900 Miles And Runnin': Searching For Truth In A Rented Elantra

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Sometimes the stars align. Last week’s article about the “Consumer Watchdog” Elantra fuel-economy press release had ruffled some feathers and aroused my personal curiosity regarding the Elantra’s alleged thirst. And then — wouldn’t you know it — I found myself with a chance to run South and visit a few friends. The time frame was short. Had to be there and back in 36 hours, covering about 435 miles each way. And the nice people at Enterprise were willing to rent me a 2011 Elantra for a two-day stretch at a total of $50.36.

This was my math: (900 miles/23.5 mpg) * $3.18 = $121.78. That would be the cost of running my Town Car. A mythical 40mpg Elantra plugged into the same equation would cost $71.55. Difference of $50.23. Clearly some sort of sign, right? Might as well rent the Hyundai and conduct a highly non-scientific test. Along the way, we’d ask the usual questions: How well does the Elantra hold up in rental service? Is this the class killer some people want it to be, or the mid-packer described in TTAC tests up to this point? Can’t this thing go any faster? What time is lunch?

Thursday, 1:59 PM EST, 7.8 miles: On the road just like I’d planned — and promised. My initial impressions of this 27,200-mile car hadn’t been positive. My personal experience with Hyundais of the past decade has been that they show signs of wear more readily than the equivalent Toyota or Honda, and this 2011 Elantra didn’t look to be an exception. The multiple rock strikes on the bonnet were all rusting and bubbling, the grey-fabric seats had obvious wear marks, the dashboard appeared to have some fade to it in spots, the cost-cut black paint had clearly suffered under Enterprise’s wash-it-with-a-wet-broom policy of car cleaning, and the carpet was wearing thin. On the positive side, the controls all looked and felt pretty new, including the steering wheel surfaces. Mechanically, this Elantra was in completely reasonable shape. I’d decided to mostly forego full-throttle escapades in favor of moving with traffic flow and keeping the little “Eco” light in the dashboard lit up. The old Car and Driver trick of lead-footing around Ann Arbor in a car for which they didn’t much care and then being shocked—shocked!—at the resulting mileage doesn’t have any place at TTAC, right?

Thursday, 5:15 PM EST, 209 miles: Making the run down Route 71 through Cincinnati to Louisville, the Elantra had reported an impressive 38.6 mpg running at an average 73 miles per hour. Needless to say, this is not very similar to the EPA test. My rental ride wasn’t a quiet car on the road, but it wasn’t unbearable, either. More annoyingly, my infamous 15,672-song, 160GB iPod, nicknamed “Kuang Grade Mark Eleven” for its ability to lock up pretty much every OEM iPod integration except for SYNC and UVO, had done a number on the Elantra’s USB port. Luckily, I could still use the port to charge ol’ Kuang while listening through the 1/8″ AUX jack. Sara Watkins was singing,

Wish I was in Nashville town

the sunny south you know

Actual Nashville forecast: 43 and rainy. My self-pitying reverie was interrupted by an odd Hoooooooooooooooooooooooooo noise. What the hell was that? A bad wheel bearing? It was coming from the front of the car, and it only showed itself at eighty-five miles per hour or above. Could feel it in the steering. I loaded the car a few different ways at speed to see if I could pop the noisy front wheel off… and finally I realized that the noise was being caused by a strong cross-wind. My feelings about the aerodynamic consequences of the Elantra’s mini-CLS styling were not positive at this point. On a hunch, I snuggled up to the back bumper of a tractor-trailer. This proven hypermiling technique is favored by insane Prius drivers who are willing to risk a solid airbag to the face in order to save a few pennies, but I use it as a cross-wind stability test since there is an area of strong buffeting about seven or eight feet off the trailer’s back door. Yup. The Elantra shook in these conditions like no other modern car I’ve driven. Another black mark in your copybook, Mr. Hyundai. Still, after more than three non-stop hours of driving I was neither fatigued nor annoyed. I’m still on your side, little fellow.

Thursday, 7:30 CST, 436 miles: An hour of murderous stop-and-go in Louisville had forced me to abandon my economy program and run between 85 and 95 for the Tennessee homestretch. Covering 430 miles in six and a half hours won’t exactly get me any props from Alex Roy, but that had included a rather leisurely stop for fuel and a quick jog around the gas station to keep my legs awake. The trip computer reported a solid 36.2mpg as I came to a halt south of Nashville, but the final verdict would be partially dependent on my total fuel fill numbers as well.

Friday, 1:30 CST, 468 miles: “I will see you tonight,” I told my son, and hung up. His bedtime is 9pm EST. Time to hustle.

Friday, 4:00 EST, 555 miles: Hustle, hustle, hustle, and I know I will need to be aggressive when I reach Louisville, too. This, combined with a little back-road goofing around for the amusement of my dinner companion, had resulted in what was so far the worst fuel-economy readout. I photographed it for posterity.

Even if that’s a few MPG optimistic, we are still talking about a car which easily beats 30MPG in damn-the-torpedoes driving. Time for the off-the-cuff comparisons. I like the Elantra after half a thousand miles, but it isn’t really a full-fledged freeway car in the American or European tradition. The equivalent Focus is far more confident and unshakeable at eighty or ninety, it feels more expensive and comfy inside, and it has a sniff of Euro-cachet about it. The Cruze is a boat by contrast. I’d rather drive the Cruze on a freeway trip but I’d rather own the Hyundai. My past experience with Elantras of the 2000-2002 vintage is that they are 100,000 mile cars, and that’s better than the Aveos I’ve seen. This one is probably at least a 150,000 mile car. It’s a pleasant traveling companion. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to keep an even temperature in the car, which forces me to twist the knob back and forth. Every time I do so, I imagine that my 1973 Gibson J-40, sitting in the backseat, is feeling the tiny but eventually deadly pinch of humidity change.

It occurs to me that Hyundai, as a company, could have used one more round of aggressive pricing. What I mean by that: The Elantra has always been cheap to buy, if not always cheap to own. This new car represents approximate parity with the class players, depending on how you weight your competitive chart. Had it been priced like the last Elantra, it would been an unbeatable proposition. Unfortunately, it seems to be pretty close to the Civic, Corolla, and Focus, if other TTAC reviewers’ comments on feature-adjusted pricing are correct. I would rather have seen them wait until the next round to announce that they are playing with the big boys. Oh, well. As Liz Phair sang, it’s nice to be liked, but it’s better by far to get paid.

Friday, 8:42 EST, 901 miles: Turns out that 34.0 is as bad as it got. Slow running in Ohio, combined with a relative lack of traffic, allowed the Elantra to bump back up to 35.7 overall by the time I sat down with my son to watch “Chuggington”. I’m neither sore nor particularly tired after the drive. LJK Setright once famously wrote that, for most reviewers, the faults of a car disappear after a hundred or so miles spent in the driver’s seat. After nine hundred miles, I am comfortable in the Elantra’s skin. A six-speed manual variant might serve my purposes well enough, although I would miss the Town Car’s imperial stability, perfect long-distance seating, peaceful isolation, and three-Mesa-Boogie trunk. I’d put it second place in my personal small-car pantheon, behind the Focus and ahead of the Cruze.

Saturday, 10:20 EST, 923 miles: The Elantra has taken 27.2 gallons total. It was slightly under a half-tank when I picked it up and slightly over a half-tank when I dropped it off. There’s nothing scientific about the resulting 35.5-ish MPG rating, but based on the way I drove it, the mileage and abuse the poor little car has suffered, and the entirely adequate performance from the engine and transmission, I’m giving “Consumer Watchdog” a thumbs down. Had I purchased this Elantra, I wouldn’t feel cheated in any way. They promised 40MPG under ideal conditions, and I’m getting 35-36MPG in conditions which were far from the test lab.

It’s an honest car, far from perfect, but worth a look when you go shopping. We will close with another set of lyrics from my second-favorite Nashville transplant, Miss Watkins:

You have kept my attention

And won my affection

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

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  • Lammp4 Lammp4 on Dec 22, 2011

    i am a courier and i drive a 2009 ford focus. according to the trip computer, i had an average og 33-34 mpg on my 10 hour shift of mixed city and highway driving. and this is with a 4-speed auto, but the a/c wasnt on.

  • JJonoZee JJonoZee on Feb 12, 2012

    We are 6 weeks into our new 2012 Elanta automatic and are getting a solid 22 mpg in city driving. It's a real disappointment. One 300 mile trip upstate got 38 mpg which is great, but we drive to work every day and are not pleased with mileage. We love everything else about it so far.

  • Ajla As a single vehicle household with access to an available 120v plug a PHEV works about perfectly. My driving is either under 40 miles or over 275 miles. The annual insurance difference between two car (a $20K ev and $20K ICE) and single car ($40K PHEV) would equal about 8 years of Prius Prime oil changes.
  • Ronin Let's see the actuals first, then we can decide using science.What has been the effect of auto pollution levels since the 70s when pollution control devices were first introduced? Since the 80s when they were increased?How much has auto pollution specifically been reduced since the introduction of hybrid vehicles? Of e-vehicles?We should well be able to measure the benefits by now, by category of engine. We shouldn't have to continue to just guess the benefits. And if we can't specifically and in detail measure the benefits by now, it should make a rational person wonder if there really are any real world benefits.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Simply put, I like it.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Ah GM, never stop being you. GM is working hard to make FIAT look good.
  • TheEndlessEnigma Top Gear of the 2000's was a fresh concept and very well done. Sadly to say there isn't a TV show concept that doesn't eventually exhaust fresh ideas and, as a result, begins to rehash and wear out once were fresh ideas. The show eventually becomes a pale imitation of itself, then begins to embarrass itself, it will get to a point where it jumps the shark. Top Gear began to get stale, the Clarkson, Hammond and May left and the formula failed - surprise! the presenters were part of the magic. Fast forward many years and Grand Tower is trying hard to be Top Gear but it's all very obviously scripted (it always was by felt spontaneous in its original form), Clarkson, Hammond and May are much older, tired and have become caricatures of themselves. Guys, just stop. You should have stopped 10 years ago. Now you're just screwing with your reputations and legacies.