The Hyundai Accent led the modern subcompact rush. Sure, the late '70s and '80s were stocked with tiny fuel-sippers, but as those guys grew up, Hyundai started a whole new subcompact fad when it put the Accent on the road in 1995.
Except that it's not actually a subcompact. Under Environmental Protection Agency standards, the Accent's 108.1 cubic feet of interior space classify it as a compact car, in the same category as a Toyota Corolla and Ford Focus. But Accent prices start as low as $11,425, and as this story was written, a $1,500 rebate could get you into an Accent for less than $10,000. So it's certainly a subcompact in price.
It has the same traits as a subcompact: a buzzy four-cylinder engine, highway fuel economy over 30 mpg, a goofy name, and low curb weight.
And then there is perception. The three-door hatchback's diminutive dimensions beg you to compare the car with the Toyota Yaris and, in turn, the Honda Fit, Chevrolet Aveo and other subcompacts.
So the EPA is wrong and we're saying the Accent is a subcompact. Are years of experience and a bigger body enough for this pseudo-subcompact senior to beat some of the athletic new freshmen?
THE (LACK OF) STYLE
If the Hyundai Accent were to give you a call, it would probably show up on your caller ID as "Anonymous." It's not that the Korean car is moonlighting as a salesman hawking WiFi-enabled toilets, but that its styling is entirely forgettable. The Accent has none of the gaping grilles and chunky C-pillars that seem to be the youthful calling cards of modern subcompacts.
The windows strictly follow the roofline and a simple beltline. The car may look simple, but from the driver's seat the window profile translates into exceptional visibility in every direction, aided by the rear-seat headrests that tuck in low to the seatbacks.
With our test car's base price of $15,195 we were surprised to find fog lights and 16-inch alloy wheels as standard equipment. Those touches, along with the impressive list of interior equipment, keep the high-end SE model away from econobox status.
JUST DON'T TOUCH ANYTHING
The simplicity of the exterior design carries over to the interior, where you'll find that the controls are predictably placed and intuitive to use. Three large knobs manage the climate control, while the radio interface's equally safe design appears a bit dated. It may all be easy to use, but the Accent falls far short of the Honda Fit's stylish interior.
With touches of silver, our car's gray and black interior was attractive enough. But the plastics are hard and cheap feeling, especially in the door-mounted armrests, which bruise elbows. The steering wheel's thin rim and plastic feel contradict the fact that it's actually wrapped in leather. We did, however, like the look and feel of the leather-wrapped shifter. Our first impression of the firm seats was that they were more baseball bleacher than La-Z-Boy, but over time they proved to be quite comfortable even on long trips.
Accessing the rear seats can be a bit tricky, but once in back, passengers still have enough leg room for in-town travel without complaining. The 60/40 split folding rear seat also works well with the hatch to create a large cargo area. We easily stacked the car with a large tent and several bags of gear and still had plenty of room to stand up a bike (with front wheel and seat removed).
The Accent's list of standard equipment is what we've come to expect of subcompacts: power windows, locks and mirrors; keyless entry; air conditioning and a CD player. There's also the full salvo of safety equipment including six air bags, anti-lock brakes and a tire pressure monitoring system.
As an early 2008 model, our Accent lacked an auxiliary audio input and satellite radio, two features that are quickly becoming mandatory fare in this segment. Hyundai has since added the equipment as standard on SE hatchbacks and all sedans (and raised the starting price by about $200).
IT'S NOT FAST, BUT IT IS FUN
Making 110 hp from its 1.6-liter engine, the Accent slots right between its competitors in power, beating the Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, and Chevrolet Aveo but yielding to the Nissan Versa and Suzuki SX4. True to the subcompact creed, it is not fast off the line but is willing to play when driven aggressively. Keep the revs above 3000 rpm and you'll have no problem swiftly merging onto highways, or passing slower vehicles.
In SE trim, the Accent comes standard with a B&M Racing sport shifter attached to the five-speed manual gearbox. Shifts are quick and easy to find, yet still a bit clunky. Paired together, the engine and transmission provide adequate acceleration and an engaging drive. Fuel economy is competitive, with manual Accents rated at 27 mpg city and 32 mpg highway, and automatics delivering 24 mpg and 33 mpg, respectively.
TURN WHEELS FOR MORE FUN
At just about 2500 pounds, the Accent hatchback is of average weight in the subcompact class. But this universal low-weight characteristic is often what makes the other subcompact universal characteristic - low power - tolerable. Get the car up to speed and it's a blast to snake through turns.
Low weight alone does not make a car handle well. Body roll and understeer in the Accent are minimal, controlled by Hyundai's sport-tuned suspension with stiffer springs and dampers. The set-up uses coil springs working with struts in the front and a torsion bar suspension in the rear. The low-profile Kumho tires are a good match for the Accent, working hard to grip rather than squeal through turns. Steering is well weighted, but could be improved by offering more feedback.
MORE THAN MEETS THE EYE
The Hyundai's most endearing quality may also be the least expected - how well it drives. The Accent is most comfortable in the fringes between city and country, where roads twist but speeds are kept in check. Drive it hard between 20 and 50 mph, keeping revs in the middle of the tachometer and the steering wheel constantly spinning to discover the true character of this car.
Once you get away from a stoplight, even city driving in the Accent is enjoyable. Turning down a new street invites a downshift to turn on the power and pull out of a quick corner. Cloverleaf highway on-ramps are also a great place to demonstrate the Accent's handling prowess, keeping power on tap in second gear for full-throttle acceleration once the ramp straightens out.
But once on the highway, the Accent begins to show some more serious flaws. Cruising at 80 mph had us wondering why earplugs didn't come as standard equipment with this car. At nearly 4000 rpm, the four-cylinder engine roars while you're casually keeping up with traffic. A sixth gear that put revs much closer to 3000 rpm would be a welcome change, even if that meant a downshift to fifth would be needed for highway passing. In fact, the noise was so invasive, this car may be one of the few we actually wish would actually pack on some weight. Fifty pounds of strategically placed insulation could probably go a long way toward making the Accent a better highway commuter.
Rough road surfaces occasionally take control of the Accent's short wheelbase and sport-tuned suspension. Cracks rattled the car and our heads nodded like Bobble Head dolls as the car bounced over grooved roads. For the most part, the highway ride was an acceptable compromise for what was gained in low-speed handling. Further damaging highway credibility, the Accent fails to offer cruise control, even as an option.
DON'T BE SO SUPERFICIAL
The Accent certainly isn't the car for anyone looking to make a style statement. We'd also be wary of owning an Accent if our daily commute involved lengthy highway driving. But if you can look past the design and like to strike fear into the hearts of jaywalkers by bombing around blind turns, the Accent might just fit your unfashionable, driving-enthusiast lifestyle.
We like the Hyundai Accent's mechanicals, equipment list, and price, and in these categories, the car is very competitive against its peers. In driving dynamics, the car is a leader, offering great body control through turns and power that can be played with. We just wish it was a bit more suave on the highway and had even a touch of style. The Accent may retain its starting position on the field, but it definitely won't be homecoming king.