It takes a lot for an Internet banner ad to grab your eyes, even for a nanosecond. But after spotting one of Hyundai's new "Snap Out of It" banners on Boston.com earlier this week, I actually stopped and clicked the replay button.
"Compact car fuel efficiency has barely improved since the eighties," shouts an all-caps headline for the 2011 Elantra. The ad fades to a supposed 1980s-era compact on the left (thanks to an astute reader, it's more like a 1970s Corolla), a "Mad Men"-like mugshot from the 1960s on the right, and a 14-mile-per-gallon highway rating and a happy-faced, dancing gas pump in the middle. It ends with a cutout of the new Elantra by a large, boldface "40 mpg."
Now, I may have been present for only half of the eighties, but the number of Honda CRXs and Volkswagen Rabbits back then could have filled every Wal-Mart parking lot in the country today. While it's true that most compact cars fell below the 40-mile-per-gallon barrier in the 1980s — the best-selling Chrysler K cars, Chevrolet Cavalier, Toyota Corolla, even the first Hyundai Excel — diesel Rabbits did 43 mpg while manual CRXs pegged 47 (both at current adjusted EPA figures). And whatever older car Hyundai pictured certainly wasn't thirsty enough to score a 14.
When I called Hyundai spokesman Dan Bedore on Wednesday, he said the company was puzzled all the way up to US CEO John Krafcik. The ads were pulled later that day and Bedore said Innocean, the California ad agency responsible for the "Sonata Turbo Face" series, was notified to change the banners.
The Elantra campaign is part of a website called "Compact Conspiracy," the supposed work of an anonymous blogger that's actually a preview to the company's television spots for this Sunday's Super Bowl. Hyundai isn't mentioned anywhere, but huge photos of Geo Metros tile the page background. [update: as of Saturday, Hyundai is now seen in the footer]
"It's under this whole idea that there are conspiracies out there that compact cars are boxy, uninteresting cars," said Bedore.
But ugly as it was, the Metro was the most fuel-efficient car sold in America upon its 1989 debut. Not even the 2011 Prius bests the Metro's 52-mpg highway rating. And while Hyundai wants us to see the Elantra as a breakout design from the masses of ugly, cheap cars — like the 2003 Elantra I was forced into for driver's ed — they need to snap out of it, too.
Compact cars, even American compact cars, aren't awful anymore.
Last year, the segment exploded with models high in style and content like the Ford Fiesta, Chevy Cruze, Scion tC, Honda CR-Z, and Nissan Juke. Even a base 2011 Volkswagen Jetta is only $1,200 more than an Elantra, and the Mini — arguably the brand that made compacts relevant again in the US — starts at $20,000. The 2012 Fiat 500 and Ford Focus are due in a few months. Nearly everything you can order on a midsize sedan — premium audio, push-button start, leather, power seats, six-speed transmissions — are now available in this class.
But what's really upsetting Hyundai is that Ford and Chevrolet are advertising equal or better EPA highway numbers on their Fiesta and Cruze, when in reality those ratings apply only to special models. Where a standard Fiesta gets 38 mpg, a Fiesta with the $695 SFE package nets 40 mpg but is only available on SE trims with the automatic transmission. The 42-mpg Cruze Eco [which achieves that only with a manual, Hyundai is quick to point out -Ed.] is a separate trim and costs $1,900 more than a base Cruze, which is rated at 36.
"They're running around advertising it gets the highest fuel economy in its class," Bedore said on the Cruze Eco. "Well, yeah, but it's probably going to be one percent of your sales."
Chevrolet said it expects the Eco model, a mid-level model with aerodynamic tweaks and a 212-pound weight loss, to account for 20 percent of all Cruze sales. Ford said it expects SFE trims will be less than 10 percent of all Fiesta sales.
"The Cruze Eco has the highest fuel efficiency of any non-hybrid car in the US. This is also true," said David Caldwell, a Chevrolet spokesman, in response to Hyundai's single 40-mpg rating across the Elantra lineup. "Neither claim is compromised by the existence of the other."
Niggling over single-digit increases in fuel economy is more marketing spat than a valuable stat. But as CAFE and other mandates tighten their grip on automakers, car buyers can expect more cat fights (and the occasional advertising slip) in the compact segment.
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About Boston Overdrive
|Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
|Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
|John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
|Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
|Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
|George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee