Luxury Sedan on a Budget: The All-New Hyundai Elantra

To get a premium sedan with the latest tech features, you used to have to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $75,000 or more. It was often a German brand with elevated service, repair and insurance costs.

Let me give you just one example: It was only two and a half years ago that I drove a couple of Mercedes cars, priced from $63,000 to more than $100,000, that steered themselves on the highway. You could let go of the steering wheel, and the car would steer itself for up to 10 seconds before you had to grab the wheel again.

Now, I don't consider this feature to be particularly useful except as a party trick, but it was revolutionary at the time. Now this feature has arrived in a fully loaded 2017 Hyundai Elantra, which has a manufacturer's suggested retail price of only $27,585. As best as I can tell, this is tens of thousands of dollars less than any other car with this feature.

Actually, let me give you a second example: It was as little as three years ago that I was amazed over headlights that turn in the direction of the steering wheel, which is helpful on narrow winding roads and when you're simply turning. Yes, I know, they were already on the Tucker more than half a century ago, but they re-appeared on expensive cars such as a $60,000-plus Mercedes E-Class only recently.

Well, now they're available on that Hyundai Elantra with a MSRP of only $27,585.

I could go on and on.

Clearly the Hyundai Elantra is no Mercedes C-, E- or S-Class sedan in terms of overall luxury and heft. However, you would be surprised at how Hyundai has narrowed what was previously an impossibly wide gap.

The old Hyundai Elantra was not a bad-looking car, but nobody would have mistaken it for a luxury ride. In contrast, when you approach the new 2017 Elantra from the front, it looks like a much more expensive car, with a close resemblance to the $39,000-$55,000 Hyundai Genesis, which in turn is competitive with even more expensive German cars.

The Elantra's interior is an exercise in discipline and ergonomics. You will find nothing weird or out of place in this interior. Perhaps just as importantly, almost nothing looks cheap. The one exception I found was a center stack trim piece that's gray instead of black, which would have been classier.

The seats, seating position and steering wheel are all very good. Not BMW 3-series good, but close enough to make you wonder. After several hours in the seat flogging the car at the highest speeds I could get away with, I felt fresh, which doesn't happen in every car.

The dashboard and controls are supremely mature and easy to operate. I put this cockpit up against anything on the road. To top things off, there's Alphabet's Android Auto and Apple's CarPlay, which work on a better screen and with seemingly better reactions than in several Volkswagen cars I have tested. In particular, Android Auto is a delight to use in this Hyundai.

The engine, transmission and handling combination reminded me of the Mazda MX-5 Miata. Although it's not overpowered, it's still a lot of fun to push its limits on twisty mountain roads. The car has confidence, and the engine does not sound too cheap when pushed to the max.

Fuel economy is a solid 29 miles per gallon in the city and 38 MPG on the highway, although sometime around the middle of this year Hyundai will offer an "Eco" version with a different engine/transmission combination, which should lift MPG by at least 2, and probably even more on the highway (final EPA numbers to be provided in the next month or two). I briefly drove a preproduction version of that "Eco" version, and liked that drivetrain just as much as the "regular" Elantra.

Printing a highway MPG rating of anywhere from 40 to 44 MPG will be an attractive proposition for Elantra buyers, and this "Eco" version also comes with more comfortable tires. However, this "Eco" version will be unavailable with all the luxury equipment that sets the regular Elantra apart from its best competitors, at least at the $27,585 fully loaded price point. I think this is the only major mistake I found in this Elantra launch.

My theory is that the "Eco" buyer is more similar to the kind of person who traded down from a $90,000 luxury sedan to a Toyota Prius a decade or so ago. It's someone who wants to see fuel economy of more than 40 MPG but does not want to compromise on features. Therefore, Hyundai would be better off selling this "Eco" model as a fully loaded model instead of positioning it as a less expensive car.

Right after I drove the Hyundai Elantra, I spent a day driving another new car that's supposedly a direct competitor, the Nissan Sentra. The Sentra costs about $1,000 to $2,000 less but doesn't have anywhere near the same feature set either. More importantly, the feeling of driving these cars is like night and day. Although the Elantra felt like a much more expensive car in almost every way, the Nissan Sentra simply did not.

To summarize, the 2017 version of the Hyundai Elantra takes this car into an entirely new league. It's a lot closer to the the BMW 3-series and Mercedes C-class than you ever would have expected. You can buy a 2017 Hyundai Elantra with automatic transmission and with some decent equipment for a bit less than $20,000, but trust me: You really want the fully loaded $27,585 version, which feels like $45,000 German luxury. Keep in mind that as with most new cars, dealers tend to sell them 10% to 20% less than MSRP after the new model's initial demand has been satisfied.

Hyundai sold 761,710 cars in the U.S. in 2015, and 7,880,955 globally, making it the fifth-largest global automaker measured by unit volume. In the U.S., 241,706 Elantras were sold, more than any other Hyundai nameplate. This all-new Elantra is not just of supreme importance to Hyundai, but as I found, it also represents a giant leap forward in what kind of features, style and execution you can get in a car with an MSRP of only $27,585.

I know it's becoming a cliche to say that there aren't any bad new cars anymore, but even with these increasing expectations, I enthusiastically recommend the 2017 Hyundai Elantra, because its combination of features and value changes the competitive game. It's a 10 out of 10.

At the time of submitting this article for publication, the author was long AAPL, GOOG and GOOGL, although positions can change at any time. Hyundai and Nissan paid for airfare, lodging and meals at product launch events. The author also regularly attends product launch events, press conferences and similar events hosted by all major automakers.

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