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New Hyundai to take on Toyota, Skoda

Srinivas Krishnan | April 10, 2004

Even in April, Chennai can be pretty hot. And at the tree-less test track at the Hyundai plant on the outskirts of the city, it's positively baking.

It's 38C, according to the digital display on the dash of the new Elantra, and now that I know what the temperature precisely is, the heat seems even fiercer. All the more reason to check out the efficiency of this sedan's air-conditioning -- and keep driving around, rather than get out of it.

Which is actually not a bad thing, considering the Elantra is fairly well upholstered and is a nice place to be in. It has shut off that oppressive heat and to an extent, the drone of the common rail direct injection diesel engine.

Did I say CRDi? Yup, after the three-cylinder 1500cc unit of the Accent and the massive, turbocharged 2900cc power plant of the Terracan, comes another CRDi engine in the Elantra. This time, it's a four-cylinder 1991cc unit developing 110 bhp at 4000 revs and a neat 25.5 kgm of torque from just 2000 rpm onwards.

Sounds good, right? Wait, that's not all. Hyundai is also bringing in a petrol version, a 1795cc inline four that produces a delicious 135 bhp at 6000 rpm and 16.6 kgm of turning force at 4500 clicks.

Which puts the Elantra firmly in competition with the Skoda Octavia on one hand and the Toyota Corolla on the other -- and the engine specs actually favour the Korean.

And if we expect Hyundai to adopt a value-for-money pricing strategy, then the Elantra will land firmly on the Chevrolet Optra 1.8's ballpark as well.

Yes, there's a great comparison test just waiting to happen! We're preparing ourselves for the onslaught of Which Car? questions already.

If one of those Which Car? queries are about looks, then the Elantra might be difficult to recommend. Though this car received a facelift internationally, it retains that pinched, old, Hyundai corporate face, something that is already being cleaned up in their recent line-up of cars.

That curiously shaped grille and those headlamps buried in black plastic went out of style along with VHS tapes and VCRs. The tail lamp treatment however is not that bad, it looks contemporary enough, but the rest of the architecture is conventional.

That does not mean the Elantra does not have presence. Wearing a fluorescent white cloak and gleaming in the Chennai sun, the Elantra looked rather substantial. Something that's necessary in this category of automobiles.

Inside, the overall layout may also be conventional, dare I say dated, but all the controls are ergonomically placed, and the quality of the plastics seems to be of a higher order.

There are quite a few notches and cubbyholes to keep stuff -- I couldn't think of many things that would fit inside these, but I am sure once you start living with it, you'll find them useful.

The speedometer and the tachometer gauges get a unique, border-less treatment, which make them look different from anything you would have seen before. And the steering wheel is quite neat too.

I am inside the diesel Elantra, which made me hopeful with its engine specifications. And the way I see it, it's this version that's critical for Hyundai, to bring in the volumes -- other than the Octavia 1.9TDi, it does not have much competition, even all the way up to the D-segment.

Crank it up, and there is that distinctive diesel clatter, till things get warmed up. The 2000cc motor is mated to a five-speed manual gearbox, which feels a little notchy.

And the steering wheel feels quite tight quite unusual for a Hyundai, irrespective of the front-heavy diesel engine placed on the nose. But that could be because this is an R&D vehicle, which has been subjected to quite some abuse.

Another surprise is the rough nature of the engine, it seems as if it runs on diesel -- yes, of course it does, it's just that with common rail technology, your expectations are rather high. If you have experienced the Accent CRDi, you'll know what I mean.

On paper, the torque figure of the engine is quite impressive, but that does not translate into the performance that 25.5 kgm entails. Preliminary testing reveals that it attains the 60 kph mark in 6.41 seconds, and the 0 to 100 kph timing is 13.81 seconds.

It may not be quick off the block, but once it attains sufficient speed, there's no stopping the Elantra CRDi. Lack of initial grunt can be attributed to gear ratios meant for petrol power plants, I guess.

Again, since this is an R&D vehicle, we'd rather wait for a full test to gauge its performance potential.

There's no doubt that the Elantra CRDi will be a great on the highways -- it can chomp distances at ease, cruising steadily at 100 kph, with the needle hovering at the 3000 rpm mark.

But when you take the petrol version out for a drive, the difference between the two is pronounced. The 1800cc four-cylinder unit is much refined and smooth, and is quite pleasurable to drive.

According to my back-of-the-envelope performance timings, it's not so quick off the block initially, touching 60 kph at just a little over 6 seconds, but 100 kph is dismissed off in 12 seconds.

Which is not bad at all. The gearing seems to be better off in the petrol version, with the third gear offering decent tractability -- going all the way up to 142 kph before redlining at 6500 revs. The 1.8 GLS is indeed more enjoyable to drive than the diesel version, and a full test should arrive at a clear verdict.

The ride quality is what you'd expect in a car of this class. The suspension, which comprises McPherson struts at front and a multi-link setup at the rear, is tuned well for a balanced, comfortable ride. For India, the ride height has been increased by about 25 mm, so hopefully those ugly grinding noises when you ride over speed breakers should be absent.

These test cars rode on Korean 195/60 15" tubeless radials that were quite grippy. Now whether Hyundai is going to provide tubeless tyres as standard, we don't know as of now, but we highly recommend them. And it works well for the car's handling prowess too, making it feel surefooted and confident.

The other good news is that the Elantra gets ABS as standard, with disc brakes all around. Even on hard braking, it never loses its poise and comes to a halt in a straight line.

Going by this initial drive, Hyundai seems to have got its act together well on the Elantra. They have what seems to be two good power plant choices and the car comes loaded with stuff. The build quality is exemplary, the cabin cossets passengers and drivers alike and there's adequate legroom too.

And like the Santro, I think the looks will grow on people eventually -- some actually like it, but I don't. There are chances that the Korean automaker might bring in an entry-level 1600cc engine, which will take on the Optra -- it does not sound exciting, but it should be able to carve out a niche for itself.

Hyundai actually were planning to introduce the five-door (notchback, a la the Octavia) version of the Elantra as well, but that could enter the market later in a sporty manner perhaps, like what they did with the Accent and Viva.

Activity at the Irungattukottai plant is at present feverish, and Elantras are steadily rolling out of the assembly line. Hyundai is all set to make a big splash with the car very soon, and the heat, as the song goes, is on.

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