As the years have gone by, the Korean automaker Hyundai has evolved from something that was honestly laughable to a serious competitor for the major brands. Now with their largest expansion of vehicles yet working hard on streets across the nation, it would be a tragedy if they lost sight of where they came from. Fortunately, Hyundai has not forgotten about their bread-and-butter: the small car. For years, the Accent name has carried a Hyundai badge and for 2012, their smallest car is still worth mentioning.

Hyundai North America recently put on an event to showcase the upcoming revision of their ‘sub compact’, the 2012 Accent. The classic town of Charleston, South Carolina was the perfect proving ground to test out the next adaptation of Hyundai’s Fluidic Sculpture design and to determine if the Korean superpower still knows how to build a proper small car. We managed to get our hands on a loaded SE Five Door featuring the six speed manual for a blast into the busy city and onward to the sprawling coast that makes up South Carolina.

For the 2012 model year, Hyundai has put a lot of development into the Accent in order to out-do some serious competition. Continuing the Fluidic Sculpture design that created the Sonata and Optima, the Accent is modeled to constantly give off the impression of movement. Both the five door hatchback and four door sedan models feature a flowing and smooth but sharp front. The headlamps wrap around and mesh wonderfully with the hexagonal grille. This isn’t necessarily a muscular or aggressive looking car, but it is modern. The Accent no longer looks ‘cheap’ but slightly upscale, especially considering its class. The rear is where the five and four door models differentiate. The sedan’s flowing rear and bulging fenders melt into the wraparound taillights and subtle rear trunk lip while the hatchback is much more angular. The tall taillights cover the majority of the almost flat hatch and the sharp line right below the rear glass carries all the way across the car. Between the two, the four door takes the aesthetic cake as it looks much more ‘finished’ than the five door. Any car in the small five door segment will always have a difficult time looking just right, but the Accent’s rendition comes very close.

Along with the revised exterior, the 2012 Accent’s interior has been reworked as well. No longer dreary and cheap, the inside of Hyundai’s least expensive car is now a place where a driver will want to be in. Especially in the loaded SE model which features standard features such as hands-free Bluetooth phone, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and a handsome and clear media center. The actual feel of the materials used is up to par with vehicles costing thousands more than the Accent and we are certain that it will stand up to the test of time. Being that the largest percentage of 2012 Accent owners will be of the younger persuasion, having the ability to withstand numerous amounts of abuse is a must for any small car interior.

With 138 direct injected horsepower from Hyundai’s new Gamma 1.6 liter DOHC inline four with variable valve timing, the 2012 Accent is surprisingly spry. This is largely in part due to a big reduction in weight in every aspect of the car. With curb weights of 2,396lbs for the four door and 2,430lbs for the five door, the new Accent’s feature a power-to-weight ratio of 17.4 and 17.6 lbs per horsepower respectively. That beats every car in its class, including the next-best Honda fit which carries a ratio of 21.3 lbs per horsepower. Matched to Hyundai’s new six speed manual transmission that was found in the five door we sampled, and the 2012 Accent will have no trouble performing everyday duties. The engineering that went into this engine is very welcoming, especially to people who plan on owning a car for a long period of time. Items such as a timing chain that requires no scheduled maintenance means that Hyundai is looking towards the future instead of getting wrapped up in the present.

The actual act of driving any small car can either be two things: fun or simply unbearable. Fortunately, the Accent does what small cars should do and that’s put a smile on the driver’s face. Working the six speed manual of our sample model was so easy that even the heaviest of traffic didn’t get in the way. The clutch is as light as a feather and the shifter is placed perfectly for crisp and precise shifts. And with only 138 horsepower, the ratios of the transmission are set up with the engine’s power and torque in a match made in heaven. Even dropping below 30 mph in fourth gear, the Accent managed to produce enough torque that it surprised us immensely as it exhibited practically no lugging and no judders. And pushing the Accent to redline and beyond is just as pleasant as putting around town. The new Gamma is eager to rev and the clutch responds well to adolescent behavior. Steering feel is right where a small car’s should be: not too heavy for the city but not too over-boosted. It is crisp and responds well to quick inputs. Dynamic wise, the Accent can easily entertain a driver all day at an autocross event and then make it home in air-conditioned comfort.

No story is complete without hiccups and the Accent carried a few of them. Biggest on our list is the lack of a telescoping feature for the steering wheel. This means that the most optimal driving position can simply not be obtained for a driver with longer arms. It was a disappointment to see this easy-to-install feature absent in the Accent’s otherwise ‘upscale’ interior. The door panels also lack a proper arm rest as we experienced dropped elbows numerous times on our trip. And despite its inexpensive installation and modern development, a torsion beam rear suspension set up will never be as smooth or as quiet as a fully independent suspension. The torsion beam design may allow the Accent to be built quickly and carry a low entry price, but it still results in limitations that are difficult to overcome. The five door model may be more practical than the four door, but its rear design is nowhere near as close to being as attractive as the sedan’s. The short overhangs make the hatchback look as if it should be longer, but it was cut off too early.

For the 2012 model year, Hyundai has brought its bread-and-butter car into a new generation and have made it properly competitive. Not only is the Accent lighter than the Honda Fit and Ford Fiesta, but it produces more power. It is safer, with a 22 percent increase in structural rigidity compared to the pervious Accent and standard electronic stability control. The new model also manages to be less expensive than a lot of its competition, including the big-dog Ford Fiesta. Base MSRP for a ‘stripper’ Accent is $12,445 with the most expensive edition (the SE five door with a six speed automatic) carrying an MSRP of $16,795. So not only is the Accent inexpensive to buy, but it also inexpensive to operate with the industry’s best standard full powertrain warranty (10 years or 100,000 miles) and a class special 40 mpg highway rating all around. Unlike the Chevrolet Cruze and Ford Fiesta, the 2012 Accent doesn’t need a special model to achieve its highway rating as every Accent rendition is able to enter into the 40 mpg club. All of these features make up the perfect ingredients to make a stand-out small car. Hyundai has not given up on their roots and has built something that anyone looking for a small, effective but fun car that won’t break the bank should definitely consider: the 2012 Accent.

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