By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
If you go test-drive a new economy compact — any new economy compact — you will discover something the car industry would probably prefer to keep quiet: There are no latter-day Chevettes or Pintos. There’s nothing embarrassing about any of them.
You might want to spend more to get a high-performance car, or maybe a larger car, or a car that has This or That.
But for the first time in automotive history, the bottom feeder is history.
The ’12 Hyundai Accent proves the point.
WHAT IT IS
The Accent is Hyundai’s lowest priced model — but far from the Cracker Jack Box prizes of 10 years ago. It’s available in sedan or hatchback wagon versions, with the base sedan starting at $12,545 and the base hatch wagon starting at $14,695.
It competes in the same class as other economy-priced compact sedans/hatchback wagons like the Ford Fiesta, Chevy Sonic and Mazda3, among others.
WHAT’S NEW FOR 2012
The ’12 Accent is all-new.
Lowball price — but still really nice.
Strong for the class standard engine (138 hp).
Class-leading fuel economy (40 highway) with standard engine.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
AC not standard in base sedan.
Not as quick as turbo Chevy Sonic, which also matches Accent’s 40 MPG highway performance.
Corporate cousin Kia Rio sedan is a bit snarkier-looking, sportier handling, gets the same 40 MPG — and only costs slightly more ($13,400) to start.
UNDER THE HOOD
The ’12 Accent has an all-new 1.6 liter, direct-injected four rated at 138 hp — a class leading figure matched only by the Chevy Sonic (also 138 hp).
But the Sonic’s standard 1.8 liter, 138 hp engine can’t match the Accent’s standard 40 MPG highway economy. The Chevy falls short at 35 MPG. You can get 40 MPG in the Sonic, but not without springing for the higher cost optional 1.4 liter turbo, which means buying the higher cost LT ($15,065 for the sedan) or LTZ ($16,665) trim and then paying extra on top of that for the turbo 1.4 engine.
It’s a similar story with the Fiesta. It, too, is capable of 40 MPG — if you buy the extra-cost Super Fuel Economy (SFE) package. The Fiesta’s also packing only 120 hp — and without the SFE package, gives you 29 city, 38 highway. That’s good — but only good enough for second place.
If you check out other competitors, including the new Mazda3 SkyActiv, you’ll discover more of the same. They’re all good — but the Accent is better — for less.
The Accent’s standard transmission is a six-speed manual (a few competitors, including the more expensive Sonic, only give you a five-speed) with a six-speed automatic optional. Here again, pick of the litter — for the dollar and for less than the dollar.
Acceleration is also good for the segment — though not the best. Zero to 60 with the manual transmission takes about 9.7 seconds. Both the Fiesta and the turbo 1.4 Sonic are just slightly quicker.
ON THE ROAD
I am old enough (mid 40s) to remember when economy cars were miserable cars. Pathetic looking, obviously shoddy and dangerously slow on top of that. If you are in your 20s or have never driven something like an early ’80s Chevette or a Plymouth Champ you have no frame of reference to appreciate just how good you have it today.
If anything, the Accent is too good. It will cruise all day at 80-plus without sweating and still give you 30s-something MPGs. Fifth gear is easily skipped over; just go direct from fourth into sixth and save a little fuel. There is power to spare on top and down low, the direct-injected engine has a 7,000 RPM redline and you’ve got six gears to work with in a car that weighs just under 2,400 lbs. You can have a lot of fun with that — and more to the point, you’ll never feel you brought a (rubber) knife to a gun fight.
Handling, too, is a high point. As in the other areas already mentioned, the latest economy cars handle better than some sports cars used to — and only if you’re SCCA autocrossing (or driving like that on the street) will you be able to discern any meaningful difference in maximum grip, the extent of body lean or how quickly you can drift the thing through an S turn relative to others in this class. It is nothing like Back in the Day, when a Chevette would make it very clear, very quickly, you were pushing it by going into a corner at say 5 over the posted speed limit. You have to be really moving to induce any tire screech (let alone slip) in a new Accent. The bar is that high — not just for the Accent but generally. Even the more conservative econo-boxes of today — like the Toyota Corolla, say — will surprise you with how far and how hard they can be pushed, if you happen to be so inclined.
The quality that’s more relevant to the discussion is ride quality — which will also startle you if you haven’t test-driven an economy car in a few years. Because it’s that good — meaning, quiet, well-damped and just … comfortable. The old POS economy cars made you suffer. The seats were cheap and hard — and so was everything else. You felt every pothole (twice, if you counted the reverb), heard the wind whistle — and often, felt the rain drip.
You had to be young and tough — or older and with a high pain threshold — to take a car like an old Chevette out on the highway for any length of time. Or frankly, to spend any more time in the stinking thing than you absolutely had to.
But I’d take an Accent (or a Sonic or a Fiesta) across the country — and enjoy the trip.
AT THE CURB
I wish I did have a circa ‘early ’80s Chevette (or any other economy car from that era) to park next to the Accent and give you a side-by-side look-see. It’s really the only way to appreciate how much has changed in 25 years — hell, in 10 years. Go back to 2000 and park the 2002 Accent next to this one. Sad-looking. Bleak. Really slow (0-60 took 15 seconds or more). It was a car you bought because you had to — not because you wanted to.
Well, forget all that.
Instead, look at this: Cushy, comfortable seats. Full gauge package, housed in a cluster that’s just as nice looking as what you’d find in cars with $10k higher sticker prices. iPod hook up, nice stereo. Aluminum-finished and “piano black” trim plates (in my tested $15k-ish wagon). Back seats roomy enough to comfortably fit my 6ft 3, 200-plus pound self — knees not hunched up against the front seatbacks, head not scrunched down so as to avoid scraping up against the roof.
Now, other cars in this class are similarly nice, comparably fitted out. But they do cost a bit more — and in a few key categories such as standard hp and/or standard MPGs, don’t give you quite as much for your bucks.
Personally, I prefer the hatch-wagon layout because of the additional room (21.2 cubic feet of cargo capacity behind the second row and 47.5 if you fold them flat vs. 13.7 period for the sedan). You also get more equipment standard in the hatch-wagon, including keyless entry and trim upgrades.
But, if the object of the exercise is to spend less — not just up front, but also down the road, go for the sedan. It comes with 14-inch steel wheels — which means next-to-no worries about potholes hurting them and also dirt-cheap replacement tires, when the time comes for that.
Or, on the other hand, order the whole menu — the top-trim SE deal and 16 inch alloys, leather trim, premium upholstery, Bluetooth, steering wheel mounted secondary controls, the six-speed automatic. You’ll still have a tough time spending more than $16k — sticker. That’s the number ($15,925) on the Monrony that came with my loaded-with-nearly-everything Accent SE wagon.
I had a Mazda3 SkyActiv wagon last week — also very nice. Also 40 MPG capable. But it started at $19,300. A top-of-the-line Fiesta SES hatch-wagon lists for $17,500. A Sonic LTZ is about the same at $17,365 — and mind that’s before you pay extra for the 40 MPG engine.
What else is there? The only negative I could come up with is the lack of AC — and lack of a radio, period — in the base sedan.
But this is equally true of others in this class (at least as regards AC) and there are probably still people out there who can live without AC and who prefer to pay less for a car without one.
If you do want AC, you can get it as a part of a comfort package that also adds power windows and locks, plus a decent stereo.
However, the base car’s pre-wired, so you could save some coin and buy your own aftermarket head unit if you wanted and probably end up with a better system for less than the factory piece.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Today’s Accent is a car that makes you feel good the next morning. You buy it and are happy with it. No one laughs at you. If anything, you laugh at them — because of how little you paid to get so much car.
Again, all the cars in this class are really nice. But the Accent wins, to my way of thinking, because it costs the least but gives you the most.