Cast your mind back to the early to mid 1970s, when Japanese models like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Datsun 510 were getting a toehold in the North American market.
Despite contempt and resistance from the established carmakers in North America, the offshore imports hit a chord with buyers and ushered in a whole new era of car manufacturing in Canada and the U.S.
The business plan was straightforward: offer people a competently-built, affordable and, most of all, well-equipped car that was easy on gas and reliable. Skeptics and scoffers abounded, but it didn’t matter. With a few caveats, the Japanese upstarts turned out to be good automobiles. Even now, it’s not that weird to see 1970s-vintage Honda Civics and Datsuns putting around (I saw a nicely-maintained Datsun 1200 two-door just the other day).
This formula has also been emulated by Korean builders such as Hyundai and Kia with great success. From a relatively humble start in the early 1980s (remember the Pony?), Hyundai has gone on to become a major player. Models like the Sonata, Elantra and Accent are at or near the top of their market segments.
The Accent, in particular, is an interesting example. When it debuted in 1994, it was somewhat less than awe-inspiring. Quality was pretty terrible, rust resistance virtually nonexistent and it was, well, unreliable. I can remember driving one and having to deal with door locks that froze shut and an ignition switch that wouldn’t shut the car off after the key was removed.
But that was then and this is now. The Accent has matured into a nicely-styled, well-built and, most of all, well-equipped compact. It’s sold throughout the world and punches above its weight when it comes to standard equipment level and usability.
Available as either a five-door hatchback or four-door sedan, the Accent is powered by a 1.6-litre Gamma engine. Output is 130 horsepower and you can get it with either a six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. I drove the automatic. There are four trim levels and both models have the same pricing structures.
The Accent lacks the finesse of its closest rival and perennial front-runner, the Honda Civic. But it compensates in terms of value for money. The Civic is a smidgeon more driveable and things like switchgear and interior ergonomics are more refined and driver-friendly. This has always been the Civic’s strength and the reason it has been one of the best-selling compacts in Canada for decades.
The Accent’s drivetrain also falls a bit short. It’s willing enough, but 130 horsepower and 119 foot-pounds of torque just don’t seem to be enough to propel this car with any authority. During my time with a GLS model, I found myself fighting to keep up on steep hills with the gearbox constantly up- and down-shifting. This is not a huge problem but definitely worth keeping in mind.
That said, the Accent has the edge in styling. This is a personal thing, of course, but I find the Civic just too busy these days, with odd little angles and strange styling cues bumping up all over the place. The Accent is smoothly styled and quite European in appearance. Kudos to Hyundai for keeping it clean.
The Accent sedan starts at well under $18,000 and, fully equipped, tops out at just over $21,000. The Civic can’t match that and the fully-loaded Accent is very well equipped, indeed. My tester had all the usual modern conveniences, including rear-view camera, cruise control, touchscreen monitor, heated front seats and all the rest. But it also came with a heated steering wheel and few cars in this price range can make that claim.
I also like the fact that the Accent is unpretentious and cheap to run. Combined fuel economy for the automatic transmission version is 7.3 litres/100 km and it’s one of those cars that you just get in and drive. It’s affordable A-to-B transport.
Works for me.
2018 Hyundai Accent
Engine: 1.6-litre four cylinder
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Horsepower: 130 hp at 6,300 rpm
Torque: 119 foot-pounds at 4,850 rpm
Price range: $17,349 to $21,099
Fuel economy: 8.2 litres/100 km (city) and 6.3 (highway), regular fuel
Some alternatives: Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Mazda3, Kia Rio, Mitsubishi Lancer
Ted Laturnus has been an automotive journalist since 1976. He has been named Canadian Automotive Journalist Of The Year twice and is past president of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).