NAPLES, Fla. — The annual Cars on 5th auto show weekend on Naples’ swank 5th Avenue main thoroughfare is a feast for the eyes. Car owners roll through the streets showing off their fancy Aston Martins, Mercedes, Audis and Lamborghinis.
My $20,995 Hyundai Elantra doesn’t look out of place.
Bold black fascia with integrated, swept headlights like a Merc EQS. Swept tail like an Audi A7. Slashed body stampings like a Lambo Aventador. If Lamborghini made compact cars, they would be called Elantra. At a time when Detroit automakers are exiting the fun, affordable car space (I mourn the passing of the Ford Focus and Chevy Spark), their foreign peers have stepped up with a Whitman’s Sampler candy assortment of delicious morsels. Check out the techy Honda Civic, roomy VW Jetta, salacious Mazda3.
With its daring styling and generous suite of standard features, the 2022 Elantra is a bone standard compact that owners can proudly parade through any American neighborhood.
My vacation tester wore a hip premium wardrobe: black grille, black window trim, black wheels set against a dark gray body. Dude, is that the Batmobile? My former Detroit News colleague Pam Shermeyer was always on the lookout for cool base wheel covers in a sea of dreadful, silver plastic designs. Pam, you’d like these.
The Elantra’s standard black, 17-inch rims match its body stampings — triangular shards rotating around the five-wheel lugs. Walking down 5th Avenue, I found myself stopping and circling mid-engine Corvettes littered along the curbs, marveling at the way designers integrated its multiple surfaces.
I found myself doing the same with the Elantra. With more sharp edges than a drawer-full of knives, its surfaces somehow work in harmony. I pulled up next to an Audi RS5, sporting a huge black grille and 20-inch shard-spoked wheels. But next to Elantra, the RS5 seemed tame. Check out the minute detail on the Elantra’s grille, each segment a triangle. Or the lower spoiler, the Hyundai a plateful of triangular quesadilla slices.
The Elantra is not a hatchback like the RS5 — hatches are expensive to do — but it looks like one. The roofline meets the C-pillar in a long arc that tapers to an elegant swan’s tail.
The exterior hints at the attention to detail within. I marvel these days at the democratization of autos — with luxury chariots boasting of electronic gizmos now routine in mainstream cars like Elantra costing tens of thousands less. My $21,000 had everything I needed.
Walking up to the Hyundai, it recognized the key in my pocket with NFC (Near Field Communication) — Elantra comes standard with key fob and push-button start — lighting up the door handle so I could find it even in the dark. I compressed the wee door-handle button and the door unlocked.
I slipped into comfortable cloth seats that never chafed despite a week of constant driving. It’s comfort that can be enjoyed by four passengers as Elantra features generous backseat space. I easily sat behind myself with my lanky 6’5” frame. Farther back, the truck swallowed two bags, a tennis bag, briefcase and a beach chair with room to spare.
Like those plastic wheel covers, the standard interior is full of premium touches. Instrument and console displays are integrated, Mercedes-like, into one panel across the dash. The console takes a page from Corvette with a flying buttress separating driver from passenger — doubling as an Oh, Crap! handle for Mrs. Payne if needed.
My wife is used to my sudden Hyde-like transformations when I see twisty roads, and she’ll instinctively grab for a handle. Like its front-wheel-drive compact class brethren, fun comes standard in the Elantra with its low center of gravity and short wheelbase. Though lacking the Civic’s razor-sharp dynamics, it is fun to drive fast.
Which, as in southeast Michigan, isn’t often in Naples with its flat landscape and gridded roads. The standard features most drivers will find useful are electronic.
Push the start button and Elantra comes to life. Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard, so I never had to remove my phone from my pocket. The system does require patience to boot up — the eight-inch screen slowly recognizing “Henry’s Smartphone G70” and then Android Auto for navigation, Spotify, etc.
Smartphone apps are way ahead of even the best luxury navi systems. Lounging on the beach, my wife and I had searched destinations from restaurants to retail stores. When we transitioned to the car, they instantly came up on Android Auto. I selected a nearby “Haagen-Dazs” and we were off. When I needed to add a destination mid-trip, I simply barked at Android Auto — its voice recognition better than any luxe vehicle at Cars on 5th — and it changed my route.
Cruising Tamiami Trail, my Elantra bristled with safety features to keep my distance from the six-figure chariots around me. Forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian detection is standard, as is auto braking when in reverse. Backing out of a parking spot, the Hyundai detected a passing car — WUNK! — the car instantly applied brakes to prevent contact.
Manufacturers differ on whether blind-spot-assist or adaptive cruise control is the more important safety feature. Hyundai offers BLIS standard — Honda and Toyota ACC. I missed the ability of ACC to navigate Naples traffic, but BLIS not only makes lane changes safe, it also saved my having to crane my neck to check blindspots (which my chronically stiff neck appreciated).
Only at Naples stoplights did the Elantra betray its, um, lower-price status. While luxe chariots around me were powered by boosted, turbocharged-or-supercharged mega-mills, my Hyundai had a mere 147-horsepower four-banger powered by a continuously variable transmission.
Oh, it was painful.
Rolling out of a stoplight next to a BMW 3 Series, I flattened the throttle and the engine screamed — hamsters peddling the hamster wheel for all they were worth. To no avail. The 255-horse Bimmer disappeared into the distance. Sigh. Elantra drivers can take solace that their hamsters sip gas at 37 mpg, making it easy in the wallet, if not the ego.
Save their pennies, and Elantra buyers can trade up for the $32,945, turbo-goosed N model to go BMW hunting with 267 horsepower, limited-slip differential, 19-inch wheels and proper engine growl — still for $12K less than a comparable Bimmer.
And like the base Elantra, it will give up nothing to the German in wireless tech, interior screen size and exterior cool when you cruise down 5th Avenue.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter HenryEPayne.