2018 Hyundai Elantra GT Sport First Drive - and 2018 Sonata, Too

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Now that Steph has had his crack at it, we figured it was time for another one of us to get some wheel time with the 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT. Oh, and I spent about half an hour piloting the refreshed 2018 Hyundai Sonata, too.

I’ll cover the Sonata at the bottom of this report. For now, let’s talk about Hyundai’s hottest hatch, at least until the Veloster returns with an available N performance trim.

Based on the European Hyundai i30 but presented with unique-to-North America suspension tuning and powertrain choices, the 2018 Elantra GT arrives with a new design language and subtly enhanced proportions.

Hyundai will readily tell you the Elantra GT is a “tweener” – meant to be sportier than the standard Elantra sedan (including that car’s Sport trim), but not so sporty as to be a direct threat to the Volkswagen GTI and Ford Focus ST.

Not only that, but much like Honda told us regarding the midsize sedan segment, Hyundai will happily tell you that compact cars (sedan or hatch) aren’t dying at the hands of crossovers. Furthermore, the company even says that hatchbacks like the GT provide some of the same practicality that CUV buyers crave.

Indeed, Hyundai tried to prove this point by showing a slide pointing out that the Elantra GT has more cargo volume with the rear seat down than several CUVs (including the Audi Q3, which no one will cross-shop with ANY hatch, but whatever).

Hatchback practicality aside, most folks who plunk down money for this car are going to be looking for a commuter that’s fun to drive. Scored on that metric alone, the company mostly delivers. But considering that a GTI is sportier and more fun to drive, that’s a problem for the Elantra GT.

What’s that, you say? The Elantra GT is cheaper than a GTI? Yes, that’s true, and it holds true even when the Elantra GT is loaded to the gills in the uplevel/sportier Sport trim. Unfortunately, you can’t get a fully loaded GT Sport without sacrificing the clutch pedal. Hyundai’s product planner told assembled media he’d like it if a manual was available with a fully optioned version, but it’s not in the cards.

See, a fully loaded Elantra GT Sport comes with the Tech Package, and all the driver’s aids (automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, Blue Link smartphone connection app, lane-keep assist, high-beam assist, and driver-attention alert) in that package don’t play well with a row-your-own gearbox in Hyundai’s view.

So much for a value challenger to the GTI that will give you all the bells and whistles while letting you shift for yourself.

Still, there are plenty of nice features, both standard and available, here. Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available, along with a rear-view camera, blind-spot monitoring with rear-cross traffic detection, lane-change assist, smart cruise control with stop/start ability, forward-collision warning, lane-departure warning, remote keyless entry, push-button start, tilt/telescope steering wheel, Bluetooth, USB, heated front seats, cooled front seats, LED head- and taillights, panoramic sunroof, and premium audio.

On balance, the Elantra GT is probably closer to the non-ST Focus or the Mazda 3 in terms of comparison, but as I will detail below, both of those cars are a little more fun to drive. That doesn’t mean the GT Sport isn’t, but if sporting character is item one on your checklist, it won’t be your first choice. If you’re merely looking for a daily driver that can occasionally be wrung out, well, give the Hyundai a look alongside the Focus and Mazda 3.

That may make it sounds like the Hyundai sucks. It doesn’t. It’s just that, well, it’s hard to figure this car’s place (I’d be curious to how it compares to the Chevy Cruze hatch — a comparison I am not making, as I’ve yet to drive that vehicle). On its own merits, the car is fine, but it’s still somewhat less engaging than most of the competition, and not just the “hot” hatches but some of the “mainstream” versions, too. It’s a bit like a restaurant that’s good but not great – you’ll enjoy your meal, but you know you can do better, and perhaps for the same price.

The Elantra GT offers two engines – a 2.0-liter four-cylinder that makes 161 horsepower and 150 lb-ft of torque for the base version and a 1.6-liter turbocharged four that makes 201 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque in the Sport model. The base car is available with a six-speed manual transmission (unless you add the Style and/or Tech Packages, in which case it’s no clutch for you) or six-speed automatic, while the Sport is available with a six-speed stick (except with the Tech Package, as noted) or a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

On the road, my biggest beef was noise, especially on the highway. Our drive took place in the western and southern suburbs of Chicago, and the first part of the drive was mostly toll road. Even when I turned the radio on, I had to crank the volume to drown out the ever-present clamor. That much din makes the car feel cheaper than it is, which is too bad, as the interior appointments and materials are par for the class and generally nice (except the headliner, which looked decidedly downmarket). Quick note – I didn’t get a chance to drive the base GT.

Most of my drive time came in a Sport DCT with the Tech Package. Acceleration was good but not great – enough pep for passing but a little more low-end grunt would be appreciated. Its ride was on the harsh side – bumps are definitely felt — but not fully unpleasant on the highway.

Hyundai got the steering mostly right with this one – it’s taut and responsive, especially in Sport mode. It’s on the light side, but not so much that you lose feel. Unfortunately, most “curves” on our drive were easily navigated doglegs, and traffic kept our speeds down, so I didn’t get a full sense of the car’s abilities when pushed. However, the sample suggests that, as noted above, the GT Sport is plenty sporty but perhaps not quite as grin-generating as the Focus or especially the 3.

My time in the GT Sport with a manual was brief. I found the clutch take-up to be a bit abrupt at first but it didn’t take long to adjust, while the shifter had precise but slightly long throws. Other gearboxes in this class offer more fun, but this one is engaging enough to satisfy stick-shift buyers.

If you opt for the manual, note that there is no Sport mode – the default tuning for the steering is the same as the Sport mode in the DCT. I was told there’s no Sport mode because with a manual there’s no need for shift logic — it’s up to the driver. Makes sense.

Since selecting the manual costs you the Tech Package, you’ll say goodbye to navigation, but never fear, as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are available without the Tech Package. So too are blind-spot monitoring and rear-cross traffic alert.

I didn’t need heavy braking often, but the car’s brakes seemed up to the task.

Looks-wise, the GT is handsome but not a head-turner. I like Hyundai’s new grille in this application, and the GT has a nice sweeping look that keeps it from appearing too boxy. Inside, add Hyundai to the list of companies using an infotainment-display screen that looks tacked on to the top of the dash (as opposed to integrated). Underneath sits simple climate controls, and there’s a lot of open space on the dash. Gauges and the driver’s info center that sits between the speedo and tach are straightforward. Yes, there are knobs for audio tuning and volume, along with a few large buttons for other key functions.

Rear-seat space was acceptable but tight for my tall frame, and the rear cargo area is class competitive.

If you can live without all the extra gizmos and doo-dads, a manual-trans GT Sport will cost a hair under $25K and might present a value for bargain hunters who want a sporty hatch – it’s cheaper than a well-equipped Mazda 3 Grand Touring with manual (and of course, Ford no longer offers a stick in the Focus hatch below the ST trim). A Mazda 3 Touring costs just a bit more when well-equipped.

Where it gets sticky is with the DCT – a loaded Focus Titanium costs less, and at nearly $30K for my test GT Sport with Tech Package, I could probably get a Focus ST. Obviously commuters won’t cross-shop the ST to the GT Sport, but if a Focus Titanium undercuts the GT Sport, that’s going to be an issue for Hyundai. If commuters are going for the cheaper car, and enthusiasts are spending the same money on something more fun to drive, that puts the car in a rough spot.

If you’re wondering about an N version that could stand up to the ST/GTI crowd, well, I forgot to ask and am firing myself for the offense. I’ve reached out to Hyundai and will update if I hear back, but I expect to get a boilerplate response about not commenting on future product. An N version with, say, 250 horsepower would be an intriguing choice.

The Elantra GT Sport mostly delivers on being fun to drive, and is cheaper than most of the hopped-up hatches in the segment. Yet you can find “mainstream” hatches that are fun to drive for less money (Golf Wolfsburg and the aforementioned Focus leap to mind) or for a similar price (cough, Mazda 3, cough). That keeps it from standing out. Still, the manual-transmission model could serve as a bargain buy for those willing to forego some driver’s aids and convenience features such as cooled seats, nav, power driver’s seat, and a panoramic sunroof.

Hyundai has built a sporty hatch that’s pleasing to drive, but I fear it’s going to get lost in the crowd in this class. Possible remedies include the availability of a stick shift with the Tech Package and/or an N version.

2018 Hyundai Sonata 2.0T

My feelings about the sixth-generation Sonata were that it was a great-looking car that wasn’t all that fun to drive. When the seventh-gen car was launched, I flipped that around – the car was much more fun to drive but the styling was a snooze.

Hyundai seems to have felt the same way – the refreshed Sonata got a whole new front clip (not just grille) and rear end. The biggest changes are the grille (more of that Hyundai “cascading” thing) and LED daytime running lights and headlights. The openings around the DRLs now has chrome accents and the DRLs themselves have a look that Hyundai said was inspired by catamarans, while out back the trunk release is hidden in the logo and the license plate moves down to the bumper. There are new wheels and an updated interior, too, for those who are curious.

On road, the Sonata I drove – the 2.0T Limited trim with the 2.0-liter turbo four and eight-speed automatic transmission (a first for a FWD car, says Hyundai) – didn’t strike me as much changed, and that’s good. It had punch for passing and a pleasant highway ride with noise tuned out. Handling-wise, it’s not bad but it’s no Accord or Mazda 6. I had to put it in Sport mode to get the most out of it – the default Comfort setting just didn’t give taut-enough throttle or steering responses.

The interior changes are mostly subtle – the center stack has fewer buttons now, and the steering wheel has three spokes (including a D-cut shape on some trims). Subtle is good here, as the inside of the Sonata was never the problem.

Hyundai has cooked up a better-looking car that still isn’t as sharp as what it replaced, and it didn’t take away any of its driving dynamics. It’s a better Sonata, but that may not be enough with the two most dominant names in the midsize class both being all-new for 2018. Consider it a placeholder for now.

[Images: © Tim Healey/The Truth About Cars, Hyundai]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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3 of 39 comments
  • Null Set Null Set on Aug 28, 2017

    You're driving on toll roads and you're worried about steering feel? Bwah ha ha. And what about its Nurburgring lap time? Can't decide about a car without that right? This sounds like my favorite kind of car. A crappy, unrefined crypto-sporty car that I don't have to worry very much about. Dents and scrapes will only add to the fun. It's a modern Neon, a car that was crappy and unrefined but a guiltless hoot to drive. I look forward, 20 years from now, to your story about how you found one with a thousand HP motor shoe-horned in gathering fairy dust in a barn in darkest New Brunswick. And its Nurburgring lap time, naturally.

  • Raevoxx Raevoxx on Aug 29, 2017

    It's unfortunate that it seems to be getting panned for interior noise. My 17 sedan is pretty damned quiet and smooth. I almost want to get out and test drive a Sport, just to compare noise levels. Perhaps the interior noise is simply because of the nature of being a hatchback. I really enjoyed the Golf 1.8T I test drove. Too expensive, and the infotainment sucked despite the sound being light years better than the Elantra. But I just still don't quite understand the willingness to purchase a vehicle with a long model history of being unreliable and expensive to fix. My 2004 Jetta was a freaking mess, and broke constantly. I barely got it past 45k miles in my ownership. I just wouldn't buy another one until I was sure they were getting it right. Oh, and it was still expensive to fix AND to insure. Oh, the Elantra is actually cheaper to insure than our 16 Fiesta. Though to be fair, the Elantra was purchased as a daily driver. Which I love it for that, but if my personal life afforded me more choice, I'd have parked a Lexus IS350 in my carport spot. A decent review for a decent car. But I guarantee you, you can get dealers to undercut the competition pretty easily. Honda dealers in the East Bay still won't really budge on price, especially for non-Si models. Nor will Mazda, surprisingly.

    • Tim Healey Tim Healey on Aug 29, 2017

      To be sure, the hatchback bodystyle had a lot to do with the noise. Unfortunately, other hatches are quieter in my subjective opinion.

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