Squeak, rattle and roll

ROAD TEST It's cheap, goes well, and has plenty of space, but if you're looking for class, avoid Hyundai's Accent 1.3i Coupe, says John Simister

As Japan's motor industry shows severe signs of floundering, that of its near-neighbour South Korea is bursting with vitality. But while Japan is proud of its technological expertise (a commodity which came only with its motor industry's maturity), the Koreans are unashamedly in it for the money. The talk is of research and development budgets, massive investments and vast production volumes, but little is said of the actual products that will result from the spending spree.

This could well be because Korean car companies view their products much as they might a microwave oven, as no more than a consumer durable. And while the same is true of many other countries' car-makers, Korea lacks their design and manufacturing history which, subconsciously or otherwise, can make a car into more than just another modern convenience.

Which is why the Hyundai Accent, the latest product from Korea's largest and oldest-established car-maker, is going to fill no one's heart with desire. This is a car designed specifically for what must be the biggest sales growth area of all: cars for people with no understanding of, or interest in, what they drive. Such people will probably be quite assertive about their lack of interest, arguing entirely reasonably that they should not have to waste intellectual or emotional effort on something as utilitarian as a car. If a car does the job without offending the senses or demanding attention, then it is a good car.

On these terms, the Accent excels. Its rounded, tubby shape will cause connoisseurs of car design to chuckle, but it is fashionably non-aggressive and devoid of clutter. All is thoroughly up to date, and home-grown, too, with no parts borrowed from Mitsubishi, as used to be the case with Hyundai's earlier products. But the best news concerns the prices, which start at £6,599 for the 1.3-litre three-door and reach £9,599 for the thoroughly equipped 1.5-litre GLSi five-door.

This is not a lot of money for a car the size of a Vauxhall Astra and rather larger than a supermini, especially when you see that both of the Accent range's 12-valve engines deliver comfortably over 80bhp. So where is the catch?

The cheapest Accent is jazzily badged `Coupe' to appeal to American buyers who do not believe in using accents of the acute variety. They may well believe in accents of the Hyundai variety, however, as they bought many thousands of the Accent's unprepossessing Pony/X2 predecessor.

Not surprisingly, the 1.3i Coupe's equipment list is short. It has a rear wiper, an interior lever to release the petrol filler flap, the bumpers are painted to blend with the bodywork instead of being left a plasticky grey, and the doors have the side-impact protection beams that no new model dare be without. But inside the cabin, with its acreage of grey plastic and abundance of ovoid shapes, there is no radio; the door trims are deprived of cloth; there is no covering over the wheel arches in the boot: and the steering wheel is hard and thin-rimmed. (Only the acutest Accent, the GLSi, gets an airbag.)

The flimsiness and lightweight materials account for the repertoire of minor rattles and squeaks. All the components are assembled accurately enough but you will not find many smooth, solid, well-oiled control movements in this car. Changing gear feels like breaking off a chunk of expanded polystyrene.

There is little substance to the Accent, either physically or in its personality. But it does go well, thanks to its light weight and that peppy engine, even if your ears are assaulted in the process by tyre roar and, when the engine is cold, a diesel-like clatter from under the bonnet.

If you are in the mood, you can whisk through corners efficiently and enjoy the Accent's precise steering (narrow tyres keep it quite light even though there is no power assistance), but any bumps in the road will make the body bounce and it all gets a bit ragged if you ask too much of the Hyundai's dynamic ability.

There can be no arguments about the size of the boot, which is considerable, or the cabin's roominess, which exceeds that of any similarly priced rival bar some relics from the former Eastern bloc. The seats are comfortable enough, too, but the backrest angle of the front seats has to be reset each time it is disturbed to gain access to the back seat.

Sufficient space, paltry price; that's the Hyundai Accent 1.3i Coupe. But if you want personality, solidity and sophistication, you should buy something like a Renault Clio RL Prima instead. The Koreans are learning fast, but the cars from Seoul still lack soul.

SPECIFICATIONS

Hyundai Accent 1.3i Coupe, £6,599 Engine: 1341cc, four cylinders, 83bhp at 57OOrpm. Five-speed gearbox,front-wheel drive. Top speed 97mph, 0-60 in 12.6 seconds. Fuel consumption 42-47mpg.

COMPARISONS

Citroen AX 1.1 Forte, £7,325 Effectively the old AX GT with a smaller engine, the 1.1-litre AX Forte is astonishingly good value with plentiful equipment (including electric windows), very lively performance, terrific handling and considerable comfort. It lacks the space of the Hyundai, but outshines it in every other way. An old design, but a great one.

Fiat Punto 55S three-door, £6,689 This boldest-looking of superminis has proved hugely successful, even in Britain where Fiat's reputation has taken a battering of late. Rivals are quieter and ride more smoothly, but few match the Punto's sense of fun or feeling of space.

Peugeot 106 XN three-door, £7,295 Mechanically similar to the AX, the 106 is roomier but more sparsely furnished, and suffers from heavier steering thanks to the car's greater weight. It is still delightful to drive, with an excellent ride and agile handling.

Renault Clio 1.2 RL Prima three-door, £6,666 This is a real bargain, with a typically French blend of comfort and wieldiness, and rather more equipment then the Hyundai offers. Curiously, this cheapest Clio has the best driving position of the range thanks to higher, better-shaped seats than found in pricier Clios.

Seat Ibiza 1.4 CLS three-door, £6,995 The biggest engine you will find in an up-to-date car under £7,000, but it gives no performance advantage over its rivals here. Cabin space comes close to the Hyundai's, and the whole car feels more solid. Heavy steering and a noisy engine are the chief snags.

Volkswagen Polo I.OL three-door, £6,950 Related to the Ibiza under the skin, the Polo looks chunkier and sounds quieter. Handling and ride comfort are of a high order, though the unassisted steering calls for considerable effort when parking, and short-legged gearing makes the most of the small engine's modest power to the detriment of motorway serenity. The extra £450 for the 1.3-litre engine is well worth spending.

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