Special Coverage

Greater L.A. Auto Show

LOS ANGELES – Hoping the runaway success of the new Sonata midsize sedan rubs off on its next fully redesigned model, Hyundai Motor America today debuts the ’11 Elantra at the auto show here.

Although classified a compact car, Hyundai will play up the fifth-generation Elantra’s “class-above” midsize-car interior volume, a result of a wheelbase that is 2 ins. (5 cm) longer than that of its predecessor.

The Elantra competes with the best-selling Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, which the Environmental Protection Agency considers compact cars. But the EPA classifies the Elantra a midsize car, same as the ’11 Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus and Nissan Sentra.

Only the Sentra has more passenger volume and total interior volume. Hyundai says the Elantra even delivers more interior volume than the Acura TSX, Nissan Maxima and Volkswagen CC.

The Elantra arrives in a U.S. market flush with competitive, attractive new entries, including the Kia Forte, both a competitor and sibling from the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group.

The outgoing Elantra has held its own, selling 110,519 units through October, up 21% from like-2009, according to Ward’s data. So far, it has outsold the Sentra, Forte and Chevy Cobalt, while trailing the Civic, Corolla and Focus in the U.S.

The marketing strategy for the Elantra will follow the successful template Hyundai has used in launching the Sonata and flagship Genesis sedan. That means emphasizing the Elantra’s great value, stylish demeanor, fuel efficiency, up-market interior, new technology (heated rear seats) and plentiful standard features.

The bigger Sonata’s “Fluidic Sculpture” styling language carries over directly to the Elantra – so much so the cars could be mistaken for one another.

The flowing lines slope downward toward the front for dramatic effect, while improving aerodynamics. The drag coefficient is a competitive 0.28.

Muscular wheel arches, a sleek roofline, hexagonal grille and swept-back headlamps punctuate the athletic exterior.

Hyundai’s North American Design Center near here in Irvine led styling of the new Elantra.

Under the hood, the Elantra’s standard 1.8L “Nu” DOHC inline-4 delivers 148 hp. Its specific output of 82.2 hp/L trounces all rivals. But the torque rating of 131 lb.-ft. (178 Nm) trails that of the Focus, Sentra and Mazda3, all using 2.0L I-4 engines.

The 1.8L is an all-new all-aluminum engine employing Dual Continuously Variable Valve Timing (D-CVVT) and a variable induction system. It weighs 74 lbs. (34 kg) less than the iron-block 2.0L I-4 it replaces.

Currently configured with conventional port injection, Hyundai officials say a direct-injection version is in the works, as well as a turbocharged variant.

With a 6-speed automatic or manual transmission, the Elantra is rated at 29/40 mpg (8.1-5.7 L/100 km) in city/highway driving – highly competitive for the segment.

Most Elantras sold in California, Oregon and several Northeast states are certified by the EPA as Partial Zero Emission Vehicles. In other states, the Elantra is available as an Ultra Low Emission Vehicle.

On the pricing front, Hyundai intends to undercut its rivals with a sticker that begins at $14,830 for GLS Standard trim. But better-equipped GLS models expected to be more popular will sticker at $16,080 with a manual gearbox and $17,080 with automatic.

Add in navigation and the car’s price balloons to $19,380. The top-of-the-line Elantra Premium stickers for $21,980. Pricing does not include $720 for destination and handling.

Production of the new Elantra is under way at Hyundai’s plant in Montgomery, AL, and U.S. dealers can expect shipments by year’s end.

tmurphy@wardsauto.com