As we touched down at the Montgomery, Alabama, airport one thing was certain: We had arrived in Hyundai country. We stepped off the plane, rounded a corner and approached baggage claim to find ourselves greeted by a life-size picture of the Hyundai Sonata. We had arrived in the city that is home to the manufacturer’s highly regarded midsize family sedan.
Hyundai’s presence is felt throughout Montgomery’s downtown, and a mere mention of the manufacturer brings smiles and warm well-wishes. The financial impact that the company’s plant has had on the community is incredible, and the general consensus is that Hyundai is a good neighbor, one that appreciates the city and the people who live in it.
Located about 5 miles south of downtown Montgomery, the Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama (HMMA) facility is sprawled over 1,744 acres. The 2-million-square-foot plant includes a stamping facility that fashions fenders, hoods, doors and the majority of the sheet metal parts needed to build an Elantra or Sonata sedan. The plant also includes a vehicle assembly shop, a paint shop, two engine shops and a 2-mile test track. Cafeterias, stores, offices and an elaborate new vehicle showroom add to the complex’s versatility and appeal.
The primary reason for our visit was to learn about the all-new fuel-efficient 2017 Hyundai Elantra. In particular, we were checking out the Elantra Eco, one of the fine vehicles that would be assembled at the plant while we watched through safety goggles aboard a rolling golf-cart-inspired tram. In preparation for our introduction to the new car, Hyundai had prepared a special presentation and factory tour.
Hyundai’s Montgomery plant is a 1.7-billion-dollar manufacturing masterpiece. When running at full capacity, the smart assembly line is capable of pumping out up to 399,500 vehicles a year. The plant employs more than 3,000 people, and based on the hourly rates that they shared with us on the tour, there is a very compelling reason why Hyundai’s employee loyalty is so high. Not only is the climate-controlled, ergonomically designed plant a comfortable and friendly place to work, but employees earn as much, if not more, than many corporate executives.
Our adventure marks the first time that the Elantra Eco, which features an exclusive turbocharged powertrain, is being put to the test. Hyundai’s vision was to teach us a little about the technology-packed compact car and then send us out to travel across the United States in the fuel-sipping wonder.
Powered by a tiny 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, the Elantra Eco was designed to favor efficiency over raw performance. Fortunately, that doesn’t mean that the engine’s 128 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque aren’t enough to pull the compact sedan around with authority. As a matter of fact, the Eco model boasts the most torque of any 2017 Elantra, and with peak torque available from 1,400 to 3,700 rpm, the Elantra Eco offers strong, consistent acceleration.
Driving the new Elantra Eco is a surprisingly satisfying venture. Not only is the power sufficient for the vehicle, but a few minutes behind the wheel will have you wondering what kind of magic Hyundai used when it built the 1.4-liter engine. The Elantra Eco’s steering is precise and intuitive, with a natural feel. Braking is also up to the task, although purists will find themselves in a quandary when considering the rear drum brakes. Used in lieu of rear disc brakes, this cost-cutting measure is only apparent when you are staring through the spokes of the 15-inch alloy wheels. In practical use, we don’t think that rear drum brakes make a tangible difference.
The only minor quibble centers around the transmission’s shift feel at low speeds with light throttle. We’ve felt a similar clunky shift feel in earlier-software versions of Ford’s dual-clutch transmission in the latest Focus models. Our guess is that Hyundai will address the hiccup in the future. Until then, the transmission smooths out and is almost invisible once you are cruising over 10 or 15 mph.
Measuring the performance of an efficiency-focused sedan is less about how quickly it takes to get to 60 mph and more about how long you can go between visits to the gas station. The Elantra Eco is rated at 32/40 mpg city/highway and 35 mpg combined. However, in our week-long adventures, the Eco surpassed the EPA estimates by about 8 mpg on the highway. Covering a distance of approximately 400 miles from Montgomery, Alabama to Jacksonville, Florida – with plenty of stops, stop-and-go driving and back roads along the way – returned an average fuel economy of 45.3 miles per gallon.
We drove more than 570 miles on the 14-gallon tank before the Elantra needed a refill, and even then we could have squeezed in a few more miles of range.
Hyundai has optioned the Elantra Eco as a “one size fits all” proposition. The Eco trim has been thoughtfully appointed to include options that keep the vehicle light. The sedan offers a comfortable, upscale and technology-filled interior, but certain amenities aren’t available, such as a moonroof and power seats. The packaging includes numerous active safety features usually confined to top-trim models. Highlights include blind spot detection with rear cross-traffic alert, lane change alert and a rearview camera with dynamic guidelines.
The Elantra Eco’s cloth seats are comfortable and easy to adjust. The first time you hop in you are a little taken aback by the absence of power-adjustable seating, but the manual controls work well, and once you’ve dialed in the perfect seating position you will likely forget about the weight-saving manual seats. Hyundai has wrapped the steering wheel and shift knob with leather and added steering wheel-mounted audio, Bluetooth and cruise control buttons. The six-speaker audio system sounds great and the 7-inch touch-screen infotainment center boasts SiriusXM radio and supports Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The new Elantra offers true midsize interior volume, making the compact an excellent choice for families looking for a new car at an affordable price point. The rear seating area is roomy, especially for two adults. Legroom is ample and the seats themselves are quite comfortable. Cargo space is also above average for the segment at 14.4 cubic feet.
Somehow, even with a trip from Montgomery to Jacksonville in the mix, we managed to make it a whole week on a single tank of gas. Not only that, but Hyundai has built the little turbocharged wonder to run on regular unleaded, which means you don’t lose the miles-per-gallon savings by paying for premium at the pump. Even without the fuel-saving powertrain, Hyundai’s 2017 Elantra is a winner and well worth the price of admission. Add in mileage of more than 40 mpg, more torque and a strong list of standard features, and the 2017 Elantra Eco shines as a smart and worthwhile choice in its price range.