MAPLE VALLEY, Wash. -- Well past the morning rush, traffic flows at a brisk clip along the I-90 expressway as we head eastward out of Seattle on a course that runs through foothills of the Cascade Range.
Objective of this jaunt is to assess the poise and capability of updated and enhanced 2010 editions of Accent, the eensy-weensy economy car by Hyundai of South Korea.
Accent looks like a streamlined egg that conforms to a family-friendly four-door notchback sedan or cargo-hauling three-door hatchback coupe.
Trim levels extend from the sedan's well-equipped GLS to the coupe's GL, sport-skewed special edition SE, and new Accent Blue, the super-economy version which pares the bottom-line price but raises fuel consumption figures.
Consider the pair -- Accent sedan and coupe -- essentially a cheap set of wheels which can cover 34 miles or more on a gallon of unleaded gas.
Out of the box with no frills attached, the new Accent Blue coupe rigged with a five-speed manual transmission lists for about $10,000.
The top model -- Accent GLS the sedan -- costs more, but its sticker figure still won't break $17,000.
Teeny-weeny compact cars in the price-conscious economy club can be a pain to drive due to physical and fiscal restraints which typically override concerns for car performance and passenger comfort.
In the 2010 models, Accent's wheelbase length stretches to 98.4 inches long while the width of the body extends to 66.7 inches and the distance from the prow up front to the back bumper tallies to 159.3 inches -- more than 13 feet.
These spatial hard points translate to a passenger compartment of surprising scale -- 92.2 cubic feet of room for passengers with headroom up to 39.6 inches, legroom to 42.8 inches up front and 34.3 inches in back, shoulder room to 53.5 inches and hip room of 50.2 inches.
Those riding up front do not feel so squeezed together in a tiny compartment like you might in some other economy compacts, due to a tall wrap of windows and larger seats.
Driver sits in a form-fitting bucket which adjusts to fit even a large frame, with seat height in tall stance to set up excellent visibility through the large windows. The controls -- handy in positions either left on the door, right on the console or ahead on the instrument panel -- set in logical positions and operate easily.
The surfaces for dash and door, clad in a soft-touch synthetic material, feel refined, even sophisticated, which is certainly unexpected in this conservative class.
Accent as a three-door coupe has a smooth prow with an aggressive bodycolor split grille in the center spot and foglamps added on SE. The tail sports a defroster in the back window plus a spoiler.
Steel 14-inch wheels with P175/70R14 tires work for Accent Blue and GL, but Accent SE leaps to lightweight 16-inch aluminum wheels clad in P205/45R16 performance tires.
This small car contains an impressive list of mechanical components, and, as our drive quickly proves, Accent can hold its own in freeway traffic or out on the open road.
The suspension design installs independent MacPherson struts in front with coil springs and a stabilizer bar. In back, there's a coupled torsion beam axle with coil springs and gas shocks.
Steering is quick to respond, thanks to a rack and pinion system with power added relative to engine speed. Less movement of the steering wheel is needed to turn.
Brakes utilize front ventilated discs and rear drums for Accent Blue and GL.
The optional equipment list includes an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brake force distribution (EBD) and brake assist system (BAS).
For Accent SE and GLS the brakes upgrade to four discs with standard ABS and EBD plus a traction control system (TCS) and electronic stability control (ESC) system, even a tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS) on tap.
Measures for passenger safety in the cabin extend from the sturdy safety-cage construction to front seatbelts with pretensioning apparatus, backseat restraints with anchors to mount a child's seat, smart multi-stage frontal air bags and side air bags for the front seats along with curtain-style air bags tucked in the ceiling for outboard seats on two rows.
Accent's front-wheel-drive (FWD) powertrain consists of a thrifty four-cylinder engine linked to either a manual or automatic transaxle.
A dual-cam in-line four-cylinder Hyundai engine displaces 2.0 liters and has dual overhead cams with CVVT (continuously variable valve timing) for high-tech metering of the fuel burn.
The plant produces 110 hp at 6000 rpm plus 106 lb-ft of torque at 4500 rpm.
Standard transmission for the 2.0-liter four is a five-speed manual.
An electronic automatic four-speed transaxle is available for each Accent trim edition save the SE where a sport shifter by B & M Racing is in place.
All 2010 Accent models carry lower friction engine components, aerodynamic improvements, low-rolling-resistance silica tires, a smart alternator management system and other enhancements aimed at trimming fuel consumption.
New economy edition Accent Blue goes further by revising the transmission gear ratios and lowering the ride height to score higher fuel economy numbers.
For Accent Blue the fuel figures reach as high as 36 mpg for highway driving using the manual five-speed transmission, or 28 mpg for city driving.
Other Accent models earn 34 mpg highway and 28 mpg city with a manual shifter.
Standard gear on Accent Blue ranges from variable intermittent windshield wipers to six-way adjustments for the driver's bucket and the fold-down rear seatback split 60/40, a tachometer and digital clock, two 12-volt power outlets, a defroster for the rear window and a spoiler on the tail.