Almost 40 years of piloting powerful sport bikes left me with an overfull driving philosophy carefully expressed by John Stein recently in one of the world’s leading motorcycle magazines: “I want to control the spatial relationship of my bike (car) and myself to the traffic around me, rather than staying locked into one place and letting any random driver control that space for me.”
With this mindset, one could more easily understand why certain drivers balk at the multitude of electronic driving aids being developed that will remove the vehicle pilot from the decision making behind the wheel. Engaged in the process, as well as reveling in the rewards of being in command of their vehicle, serious drivers who have experienced the shortcomings of the “beta phase” development of many of these driving aids would much rather rely on their own intuition and skills rather than a computer and myriad sensors that could be fouled by weather, fooled by elements or otherwise compromised when you need them most. Just like a motorcyclist and his environment and the spatial relationship of vehicles that can harm him or her in an instant.
So it was with anxious anticipation that I greeted the Hyundai Elantra GT Sport, a five-door compact clearly aiming for the benchmark VW GTI. A smidge larger than the GTI inside and outside, with the same expansive feel of a real-world rear seat, expanding cargo compartment, plus easy access everywhere, the Elantra GT Sport expands the boundaries of an automaker that is finely honing its product line to erase previous sins and omissions while demonstrating that product engineers are paying attention to what real drivers are seeking.
For many youthful drivers — no matter your age — the Honda Civic has represented the Asian contingent of sporty cars for decades. And with a new crop of hot-rodded offerings, the Civic in all of its iterations would appear to be the default top-dog if your mechanical predilections lean to the west and not to Germany.
However, this new Hyundai is good enough to make some buyers who pray to the holy grail of GTI think, hey, there is another car similar in design, style and performance to the vaunted VW, and different enough from the Honda, that there is room for an alternative sporty car that costs less and works pretty darned well.
Designed by Peter Schreyer and team — formerly with Audi — the GT Sport is a well-rounded driver with clean, contemporary lines. A multilink rear suspension provides grip and composure in turns, a 1.6-liter turbocharged engine gives 201 hp at the pedal, while either a six-speed manual or seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (like Porsche and Audi use) puts the torque-rich power to the front wheels. Steering feel, braking power, handling attitude, visibility and general overall feel state that this is the best-driving Hyundai the brand has produced thus far. And the GT Sport is fun.
Click from ECO mode to Sport mode, and both the engine and transmission change tempo from sedate, fuel economy efforts (26-32 mpg) to responsive, quick, eager charger. Paddle shifters, if you insist, help keep the revs boiling, but the dual-clutch automatic rips off ultrasmooth red-line shifts without the hands distraction. While peak-torque output is down a bit from the turbo GTI, 258-pound/feet vs. 195 pound/feet in the smaller-engined Hyundai, the GT Sport still provides a strong midrange punch and satisfying low-end grunt.
As with virtually every new Hyundai available, there is a host of standard pieces that undercuts the pricing on rival automaker’s offerings. Base price on the GT Sport ($24,350) includes 18-inch alloy wheels, LED lighting front and rear, blind-spot detection and rear cross traffic alert system, heated power mirrors with signal lamps, rear wiper and spoiler, Android and Apple-enabled stereo with Sirius XM, proximity key and ignition, heated leather seating, selectable TFT info-display as well as a 7-inch touchscreen, split-folding rear seats and the seven-speed automatic. Add the Sport-Tech package, $3,850, and you get a huge panoramic sunroof, upgraded touchscreen with navigation, Blue-Link connected services, ventilated front seats, Infinity Premium audio, wireless charging for smartphones, automatic emergency braking, Smart Cruise with stop/start, lane-keeping assist, driver attention alert, plus power sport seat.
Best of all, the driving aids were just that, aids, not annoying interventions interrupting the special relationship of driver and vehicle. Each day in our Electric Blue GT Sport kept hinting at how close the Hyundai is to its more established rivals; from the ergonomically friendly cabin to the crisp responses from the helm, this is a polished car.
The Hyundai GT Sport may not yet have the pedigree of the VW GTI or the Civic Si, but it is certainly trying.