Test Drive: 2012 Hyundai Accent with 40 MPG Highway

Last Updated Jul 22, 2011 10:52 AM EDT

After a booming sales season for its stylish, high-MPG midsize and compact cars, Hyundai is aiming for similar success with its redesigned 2012 subcompact Accent. The Accent, which competes against popular models like the Honda Fit and all-new Ford Fiesta, hits the marketing magic number of 40 MPG on the highway, and follows the swooping, curvy styling cues of its bigger siblings Sonata and Elantra.

Hyundai is pitching mileage-minded shoppers on providing that 40 MPG highway rating at the lowest price. Competitors like Ford Fiesta have some versions that hit that mileage number, but not at the lowest price. The new Accent starts at $12,445 for a GLS style with manual transmission, and tops out with the SE with automatic transmission at $16,795. Hyundai points out that its Accent five-door hatchback mid-level GS with automatic sells for $16,555, while a similarly equipped, 40-MPG Ford Fiesta SE hatchback lists for $18,040. That's a differential of $1,485.

With higher gas prices, shoppers seem to be focused on that 40-MPG figure. The compact 2011 Hyundai Elantra, which also has a 40 MPG highway rating, was the second-most-researched of all car models in June on auto web site Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com); Hyundai executives say the high mileage figure is what was driving much of that interest.

I got a chance this week to try out the redesigned 2012 Accent on the winding, hilly roads north of New York City. The Accent, which is on sale now, comes in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback versions. Here are my impressions, plus some of the basic facts:

Styling: Accent continues its "fluidic sculpture" design look here. While the look isn't quite as striking as it is on the mid-size Sonata, the Accent is a handsome small car. The five-door hatchback (above left) manages to avoid the stubby, cut-off rear look of some competitors.

Performance and mileage: The Accent is powered by a four-cylinder engine with direct gasoline injection, a technology that boosts mileage by improving the fuel mix going into the cylinders. In addition to that 40 MPG highway rating, Accent is rated 30 MPG in city driving. It boasts 138 horsepower, the most among its competitors -- but a driver will still feel the acceleration sacrifices. In the manual transmission model I was driving, I hit a momentary dead spot in acceleration just after an upshift from, say, second to third gear.

The Honda Fit, which I've driven previously, felt more sprightly to me -- although Hyundai executives say the two cars' 0 to 60 mph acceleration times are similar (around a stately 10 seconds). And the Fit has a lower mileage rating of 27 MPG city, 33 highway.

Ride and comfort: While not to be confused with the smooth, quiet ride of much bigger cars, the Accent rode comfortably down the highway and handled competently through curving back roads. Hyundai has created spacious leg and shoulder room for a car this size, while the engineers managed to fit a center console storage bin between the seats -- something I consider a major convenience, as subcompacts are often too narrow for this feature. The matte black dash and stylish instrument cluster fit the modern small-car styling of the competition, most of which has left behind the cheap-looking subcompact interiors of the past.

Cargo and storage: The hatchback model -- increasingly popular with Americans -- gives substantial hauling capacity with the rear seats folded down. The cargo rating of 111 cubic feet equals that of the Honda Fit, previously the runaway champ in this class. The ability to fold down just part of the rear seat (at right) lets drivers fit snowboards or golf clubs and still carry three passengers.

Safety: The Accent is the only car in this class with disc brakes on all four wheels, and the results show in an impressively short stopping distance. The Accent is equipped with six air bags, including important side-curtain bags that protect occupants in side-impact crashes.

The Accent has not yet undergone safety testing, but the company's Sonata and Elantra sedans have received earlier Top Safety Pick ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

In an era when Americans looking for better gas mileage seem to have overcome their aversion to small cars, Hyundai seems to have fielded a contender in this very competitive class.

Photos courtesy of Hyundai

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    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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