Test Drive: Accent shows Hyundai not out of mojo

— -- You might suspect Hyundai would be out of mojo when it finally got around to redesigning the little Accent. You'd be wrong.

The 2012 Accent subcompact, offered as a hatchback or sedan and on sale since June, is among the nicest automotive surprises in years. For the most part, it's a classy, quick, comfy little car that responds nimbly to the driver and doesn't leave you devastated that you didn't buy a bigger car.

The two test Accents, a hatchback with six-speed manual transmission and a sedan with six-speed automatic, got inexplicably poor gas mileage for four-cylinder subcompacts, however. Regardless of whether flogged or finessed, the two were in the 24 to 25 mpg range in the suburbs.

That's well off the 33 or 34 mpg government rating for mixed city/highway driving. And less than the recently tested Nissan Versa's 30 mpg in the real world. (Test Drive, Aug. 19.)

But if you figure you'll do better or it's not your main reason to pick one car over another, the new Accents are strong contenders, perhaps the best of the subcompact breed. Two reasons:

•Drivetrain. The cars' 1.6-liter four-cylinder has direct injection and other tweaks for a rating of 138 horsepower, handily thumping rivals Versa, Ford Fiesta and Honda Fit. The engine is mated to a fun, smooth-shifting manual or crisp conventional automatic. None of the foibles of Nissan's continuously variable-ratio automatic or Ford's so-called PowerShift dry-clutch automatics, nor the limits of Honda's five-speed automatic.

•Interior. Classy and simple, a compelling mix among subcompacts that often simply look and feel cheap inside, and sometimes try to mask that with over-the-top shapes and gimcracks. Accent has refreshingly big, readable instruments, well-placed controls that feel smooth and robust in operation, and textures and shapes that give the impression of a bigger, pricier machine.

Except for the wretched wavy pattern in the seat fabric and door panels. It's subtle enough that you might not notice, but once you do, it's like popcorn stuck in your teeth.

It's good to keep in mind that for all their charms, the Accents and their small-car rivals cost what automakers would like us to consider cheap prices nowadays. Each well-equipped Accent test car was roughly $16,000, similar to the Versa and others.

That means compromises.

•Roominess. Just not as much as in bigger cars. Very good efforts to carve out useful space, but small cars are small.

The Accents manage to provide adult-size knee and legroom in back. And width in front seems relatively generous. The Accent hatchback also provides quite a bit of cargo space — that being the idea of hatchbacks, after all.

•Noise. While both Accents seem reasonably quiet inside, the engine noise at idle is coarse, especially when the windows are down. Might be that direct injection. It boosts power and mileage and cuts emissions, but it can sound ragged unless well-deadened.

•Details. Something always has to give to make the budget. One obvious example is the lack of a lining to cover the underside of the sedan's trunk lid. Just metal bracing and wires. Frightfully low-brow, undercutting an otherwise premium persona.

Everybody does it, Hyundai argues, and nobody complained about it on the previous Accent.

•Price. The bare-bones Accent is $13,205, including shipping, with a manual shift. That doesn't sound terrible, but even folks who (generally falsely, experience shows) claim they just want basic transportation will find it a bit spartan.

To get even a little of what you want, you have to step up to the lowest-price automatic-transmission model. It's $15,955, a $2,750 (21%) jump.

Hyundai says the $15,995 car comes not only with the automatic, but also air conditioning, radio, iPod jack, power windows and mirrors and cloth-upholstered door panels.

OK, that's a fair amount of content, but who wouldn't expect most of it on a base-price car?

But if you can swallow that $16,000 is a low price (Test Drive can't), the Accents belong on your short list.

The hatch with manual transmission is especially inviting because of its extra utility and the sweet feel of the gearbox and clutch.

Gotta have a "grown-up" sedan? The Accent with trunk hardly is a poor second choice.

•What? Redo of the brand's front-drive subcompact. Available as a hatchback or a sedan.

•When? On sale since June.

•Why? Aging designs don't cut it in fierce subcompact market.

•Where? Made in South Korea.

•How much? $13,205 including $760 shipping, but that's a bare-bones without air conditioning, radio or power accessories. Versions most buyers will pick start at $15,995.

•What makes it go? 1.6-liter, direct-injection four-cylinder rated 138 horsepower at 6,300 rpm, 123 pounds-feet of torque at 4,850 rpm. Available with six-speed manual or six-speed automatic with manual mode.

•How big? Similar to Ford Fiesta or Honda Fit. Accent hatchback is 162 inches long, 66.9 in. wide, 57.1 in. tall on a 101.2-in. wheelbase. Sedan same, except 172 in. long.

Passenger space: Hatchback, 90.1 cu.ft., sedan, 89.7. Cargo: Hatchback, 21.2 cu. ft. behind rear seat, 47.5 cu. ft. when second row's folded. Sedan trunk: 13.7 cu. ft. Weighs 2,296 to 2,654 lbs. Turning circle diameter, 34.1 ft.

•How thirsty? Manual rated 30 miles per gallon in town 40 highway, 34 in mixed driving. Automatic: 30/40/33 mpg.

Test-car registered 24.4 mpg (4.1 gallons per 100 miles) in manual hatchback driven hard in the suburbs, 25 mpg (4 gal/100 mi) in automatic sedan driven moderately.

Uses regular, holds 11.4 gal.

•Overall: Very nice surprise.