There’s a difference between cheap and inexpensive.
The Hyundai Excel, the first offering for the U.S. from the South Korean automaker in the 1986 model year, was cheap at $4,995.
The 2003 Hyundai Accent, the latest version of the model that replaced the Excel in 1995, is inexpensive at $9,999.
Although the Excel was small, cramped and seemed to be held together with duct tape, the Accent is larger, roomier and bolted together well.
The Excel was a low-cost new-car alternative to a used car. The Accent is a low-cost new-car alternative to a new Toyota or Honda.
Although the Accent is far better than its predecessor, you still must accept some compromises. This is, after all, an entry-level machine aimed at attracting first-time buyers as well as those more interested in high mileage and low monthly payments than with having the most fashionable car in the parking lot.
One of the Accent’s strong points is a lot of standard equipment despite the low base price. One of its shortcomings is that you can’t add the full complement of desired equipment, even if you are willing to spend more money.
The Accent is offered in coupe and sedan versions. I tested the entry-level Accent GL hatchback coupe with sporty GT trim, a package not offered since the 1997 model year that boosts the base price to $10,899.
For an entry-level car the standard equipment is impressive -- air conditioning, front- and side-impact air bags, fully independent suspension, all-season radials, AM/FM radio with cassette, body-colored side moldings and grille, digital clock, tinted glass and rear window washer/wiper.
To equip it for extra convenience and safety, however, takes an additional $400 for power windows, locks and mirrors and an AM/FM stereo with CD player.
But you can’t equip it to the max. Anti-lock brakes with traction control, a sunroof and remote keyless entry can’t be obtained through the factory.
Side air bags are nice, but ABS with traction control would be better in helping you avoid situations in which air bags would deploy.
Power windows are nice, but a sunroof would help circulate the air even better and eliminate the wind noise at the Accent’s side windows.
Locking and unlocking the doors by inserting and turning a key instead of pressing the button on a fob seems primitive today. When balancing packages or parking in a dimly lighted lot, a remote keyless entry eliminates a lot of worry and unnecessary fumbling.
The Accent’s 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder engine is ideal for the mileage-minded. At 29 miles per gallon in the city and 33 mpg on the highway for the standard 5-speed manual, the number of fuel stops is reduced. The automatic transmission costs an extra $650, and with it the Accent is rated at 25 mpg in the city and 35 mpg on the highway. But the 1.6-liter is rated at only 104 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque.
The Accent GT looks sporty thanks to its body-colored rocker-panel moldings and deck-lid spoiler. But the 4-cylinder is meant for mileage, not muscle. As with all 4-cylinder engines, you must accept that it isn’t the quietest power plant on the planet. Four-cylinder engines tend to transmit the audible commotion back into the cabin, especially at takeoff. And the 5-speed manual is a bit notchy.
The Accent has four-wheel independent suspension and front and rear stabilizer bars, but thanks to the stiffer sports-tuned suspension when you opt for the $495 GT package, the ride is a little firm and you’ll feel most of the road’s imperfections. Of course, that’s a compromise you must accept in a $10,899 car.
The Accent comes with 13-inch radials as standard, 14-inch when you opt for the GT package. I suspect 15-inch radials would offer better handling, but anything is an improvement over the teeny 13-inch radials.
Handling is typical for an economy car -- a little lean, a little sway. I had to back off the accelerator pedal when the road started to twist sharply.
The Accent coupe is a hatchback. The cargo hold is rather large and well suited to haul gear or groceries. If you need more space, the split rear-seat backs fold. After reaching for the release button from the rear cargo hold, however, you must fiddle to get the shoulder belts out of the way so you can lower the seat backs.
The seats are comfortable and covered in cloth with a blue/red/green/purple speckle design that helps camouflage spills until you can clean them up -- like at trade-in time.
The front seats in this two-door fold and slide forward to expose a rather large aisle to get in the back seat. Once in back, however, headroom and legroom are a bit tight.
A couple of nice touches are the remote fuel-filler door release alongside the driver’s seat, a small coin tray in the center console and dual retractable cup holders that pop out of the dash. One cup holder in the back of the center console serves the two rear-seat passengers.
Sales of the subcompact Accent are down this year, though sales of Hyundai’s larger compact, the Elantra, are up. One reason for the shortfall is that the Accent, with base prices of $9,999 to $11,700, offers a $1,000 rebate, while the Elantra, priced at $12,900 to $15,300, offers a $1,500 rebate.
Another reason is that Elantra offers power windows, locks and mirrors as standard; ABS with traction control ($525) and a power moon roof ($650) are options.
The Accent also is losing some sales to the compact Santa Fe sport utility vehicle, priced at $17,500 to $24,000. For the first time it carries a $1,000 rebate, bringing in more buyers.
This month, Santa Fe also adds the 3.5-liter, 195-horsepower V-6 in the Hyundai XG350 sedan as a companion to the 2.7-liter, 173-horsepower V-6 now offered. The big difference, however, should be a quick start off the line, with the 3.5-liter rated at 219 pound-feet of torque versus 182 pound-feet in the 2.7-liter.
2003 Hyundai Accent GL
Wheelbase: 96.1 inches
Length: 166.7 inches
Engine: 1.6-liter, 104-horsepower, 16-valve 4-cylinder
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Fuel economy: 29 mpg city/33 mpg highway
Base price: $10,899
Price as tested: $11,859. Includes $400 for popular equipment package with power windows, door locks and mirrors, and AM/FM stereo with CD player and six speakers; $495 for GT package with sport-tuned suspension, sport cloth seats, two-tone leather-wrapped steering wheel, white face gauges, 14-inch six-spoke alloy wheels, body-colored rocker-panel moldings, front fog lamps, body-colored rear spoiler, and GT badging; and $65 for carpeted floor mats. Add $495 for freight.
Pluses: Low-cost, high-mileage, stylish coupe. Just about everything on this economy model you’ll find on coupes with more prestigious nameplates.
Minuses: 4-cylinder a tad noisy, 5-speed a little notchy. Must fight belts to lower rear seat backs.