Allow me to consider the humble refrigerator. When I was a little kid, it made absolutely zero sense why my parents would ever fret, or in turn get excited, when talking about household appliances. The arrival of a new washer-and-dryer or refrigerator into the household would cause them to erupt in paroxysm of delight that made absolutely zero sense to my kid self. I proclaimed, loudly and often, in that way that only omniscient little kids can, that when I grew up and made some scratch of my own I’d only spend money on fun stuff, like wet bars and hot tubs and motorcycles and deep-shag for the back of the retro pickup truck (hey, it was the seventies and I was eight; cut me some slack). But what was the first thing I came to desire with an almost Playboy Magazine level of fervor when I finally got a place of my own? Yep, a set of Maytag scratch-and-dent clothes cleaners of my very own, because the Laundromat sucks and when you grow the hell up you learn one very crystalline fact that’s not apparent to youth: Appliances are important.
I had a unique and unexpected opportunity to consider this yesterday on a 800-mile drive from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to Kansas City. Courtesy of the holidays and the weather and a small airport and a vexing problem with an airplane, American airlines afforded Dreamy Wife and I the opportunity to grovel and plead for the last rental car in all of Santa Fe for a one-way drive home after our flight was cancelled (after taking off, having problems, then landing again); we were informed that the next opportunity out was three days hence. The nice husband-and-wife pair who runs the Avis concession took pity on us and offered up the last car in the airport, which had been denied others. Thus we found ourselves in a 2015 Hyundai Elantra.
This was my third lifetime experience with a Hyundai automotive product, the first being a rental Santa Fe I had in California earlier in the year and the second being a ride in a colleague’s top-shelf Equus. I’ve watched Hyundai with much interest, as I think their general commitment to interesting design sets them rather apart from some of their blander Japanese counterparts (I’m talking to you, Nissan). But I was new to the mass-market Elantra and this unplanned road trip provided the perfect chance to experience a somewhat abnormal use-case for the vehicle that seems to be everywhere on the road these days.
Our Elantra was silver, an SE model, and boasted a 145-hp 1.8L DOHC 16-valve inline 4-cyclinder engine, cruise control, a rear defroster, and even map lights with a sunglass holder in the dome lamp overhead console. “Dee-luxe” some might call it. Amazingly for a rental, given the 11,430 miles on the odometer, it did not smell of cigarette smoke. It was not the most exciting vehicle I’ve ever driven.
The engine certainly provided propulsion, though it was best to plan well in advance for anything other than leisurely acceleration. This not being entirely possible or practical when spending hundreds of miles on semi-truck populated two-lane US highway, we grew accustomed to the sudden shrieking of the motor, sounding like a garage-sale blender with a bad bearing grinding a handful of marbles, when the go-pedal met the floor. (If the car was a New Year’s resolution weekend warrior in his first week at the health club, the heart-rate monitor on the elliptical certainly would have been blinking furiously in the cardiac arrest danger zone.) But what you learn is that gravity is your friend and passes were made with abandon, if not rapidity or assuredly. If ever a small engine needed a modern turbocharger grafted on, this one is it.
The car also has seat cushions, though ones closer in familial resemblance to tired dog beds than anything similar to actual padding. If you know the products made by Recaro of Germany, let me say: The Elantra’s are the opposite of those. These seats have all the shapeliness and support of one of those sad college couches you see abandoned on the curb in university towns. After awhile, though, a driver’s ass goes numb so no matter. These seats would likely be fine for a quick trip to the store or a visit to your Aunt’s place on the other side of town (provided your town isn’t Houston or Los Angeles), but for an 800-mile trip in a day, they’re not ideal.
So the Elantra has a wheezing motor and unsupportive seats. Who cares. The purpose of this car is to provide reliable conveyance and at that it fits the bill. It starts, goes (though glacially; see above), stops, heats, cools, gets wonderful gas mileage, and has numerous power and USB ports to power the inevitable ubiquity of mobile devices modern travel demands. It is, in the best sense, an appliance. And while it might not be a Subzero (a BMW 7-Series) or even a Bosch (a trusty Honda Accord), the Kenmore (like this Elantra) gets the job done with minimum fuss or muss.
So, would I buy a Elantra if I was looking for a $20k-ish car? No. I would buy a Mazda3, because it does everything the Hyundai will do but with spirit and verve and because Mazdas rock and I unconditionally love pretty much every vehicle in their line. But the Hyundai got us home safe and sound from our trip and when I dropped it off at the Avis office ten blocks from my house this morning, I patted it on the hood, thanked it for transporting us safely, and wished it nothing but good fortune on it’s many journeys ahead. And that’s not too bad.