Hyundai Elantra Sport: The Biermann factor

If you didn’t know who Albert Biermann is, then you would after reading this story. Back in December 2014, Hyundai scored a coup of sorts in the automotive world by poaching Biermann from BMW – an engineer with over 30 years’ experience and the person responsible for the vehicle dynamics of M cars. It does appear that Biermann’s influence is beginning to tell at Hyundai.

If test drives can be conducted blind, the Hyundai Elantra Sport would easily pass off as a bona fide sports sedan hailing from the continent of Europe. The compliment isn’t meted out because the expectations for Korean carmakers are low; we have long since passed that and reviewers who go gaga because it’s a Hyundai are simply missing the point. In the Elantra Sport, Hyundai is offering performance, driving dynamics and a depth of character not found in the affordable mainstream class, regardless of nationality or origin.

Bang-for-buck, like you’ve never seen before

For RM131,488, you are getting a four-door saloon around the size of a Civic, but with 204hp and 265Nm from a turbocharged 1.6-litre four-cylinder mated to a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic. Now, take a moment and digest that. It wasn’t too long ago that a Mk5 Volkswagen Golf GTI offered 200hp/280Nm from a turbocharged 2.0-litre engine, and that was celebrated then as stuff of legends. Don’t you just love progression?

The math doesn’t lie in the price-to-power stakes. Each metric horsepower of the Elantra Sport works out to be RM645. In a top-spec 173hp/220Nm Honda Civic 1.5TC-P (RM131,880), you’d be paying RM762 per hp, opt for a 150/250Nm Jetta 1.4 Highline (RM128,990) and each horsepower sets you back RM864, even for dark horse Peugeot 408 with 165hp/245Nm (RM132,944) from a 1.6 turbo, it’s RM805. The on-paper superiority of the Elantra Sport means it occupies a space that never existed before – bang-for-buck performance saloon.

Save for a small red ‘Turbo’ emblem on the grille, twin exhaust outlets and a shapelier trunk lid, the Elantra Sport looks inconspicuous, even the alloys are modestly sized at 17-inch. But if you take the trouble to peek under its rear ‘diffuser’, you’d be able spot a fully-independent multilink set up that’s distinct from its non-Turbo 2.0-litre variant’s torsion beam, it’s also sprung by beefier dampers all round and there are bigger brakes to reign the car in.

BMW’s loss is Hyundai’s gain

I can imagine Biermann overseeing the sign off and specifying late tweaks to the ride and handling of the Elantra Sport just to eke out that all-important five percent that turns merely good into pretty awesome. The ability of the suspension to soak up (and not bounce off or deflect) road imperfections always has a direct impact on how a car handles, it’s a balance not many manufacturers are able to pull off on a consistent basis. Oftentimes, firmness is introduced to increase stability and to attain that ‘sporty’ feel, but with compliance and everyday usability suffering as a result. Well, Hyundai has nailed it with this one.

Not only does the Elantra Sport ride compliantly on erratically tarred roads of Malaysia, it’s also composed and buttoned down at speeds we wouldn’t disclose publicly. It is this finely judged suspension that forms the basis of the Elantra Sport, not so much as in how fast it goes in a straight line, which feels a lot faster than Hyundai’s modest claim of 0-100km/h in 7.7 seconds, but also in the accomplished manner which it steers and goes around corners. You get the feeling that the engineers really went the extra mile to home in on a steering ratio that complements the characteristics of the car. There’s none of that artificial quickening of the rack to give a false impression of front-end responsiveness, what you get is a turn-in so linear and accurate that you’ll soon feel you can place the front tyre over a fifty-cent coin. Oh, there’s no torque steer in case you’re wondering.

It may be the case that the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission doesn’t quite upshift as crisply nor downshift as swiftly as Volkswagen’s DSG, but the margins are tiny and very few DCTs are as good as VW’s anyway. More important is that the Hyundai is no less effective in sending power to the front wheels, and when you’re not carving up Ulu Yam and flicking the shift paddles on that lovely flat-bottomed steering wheel, the DCT functions just as smoothly as any torque converter automatic in traffic.

The Jetta GTI Volkswagen never offered

Of course, there are areas which the Elantra Sport can certainly do better – some plastics in the cabin is thin and sharp edged, while the shade of red leather chosen for the seats and door cards is probably better off on an Ang Pow packet. And despite a healthy amount of tech features for the money; Android Auto, Apple CarPlay, blind spot warning and rear cross traffic alert being standard, the interior presentation is functional but drab. Can’t have it all, I guess.

Yet the few foibles barely detract from what the Hyundai Elantra Sport promises; a lot of smiles and bewilderment behind the wheel because practical family sedans for the middle class aren’t supposed to enrich the soul. In many ways, the Hyundai is what a Jetta GTI (called the GLI in North America) would’ve been if Volkswagen decided to offer it in these parts of the world, and while few would dare mention Elantra Sport and Honda Civic Type R in the same breath, Hyundai has just destroyed the notion that performance and driving dynamics must always come with a hefty price tag. For that, you owe it to yourself to sample Biermann’s good work.

Hyundai Elantra Sport
: RM131,488
Engine: 1.6-litre turbo four-cyl, FWD
Output: 204hp @ 6000rpm, 265Nm @ 1500rpm
Transmission: 7-sp dual-clutch automatic
Performance: 0-100km/h in 7.7s, top speed 234km/h
Fuel efficiency: 12km/l (estimation)
Wheels/tyres: 225/45 R17 (F & R)
Safety: 6 airbags, Electronic Stability Control
Warranty: 5-year/300,000km