LAS VEGAS – The subcompact class exploded in the U.S. five years ago, as the Japanese Big Three joined the Koreans and General Motors in retailing B-cars, wisely based on predicted rising fuel prices.

But, except for Honda’s Fit, none was spectacular, with most looking cheap or handling poorly.

Now, with Ford’s Fiesta leading the charge, subcompacts are cheap no more, meeting Americans’ desire for lots of content and quality materials no matter how small the car.

Hyundai, too, has moved in this direction with the Accent, which is new for ’12 and on sale now in the U.S.

As Hyundai has done with so many of its newest models, including the slightly larger Elantra, the Accent boasts surprisingly high levels of technology and comfort at competitive prices.

The new Accent comes in three grades: the sedan GLS and 5-door GS or SE. Hyundai has dropped the 3-door Accent after complaints from buyers who found getting in and out of the backseat a chore.

Ward’s drove both a 5-door SE and 4-door GLS here recently, and both cars’ interiors are highly impressive for the price and their driving dynamics more than acceptable.

While the Accent’s interior isn’t nearly as stylish as the Elantra’s, it is well done for a car priced between $12,445 and $16,795.

The $15,925 SE tester’s interior hard-plastic trim pieces are attractively textured and well-fitted, with only a few minor bits of flashing on the lower right center stack and passenger-side B-pillar trim.

The upper pillar trim in all Accents is made of plastic mixed with fibrous material and volcanic rock to give it a cloth-like, non-plastic appearance. It works.

High marks also go to the Accent’s low-nap fabrics.

Especially nice is a zebra-stripe pattern, used on seats and door panels, similar to that in the Elantra. However, the Accent fabric is available only in models with beige and gray interiors.

Less appealing are the small-ish, flimsy interior door handles. In our SE tester, the chrome-look coating already bears scratches. Still, in a car this inexpensive, saving money here is tolerable.

Drivers and passengers will notice a few more areas getting the down-scale treatment.

The power windows in both our SE and GLS testers close loudly, and noise, vibration and harshness levels vary, as often is the case with inexpensive cars. For instance, with the 6-speed manual-equipped SE 5-door, significant vibration is felt in the clutch pedal.

The engine also transmits too much racket into the cabin during labored acceleration.

’12 Hyundai Accent SE
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel-drive 5-passenger, 5-door hatchback
Engine 1.6L direct-injection DOHC 4-cyl., aluminum block/head
Power (SAE net) 138 hp @ 6,300 rpm
Torque 123 lb.-ft. (167 Nm) @ 4,850 rpm
Compression ratio 11.0:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 101.2 ins. (257 cm)
Overall length 162.0 ins. (411 cm)
Overall width 66.9 ins. (170 cm)
Overall height 57.1 ins. (145 cm)
Curb weight 2,430-2,588 lbs. (1,102-1,174 kg)
Base price $15,925
Fuel economy 30/40 mpg (7.8-5.9 L/100 km) city/highway
Competition Ford Fiesta, Nissan Versa, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Chevy Sonic, Kia Rio, Mazda2
Pros Cons
1.6L GDI Loud under duress
Low-gloss plastics Flimsy interior handles
6MT has crisp feel 6AT upshifts fast

But $15,000 doesn’t buy Genesis-like NVH levels. On the upside, the new Accent sounds better than the wheezy 110-hp, 1.6L 4-cyl. experienced in the previous-generation car in 2005.

High marks are earned for the lack of road noise in the cabin, thanks to dual door seals and foam in the pillars.

The Accent gets a new 1.6L 4-cyl. that uses gasoline direct injection for improved fuel efficiency and performance. We returned 47.5 mpg (5.0 L/100 km) in the SE.

The new engine churns out 138 hp and 123 lb.-ft. (167 Nm) of torque, and the aluminum block is 40 lbs. (18 kg) lighter than the cast-iron one it replaces.

Features include torque-boosting dual continuously variable valve timing, a friction-cutting offset crankshaft and electronic throttle control.

The optimal gearbox is the 6-speed manual. The 6-speed automatic in the GLS upshifts quickly, resulting in better fuel economy but a lack of torque. Using the 6AT’s manumatic feature can overcome this, though.

The electric power steering in the SE, sport-tuned for that grade, is perfectly calibrated, with a heavier feel in normal conditions and a light touch in parking lots and in higher-speed twists and turns through the desert.

The Accent SE handles surprisingly well on these roads but not as confident as the first-generation Fit, which remains the standard-bearer for subcompacts.

Like so many auto makers trying to whittle down vehicle weight to boost fuel economy, Hyundai boasts increased use of high-strength steel compared with the previous Accent, which also boosts body stiffness 22%.

Hyundai touts the Accent’s size and capacity advantages relative to the competition. In general, it’s roomy, with a rear middle seat that is spacious for an adult female of above-average height.

Hyundai forecasts a 50/50 split between the two ’12 Accent body styles, with a 20% take rate for the manual transmission. A sales target isn’t being divulged; Ward’s data shows Hyundai sold 51,975 Accents in 2010.

The base $12,445 GLS sedan is spartan, lacking air conditioning and power windows but offering the 1.6L GDI and all safety technologies, including electronic stability control, which is mandatory in 2012.

A comfort package with AC and power windows costs $1,750, bringing the GLS’ price to $14,195.

In comparison, a Ford Fiesta, considered the subcompact-to-beat at the moment due to its premium features, is $14,795 for a similarly equipped grade.

Nissan’s Versa, the subcompact sales leader, is $14,100 for a 1.8 S grade sedan.

While it offers power windows standard even on models lacking AC, the Versa’s 1.8L I-4 is less powerful than engines in the Accent and Fiesta. A next-generation Versa, with Nissan’s new two-injectors-per-cylinder 1.6L I-4, is due this summer for ’12.

Yes, some of Hyundai’s on-paper advantages with the new Accent likely will be lost as rivals, including the Chevy Sonic and the Accent’s mechanical twin, the Kia Rio, debut soon.

Still, the new Accent should be near the top of any subcompact buyers’ shopping list because, as with the Fiesta, it offers a lot of content for relatively little money.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com