By on November 18, 2010

We’re coming to the end of KOREA! WEEK! and we still haven’t answered the question: When did Hyundai start becoming a serious player in this market? When did the image change from Deadly Sin to default-choice affordable car? One can go back as far as the second-generation Excel, which cracked the reliability equation while still being rust-prone as all get out. Alternately, perhaps it wasn’t until the arrival of the current Sonata that the brand became worthy of being chosen by the frozen Middle American masses.

The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, and I’d suggest that the car you see above was the true turning point. The first-generation Elantra (Lantra to the Cammy Corrigan crowd) was pleasant enough, but it didn’t even pretend to compete with Civics and Corollas. Hyundai was assumed to know its place, and that place was among the credit criminals, desperately poor, and the hopelessly stupid. Ten years ago, however, the Elantra woke up and decided that nobody was going to put it in a corner.

In 1999, I was winding down my spectacularly unsuccessful professional BMX career, in which I had racked up over a dozen broken bones and some absolutely hilarious-sounding internal injuries (ever have your hipbone shoved through your bladder? Howabout a femur broken into four free-floating pieces?) and I’d decided to concentrate on training younger riders. I’d been corresponding with some up-and-coming pros in South America and I suggested that they stay with me for a while and train. Five of them ended up showing up. Three have since quit the sport and become respected members of government and industry around the world. One broke his neck that Christmas but has since mounted a comeback and won professional events all around North and South America.

One of them simply never left the country, marrying an American girl and pursuing a pro BMX career here. We call him Jamalama, and he’s become a member of the family in many ways.

You can see why I got sick of racing against kids like him and decided to go beat up on orthodontists at Porsche Club events. Jamalama owned two Saabs in a row — an Eighties 900 Turbo which died at 260,000 miles and a 900NG Turbo which was hit from behind and totaled at the 150K mark — but after seeing the reliable service my brother had gotten from his Tiburon and his wife’s 2001 Elantra, the young rider decided to give Hyundai a shot.

We bought the car in 2005; it had 72,000 miles on it. Since then, it’s gone to pretty much every state in the Union where a BMX race has been held. As of this morning, it’s showing 154,967 on the odo. Repairs have been light: the fuel tank sensor went out and it’s gone through a pair of ball joints and front brake calipers. This is the kind of reliability which used to be synonymous with “Toyota”. Year after year, it’s started and run without effort or difficulty. This matches the service that my brother’s wife got from her Elantra, which she eventually gave to our mother and which we sold for $3000 with 95,000 trouble-free miles on the odometer.

Let’s put this another way: in the first year I had my 2005 Phaeton V8, it racked up more days in the service bay than two 2001 Elantras did over a combined 14 vehicle-years and 160,000 miles in our possession. Service on these little cars is trivially easy; I can do brake pads on an Elantra in an hour and I’m not known for being a solid mechanic. And although the ladies in the family were easy on their Elantra, Jamalama seems to continually coming up with ways to abuse his:

It’s hard to overestimate the impact that producing cars of this quality and durability can have on a manufacturer’s reputation. This is good, because the Elantra occasionally falls short on the desirability side of the equation. As with the Tiburon, the control efforts are artificially light and more than lightly artificial. All the Elantras I’ve seen of this generation have what I think of as a “Korean smell”; the plastics simply aren’t what we are used to from the domestic and Japanese manufacturers and their outgassing has a decidedly unique quality. I’m certain that a Korean customer looking at one of the rare Chevrolet Cobalts that made it into the country would have a similar olfactory experience. Eventually you get used to it.

The odd ergonomics aren’t as easy to overlook, and the selection of interior materials ranges from “depressing” to “ridiculous”. Luckily for Hyundai, however, their gradual improvement in this regard happened to come just as Toyota, Honda, and Nissan were looking for ways to cut costs out of their small cars. The ’93 Corolla felt like a little LS400, but the ’01 Corolla failed to continue on that admirable path and the price didn’t reflect the savings enjoyed by its manufacturer. Put plainly, the Corolla was the default choice, but the Elantra was the smart choice, particularly if you expected to drive it long enough for the reduced resale value to not be an issue.

When my brother’s wife bought her Elantra, I called it “a good car for the price”. A decade later, I’ve revised my opinion on these Elantras. They aren’t good cars for the price. They are simply good cars.

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31 Comments on “Capsule Review: 2001 Hyundai Elantra...”

  • avatar

    The 2011 Elantra looks like it might be a good car that’s also pretty, which would be a first.

  • avatar

    They aren’t good cars for the price. They are simply good cars.
    Agreed.  We got our 01 Elantra (the invisible silver variety) as a ‘beater’ car last year with 138k on it for $1850.  I gave it all the repairs that an unmaintained 8 year old car in the Salt Belt needs, including brakes, thermostat, radiator, and its first replacement timing belt (!) and spark plugs.
    Now with 151k on it, the thing is a family favorite and just keeps running with no problems.  Its short-term reliability and ease of use was a catalyst for us to get an 09 Sedona.  The Elantra is an uninspiring driver, but it’s not bad for long trips – much better than my 05 xB, which I can’t stand after 2 hours of engine screaming.
    I’m amazed at the progress Hyundai has made through successive generations of the Elantra (the 2011 is very nice), and agree that the 3rd-generation 01-06 was the turning point in the US for Hyundai.

    • 0 avatar

      One gripe: With this generation of Elantras everywhere, you’d think you could find boneyard parts for them.  I had a terrible time finding a miserable steel wheel, and finally had to get a used one from eBay 800 miles away.
      Another issue on the plus side: The AT is original (it may be a Mitsubishi unit, however), and uses a convenient spin-on filter, which I’ve never seen on another automatic transmission.

  • avatar

    Bought a brand new 05 Elantra stripper five years ago.  The only option was a cargo net.  It had a cassette deck, but heated mirrors standard.  A suprisingly zippy five speed.  The dealer was loss-leadering it for $9999, with the 10-year warranty.  Bought it for the kids to use.
    Other than a clutch failure at 13,000 miles, which Hyundai of America chipped in on (not covered under their famous warranty), it’s been bulletproof.  Used and abused.
    I consider it a bargain.  I don’t see why it won’t keep on going and going and going.
    Also bought a Civic EX three years ago.  That, too, has been swell.
    But the latter cost nearly twice as much as the former.   The Elantra was and is a bargain.

  • avatar

    Surprised you and your buddy didn’t choose the GT hatchback pseudo-Saab trim. It came out a few months after I got my Mazda 626 and cost about the same. I regretted not waiting – I had wanted a hatchback but year 2000 was the nuclear winter for 5-doors here in the U.S. and I didn’t think anybody, let alone Hyundai, was going to come to the rescue with a decent choice. The Focus wagon was just too frumpy and overpriced for the specs.

  • avatar

    Word. getting my 1998 saturn into a fender bender and driving a 2003 elantra as my loaner was my first, huge hint that I needed a nicer car. I damn near asked the enterprise folks what they wanted for it.

  • avatar

    Have a female friend with a 2002 Elantra…nothing to get excited about, but admirably comfortable, refined and reliable, especially for the price…good enough to make anyone paying the premium for a 2002 Corolla seem like a chump.

    All was well and good until her auto transmition self-destructed at 65K…True to their 10yr/100K warranty, Hyundai replaced her trans, with only a minimum of b*tching on her part…took a few days delay for the mechanic to ‘make sure the car hadn’t been abused’ before Hyundai would honor the repair, and a few days more for the repair, but overall, she was satisfied.

  • avatar

    I bought a used ’01 Elantra GT in October 2003 with 60k on it. It was a 5 speed, and had been on the dealer’s lot for almost a year before I stole it from them for the princely sum of $6300.
    That car excelled at nothing, but had no real serious faults, either. The seats were comfortable (oooh, fine Korean leather!), and it got about 34 mpg all the time. Not once did this car EVER let me down or fail to start.
    During my ownership of the car, Hyundai of America replaced the following at no charge (mostly recall related stuff): Exhaust manifold/cat converter assembly ($1700 part!!!), front AND rear subframes and control arms, and the front airbag sensor and wiring in the passenger seat. All of this is nearly worth what I paid for the car!
    It went through 4 rear wheel bearing/hub assemblies and one front wheel bearing, and the e-brake never worked right, but otherwise it was totally trouble free when I traded it in this past February for $2500 on a 2007 Honda Pilot EX-L. At that point, the car had already developed stage 2 body cancer.
    My biggest complaint about working on the car were the grade -1 bolts throughout the car that snapped off with little to no effort – this ties in with the body rust issues. But to have a trouble-free car to drive for about $600 a year is pretty awesome.

    • 0 avatar

      You sir, have a very…umm…interesting definition of trouble-free.  I’ve owned my current car for 8 years and the only time I brought it to the dealership for warranty was the very first year because the brake light switch had bumped up a millimeter or two so they had to adjust it back down a bit-no replacements or anything. Otherwise it’s only been real wear parts (no offense but wheel bearings are not supposed to be wear components), meaning my tires, once for the front brakes, and just recently the front struts.  Other than that I’ve only changed the fluids and filters.
      No rust either except surface rust because of accidents (aftermarket panel+crappy paint job).
      Seriously though, what kind of car did you own before this that this is considered trouble-free?!

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Seriously though, what kind of car did you own before this that this is considered trouble-free?!
      The Saab in his avatar.

    • 0 avatar

      The car in my avatar, is a 9-2x, which is probably the most reliable Saab ever made. I’ve owned Hondas mostly in the past, however.
      I an my own mechanic, changing out the rear wheel bearings became a 30 minute job by the time the 4th one went out. However, I enjoy wrenching on my cars, so this is probably why I don’t look at the Elantra as a mechanical liability… someone who would have to PAY labor costs to fix all of this stuff would probably not be wearing rose-colored glasses looking back.
      I guess that you’re right in pointing out that my idea of “trouble free” is a little off. All in all, though, the Elantra was an excellent commuter vehicle, and never left me stranded anywhere.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    My parents own the car previous to this one in manual wagon form (featured some months ago in a New or Used article). My dad bought it for $12K new in 2000, they were clearing out the 2000s for the ’01s (mainly the Santa Fe to replace the Elantra Wagon).
    It has 133K on it now and it’s gone through one clutch, one timing belt (my dad goofed and let it go ’til 100K), two brake jobs, ECU and voltage regulator (latter quit working and fried the former), and the front end was just overhauled with new tie rods/ends, wheel bearings, hubs, struts etc. Oh and Walmart-brand synthetic oil every 5K. The interior is, well, a 2000 Hyundai
    It’s been as reliable as the ’92 Prizm/Corolla it replaced which is saying something I think. And I don’t recall the Prizm’s interior being any better, probably on account of GM’s bean counters attacking the nice Corolla. My dad’s satisfied that it’s still running great while my mother’s running to car lots to spend money that isn’t around. Oh well, can’t have it both ways.

  • avatar

    2nd wife brought an ’01 Elantra (bought in ’02) to the marriage. Tough car with great value added design features like the fuse panel covered by a little drawer or disappearing under rear seat cupholders.  I only wish for a manual version of the car.
    Also that few show up in the pick a parts yards = tough cars.
    Then I found out in ’08 (re: the Beijing Olympics) that the right hand drive version of the car is the preferred taxi in China.  Nothing could tell me more than it is a tough good car.

  • avatar

    As a MTB racer for nearly twenty years what the hell are you guys doing on the BMX track to get so messed up?

    • 0 avatar
      Jack Baruth

      We don’t shy away from contact and there’s a lot more in-the-air bumping than there is in MTB.

      I raced XC MTB for a while and never no much as scraped my leg.

  • avatar

    Bought my ’03 GT 5-door after driving a rental GLS from MI to NYC and back and being amazed and what a good solid car it was. The one negative I remember from that rental the one thing that I thought would keep me from buying one was the stench of the interior materials. The “leather” in the GT I drove cured that and I was sold. 7.5 years and 165k miles later, I’ve never regretted it. Blew a head gasket at 125k, but otherwise it’s been very solid.

  • avatar

    Phil Edmonston, otherwise known as the Canada’s Ralph Nader, fully and wholly endorses this car, owns one himself, and has mentioned it’s being the turning point for Hyundai’s efforts and it’s debut as a “real” marque.
    I trust what Phil has to say, generally, because he’s far, far harder than anyone else, Nader included, on the automakers.

    I can see why a Saab owner would go for it: there’s more than a passing resemblance to the NG900 in the ergonomics, if not the same outright power. The whole dash is a dead ringer.

  • avatar

    The ’99 Sonata marks the point Hyundai stepped out from the shadow of its mediocre past, and began offering reasonably sound vehicles. Its styling was cringe-inducing, though.

    The ’01 Elantra was the first Hyundai you could buy and not make any apologies for.

  • avatar

    The 3rd generation Elantra was the first Hyundai model to get the attention of the automotive press (in a no. of ways, preferable to its successor) and gain somewhat of a cult following (esp. for the GT hatchback), but it was the NF Sonata that really started to get accepted by the mainstream auto buyer w/ the YF Sonata being totally mainstream.

    The new Elantra should be the 2nd Hyundai model attaining the mainstream status.

  • avatar

    That Chundai is still being assembled here.
    My 2nd-3rd, I don’t remember how many, but it was my boss, his wife had one, bought brand new.
    We went to the airport in one of them, and they’re very comfortable and seem decently finished. I could use one.

    I see various turning points: 1st Accent (local taxi drivers love the thing, they tell me it’s bulletproof and cheap to fix), that Elantra, the previous Sonata, the current Santa Fe. But to me it’s the first 2 I mentioned.

  • avatar

    IMHO, I think you are pointing at the wrong car to call the Hyundai image changer.
    I would like to nominate the 2001 Hyundai Santa Fe crossover SUV for that honor.  More people stopped and asked me about that car then any other vehicle I had owned.  The Santa Fe was the high demand, very popular car that brought people into the dealerships and introduced them to the Hyundai line-up.
    The Elantras benefited from the Santa Fe’s. A “rising tide” etc, etc.

  • avatar

    My name is SupaMan and I endorse this article (FULLY).
    As the previous owner of an ’02 Elantra I can speak well about the car’s reliability. Over the short 4 years of ownership having bought it used in 2005, it had never stranded me and was as reliable, if not more so, than the Corollas of the last generation. Maintenance was ridiculously easy (and like you Jack, I wouldn’t call myself mechanically inclined) and all were performed by myself except the really intensive stuff. At first I was reluctant to purchase (remembering my uncle’s horrible experience with a 94′ Sonata) but given that I had limited funds and time I gave in. Best decision I ever made.
    The only problem was, coming out of a totaled ’96 Civic, the Elantra was understandably less engaging to drive (but hey, it taught me slow down). The only glaring problem was with the transmission, which I suspect was horribly abused by the previous owner. Other than that, that Elantra really served as the model that turned my whole perception of Hyundai around. My brother’s getting ready to let go his GTI and is now considering a Sonata Turbo.

  • avatar

    I owned a 2005 Hyundai Elantra GT Hatchback in silver  Loaded with all options including a cool optional lighting package, top sound sys, and leather.  Truly the most trouble free car I ever owned.  Sold it with 90K on it, only thing of issue was cargo nets on back of front seats came unsewn, dealer replaced at 90K during an oil change.  Loved this car and shoulda held onto it for my 14 yr old son to drive.

  • avatar

    These are a steal. Especially the GT.

  • avatar
    Kevin Kluttz

    I’m glad someone noticed the Corolla thing.  Had three Corollas; a 1994, 1995, and 1997.  The first two were outrageously outstanding, but the 97 was just missing something, even though the interior was a cut above.  It just didn’t seem nearly as refined.  Maybe that was the cusp of the decontenting years.  But I noticed, and it wasn’t subtle.  And 1998 was the year Toyota went to Hell.

  • avatar

    I’ve got an 06′ GLS hatch which I guess is pretty rare because every other hatch I see is in GT trim. This is a pretty good car and believe it or not the seats will fold nearly flat, the bottom part of the rear seat folds up against the back of the front seats which gives you a lot of room to work with. Sometimes I wish I had gotten an manual and the steering a little more direct along with sportier handling but that’s not the Hyundai way, oh well zero repairs over 20k miles is nothing to complain about.

  • avatar

    I always thought that the new car smell from early Hyundais was a potential carcinogen.

  • avatar
    Dave W

    My sister put 180K trouble free miles on her early 80s Excel…perhaps the only one to do so but still it showed it could be done. I purchased an 02 GT hatch as its only 5 door competitors w/ABS available at the time were either way more expensive or not actually available (Focus 3door only, Matrix/Vibe & VW to spendy, Mazda Protage 5, with ABS according to the dealer on its way from the factory for almost 2 months before I gave up and got the Elantra).  I’ve also put 4 rear and 2 front wheel bearings in it, only 2 of which were not under warranty, and the new ones seem to be of higher quality then the originals. Other then that it’s been pretty much standard wear items and the onset of rust. Now with 135K I may out do my sisters Excel if the Vermont road salt doesn’t eat the body. I don’t Love the car but I would happily buy it again if I were in the same position.

    • 0 avatar
      Dave W

      What I didn’t think about at the time, but a big plus now, is the cars #3000 tow rating. I’ve been using it as my landscaping businesses “truck” for 3 years. Easily holds tools, and with a little creativity, plants as well. It’s not happy if I have to start on a hill while towing 2 yards of mulch but year round ownership it makes more sense for what I do then any of the trucks/vans I’ve looked into.

  • avatar

    A friend bought a 2001 Elantra brand new in 2001. He sold it earlier this year with 145,000 miles on it for $3,500. During his 9 years of ownership, he performed the scheduled maintenance at the dealership and nothing else. Over 145,000 miles, nothing ever broke. I mean that quite literally, not a single thing on the car that wasn’t a wear item ever needed repair or replacing. Even compared to my own mother’s multitudes of Lexus RX’s (IMO the former staple of durability), this thing was amazing. $14,000 for the car and $0 on repairs in 9 years.

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