Hail a taxi in Beijing and you have a one in three chance it will be a Hyundai Elantra. Last year sales hit the half-million mark 40 months after the car's introduction to the Chinese market. Since April, the fourth generation has been on sale as the Elantra Yuedong. In true China 'old cars never die' style, the third generation will continue to be built for fleet users such as taxi companies and the police, and the new car is aimed at young managers.
The fourth generation is quite a departure from the old model, which, although solid, was - let's face it - boring. Beijing Hyundai has taken the car sold in the rest of the world and modified it for the Chinese market.
In a world of cars that all look the same, the overall look of the Elantra is different. Replacing the boxy third generation, the new model sports an undulating curve flowing down the body to a squat rear end. The most obvious external difference between China's Yuedong model and the one available elsewhere is the front grille, which has more chrome flash and presents a more aggressive visage. It's carried through to the bumper, housing redesigned fog lights. Small changes have also been made to the front and rear light clusters and the number plate mount.
Externally, the build quality is good, with panels fitting nicely together, and the interior is also quite satisfactory. Materials are of a reasonable quality and the overall look is pleasing to the eye. A two-tone dash consists of a dark grey upper layer giving way to a light grey lower down, complementing the grey leather seats. The CD/radio controls on the steering wheel are framed in chrome, as are the air conditioning controls. Fake wood trim surrounds the chrome door handles - another nod to local tastes. An effort has also been made with details such as a cup holder in the central console and a rear armrest.
The range-topping GLS version boasts electric windows, mirrors, a sunroof and air conditioning. Connections are provided for MP3 players and Bluetooth mobile phones.
But the car's safety features are quite a let-down. The Australian version, which received just three stars in ANCAP tests, boasts six airbags - but the Yuedong has only two. And the middle passenger in the rear seat only has a lap restraint.
Rear legroom is generous, but tall adults may have a problem with the low ceiling. The boot volume is a respectable 475 litres, which should be big enough for most families.
After missing the turning onto the Badaling Expressway and then exiting too early, the lack of a navigation system starts to grate, even though the car proves equally at home on the motorway as in central Beijing. It also manages to swallow the bumps on the road around the Shisanling Reservoir.
Steering is electronically assisted, feels very light, and there's generally no feedback. But the car goes where you point it and its roadholding is quite good. The 1.8-litre engine paired with the four-speed automatic gearbox seems to have sufficient power without straining the engine, and gear changes are smooth. The car is also available with a 1.6-litre engine and a five-speed manual transmission in both versions. The gearbox choices reveal the car's budget roots, as class leaders such as the Volkswagen Golf come with six-speed manuals and DSG automatics.
All the controls are handy and the driving position is comfortable, with buttons for the entertainment system mounted on the steering wheel. When passing under bridges, the blue glow from instrument backlighting is obvious and the dials are easy to read. Below the entertainment system on the central console is a display showing climate control information; it's a hot autumn day, but the air-conditioning system does a good job of cooling the car.
Although general visibility is good, reversing isn't so easy, thanks to the car's high back end, but rear radar sensors help.
The Elantra's competence and composure partially offset what it lacks in excitement, and it seems Hyundai has made its cosmetic changes to try to appeal to young execs. Yet whether that will help sell a saloon that elsewhere is regarded as a car for older folk who don't care much for driving remains to be seen.
Gone are the days where China was treated by European carmakers as a dumping ground for old designs. It seems increasing numbers of manufacturers are modifying cars specially for the market, and some - such as Volkswagen with its Lavida - are even making China-only models. However, the Elantra Yuedong suggests Chinese drivers shouldn't expect too much.
AT A GLANCE: Hyundai Elantra Yuedong
What drives it? There's a choice of a 1.6-litre or a 130-horsepower 1.8-litre petrol engine with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic gearbox.
How fast is it? No sprint figures are quoted but the 1.8 tops out at 185km/h.
How safe is it? Safety is questionable as there are only two airbags in the version offered to the mainland.
How thirsty is it? It's said to sip 7.5 litres of fuel per 100km.
How clean is it? No CO2 figures are quoted - an inexcusable omission in this day and age.
Available: Prices start at 99,800 yuan (HK$113,494) for the manual 1.6 GL and go up to 129,800 yuan for the automatic 1.8 GLS version.