Hyundai and Kia overstated the fuel economy of a combined 1.2 million vehicles, costing the sibling rivals $100 million in penalties plus the forfeiture of $200 million in greenhouse-gas-emission credits. Dealers are still providing annual cash reimbursement to owners of affected vehicles, including the previous-generation Elantra, which was infamously promoted as able to achieve 40 mpg in highway driving. After the EPA bust, Hyundai restated the Elantra’s fuel economy, downgrading its highway rating to 38 mpg.
We ponder all this now because Hyundai is back with a new Elantra for 2017, and a new model, the Eco, which again boasts a 40-mpg EPA highway rating. In our first two fill-ups of the new car, we calculated 42 and then 43 mpg. Impressed, we pitted the Eco against a regular Elantra Limited on a mixture of highways, twisty back roads, and city streets. The Eco returned 42 mpg in this exercise, for a 6-mpg margin of victory. When we totaled all the Elantra Eco’s miles over the course of our testing, we actually beat its EPA combined rating of 35 by 3 mpg.
A welcome win-win
The Eco’s miserly prowess is derived mainly from its 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine. It makes just 128 horsepower—19 less than the naturally aspirated 2.0-liter in other Elantras—but remedies that deficiency with an extra 24 pound-feet of torque. The 1.4 hits its torque plateau at just 1400 rpm, when its 156 pound-feet delivers a swell of acceleration. It’s enough to make the Eco half a second quicker to 60 mph than other Elantras, a welcome win-win that may better justify the upcharge than any projected savings at the gas pump. The paltry $400 extra you’ll pay for an Eco over a similarly optioned Elantra SE will take years to recoup, at least as long as fuel prices remain low.
Another significant mechanical difference between the Eco and the rest of the Elantra lineup is its transmission, a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that stands in for the conventional six-speed automatic. In this application, however, the dual-clutch comes from the frugal branch of the gearbox tree rather than the sporty one that bears fruit like paddle shifters and launch control. While the transmission shifts quickly enough, it does sometimes falter at low speeds. This often leads to the car leaping rather than creeping forward when you’ve let off the brake from a stop.
An extra muffling effect
In every other way, the Eco is identical to the rest of the Elantra models, which is mostly a good thing. It feels just as solid and the cabin is even quieter than the others, the turbocharger providing an extra muffling effect. It handles with the same composure, while its steering has the same on-center dead spot. And the Eco has the same handsome styling, though its grille seems borrowed from another carmaker’s parts bin.
But even if the Eco gets mistaken for a Ford or a Subaru, it won’t be confused with the old Elantra. This one delivers on the promise of its badge.