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BEHIND THE WHEEL

A Hyndai With Class...Seriously

June 09, 1995|PAUL DEAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In terms of reliability and social status, a Hyundai is one apology removed from deadbeat dads. As an adventure in money well spent, there's more satisfaction in writing a check to the IRS.

Hyundai's one celebrity owner was Rodney King. According to pursuing officers--and they would never fib to the media--King wrung 120 m.p.h. out of his Excel that infamous night. Cynics might note that such velocity from a Hyundai is usually attained only when the car is first tossed off a cliff. In last month's J.D. Power quality survey of 33 makes, Hyundai finished 32nd. Just below Volkswagen, just above Kia.

In fact, the only poll Hyundai ever topped was a Robb Report reader survey of the worst things in life. Equal dishonor went to honeymoons in Gaza and eating all your vegetables.

But bet your next six lease payments on the 1995 Hyundai reversing this awfulness.

For here is a South Korean-built car, yes, a subcompact from the land of kimchi and Confucianism, that competes with similar short-wheel-base miniatures from Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Geo and Ford. And that's in price, performance, quality of build, and the level and variety of equipment included as a basic package.

Example: Bargain-basement Accents come equipped with dual air bags. So do typical members of the competition, the Ford Aspire and Geo Metro hatchbacks. But standard Accent accents--such as seat belt height adjusters, passenger vanity mirrors, remote fuel door release, intermittent wipers, cargo area covers, fold-down rear seats, and rear-window defrosters--are either optional or not available on Aspire or Metro.

With a 1.5-liter, 12-valve engine producing 92 horsepower, Accent flexes more muscles than the 70-horsepower Metro and 63-horsepower Aspire. Its power is comparable to Toyota's Tercel and Honda's Civic, subcompacts that cost about $1,000 more.

Yet the strength of Accent remains the tightness and the quality of its engineering. Everything fits, nothing gapes, and there is no suggestion from any control or component that it was built to fall apart. Handling is reliable and devoid of steering hesitation and cornering wobbles. A firm suspension subdues worn street surfaces without losing a driver's sense of precisely what's under the wheels.

And there's just enough power for this nifty front-driver to dart, nibble, stalk and take great liberties with less spirited traffic.

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It is not often that a subcompact comes bearing the credentials of a driver's car. But the Accent--especially with its capable five-speed manual--is mischievous proof that a shoe-box sedan doesn't have to be tinny, carelessly assembled, dangerously slow-footed, rattling or boring.

Unless you insist on automatic transmission. Then Accent's horsepower shrivels, acceleration becomes a slower motion, and drag-racing should only be attempted against street sweepers and large gentlemen on mountain bikes.

Hyundai's poor-boy special is the Accent L hatchback starting at a bearable $8,529, less than half today's average price of a new car. But best forget this version unless you're into the inconvenience and discomfort of driving a shell with no radio, no power steering, no air conditioning, naked pressed-steel wheels, skinny tires and manual everything.

Most buyers will probably order the Accent sedan at an affordable $8,979, bumped to a still-manageable $10,899 by an options package adding power steering, air conditioning, four-speaker sound system and tinted glass. Anti-lock brakes can be included in the same package for about $600 more.

At this price, of course, do not expect chamois-lined cup holders and a Dunhill cigarette lighter. But look at it this way: Crank windows are a wonderful form of hand exercise. Sunroofs and T-tops are not the recommendation of skin cancer specialists. And if God had meant us to have power seats, power locks and power windows, she'd have given us fuses instead of teeth.

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It's tough building styling excitement into a dimensionally challenged subcompact. Their planes aren't broad enough to include sweep. Short wheelbases do not encourage lines that carry an eye easily, gracefully from grille to trunk.

But Hyundai has succeeded better than most, working within the restrictions to craft cute instead of awkward; smoothing what could have been a chunky lump into a poised, nicely rounded bantam. The three-door hatchback is particularly attractive, with a balanced, bobbed tail and deep, gaping chin grille that adds a little more menace than necessary.

The interior is much richer than the sticker suggests, showing not the slightest suggestion of an economy car up to its door handles in low bids. Carpeting is quality; the vinyls don't blind by a cheap plastic sheen; all coloring is delicate and coordinated.

Seat comforts are better than adequate. Head and shoulder room, particularly for rear seat passengers, is also more than one might expect from a category of car usually associated with scuffed knees and cricked necks.

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