The marketers like to tell us that cars like this–the Chevy Aveo, Toyota Echo, and so on–are perfect for young kids going off to college, buying their first car. Or having it bought for them. But we were young not so long ago, and we remember feeling like we’d never be caught dead in a tiny tin box like that. No, take a look around sometime and see who’s really behind the wheel of cars like those, and you’ll see that most of the time, it’s normal, middle-age folks. Not kids with dyed hair listening to pop music, but folks in button-down shirts listening to NPR.
Why would such people be driving such entry-level wheels? Chalk it up to smarts. These are folks who take no enjoyment from the act of driving, but still have to get to the proverbial Point B without breaking down halfway from A. These people want basic transportation; the car might as well be an Amana fridge, so long as it starts every time and has the basic convenience features that make life livable.
Of course, those cars get reviewed, too. Even though it’s every automotive journalist’s most-feared assignment–driving around for hours in a tippy little econobox–somebody’s got to do it. So when Hyundai introduced the new-for-2006 Accent, they did a smart thing by shipping us all out to La Jolla, California to do so.
As it turns out, though, the high-end luxury digs and fancy meals weren’t necessary. The Accent is a genuinely decent car that survives on its own merits.
First off, it’s not bad-looking. In a segment that seems to be dominated by no style at all–the Aveo, Echo, et. al. look like the toy cars of a kid who doesn’t like toy cars–the new Accent actually has some neat touches. It’s got a real sedan shape, and an utter lack of that dorky, awkward too-tall-and-skinny-for-its-own-good shape. Plus, there’s that attractive front fascia and jeweled-looking taillights. All said, the Accent is probably the best-looking choice in the sub-compact class.
The same can be said for the interior. There’s nothing groundbreaking here; it’s all pretty much standard fare. But the Accent doesn’t suffer from the substandard materials we’ve seen in the other cars in the $12,000 price category. In fact, from the inside, the Accent feels like a much more expensive car (like a Civic or Corolla). Plus, standard features like an adjustable rear headrest set it even further apart. Niceties like power windows and doors, a CD player, and so on remain optional.
Best of all, it’s not cramped inside, as most subcompacts are. It’s significantly larger than the outgoing version–by a couple inches in most directions–and it’s said to be bigger inside than a Civic. The tape measure says passenger space hits 92 cubic feet, which is impressive. The seating position is also raised, giving a better view down the road and in traffic. Seats are relatively comfortable as well. We took an hour-long trip with three passengers, and didn’t hear a single complaint about close quarters.
Obviously, this is not the segment that driving enthusiasts shop. 100 horsepower is standard fare here–the Accent’s 110-horse inline four actually trumps the Toyota and Chevy. Variable valve timing makes the most of the meager 1.6 liters of displacement, although it’s not tuned for high-end horsepower in the same way as a Civic Si, for instance. We do recommend the manual tranny, though–with the four-speed automatic we recorded a lethargic 10.2 seconds to sixty mph. (Again, that’s standard in the class, but still painful–the stick shift should lop at least a second off that time.) The Accent’s powertrain also isn’t too coarse–another rarity–and might be the quietest car in the class.
The list of standard mechanical equipment is impressive. Disc brakes with ABS are at all four corners–a rarity, but much appreciated. Six airbags are also included. A tilting steering wheel and split-folding rear seat are unexpected niceties as well.
Moreover, the Accent has impressive handling. Where other cars feel as tippy as an 80’s-era SUV, the Accent merely brings to mind your average small sedans. It definitely feels more substantial than its 2,240-lb. curb weight would lead you to expect. It’s no corner-carver, but twisty mountain roads didn’t upset it, and neither did downtown potholes. We cruised for nearly an hour at close to 90 mph, and felt at-ease the whole time–other cars in the class would have you easing off the gas at 80.
Still, we’re looking forward to a hot-hatch version, like the SR shown at SEMA. That little three-door promises true fun, and it even looks kinda sexy. Of course, the base-model three-door hatchback that we expect is also forthcoming will probably lack most of the fun bits, but it will, at least, be practical as well as economical. Speaking of which, fuel economy–which is a major selling point for a car like this–is a he high end of the spectrum, even in the subcompact class–EPA numbers are 32/35 city/highway; bested only by the Scion xA.
The base Accent sedan will come in at under $12,000. Options like air conditioning and alloy rims will push the price closer to $14,000. That’s right in line with the Echo and xA, although the Aveo is cheaper. Still, even without the Hyundai warranty, we’d choose the Accent over those cars.
In the next couple years, the subcompact class will become a lot more crowded. Maybe it’s because the manufacturers are betting that rising fuel costs will put us all in a downsizing frame of mind, or maybe they figure we can cut traffic problems in half if we do the same to the size of our cars. Whatever, we’ll soon be seeing mini cars from Honda (the Fit, due here roughly in a year), Nissan (from the Japanese-market; the Versa should arrive on our shores in a year or so as well) and Toyota (the Yaris, which replaces the Echo, to be introduced next month–look for it in these pages). Once the field has that many players, the choice won’t be as easy as it is now. But in the meantime, the Accent rules the roost, in the baby-car segment–and with that trademark 10-year, 100,000 mile warranty, Accent buyers today will still be covered longer than those who wait two years to buy one of the competitors. For now, the Accent is a definite buy–assuming that’s what you’re into.