An instant breakdown and plasticky interior didn't exactly endear Sean O'Grady to the Hyundai Elantra

I have always found the people who work in public relations for the car companies helpful, charming and efficient. Maybe it's just that those who have to flog motors for a living are better at hiding their innate hostility to us reptiles than their counterparts in corporate and political PR, but it's a pleasant contrast. Nowhere is this more true than at Hyundai Car (UK) Ltd, where the press team have always been keen to look after my every human need. I have enjoyed their hospitality and their cars, and am grateful for both. In return, I have approached Hyundai cars with an open mind, wary in any case of using them in their traditional role of easy knocking copy for lazy motoring journalists.

So it pains me more than words can say to report that my test of the Hyundai Elantra 2.0 CRDT CDX was a disaster. It broke down within 10 minutes of me taking charge of it, as I was giving the Hyundai delivery driver a lift to the nearest Tube station. The Elantra conked out in front of a bus stop, in the rush hour in one of the most security-sensitive parts of the country.

Within minutes I found myself surrounded by a police car, a fire engine and a contingent of Canary Wharf security men. I thought for a moment that my press car was going to be the victim of a controlled explosion. They all thought it was hilarious that I was testing this car and it had gone one mile before giving up the ghost. One of them commented that the car was a "bit of pony". This may have been a reference to the Elantra's ancestor, the first indigenous-designed Hyundai model to come out of Korea in 1974, the Hyundai Pony. Rather more likely, it was an example of good old Cockney rhyming slang ("pony and trap" - geddit?).

In any case, the Elantra had disgraced itself and its maker by dumping diesel all over the road. The deliv- ery driver almost slipped over as he made his excuses and left the scene. It was all acutely embarrassing, like taking an incontinent pet for a walk. Still, after some tinkering by an RAC patrol man, the Elantra got me to the 40th birthday party I was due to attend that night, but I did miss my chicken satay starter. I ask for your sympathy.

Things could only get better. Well, no. Even with the low, low list price uppermost in my mind (£10,995 on the road - or off it, in my case), I felt let down. The Elantra's steering had a terrible wobble in it and was unbelievably vague. The clattery diesel engine couldn't rev beyond about 4,000rpm, at which point it delivers all of 111bhp. The wood that adorned the interior was too obviously plastic. I say this because the little strip under the oddments tray on the dashboard can be tweaked a little, and you can't do that with real walnut. The dials, on the other hand, glow blue at night, and I thought them rather ethereal. The exterior is vaguely reminiscent of an old Toyota Corolla, but the blunt nose, ridiculous rear spoiler, fog lamps and alloy wheels lend the Elantra a little character. The gear change was nice.

The main selling point for the Elantra, like most Hyundais, is that enticing list price. Yet this can be deceptive. You see, the list price seems to be much firmer than those of the more mainstream makes. So while the Hyundai gives you a lot for your £11,000 or so - leather seats, central locking, electric windows, alloy wheels, sun roof, air conditioning, those red lights in the bottom of the doors when you get out, two front and side air bags - you can get most if not all of those on a slightly used Vauxhall Vectra, say, at one of these car supermarkets. Vauxhalls and Fords are discounted heavily; Hyundais are not. Thus does quite a bit of the Hyundai's value for money argument disappear, even if the firm offers an excellent five-year transferable warranty.

I think Hyundai should give up on trying to beat the bigger makes at the mainstream game. They should concentrate on creating more niche cars like their sexy Coupe, a car that you wouldn't mind breaking down in, because you could just stand around admiring its perfect lines while you wait for the RAC. I couldn't do that in the Elantra. I didn't know where to look.

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