Years ago, I learned to drive stick on a friend's Hyundai Pony hatchback. The ride was harsh, the steering was sloppy and the body was covered in rust.
More than two decades later, I'm behind the wheel of another Hyundai hatchback – this time a 2013 Elantra GT – and it's everything the Pony wasn't.
As I wind through the Allegheny Mountains, giving the six-speed manual gearbox a workout, the car handles the curves and inclines with aplomb. In the corners, there's little body lean. On steep hills, I throw the car into fourth gear and it zooms confidently up the mountainside, slicing through the snow-covered forest.
The Elantra GT was designed for this sort of driving. Known as the Hyundai i30 in Europe, it has the same engine and transmission as the Elantra sedan and coupe sold in North America, but it's built on a different platform that imparts a sportier, more "European" feel. The most noticeable difference is the GT's stiffer suspension, which sacrifices some ride comfort but delivers better responsiveness and handling, according to Hyundai.
I'm not exactly pushing the car's limits, mind you. My wife and kids are on board and we're heading to Washington, D.C., for some sightseeing. Between the frequent snow flurries and the state troopers lurking in the bushes, I'm not taking any chances.
At first, I wondered if taking the Elantra GT on a 1,500-kilometre family road trip was such a smart idea. After all, my daughter (and to a lesser extent my son) suffers from motion sickness, and a car that really "feels" the road – potholes, bumps and all – might exacerbate her condition. Or so I thought.
However, my wife made sure to pass around the Gravol before we left – as she does before every long car ride – and we heard no complaints from the kids the entire trip. What's more, although I had worried that the stiffer ride might contribute to driver fatigue, it ceased to be an issue for me shortly after we got on to the highway.
That's probably because I was having so much fun.
Let's be clear: The Elantra GT isn't a sports car. The 1.8-litre, four-cylinder engine generates 148 hp – just 10 more than the entry-level Hyundai Accent. The Elantra GT is, however, a practical family hauler that delivers a nimble, zippy driving experience at an affordable price.
The base GL model, with six-speed manual transmission, retails for $19,149 and comes with loads of standard equipment including air conditioning, keyless entry and alarm, heated front seats, cruise control, power windows and locks and rear washer and wiper (a feature that got a lot of use on our trip because of the wet, grimy road conditions).
All Elantra GT models also feature "driver selectable steering," which gives you a choice between Comfort, Normal and Sport modes.
For $21,349, our mid-level GLS test vehicle also featured a power-adjustable driver's seat, huge panoramic sunroof, fog lights, 16-inch alloy wheels and leather-wrapped steering wheel. The top-of-the-line SE Tech model, with six-speed automatic transmission, sells for $26,349 and adds leather seats,17-inch wheels, touch-screen navigation system and back-up camera, among other upgrades.
The Elantra GT competes in the crowded compact, five-door hatchback segment against the Toyota Matrix, Mazda3, Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf and Subaru Impreza. While it's not the most powerful car on the block, it scores near the top in passenger and cargo volume. We were able to comfortably pack all of our supplies in the trunk, including overnight bags and several small coolers of food.
The Elantra GT also excels in fuel economy, with the manual rated at 5.3 litres/100 kilometres on the highway and 7.8 in the city.
On our five-day road trip, which included a mix of both types of driving (and a lot of steep hills), we achieved 6.85 litres/100 kilometres. Convert that to dollars and cents and it's even more impressive: The 1,555-kilometre journey from Toronto to Washington and back cost us less than $120 in gas (lower pump prices in the United States certainly helped).
But even as the Elantra GT will appeal to frugal drivers, the car's interior is anything but cheap. The cabin has a refined feel, with high-quality materials, excellent fit and finish and logically arranged controls. The seats are comfortable and the rear passenger area is spacious, with ample room for a third person. The interior is also surprisingly quiet for a car of its size.
Unfortunately, the Elantra can't save you from your own stupidity.
As we're heading south through the timberlands of Pennsylvania, the weather starts to warm up. When we reach a small town, I pull over and toss my jacket into the back of the car.
A few minutes later, a state trooper lights me up. Was I speeding? Did I forget to signal? Did the trooper just want to have a closer look at the sporty Elantra GT?
Nope. "The reason I pulled you over is that for the last few blocks you've been driving with the hatch wide open," he says.
2013 Hyundai Elantra GT GLS
Type: Compact hatchback
Base Price: $21,349; as tested, $21,349
Engine: 1.8-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/Torque: 148 hp/131 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.8 city/5.3 highway; regular gas