-versed in both to tell the difference. The tail lights are long, wavy wraparound fixtures echoing the curves that lead in to the rear bumper and promote airflow to help keep the lights clean; on a dirty road surface the license plate should be the first part shrouded in muck.
Up front a hexagonal grille presents a more sinister smile than Mazda's 3, perhaps more eager to play or a Dustbuster with attitude. The headlight housings wrap into the fenders, the trailing edge back as far as the centerline of the front wheels. This is the face of in-your-face styling as far as commuter compacts go, and makes some of the competition look quite dated.
In side view the Elantra again borrows from the Sonata school with a raked windshield, roofline flowing into the trunk, coupe-like rear side window shape, and a generally-forward leaning shape. The crease that runs a rising arc from the front wheel, through the door handles and over the rear-wheel openings into the tail lights closely mirrors the shape of the last Triumph sports cars, the TR7 and TR8, suggesting their tag-line, "The Shape of Things to Come," was indeed accurate.
The Elantra appears to have the sleekest, highest tail in its class and looks faster because of it. For the time being it's overall the most distinctive shape in this segment, with only the 2012 Ford Focus and Honda Civic likely to offer cosmetic competition.
Elantra Limited models can be distinguished by their larger alloy wheels, fog lights, and mirror-mounted signal repeaters. None of those is reason enough to step up; the tires offer better performance but the aftermarket (or your dealer) can address that too.
The Elantra's interior doesn't resemble that of some cost-cutter compacts, marrying a good dose of style with some interesting materials. If you don't feel you're getting your money's worth here, we think you'll struggle to find any better in a compact. It has no hint of cheapness nor pretense of luxury, though standard heated rear seats for $20,000 will cause a lot of people to take notice.
That's right, heated rear seats are standard on the Limited, along with leather upholstery and faux leather door panels all perforated in a wave pattern. GLS models use cloth covering but all the seats are the same construction. The headliner employs a mix of material that includes volcanic rock to an interesting effect more attractive than fuzzy cardboard or plastic. There is of course plastic on many surfaces though the only area we found that looks it is the backs of the front seats. We were pleasantly surprised to find the center AC vents were color-matched to the surrounding trim, not always the case on far more expensive cars.
Room up front is very good and the seats are set well in from the doors for extra elbow space. Both of our 6-foot, 3-inch test dummies fit fine, even with a sunroof, and neither had the seat all the way back. With the front seats left in place they squeezed under the low door opening into the back, when both found sufficient knee and toe space while one could sit upright without head against the headliner as the other was. There's a lot of passenger volume in the Elantra (EPA labels it midsize, though we consider it a compact) and it has competitive dimensions, but different shapes will find numbers aren't everything.
Front seats proved comfortable for hours with no back complaints about lack of lumbar or inadequate bolstering; longer-legged types may wish for longer seat cushions. It's worth noting the least expensive model does not include a telescoping steering column, which aids comfort and driver awareness. The rear seats are also comfortable, the center floor nearly flat and the center seat higher but well padded.
Analog road and engine speed complement digital fuel and temperature, bathed in blue at night. Most steering wheels have redundant control options and on cars so equipped telephone buttons for hands-on operation. Radio or navigation/audio atop the center stack was easy to work and see in sunlight, though occasionally we'd stumble upon some slightly odd logic like the low-frequency (bass) adjustment on top and the high-frequency (treble) adjustment on the bottom; alphabetical isn't what we're accustomed to. Ventilation controls are in their own section and quickly deciphered.
Cabin storage is fairly good in quantity, variety and location. Each door has a map pocket, electronics plugs aren't right next to the cupholders waiting to fill with coffee or cola, and there's a pocket on the right side of the console with an adjacent 12-volt power point. It's handy for charging things but anything in it takes away the passenger's left knee-rest.
Outward visibility is fairly good. The windshield pillars are thicker (a new set of safety standards is coming) than they were but so far away that rarely presents any issues. A tall windshield and articulated mirror mount ensure a good view on winding or hilly lanes, and the hood can only be seen by those sitting far forward and high. Despite the high trunk and sloping roof we had no problems with rear or rear-quarter vision.
The trunk offers nearly 15 cubic feet of space; only the Chevrolet Cruze and Mazda3 might hold more. It's not a big opening, but sufficient, and there are pulls to drop the 40/60 folding rear seats (not flat) for more capacity. There's only a small area of paint to lift things over so the rear bumper should stay pretty, and a hole in the trunk about the size of a tire has a filler with storage bins in it.