If advertising reflects the Zeitgeist, then consider what these tag lines from full-page newspaper spreads say about the spirit of our times:
-"927 km of fun between fill-ups."
-"Ridiculously fuel efficient."
The former touts the Ford Fiesta, the latter the Chevrolet Sonic. Ford even heralds the Fiesta's actual fuel economy numbers in big, bold letters – 6.8 litres/100 km in the city, 4.9 on the highway.
That 4.9 number matters a bunch to Hyundai, the South Korean auto maker.
A press release shouts, "Hyundai Canada is also announcing the sales figures of vehicles that achieve a rating better than 5.0 L/100 km (40 U.S. miles per gallon)."
Steve Kelleher, the president, adds, "Where cars that consume less than 5.0 litres of fuel per 100 km used to be reserved for a select few subcompacts, Hyundai today offers a subcompact, compact and intermediate sedan that surpass the new threshold for excellent fuel economy."
This idea that using less fuel is a virtue has managed to seep into our culture. Car companies are dropping bundles on messaging that flags their virtuous models – the Fiesta for Ford, the Sonic for Chevy and the reinvented Accent for Hyundai.
Hyundai has a winner in the Accent. Sales were up 50.5 per cent in October. This year, nearly 20,000 Canadians have spent at least $13,199 (minus any discounts) for the reinvented 2012 model.
The car is shockingly attractive, more so because the old one was so embarrassingly homely. The last time I tested a pre-2012 Accent I wore a bag over my head.
Its sole virtue was a compelling cheapness – Hyundai sold boatloads of the three-door version with a starting price of $9,999. Truly, the old Accent was the car you'd drive if you wore only Wal-Mart hikers and pants with an elastic waistband.
Along comes the 2012 car and – whoa!!! This one's a looker, especially the completely functional four-door hatchback. It performs, too.
Hyundai has stuffed an all-aluminum 1.6-litre four-banger under the hood. Hyundai says it's rated at a "class-leading" 138 horsepower and 123 lb-ft of torque and gets a "best-in-class" 4.8 litre/100 km highway fuel economy.
The engine here boasts gasoline direct injection (GDI). This is modern stuff that precisely controls the injection of fuel into the combustion chamber. Hyundai is the first with a so-equipped subcompact. The gearboxes are pretty modern, too. Standard is a six-speed manual, while six-speed automatic is $1,200 extra.
Then there is the pricing advantage. If economic worries are also deeply embedded in the public consciousness, having an $1,800 edge over the cheapest Fiesta is sure to resonate with buyers worried about the state of their finances, not to mention Italy and the rest of the developed but apparently unravelling world.
I can imagine some of Hyundai's competitors unravelling at the sight of this grocery-getter. Honda has the Fit, but it's aging and expensive. The Fiesta is arguably the best-handling little car out there and it's available with some nifty features – including a dual-clutch automatic that some critics have said can be jerky at times.
The Fiesta looks great, too, and because it has such a great chassis, I'd rather drive quickly in it than any other subcompact. But it's not cheap at all.
Toyota is launching an updated Yaris, too. Thank goodness. The old one was noisy and bouncy and it had a speedometer absurdly mounted right in the middle of the dashboard. Toyota has improved everything about the 2012 Yaris and it could not have come at a better time.
Kia has a new Rio for sale, the four-door hatch, and the reinvented sedan comes early next year. This one shares the basics under the skin with the Accent, by the way.
Hyundai need make no apologies for anything about this Accent. The so-called "fluidic styling" grabs you, though as one wag has noted, the "Fiesta wins the swimsuit competition." The interior is well crafted, with metal-painted plastics and materials that look and feel better than the $13,100 starter price suggests.
There is a lot of content here, too. The Accent has active front head restraints, four-wheel disc brakes as standard and lots of active safety features, including electronic stability control. Power door locks also are standard, though you need to buy power windows, remote keyless entry and power heated mirrors. A bare-bones four-speaker sound system is standard, but you can opt for something better. Cruise control, air conditioning, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, heated front seats, and a power sunroof are all available, as well.
In the driving, the Accent is nice and quiet and the power train feels refined. The automatic gearbox comes with a fuel-saving ECO program button; it smoothes out the throttle response and transmission shifting. That's fine. We're not tossing about a sports car here, but driving an Accent is not punishment – not like the old one.
Hyundai types don't use the word "Zeitgeist," but they do talk about a resurgence of customers looking for rational cars like the Accent. Call it the car for 99 per centers.
2012 Hyundai Accent
Type: Subcompact car
Base price: $13,199 ($1,495 freight)
Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 138 hp/123 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.7 city/4.8 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Mazda2, Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Fiat 500, Kia Rio, Chevrolet Sonic