Review: 2012 Hyundai Accent Hatchback

By Andrew Ganz
Thursday, Jan 12th, 2012 @ 5:45 pm
Hyundai. So hot right now.

It seems like nothing can stop the Korean automaker that was cranking out perfectly average cars for perfectly average people as recently as the Dubya administration. But who wants to be average?

Enter the 2012 Hyundai Accent, the brand's totally new effort for the highly-contested subcompact class. If you're counting, that's a segment of the market expected to grow substantially over the next few years as gas prices continue to inch upward.

What is it?
Sharing a name and a general mission in life with its predecessor, the 2012 Accent is essentially all new from the ground up. Sure, it's a kissing cousin to the stylish Kia Rio, but the Accent goes about things its own way.

Both four and five-door Accents are available, ranging from what our British colleagues call "poverty spec" base models up to surprisingly well kitted-out trim levels like our SE-trim tester. Unlike some rivals - namely the Ford Fiesta and Chevrolet Sonic - the fanciest Accent money can buy lists for under $18,000 unless you start piling on the accessories (no, you cannot interest us in anti-rust coating, Mr. Salesman). That means that Accent forgoes optional extras like heated leather seats and a moonroof; Hyundai lets the larger Elantra take on those luxuries.

Doing the work out front is a new direct-injected 1.6-liter four-cylinder, which cranks out 138 horsepower and sips fuel at a rate of 30/40 mpg. While that city number is quite good, the latter seems a little modest since the company's Elantra has the same rating.

What's it up against?
A sign of this segment's increasingly competitive nature is the relative newness of Accent's rivals - most were redesigned last year.

Count among those the Chevrolet Sonic, Ford Fiesta, Mazda Mazda2 and Toyota Yaris, each of which brings to the table its own unique flavor. Oh, and we can't forget about that pesky Kia Rio, which is just a few months younger than the Accent.

How does it look?
Our tester's Electrolyte Green color scheme didn't do it any favors, but that doesn't mean there wasn't much to like about it. Its upright fascia - which likely helps it meet European pedestrian safety standards - shows off Hyundai's latest, almost cartoon hero-inspired design language.

Swept-back headlamps give way to angled fenders and a heavily-straked side profile. From the rear, the simple tail lamps and concave vertical surface give it a touch of BMW 1-Series hatchback, although that variation isn't sold in North America.

Some commented that the Accent has some Ford Fiesta-inspired surfacing detail to it, but the Accent appears lower and squatter when the two are parked together.

And on the inside?
Accent boasts a welcoming, surprisingly roomy interior. Driver and passenger receive firm and supportive chair-like seats with - wonder of wonders - a full center console with a padded armrest covering a small storage bin. This added luxury is absent on nearly all rivals, which either lack an armrest entirely or simply feature a meagre seat-mounted drop-down rest.

The presence of that armrest serves as a theme for the rest of the Accent's cabin, which generally feels more upmarket in design and execution than its modest price might suggest. The dashboard is plain, but complex textures and the presence of both shiny blck and matte silver finishes give it a premium appearance. No materials are truly soft-touch, but at least the door panels feature redundant cloth trim rather than hard plastics.

Ahead of the driver sits a standard - on SE models - leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel with controls for cruise, audio and Bluetooth functions. Behind it are a pair of crystal clear, gimmick-free gauges with blue accents (hey!) and a digital trip computer.

Climb in the back and you'll find above average space for a subcompact and good head room. Likewise, the trunk area is nicely finished with a hard cover and a light, although the liftover is a bit higher than you might find in a more wagon-oriented hatchback.

On the electronics front, SE-trim Accents come with a decent-sounding AM/FM/CD audio system with Bluetooth capability and inputs for auxiliary devices including a USB outlet.

But does it go?
A look at the spec sheet is promising. Accent's 138 horsepower tops any rival this side of Kia, while its curb weight of just under 2,400 lbs. as-tested is within 100 lbs. of the positively dainty Mazda2 and Toyota Yaris.

Our Accent came with a six-speed manual transmission, the kind of row-it-yourself option that fewer and fewer buyers are selecting. But we bet that many buyers would be willing to save the $1,000 commanded by the optional automatic since this stick shift is smooth and precise, with a light but communicative clutch and a generally solid engagement feel. Unlike the Rio, Accent is not available with a fuel-saving start/stop system - at least not yet.

The stick-shift helped make the most of the available power, which is by far the best in its class (Rio excluded). Torque, at 123 lb-ft., comes in at least 15 lb-ft. greater than non-Korean rivals. As a result, Accent has a pleasantly sprightly feel, its 1.6-liter happily winding its way up to high rpms.

In fact, it was high-rpm driving where this latest 1.6-liter really showed off its prowess; while this engine's predecessor - and those used in most rivals - grumbled its way to redline, the so-called "Gamm" motor underhood was buttery smooth. Newly standard direct injection undeniably adds refinement by making more power available at lower rpms and more widely across the range.

Accent employs the same electric power steering seen in rivals, but it has been tuned for a firmer and more direct feel than anything in the segment this side of the go-kart Mazda2. While we noticed an odd initial turn-in vagueness, which we've also noticed in the Rio, Accent generally feels composed and almost athletic. Credit a taut suspension and 16-inch alloy wheels, as well as a relatively wide stance, for the stable feel through progressive bends. Push the Accent hard and it exhibits copious understeer, but its standard stability control is quick to aggressively intervene. It's safe to say that few drivers are likely to push their Accents hard, so this nose-diving tendency is hardly a major issue.

On the highway, the kind of place subcompact drivers were scared to venture a decade ago, Accent proved remarkably quiet and stable. Heavy cross winds did little to upset its balance and its 0.774:1 sixth gear kept engine revs at a minimum to save fuel. A downshift was only a flick of the wrist and a step of the left foot away for passing; fifth gear generally got us going again for steep hills and high-speed passing.

Of course, that gear ratio is set to conserve fuel. We found the EPA's city rating to be a bit high - our driving netted 28-29 mpg in urban and suburban cruising, even with aggressive upshifts. On the open road, however, an indicated 40-41 mpg was easy to achieve.

Why you would buy it:
You think a subcompact should look and feel premium while not breaking the bank.

Why you wouldn't:
Your idea of subcompact motoring looks more like the sporty-styled Kia Rio or the loaded up Ford Fiesta.

Leftlane's bottom line
Accent proves that less can be more. It is lighter than rivals, but also more powerful. It is less expensive than rivals, yet it also generally offers more standard features.

In short, Accent just might be the best all-rounder in the subcompact segment. Unless you've been by the Kia dealer to check out the Rio, that is.

The Blackboard:

Aesthetics: B+
Technology: B
Green: A
Drive: B+
Value: A

Overall: A-

2012 Hyundai Accent SE Five-Doorbase price, $15,895. As tested, $16,705
iPod cable, $35; Destination, $775.

Words and photos by Andrew Ganz.