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First drive: 2017 Hyundai Elantra [Review]

Hyundai\'s small sedan continues to grow up.

Hyundai started off the decade with a bang, executing a lineup overhaul that has taken it from the value front-runner to a genuinely competitive mainstream automaker.

Now that we're more than halfway through, the cars that were new four or five years ago are due for overhauls. We've already seen the Sonata's major refresh, and now it's time to see what Hyundai has in store for the midsizer's smaller sibling. Can Hyundai pull another rabbit out of its hat with the latest Elantra? We went to sunny San Diego, California to find out.

What was oldThe 2017 Hyundai Elantra is not new from the ground up, but it does represent a fairly significant refresh for the Korean compact. Underneath, it's still rides on essentially the same chassis. Up front, you get a MacPherson strut suspension; out back, you get a torsion beam. SE and Eco models start with front disc and rear drum brakes, with Limited models sporting discs all around.

New againIn its most basic form, the 2017 Elantra is equipped with a two-liter, Atkinson-cycle four-cylinder engine making 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque. This engine is available both with a six-speed manual transmission and a six-speed automatic. Bumping up to the Limited means you lose the manual option. Gone is the 1.8L base engine of the previous model.

Like its siblings, the Elantra has gained an Eco model. The Eco sports a 1.4L, turbocharged GDI engine making 128 horsepower and 156 lb-ft of torque. This engine is available exclusively with Hyundai's seven-speed, dual-clutch gearbox.

The SE has been rated at 29 mpg city, 38 highway and 33 combined when matched to the automatic. Manual transmission models are rated at 26 mpg city, 36 highway and 31 combined. Limited models (automatic only, but fitted with larger wheels/tires), split the difference at 28 mpg city, 37 highway and 32 combined. The Eco model won't be available until Q2, so the numbers aren't in just yet, but Hyundai is banking on 35 mpg combined.

Hyundai also gave the unibody and suspension thorough once-overs. New bracing, additional high-strength steel and more widespread used of structural adhesives result in a more rigid body without any reduction in weight. The electric power steering assist was also retuned for more direct and responsive feel, and the rear suspension was updated (though not to the V-Beam found in other twist-beam products).

And a new lookThe updated Elantra is longer (by an inch), wider (by a little less) and wears a suit more like that of the refreshed Sonata's than the car it replaces. This isn't a case where you'll have to squint and turn your head sideways to figure out which generation you're looking at. The fundamentals may be almost identical, but there's no mistaking one for the other from the outside. The look is distinctly new.

The new look starts at the front, where the Elantra inherits the Genesis-inspired hexagonal grille now appearing on most Hyundais. Limited models also get LED fog lamps, giving the Elantra an aggressive front-end look.

In profile, the Elantra ditches the old car's swoopier aesthetic in exchange for a more angular look. Looking at it side-on, it cuts a figure that is a blend of the Audi A3 and Ford Focus sedans. It's not particularly unique, but it certainly looks good.

Only in the rear does the Elantra look particularly similar to its predecessor. The Limited's LED tails are a dead give-away, but lower-trim cars may be tougher to identify at a glance.

More tech and interior goodiesHyundai's overhaul extended to the interior too, which gets not only a new look but some new feature content. Most notably, the seats have been revised, and for the better. They're more supportive and comfortable, and despite the presence of sunroofs in all of our testers, provided ample adjustment and forehead clearance. Another neat (and segment-exclusive) feature available on higher trims is a hands-free smart trunk. Dual USB charging and available seat memory are also new.

To our eyes, the only disappointing interior feature was the door cards, which even in our range-topping Limited/Ultimate Package testers, were formed from hard plastic. Only the armrest section of the door panel interior is covered in soft-touch. It's a minor issue, but in a car so otherwise rich in niceties, it's a noteworthy omission.

Elsewhere, you'll find a few firsts for the Elantra (and some for the segment). The base display has been updated to a 7" unit with an 8" option for Nav-equipped cars. Android Auto and Apple Carplay are also now both fully supported and the infotainment system now rides on Hyundai's next-gen Blue Link platform, and an eight-speaker Infinity audio system is available to back up all that attractive glass.

Hyundai also took this opportunity to upgrade the Elantra's suite of advanced safety features. Lane departure warning and lane keep assist, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert and lane change assist are all available, along with a rearview camera featuring dynamic guidelines.

Getting on the roadSo far, everything we've talked about likely meshes neatly with your existing impression of Hyundai as a brand brings value to the table above all else. While the company's early-decade introductions were visually splashy and offered lots of features which were previously unheard of for their respective segments, they rarely offered the driving experience enthusiasts were looking for.

Thankfully, as these platforms have matured, so too have their chassis. Like the Sonata, the new Elantra is the beneficiary of years of feedback from customers and members of the automotive media. The result is a car that is far less hateful to toss around than its earliest iterations.

Our drive route with the 2017 Elantra took us from I-Can't-Believe-It's-Not-Mexico to almost-but-not-quite Julian, with detours through several of Southern California's fine canyons and reservations, capped off with a somewhat impromptu blast down Lyons Valley Road. We found the Elantra to be competent and capable, if never truly outright fun to drive.

If this seems like faint praise, consider for a moment that the Elantra once counted the outgoing base-model Nissan Sentra amongst its dynamic betters.

The steering in particular is vastly improved. While feedback is still lacking, the wheel is far more trustworthy than it was previously. It was easy to catch the car washing out when being hustled up tighter uphill sections, the understeer coming on predictably and reliably. Lift would prompt the appropriate correction, inspiring confidence and encouraging us to push the Elantra harder than we've felt comfortable in the past.

Speaking of uphill hustling, the Elantra's weakest spot may now be its powertrain. While the 2.0L does a more than adequate job of moving the little sedan's ~2,900lb mass around in most normal situations, it took quite a bit of winding out to get it out of tighter corners. Fortunately, for those of us who care about such things, Hyundai is working on a meaner Elantra--a "Sport" model with an independent rear suspension and somewhere in the neighborhood of 200 horsepower.

Oh, and it's going to come with a manual.

Leftlane's bottom lineIn the meantime, the Elantra is no longer something to be dreaded. Like the new Prius, it offers a better-than-adequate driving experience in a package that didn't previously hold that claim, and for that, we're comfortable recommending it to those who want to get their hands on good tech at a great value.

2017 Hyundai Elantra Limited base price: $22,350; Tech package, $2,500; Ultimate package, $1,900; carpeted floor mats, $125; delivery, $835As-tested price: $27,710

Exterior photos by Byron Hurd.

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