It was 1985 and the Asian automakers found the American market ripe for low-cost, entry-level compact and subcompact cars that the domestic automakers declined to build with enthusiasm. Joining the fray in West Coast markets and Florida, Hyundai introduced its first American market car, the subcompact Excel, a front-drive entry-level car that started at $4,995. Buyers quickly embraced this inexpensive transportation — Hyundai sold over 186,000 in the first year. Yet this unexpected success hurried assembly and quality woes surfaced. After a few tougher sales years, Hyundai regrouped, instituted tighter quality parameters, plus its now infamous 10-year warranty, while rolling out a new model in this market called the Accent to replace that Excel.
Since then, Hyundai has been on a roll. In just over 30 years, the Korean automaker has realized significant marketshare in the United States, threatening other Asian automakers’ small cars more than the close-to-extinct American small cars.
Today the fifth-generation Accent arrives as buyers have lost interest in small cars; sales through the first five months of 2018 were 68 percent crossovers and trucks, leaving crumbs for the automakers heavily dependent on car sales for profits. Not expecting such a market shift, the new Accent is actually selling at half the rate of its predecessor, which is not reflective of the car sampled here.
Competing against rivals named Ford Fiesta, Honda Fit, Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris IA, and Chevy Sonic, the Accent — not to be confused with Subaru’s new three-row Ascent crossover — displays admirable value, while trying to retain its price-conscious reputation. Pricing starts at $14,995, in the lower half of this group, while fuel economy and power are near the top of the segment.
There are three trim levels, SE, SEL and Limited ($18,895), while all models are powered by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 130 hp. A six-speed automatic is standard. The Kia Rio is the Accent’s sibling model.
Produced around the world, and sold under several names, the Accent has a roomy cabin that affords good visibility. The trunk is huge, easily swallowing our golf gear with ample room to spare, as the long for this class 102-inch wheelbase creates real world rear passenger and cargo space. While the ride can sometimes be firmer than some competitors, the Hyundai displays good poise and nimble road manners. The Accent is also quieter at higher speeds than almost all rivals.
Arriving on an 88-degree June day, the Accent quickly revealed how helpful its heated cloth seats are as the mercury nosedived for three successive days where winter coats seemed more appropriate than short-sleeves. Nice leather steering wheel, with efficient redundant controls, plus great little seat heaters, but hard plastic surfaces where your left leg and forearm interact with the door.
Covering over 900 miles together, about 40 percent interstate miles, the Accent returned a commendable 37.3 mpg overall against a one-day best of 40 mpg for 300 miles. Against EPA ratings of 28/38/32, the Hyundai proved thrifty without straining to hyper-mile its way into respectable economy. With only 2,625 pounds to shuffle around, the engine can meet your throttle needs.
Limited trim includes auto climate, proximity key with push-button start, 7-inch info/entertainment screen with Hyundai Blue-Link, fog lights, front and rear LED lighting, sunroof and side mirrors with turn signals. Forward collision assist braking is included, but the plethora of other current electronic driving aids is absent. The Accent is also Apple/Android compatible, plus Limited trim provides voice control options. The hatchback model has been discontinued, in effect replaced with the Elantra GT or the new Kona.
With small car interest waning in this market, just as quality, space and amenities are improving, this will eventually mean that American drivers will get small cars designed elsewhere first and sold here as secondary products. Profits for these small cars are tight, and dealers have little room for negotiating, which will mean discounts will be a factor of demand and inventory.
Still, it’s hard to argue with a nicely-sized small car that packs a huge trunk, roomy front seating, and a 40-mpg potential during the daily commute — all for less than $19,000 as shown, or $15,000 for base. Hard to make a compact hybrid or EV look practical when you compare them against the newest Accent.
Accent: entry-level and affordable but way better than any Excel that preceded it.