Hyundai's smallest auto, the Accent, is no longer the cheapest new car in America. Instead, it's a stylish compact with class-leading fuel mileage, notable features and an interior so quiet at stoplights you might think the engine has turned off.
Revamped for 2012, the now fourth-generation Accent is slightly bigger than its predecessor, yet has a government fuel economy rating of 30 miles per gallon in city driving and 40 mpg on the highway.
This is the rating for every Accent, so buyers don't have to pay more — as they do with the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and 2011 Ford Fiesta — to get a high-mileage version of the car.
And based on the test drive of a 2012 Accent where the government mileage ratings were attained, this can translate into well over 360 combined city/highway miles on a single tank of regular gasoline.
Also not to be missed: Like every Hyundai, the Accent comes with a 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty and a limited, bumper-to-bumper warranty for 5 years/60,000 miles. This compares with the bumper-to-bumper, three-year/36,000-mile warranties of major competitors at Honda and Ford.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, for the 2012 Accent with 138-horsepower four cylinder is $13,205. But this is for a base GLS sedan with manual transmission, manual roll-up windows, manually adjustable outside mirrors and no air conditioning, and I couldn't find this model on the Hyundai consumer website.
The more normal base Accent GLS — a sedan with air conditioning, an AM/FM radio with three months of XM satellite radio, and power windows and mirrors — was there as the lowest-priced model and is $14,955 with manual transmission. The Accent hatchback is offered in upper trim levels of GS and SE, with a starting retail price of $16,555 with manual transmission. Automatic transmission adds $1,000 to $1,200 to the prices, depending on the trim level.
These prices compare with the $17,295 starting retail price for a 2011 Ford Focus sedan with manual transmission and 140-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. The base 2011 Focus five-door hatchback with manual transmission and same engine has a starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $18,995.
The smaller-sized Honda Fit five-door hatchback, which is powered by a 117-horsepower four cylinder, has a starting retail price of $15,870 with manual transmission, air conditioning, power windows and standard cruise control. The Fit is not sold as a sedan.
The new Accent is proof that Americans are finally getting a better selection of new, small cars that don't look and feel cheap.
The Accent SE hatchback test car looked attractive and even a bit sporty without resorting to the usual styling tricks of add-on body kit pieces that can be found on some Mazdas, for example.
Inside, the dark silver-colored Accent SE had a higher-priced feel than its $16,555 sticker price.
Seats were black fabric, but the fabric fit tightly on the seats with an intriguing fabric design that mimicked the window buttons with rounded indents. Even in this blistering hot summer, I never found the Accent seats — even in black — to be overly hot to the touch.
Textured gray ceiling material and hard black plastic on the Accent dashboard and door interiors looked upscale and was accented nicely by satin silver-colored trim pieces.
I dropped down to get onto the seats of the Accent, even when I had cranked up the driver's seat height adjustment as high as it would go. I still had decent views out front and was able to look through the windows of a Nissan Maxima sedan in front of me, for example, to see traffic ahead.
The ride was somewhat firm but not overly so. While my passengers and I felt some vibrations from road bumps, we did not experience constant vibrations, and the overall ride was pleasant for a car at this price.
Especially memorable: How quiet the Accent was when the engine was at idle, such as at stoplights.
While the car was moving, however, there was a good amount of road noise coming from the tires. But I never heard wind noise.
Back seat passengers remarked how easy it was to get inside, as rear doors opened to nearly a 90-degree angle and there was no hump in the middle of the rear floor. Sitting behind me, they could even extend their legs for comfort if they tucked toes under the front seats.
Seats cushions felt like spongy foam with some firmness. Rear side windows were surprisingly lengthy, and headroom back there of 37.8 inches is a bit under the 38.3 inches in the Focus.
The Accent's single engine — a new 1.6-liter, double overhead cam, gasoline direct-injection four cylinder with variable valve timing — provides 25 percent more power than last year's Accent and is surprising for being in a small, mainstream car.
Most small cars, particularly those that are not from Europe, do not include direct injection.
The Accent tester didn't zoom forward in a big rush, especially when I had it in "eco" mode for best fuel mileage. But it was spunky enough to feel competent overall and easy to drive. Torque peaks at 123 foot-pounds at 4,850 rpm.
The Accent's other big surprise: Its modern six-speed automatic transmission. Higher numbers of transmission gears help improve vehicle fuel mileage, and the 2011 Focus only has a four-speed auto, while the 2012 Honda Civics have a five-speed auto.
All safety equipment is standard on the Accent, including six air bags, antilock brakes, electronic stability control and brake assist.
But the Accent doesn't offer some features, such as navigation system, rearview camera and sunroof.