CORNWALL, N.Y. - Rosa Parks Brown, our Labrador, prefers subcompact cars. We think it's because subcompacts force humans to sit next to her. Parks, as we call her, loves humans, craves them. She hates being left alone in the rear compartments of large trucks, crossover utility vehicles or sedans.
In that regard, the subcompact Hyundai Accent SE hatchback, seemingly the least likely of vehicles to transport three adults, a large dog and all of their stuff, turned out to be ideal for our 320-mile journey here from our home in Virginia.
The 2009 Hyundai Accent SE two-door hatchback coupe is among the best subcompact car for the money. Washington Post
Parks did the whole trip resting her head in the lap of her true master, our daughter Binta, or sticking her face as close as possible to the open front passenger window ostensibly to catch a breeze, but really to nose the woman in the adjacent seat, my wife, Mary Anne. Other than my wife's occasional protests against being neck-slurped, it was a pleasant, easy trip - surprisingly pleasant and easy.
The little Accent is the most affordable car made by Hyundai, a South Korean manufacturer that prides itself on the design and production of affordable automobiles. At Hyundai in the 1980s, that meant motorized trash, such as the defunct, seldom mourned Hyundai Excel subcompact.
Today's Hyundai no longer makes trash. In fact, the company has been reaching upscale and doing so successfully with models such as its new Genesis sedan. Next year, Hyundai will roll out its Equus sedan, a super luxurious automobile designed to compete with Mercedes-Benz's S-Class and BMW's 7-Series.
The only people laughing at the prospect of Hyundai taking on Mercedes-Benz and BMW are those who haven't been paying close attention to Hyundai.
2010 Hyundai Accent SE Coupe
• The bottom line: The Hyundai Accent is the best subcompact car for the money. It isn't designed to win any races. But it holds its own in creature comforts, build integrity, vehicle safety and utility, and overall value.
• Complaint: As noted by my Washington Post associate for vehicle evaluations, Ria Manglapus, the Accent's 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine is noisy at highway speeds. We both would appreciate a larger-displacement four-cylinder model - a 1.8-liter or 2-liter engine would do. That would raise the Accent's price. But here's betting consumers would pay it.
• Ride, acceleration and handling: It gets good small-car marks in all three.
• Head-turning quotient: Puppy cute.
• Body style/layout: The Accent is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive subcompact car available as a sedan or hatchback coupe, best used as an urban-suburban commuter.
• Engine/transmissions: The standard Accent engine is a 1.6-liter, inline four-cylinder that develops 110 hp at 6,000 rpm and 106 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,500 rpm. It is linked to a standard five-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic is optional. Hint: The five-speed manual costs less and offers better driving performance.
• Capacities: There are seats for five people, or three people and a large dog. Luggage capacity is 15.9 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 11.9 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.
• Mileage: You get 27 mpg city and 33 mpg highway.
• Safety: Brakes are ventilated front discs, rear drums - typical cost-cutting brake arrangement for small cars. We'd be more impressed with four-wheel discs at an affordable price. But side and head air bags are standard, and on the SE model, so are four-wheel antilock brake protection and electronic brake force distribution to better apply braking pressure in panic situations.
• Price: The base price for the 2009/2010 Hyundai Accent SE with manual transmission is $15,070. Dealer's invoice price is $14,642. Price as tested is $15,790, including a $720 destination charge. Dealer's price as tested is $15,362. A $1,500 customer's rebate is available on this model at this writing. Prices are sourced from Hyundai, Edmunds.com and Cars.com, an affiliate of The Washington Post.
• Purse-strings note: For the super-thrifty, the base GS starts at $9,970.
I have written here and other places that Hyundai has mastered the art of Walmart marketing. Some of you have taken that as an insult. It isn't.
To people who shop regularly at Walmart, as we Browns do on our East Coast road trips, it is high praise. We get products and service we want with the quality we want at prices we consider unbeatable.
Hyundai understands that. It is committed to the proposition of high value for dollar, even in its least expensive car, the front-wheel-drive Accent hatchback.
The Accent is a subcompact with wiggle room, arguably with as much usable interior space as that offered by the more expensive Toyota Corolla. Fit and finish are as good as anything offered by Hyundai's Japanese rivals. In terms of air-bag count, standard safety equipment is better. You get standard side and head air bags in the Accent. You don't in the Corolla.
The Corolla has a more powerful four-cylinder engine - 1.8 liters and 132 horsepower vs. 1.6 liters and 110 hp for the Accent. But both cars can exceed the top 65 mph speed limit on the New Jersey Turnpike with the same unhappy result: an expensive conversation with a New Jersey state trooper.
Still, I would've preferred a larger engine in the Accent. And here's hoping that Hyundai creates a special iteration of the Accent with, maybe, a turbocharged 1.8 liter, four-cylinder diesel. That would make getting up Mine Hill Road here a lot easier than struggling along in second gear, which is what we had to do in the gasoline-fueled four-cylinder Accent SE used on this trip.
But Parks didn't mind the second-gear stuttering. With a fuel efficiency of 27 miles per gallon in the city and 33 mpg on the highway, using regular unleaded gasoline, we saved enough money to buy her some gourmet dog food.
Perhaps that's really why she prefers subcompact cars.
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