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2004 HYUNDAI ELANTRA Review - Base Price $13,299

Good car, exceptional value.


2004 hyundai elantra Review

The Hyundai Elantra is handsome, comfortable, versatile, and fun to drive. It would be a decent car if it cost thousands more. For under $14,000, it's a genuine bargain. Elantra comes with one of the most powerful standard engines in the subcompact class, and is among the quickest. It handles as well as many of its competitors and has the sporty feel we like in a smaller car.

The interior is nicely finished and more comfortable than many subcompacts, including the big name brands. Standard equipment surpasses that offered on cars costing thousands more, and includes side airbags. Measured by build quality, Elantra meets or beats most of its competitors. We believe it will exceed most buyers' expectations. It's no surprise the Elantra is Hyundai's best-selling car in North America with annual sales of about 120,000.

Elantra is available as both a sedan and hatchback, the latter combining the practical advantages of a small wagon with the sleeker look of a sedan. The hatchback is hard to beat for its functionality and looks, but most American buyers prefer sedans. So Hyundai now offers the high-trim Elantra GT as a sedan or a hatchback.

Concerned about reliability? Hyundai's warranty is one of the best available. The basic warranty lasts five years or 60,000 miles for the original owner, with free roadside assistance throughout. The engine and transmission are warranted for 10 years or 100,000 miles, and Hyundai protects Elantra from rust-through for five years or 100,000 miles.

For 2004, Elantra has been updated with several interior improvements and mildly different styling. Frankly, you'll have to look carefully to spot the sheet metal changes, but that's fine. The Elantra is an impressive buy either way.


Often, inexpensive cars try to make up for their economy ambience with strange or garish interior design. But the Hyundai Elantra interior is subdued, clean and efficient. Our test car was finished in dark gray and basic black, and we found it surprisingly appealing. There's very little hard plastic in the Elantra, and the soft stuff has a richer feel than we've been conditioned to expect in cars of this ilk. Even the center armrest is padded and covered with cloth or leather; most cars in this class have a hard plastic center armrest.

The front seats are terrific, offering precise adjustments. They are large and neither too soft nor too hard, providing adequate support without inflicting pain. The driver's seat adjusts for height both front and rear and both front seats have adjustable lumbar support. The front shoulder belts are height adjustable (a feature shorter people will appreciate).

The rear seats in the Elantra sedans are roomier and more comfortable than those in the Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Mazda Protege, and Ford Focus sedans. Hyundai provides a combination lap/shoulder belt in the center position, whereas the class standard remains a lap belt only. Certainly, outboard rear passengers will be happier if the center spot is empty. But that's true in all subcompacts, and in some far more expensive cars, such as the BMW 3 Series and Audi A4.

The gauge binnacle and control panel sweep in front of the driver and down toward the center console. For 2004, the speedometer and tach have separate faces. The purplish backlighting makes them quite legible at night or in full mid-afternoon sunshine, but they're a bit further apart than we'd like.

Heating, ventilation and air conditioning are adjusted with rotary controls (easier to use than the sliding type), and the dials are set in the preferred location (below, rather than above, the stereo). For 2004, the dash vents have been enlarged, with separate controls. Also new is a small, slide-out felt-lined storage bin below the driver's side vent.

Switches for the headlights, wipers, and cruise control are still mounted on stalks, within easy reach, and a remote trunk/hatch and fuel-door release are standard. Yet most ancillary buttons have been redesigned for 2004. The window, side mirror and central locking controls have been relocated to the driver's door panel, and the moonroof switch has been simplified. The hazard-light switch is now located square in the center of dash, where it's easy to find. The overhead floodlamp has been moved from just above the windshield to the center of the car, providing better light distribution. There's now a second power point below the lighter.

The only gripe involves the stereo. The slick Kenwood system in our test car sounded fine, but the buttons on the faceplate are tiny (perhaps this explains why Hyundai provides the remote control). Moreover, the flashing, multi-color graphics may impress video game freaks, but we found them to be annoying and at least a little distracting when driving during darkness.

In our view, the more desirable Elantra is the GT hatchback. The five-door design makes particularly good sense for young families that own only one car and must use it for multiple tasks. After a week of running errands in a hatchback Elantra, we can't understand why Americans have saddled this body style with such a negative connotation. With the rear seat up, there's room enough in the cargo compartment for beach gear or the sundry stuff kids seem to require for a day trip. With the seat folded, the rear side doors make access to cargo much easier.

With the rear seat in place, the hatchback provides 26.6 cubic feet of cargo volume, more than double the space in the Elantra sedan's trunk (12.9 cubic feet). With the seat folded, the five-door offers a class-topping 37 cubic feet of stowage. It's remarkable what you can squeeze into the Elantra hatchback's cargo bay. We fit a dozen 10-foot pieces of wood molding and a couple of two-by-fours entirely inside the car, with the hatch closed. Then we did it again with plywood sheets cut to 40 X 70 inches, including the remnants. With the hatch tied partway open, the possibilities include full sheets of plywood or a 27-inch TV in its carton.


Hyundai has given Elantra a face lift for 2004, intent on "a more refined, more European look." Several body panels are new, including the hood, front fenders, front bumper and headlight assemblies, though it's hard to tell the difference unless the new Elantra is parked next to a 2003. This subcompact was already aerodynamically efficient, helping boost fuel economy and reduce wind noise.

From the front doors forward the sedan and hatchback are identical, featuring prominent twin trapezoid headlamps angled back in a black background. The lamps were designed to cast a broad pattern of light, and they're complemented by a revised V-shaped grille with thick, horizontal bars. The 2004 grille is integrated with the bumper cover and does not lift with the hood, as in the past. The front bumper has wider slats to improve airflow to the engine bay, and the foglamps are fitted more precisely.

The five-door hatchback is distinct from the sedan from the door pillar back. The hatchback boasts a more expansive glass area, and its roof trails back into the rear hatch, fastback style, rather than dropping suddenly toward the trunk. The hatch ends with a small spoiler lip, now body colored, above the taillights and rear bumper. It reminds us of the previous-generation Saab 9-3 hatchback. On the functional side, the taillights on all Elantras are slightly larger, and the key has been relocated from the center of the hatch or trunk lid to the right side.

Compared to the previous-generation (pre-2001), the current Elantra stretches 2.3 inches longer in wheelbase, providing more leg room inside. Headroom is also better both front and rear. Just as significantly, the engine is mounted with hydraulic attachments in a new front subframe, greatly reducing the amount of drivetrain vibration that reaches the cabin.


The Hyundai Elantra is among the quickest cars in its class. This year, horsepower has increased by three to 135 horsepower, while torque is up four pounds-feet to 132. Both Elantra GLS and GT deliver more than enough oomph to hustle through traffic, pass with confidence or rush through mountain passes at faster than posted speeds. This subcompact accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in the mid 8-second range. It's quicker than a Honda Civic LX, Mazda Protege, Nissan Sentra GXE, or Ford Focus SE.

For years Hyundai borrowed its engine designs from other manufacturers. The company now develops and manufactures its own engines, and the Elantra's 2.0-liter four-cylinder boasts most of the latest high-output technology, including dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, multipoint electronic fuel injection and coil-direct ignition. A cast aluminum oil sump, a stiff engine block and eight crankshaft counterweights reduce mechanical noise and control vibration. For 2004, there's also a new variable valve-timing system that Hyundai calls CVVT. CVVT allows the improved performance at high RPM with increased torque at low RPM, and better fuel efficiency. The system also allows Elantra's engine to meet the stringent SULEV emissions standard now required in California and several Northeast states.

But there still isn't much grunt at lower engine speeds. Most of Elantra's power comes in the last 2000 revs before the 6400-rpm redline. That means you'll need to work the transmission, shifting often to get the most from the power plant. Enthusiast drivers prefer to do exactly that. But if you're used to an engine with more low-end torque, and you don't let the Elantra wind out, you might wonder where the goods are. And when you find them, you might be disconcerted by the ruckus of a hard-working four-cylinder howling near 6000 rpm.

This performance demonstrates two areas where Elantra falls a bit short of best-in-class. First, the drivetrain (engine, transmission, differential) isn't as smooth as that in the most refined subcompacts. Second, Elantra nets an EPA-estimated 24/34 mpg City/Highway when equipped with the five-speed manual (24/32 with the SULEV engine). That's good gas mileage, but Elantra's relatively heavy weight means other cars in the class deliver better fuel economy.

We didn't test the Elantra with an automatic, but experience with hundreds of other automobiles suggests that a car with these power characteristics is better suited to a manual transmission. Unless you absolutely hate shifting, or do most of your driving in heavy traffic, we'd recommend the five-speed.

What impressed us most was the Elantra GT's balance of ride and handling, which replicates the style of a good European sedan. Some cars that cost $25,000 don't have speed-sensitive power steering or a sophisticated multi-link rear suspension, but Elantra has both. The steering requires only a light touch during parking maneuvers or in tight quarters, yet it firms up at travel speeds and gives the driver a good idea of how well the front tires are gripping. The rear suspension keeps the tires firmly on the pavement, even on bumpy roads, to keep the rear of the car from bouncing around.

This all adds up to maneuverability in traffic, secure, reasonably precise handling on curving two-lane highways and a ride that is neither floppy nor buckboard stiff. Only on freeways with a rapid succession of excessively uneven expansion joints does the Elantra tend to get bouncy. This hatchback doesn't suffer from the flexing and rattling that is the bane of some five-doors, however. It's decently screwed together and satisfactorily solid. The weakest link in the Elantra GT's handling package is its hard, wear-resistant all-season tires. A set of speed-rated performance tires would make this subcompact even better.

Four-wheel disc brakes, vented in front, do a great job of slowing the Elantra; indeed, it can stop more quickly than the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, according to published reports. We recommend the anti-lock brakes ($525), which comes bundled with traction control. ABS allows the driver to maintain steering control in an emergency braking situation, while traction control enhances stability when accelerating.


The Hyundai Elantra is a fine subcompact. The Elantra is more comfortable and more enjoyable to drive than many of the name-brand cars in its class. There's little about it that seems cheap and interior improvements for 2004 have only refined it.

In the workaday grind the Elantra GT is better than acceptable. It's good, and it can run with comparably equipped competitors in nearly every respect except the size of the monthly payments. There it comes out ahead.

Hyundai has made big gains in reliability and build quality, and any concerns in that regard are eased by a comprehensive warranty and roadside assistance plan. Measured by the price-benefit ratio, the Elantra is arguably the best bargain in its class. We strongly urge anyone who puts a premium on value to put this Hyundai on their test-drive list.

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