January 22, 2019

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How much car do you really need? If the answer is not much and you’re looking to spend less than $16,000, let us introduce you to the Hyundai Accent. In base-grade SE trim, Hyundai’s smallest, least expensive car fits that bill and comes with a six-speed manual transmission, offering everything you need in a car and nearly nothing you don’t. (Unless you need a hatchback, though, because Hyundai has dropped that body style from the lineup.)

The Accent sedan comes standard with air conditioning, a 5.0-inch touchscreen audio system, remote keyless entry, and power windows, mirrors, and locks. This year, Hyundai tossed in cruise control and Bluetooth, too; both were optional before. Those extra items push the price north by a mere $250 over last year’s model, to $15,880. The biggest change, though, is that the 2018 Accent is all new.

These humble elements combine to deliver a surprisingly appealing driving experience. The ride is composed, and body control is tight; the steering even sends some road feedback onto the driver’s hands. Ignore the car’s mediocre 0.81 g of grip and so-so 173-foot stop from 70 mph. It’s riding on narrow 185/65R-15 tires, after all. What counts is the way the Accent’s primary controls work together harmoniously with the suspension to make cornering nearly as fun as in Toyota’s Yaris iA sedan, which was engineered—and is built—by Mazda.

Working the SE’s six-speed manual, it almost feels as though Hyundai committed its own theft from Mazda. This is the best manual transmission Hyundai has served up yet, with crisp gear engagement and a well-weighted clutch pedal with a defined takeup point. The brand’s previous efforts at this transmission type have suffered from vaguely defined shift gates and mushy, low-feedback clutch pedals.

If the stick’s goodness isn’t enough to make you hesitate before spending more for an Accent SEL or Limited—which get the SE’s optional six-speed automatic standard—maybe our acceleration data will sway you. This SE scooted to 60 mph in 7.5 seconds, far quicker than any other subcompact short of Ford’s 197-hp Fiesta ST hot hatch and fully 1.4 seconds ahead of an automatic-equipped 2018 Accent Limited. A previous-generation, stick-shift Accent hatchback we tested in 2016 was 1.1 seconds slower.

A shorter final-drive ratio than last year’s car likely improved the off-the-line performance. The change shortens the overall reductions in first through fifth gears, which also seems to do more to improve the Accent’s tractability than the engine tweaks Hyundai employed. We did notice that the engine feels smoother than before, and its tones could be considered dulcet for the class. Fuel economy is, predictably, a strong suit: We saw 30 mpg overall, plus 41 mpg on our 75-mph highway fuel-economy drive loop.

Indeed, stepping up the Accent’s trim-level ladder adds a few extra goodies into the same interior while raising the price to one-size-up, compact-car levels. The SEL gains rear disc brakes in place of drums, a second USB port, 15-inch aluminum wheels, and—this is its sole worthwhile upgrade—a larger 7.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. The Limited, priced solidly in Elantra territory, adds 17-inch aluminum wheels that firm up the Accent’s ride, automatic climate control, heated front seats, a color gauge-cluster display (the SE and SEL use an easy-to-read white-on-black screen), and forward-collision warning with automated emergency braking.

Given the SE’s essentials and essential goodness, as well as the budget-friendly appeal inherent to subcompacts in general, we see little reason to explore the more expensive Accents. Among small cars with genuine appeal, the base model ranks right up there with the slightly pricier Toyota Yaris iA while offering significantly more interior room and cargo space. There are less expensive—and less appealing—alternatives, but this Accent doesn’t cost much more and has everything you need, plus a few things you might not expect.

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