The cheapo economy car, the budget-friendly grocery-getter and the everyday affordable runabout – all but gone, gone, gone like the White Pages.
Nissan no longer sells the $9,995 Micra, and along with its departure went the slow-motion-racing Micra Cup series. The Versa is toast, too.
Toyota used to sell a thrifty little tin can called the Yaris, sedan and hatchback. Nope. Not now.
No more Hyundai Accent. No Ford Fiesta. No Kia Rio…
What’s left for entry-level car shoppers? The Chevrolet Spark, billed at $10,398 to start, but good luck finding one at that price. There is also the little Mitsubishi Mirage, $13,858, base. These two will get zapped soon enough, too.
All this is to say that if you now want a spanking new starter car, it’s a compact, like the Nissan Sentra. Not surprisingly, the Micra Cup racing series has morphed into the Sentra Cup.
Which brings me to the latest trend in commuter cars: fancy AND racy commuters loaded with premium features and dolled up to look something like a German car.
Last year at about this time, I took to the road in a $23,000 Nissan Sentra SR CVT. After a week, I dropped off the keys thinking that this tidy little rig with its 2.0-litre four-banger (149 hp/145 lb-ft torque and 7.2 litres/100 km combined) and many power/safety/convenience features was a reasonable heir to the prone-to-rust Datsun 510 of the 1970s – which at the time was hailed as the poor man’s BMW 2002.
This year, I’ve spent a few days in Hyundai’s version of this sort of racy runabout – the 2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line DCT, which at $27,995 before extras takes that Sentra SR formula and pushes it a little further.
Instead of the less-than-sporty continuously variable transmission in the Sentra, the Elantra N-Line has a nifty seven-speed dual clutch gearbox with paddle shifters and it’s teamed with 201-horsepower turbocharged I4 (1.6-litres), complete with modern direct injection and twin chrome exhaust. Not so very long ago, dual-clutch arrangements were available only with expensive German sporting machines. Now they are for Hyundai buyers at the “low” end of the market.
Sure, it’s a front-driver, which of course limits sportiness, what with all the mass on the front wheels, which also manage the steering and accelerating and most of the braking. The pure 50:50 balance you want in a totally tossable machine is not there, of course.
But what’s here isn’t bad at all. There’s enough substance to engage an enthusiastic driver. And combined fuel economy (7.6 litres/100 km) is decent. The disc brakes are strong, as close to fade-free as possible, and they even have electronic brake force distribution or EBD – which uses ABS and stability control to find the ideal brake force apportionment. Again, EBD was once only the province of expensive cars.
Now when all is said and done, you’ll spend close to $30,000 plus tax for this ride. You will get a comprehensive roster of gear, from six airbags to a host of electronic safety interventions, from LED exterior lights to power sunroof, BOSE stereo, wireless connectivity, and climate control. Loaded.
The cockpit, I’ll mention, is snug up front because the centre console with its wireless charging station is huge. It feels tighter still thanks to the big plastic hand grip on the passenger side – one molded into the console and intended to give the shotgun rider something to hold onto with the left hand.
Seat comfort is absolutely mediocre, too: thin padding, flat bases, minimal side bolstering and ho-hum cloth upholstery. The 8.0-in display screen is small in a world of larger screens that are now commonplace. The infotainment software is easy to manage, however.
Look, three-quarters of all new vehicle buyers are getting some sort of SUV or truck. Car companies are killing everything at the lowest end of the market due to lack of interest and profitability. Their latest act of seems a little bit of desperation is to jazz up whatever is left of their compact offerings. Like the Elantra here.
Would I buy one? No, and for many reasons, none of which has to do with quality or reliability. I’m not the target customer, but I do appreciate the effort put into the Elantra N-Line.