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Executive Wheels: Commuter Passenger Cars

In the face of possible irrelevance: One dud, another gem


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Though I am not surprised, I take with a certain amount of bemusement the news that Ford will discontinue all of its passenger cars except the muscle car Mustang, and Chrysler is pretty much doing the same thing (just keeping the Chrysler 300, the Dodge Challenger and Charger). Meanwhile, General Motors will “significantly” roll back its investment in passenger cars. Toyota and the other chief Japanese car-makers – Honda and Nissan – reportedly are having slow sales of passenger cars as well, though none have announced a lowering of investment. The Europeans and the Koreans still make passenger cars, and haven’t said much about the future.

Alas, the writing is on the wall, at least for now: The American marketplace is all giddy about SUVs, crossovers and light trucks, and that is where everyone – American, European, Japanese and Korean automakers -- are investing.

At the same time gas prices are up 50 cents a gallon over a year ago and are expected to go higher yet. Just about every time this happens – gasoline getting expensive – the public quickly gravitates back to lower MPG passenger cars. So it clearly looks like when the inevitable happens, it’ll be the American automakers left out. Again. “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” according to philosopher George Santayana. Then there’s “penny wise and pound foolish.” Either way, it seems like folly.

In the face of possibly irrelevance, I recently got to drive two passenger cars for review.

I too like SUVs/crossovers, but I suppose in a perfect world (Denver) the thing to have is two vehicles – one a SUV/crossover for bad weather days, road tripping and mountain treks, and a smaller passenger car for a fuel-efficient commuter to run around town. A commuter car is easier to park, is much less thirsty in the fuel department and –this is key – often comes with a price tag much lower than popular SUVs/crossovers.

So, yes, I got to drive two passenger cars that qualify on all of those grounds: Smaller, not too small, much more fuel efficient, and, considering base prices, much less expensive than the big wagons. Of course, in the press pool of available vehicles, car manufacturers tend to send out the top-of-the-line models with all of the bells and whistles, so my test drive vehicles are often a little higher on the price scale, but most of the extra cost is usually stuff you don’t need, especially on a second commuter car. Keep in mind that even base level cars these days carry some nice stuff. Hey – rear-view cameras are about to become required on every vehicle sold in the U.S.

The first one I got to see was the 2018 Toyota Corolla, one of the most venerable cars, introduced to the American market in 1966. Obviously, it has stood the test of time. This one was the compact sedan model, and it should be noted that Toyota markets another vehicle, a hatchback, under the Corolla moniker as the iM, but that is not really the same car as it is a re-badged Scion model of the young-focused carline from Toyota now defunct.

This Corolla, the 11th generation, is as solid a vehicle on the road today: Comfortable, relatively roomy (a huge trunk), ample space for five, and as reliable as they come.

But the fact is, I didn’t like it.

Oh, it has everything you’d expect – the XSE is top-of-the-line and has all of the safety features (blind spot, rear cross traffic alert, pre-collision system, pedestrian alert, etc.) But it is boring. Just your standard four-door small sedan. It is sedate, and that starts with the engine: A 1.8-Liter, 4 cylinder with 132 horsepower that proved to be, time after time, underpowered. No oomph. That was exacerbated by the continuously variable automatic transmission that always seemed to be in the wrong gear. From a dead-start at a stop light, there’s no punch, and when you enter the highway there is that moment when you feel as if it’s not going to make merging speed – it always did, but the doubt was there. On the plus side, the front-wheel-drive car is rated at 28 mpg city/35 mpg highway/31 mpg combined, so it is fuel efficient. 

But that wasn’t the only thing I didn’t like.

One is relatively minor: The outside mirrors were a bit too small, which made it more difficult than it needed to be to see surrounding traffic. And the handling is a bit jerky; not smooth.

The other thing is, frankly, a deal breaker, and is not limited to the Corolla: All recent Toyotas I’ve had suffer from this: The radio controls are infuriating. The radio/screen panel is attractive enough, but it’s one of those things where the designer overruled common sense. First, the knobs are too small, so when you go to tune the radio or change the volume your finger hits the screen and changes the channel – every time. Annoying as hell. Then, the knobs and the radio are black-on-black, and at night, at least in this Corolla, they don’t light up, so it is almost impossible to find them. Some stuff that seems annoying on cars gets to be no big deal after a few drives and you get used to them, but not here. This is perpetually annoying. 

You can get a Corolla – with this same engine – for a base price of $18,600 (the “L” model), and the base on this XSE was $22,780. Here they added premium audio (pretty good) and a few other things (for a relatively low price), so with $895 in destination charges the bottom line was $25,337. This price range is highly competitive, and it’s a Toyota so it deserves a look, but I wouldn’t want this car.

RATING: ONE WHEEL (OUT OF FOUR)


The Hyundai Elantra GT Sport, on the other hand, is an admirable – and quite fun – smaller passenger car that, for pretty much the same price as the Corolla XSE, offers some excitement for that commuter time. Toyota should pay more attention to Hyundai, and its sister company Kia, because they are making the kind of cars that Toyota used to make.

The Elantra has been around quite some time itself, introduced in 1990 in the American market, and now in its 6th generation. There is a sedan in the Elantra offering, but this one I drove is the GT, a very sporty looking hatchback model, that comes in two configurations: The GT, with a 1.6-liter 4-banger featuring some 161 hp, and this GT Sport, which adds a turbo to the engine and boosts the hp to 201. To say that it is fast is an understatement: This car, equipped with a 6-speed manual transmission, has get-up-and-go like few others in this class. After slogging around for a week in the Corolla, it was fun and exciting to get my hands on a manual that was smooth and easy to use, and a car with this kind of guts.

It was a fun week.

Plus, the Elantra GT Sport is just, well, cool looking. The exterior styling is bold and sporty, and the interior styling is really beyond compare: black leather seating, steering wheel and gear-shift cowl, accented with bright red stitching. Beautiful. There are also red metallic accents on the air vents and climate control panel, and the whole effect is as sporty as it get.

I loved driving this car. With the 6-speed manual, the driver really gets into the action, and the car is responsive. The handling is superb, as it takes the corners like close hugs. Also, I noticed when you down shift into 2nd gear, or for that matter get into second gear up-shifting, that gear is made for speed.

I also liked several other things. The Hyundai Bluetooth for hooking up a phone could not be easier – just a push button on the dash, your phone responds, and it’s on. Plus the voice on the phone works great, and it is easy to run music off the phone as well. And, the up-front cubby, at the base of the dash in front of the gear shift, has all of the power/acc/usb hookups and plenty of room for your phone, and it shuts for a clean look. The only downside was that I had a phone charger plugged in there and the cover wouldn’t close; when I used USB to power, no problem.

One feature stunned me, and it took a while to figure it out: It’s a manual, so the parking brake is mandatory, however, when you get to going the parking brake will not release unless the seat belt is fastened. Good safety feature, but at first I wondered what was wrong. It is me, of course.

The only downside I could find in this car was the storage space in the hatchback is small; no golf clubs without putting own the rear seats (easy to do).

But back to the plus side: A huge panoramic sunroof is quite cool. All the safety stuff is included as standard in the GT Sport: blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, smart cruise control, lane-keep alert, high beam assist (automatic) to dim lights for oncoming traffic. This is a smart vehicle.

You can get at GT for a base price of $19,350, but Hyundai is doing a “bonus cash” thing that lower the MSRP to a net of $16,850. On this GT Sport, the MSRP is $23,250, but the “bonus” lowers the net to $20,750. My sticker listed the normal MSRP, so with destination charges (the only extra was carpeted floor mas for $125), the bottom line was $24,260. That is a great price, but with the bonus cash thing, it would be a couple of thousand less. That, my friends, is a steal.

This would be my commuter car of choice.

RATING: FOR WHEELS PLUS THE SPARE (OUT OF FOUR

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Jeff Rundles

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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