I was sitting in Starbucks looking over the morning Seattle Post-Intelligencer when I glanced out the window and saw a big red Hummer working its way into a parking space next to my Hyundai Elantra. The young driver, wearing a baseball cap backwards, jumped down and came in. He paused a long moment inside the door and surveyed the room. Then he came over to me, the only person sitting alone, and hesitantly asked if I would buy him an Espresso Con Panna.
A panhandler in a Hummer? My face must have asked the question.
"I've had a very bad day." he sighs, as he wrestles with the lid on the espresso I bought him. "The $60 million we raised in just three rounds of financing went like gasoline through a Hummer. Our dot-com, xElera, was forced into bankruptcy. We sold everything to the walls and now even that money's gone."
"What about the Hummer?" I ask.
"I got that after the earthquake. It was only a hundred thousand dollars."
"You ever think about something less expensive, like a Hyundai Elantra?"
"That's a Korean car, isn't it? What's it cost? Is it any good?"
"Are you ready for some superlatives? If the Elantra cost $45,000 and came from Germany, there'd be a waiting list to get one. It is absolutely amazing. The engine is strong and smooth. The five-speed transmission is as good as the best I've ever seen. The handling is not just good, its fantastic. It's not the roomiest four-seater on the freeway but the front seats are big enough and they are delightfully contoured. I've never driven any car that will turn tighter. You don't think about turning radius much until you get one that's really bad or really good. Switching from the Elantra to even a mid-size sedan becomes annoying. This Elantra has to be the best small car value on the market. And here's the kicker, MSRP (Manufacturers Suggested Retail Price) is $12,637. It's the best car I've driven under $20,000. Dump the Hummer, buy an Elantra, you'll have enough money left over to buy gas for years. The estimated annual fuel cost is $723.00."
"But," he whined, "it's from Korea."
"Yes," I emphasize. "The Korean automobile industry is where the Japanese were about 30 years ago. Japanese cars got a foothold in this market when the fuel crisis of 1973 caught American manufacturers with nothing to offer but big gas guzzlers. The Korean manufacturers don't have that advantage, so they are using two features to crack this market, lower prices and longer warranties. I don't know about all the Korean cars, but this one is impressive."
He digs a laptop out of his little bag. "Give me some data."
"The inline four cylinder two liter engine has 140 horsepower. That's in a car that weighs only 2,635 pounds. Each horse has to move less than 19 pounds."
"Is this a stripped-down loss leader or what?"
"It has air, power windows, locks and mirrors, adjustable steering wheel, remote trunk release and fuel door release, split folding rear seatback, driver's seat isn't power but it adjusts six ways. Most everything is standard but there are a few options. My test car only has extra cost floor mats and mud guards. You can spend money for an automatic transmission, cruise control, power sunroof, antilock brakes, more powerful sound system, but that's it."
He types while talking. "But how safe can it be?"
"You know your government crash-tests everything. Of course the Elantra has airbags, but it also has side airbags. Standard. It has child-seat anchors and child safety door locks, too."
"But will it hold up?"
"Original owner gets limited powertrain coverage for 10 years/100,000 miles. A five year/60,000 mile powertrain warranty is transferable. Five year/100,000 mile corrosion coverage. Five year/unlimited mileage 24-hour roadside assistance coverage includes emergency towing, locked doors, even some expenses for trip delays."
"All that for under $13,000. We used to spend more than that on weekly office parties."
"What was your dot-com? What service did you offer?"
"We wrote a business plan. It detailed how we were going to come up with something to do on the Internet if we could only get venture capital. Money poured in. Then some overbearing investors asked to see our mission statement. We wrote a terrific statement, `Our mission is to make xElera a household name with a thirty second spot on the Super Bowl.' Our spot ran in the first quarter, too. I still can't see how that didn't work. Can I have another Espresso Con Panna? Know anybody who wants to buy a Hummer?"
2001 HYUNDAI ELANTRA
Base price, $12,499
As tested, $12,637