Albert Biermann has been in charge of Hyundai’s vehicle testing and high-performance development for more than two-and-a-half years now, and his good work is finally starting to show up. The Hyundai Elantra GT Sport represents a sea change for the South Korean automaker, which has struggled to get past the inherent disadvantage of its home country’s roads being almost uniformly smooth and straight—and not conducive to developing the sort of ride-and-handling acumen that the tight and twisty roads of old Europe forces.
Thus, sporty Hyundais have typically suffered from the combination of a harsh ride and wallowy handling. It’s a subtle corporate transformation, coming in this fairly low-volume, low-priced, European-centric front-wheel-drive hatchback, but it portends good things to expect from the new and quickly growing Genesis premium division, where Biermann, until late 2014 BMW’s chief of the M Division, is expected to do wonders.
We’re not about to tell you that the Hyundai Elantra GT Sport is best-in-class, but it does deserve to be in the same discussion as the Volkswagen GTI and Honda Civic Si, and that’s saying something. It won’t blow you away dynamically, but it will make you feel you’ve got a competent hot hatch at a good price.
Springing for the GT Sport gets you a 1.6-liter turbo-four rated at 201 horsepower, and importantly, 195 pound-feet from 1,500-4,500 rpm, while wheel and tire size is upgraded from 17 inches to 18. The engine is more than adequately powerful and provides thrust without notable lag or the peakiness that identifies so many breathed-on small-displacement engines. And the standard six-speed manual emerges as one of the best gearboxes available. The Hyundai ‘box feels at least as snick-snicky smooth as a Honda gearbox, and the clutch-pedal takeup is smoother and more linear than in the latest Civic Si.
In corners—what few compelling esses this part of Michigan can offer—the Elantra GT Sport yaws a bit, with marginal, benign understeer. It tracks right through with no drama. If anything, its lack of tossability is one area where this Hyundai falls a bit behind the VW GTI and Civic Si.
Ride quality is about equal with the competition. It’s not harsh, but it’s stiff enough to remind you there’s always something of a payoff for the way it handles. There’s also an excess of road noise, a combination of the wide, grippy tires and the hatchback’s hard-to-isolate body.
The Elantra GT Sport also feels a bit over-tired, too. Even on tighter, faster second-gear turns, you won’t ever feel the rear wheels get loose before the front wheels do. Good non-pro drivers will have to find a tight mountain road to find out what the GT Sport can do beyond its grip limits. Hyundai says it has tuned the electric power steering. It’s okay, but feedback isn’t great.
In the afternoon, having driven the GT Sport manual, I got behind the wheel of a Hyundai Elantra GT Sport with the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic, which also adds a two-mode driver’s dynamic mode selection.
The “Sport” dynamic mode adds weight to the steering, which seems unnecessary in that it doesn’t add feel or feedback. “Sport” also changes the transmission mapping, holding gears longer if you drive the dual-gate in automatic mode. It does what you’d expect it to do, and the suspension feels a bit stiffer, though anyone who chooses a GT Sport because he or she really wants to drive the car is best advised to stick with the car’s exceptional manual gearbox. If you drive the DCT in manual mode, using the paddle shifters, the tranny will upshift for you before you reach the rev limiter. That aside, the DCT is pretty slick for a dry-clutch system, offering crisp, smooth shifts.
Foregoing the DCT also means that the GT Sport’s $3,850 Tech Package is not available. While you might want that package’s panoramic sunroof, eight-inch AM/FM/HD navigation system, Blue Link connected services and media map, seven-speaker Infinity Premium Audio, and ventilated front seats, you won’t miss the automatic emergency braking, and probably not the lane-keeping assist or driver-attention alert. Three pedals should keep you fully engaged.
The GT Sport’s interior is a pretty decent place, with well-bolstered, heated and ventilated front seats, with leather surfaces, and red accents subtle enough to be tasteful. If Hyundai cheapened out anywhere, it’s on the center console plastic, which like too many other cars, is a bit on the thin side.
For additional perspective, former road test editor Eric Weiner spent some time with the roughly $4,000-cheapr Elantra GT. It has a twist-beam rear axle instead of the GT Sport’s multi-link and is powered by a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder good for 161 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque.
“Dynamically, I was not blown away by the Elantra GT,” noted Weiner, “but again, I wasn’t driving the Sport. The engine is well-suited to the six-speed automatic transmission, with its decent responsiveness and adequate zip. I was pleased with how the transmission holds gears longer and the throttle responds very quickly in the Sport driving mode. The brakes don’t have much feel, and the steering is somewhat vague, but ride quality is very high and it tracks totally straight on the highway.”
Eric’s Elantra GT came with cloth seats. Rear seat space is a bit tight, he noted, though with the 60/40 rear seat folded, cargo space tops that of hatchback versions of the Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus, Mazda3, VW Golf and Toyota Corolla, Hyundai says. The Korean brand holds this compact hatchback up as a sportier alternative to the subcompact crossovers to which many compact buyers are shifting. Hyundai says the Elantra GT hatch tops the Toyota CH-R, Mazda CX-3, Chevrolet Trax and Jeep Renegade for cargo space. Take it from me; you’re more likely to fit your bicycle in the Elantra hatch than in those b-CUVs, without taking off the front wheel.
“I think this car is most compelling as a well-made and affordable city hatchback with a killer 10-year powertrain warranty and five-year/60,000 mile bumper-to-bumper warranty,” Weiner says, putting a good word in for the Elantra GT, while also calling out the qualities for which the brand has long been known.
Conversely, I think the Elantra GT Sport is early evidence that Hyundai has exorcized its persistent chassis tuning problems, which bodes well for enthusiasts from those on the budget-minded end of the price spectrum to those looking for a BMW 3 Series alternative in the upcoming Genesis G70.