A Consumer Reports 2011 Top Pick, the redesigned Hyundai Elantra is an impressive small sedan, one whose praises I have been singing for months. But today, our silver Elantra GLS left me flat. Literally.
Heading to our Auto Test Center this morning, I was passing down a twisty, wooded lane at school-zone speeds when something caught my attention. As I passed a dirt bank, a softball-sized rock could be seen tumbling down. About a second later, I could hear the front passenger wheel thud against it and soon after the crunchy sound of the wheel riding on a flattened tire. (What I couldn't hear was the laughter from squirrels up on the hill whom I suspect were to blame for my misfortune.) Going slow, it was a simple matter to safely pull off the road.
Then things got interesting.
I've had many flat tires before. In years past, I've had several in a day when driving for photography. They were always a 10-minute fix, with a little dirt, sweat, and satisfaction along the way. Not this time. Today, it was a four-hour project. The Elantra has a cost- and weight-saving repair kit in lieu of a spare tire. I consider this one of those modern advances like phones without buttons that are touted as progress and make me feel like a pragmatic old timer.
I went through the manual-instructed repair procedure, step by step, hooking up the tightly packaged, DC-powered compressor and the container of tire sealant. I blew the sealant in for the required three minutes, then drove the car at a crawl to let it circulate around the tire and hopefully clog the leak. Turns out, the damages was more than the goo would plug, including tear in the sidewall that I could see initially. Pumping air in the tire had the sidewall frothing as the fluid bubbled forth, and unlike my tire, I knew my fate was sealed.
Our tire experts advise that a tire with a sidewall puncture should never be repaired. If you experience such a puncture, bypass the repair and replace the tire.
Fortunately, Hyundai roadside assistance worked like a charm. They predicted to the minute when a tow truck would arrive. As I waited, they called to confirm its imminent arrival and even texted to notify me what company would be performing the rescue.
The sparkling new Hyundai dealership that I was towed to got me right in to the service queue. Truly, customer service along the way was very good, but I remain frustrated by the car itself.
Things happen, but I prefer to be equipped to deal with common problems in life. While I appreciate the reasons why spare tires are no longer common in cars, had the Elantra been equipped with a jack and tire iron, I could have removed the tire and bummed a ride from a friend to a nearby tire store. Getting the vehicle towed, even at Hyundai's expense, turned an "oopsie" into a time-sucking event.
The owner's manual has instructions for dealing with a flat, both for if the car has a repair kit or a spare tire. Needless to say, my idle time at the dealer was spent exploring this key accessory that our test car lacked.
The Hyundai sales staff said it wasn't available as an option at time of purchase. The Hyundai consumer website doesn't list it in a package or as a separate accessory. The parts department, however, confided that there have been many queries about an old-fashioned spare tire and that it would soon be available as an after-sale item. It is expected to be available soon, but the price is unknown. The dealership staff reasoned that it was omitted to enable the car to hit the magical 40 mpg highway figure. Yay, them. (In all my time with the car, I haven't crested an indicated 35 mpg.)
When shopping for a car, consider questioning the salesperson if the car in which you're interested comes with a spare. We don't think much of the roadside repair kits.
The replacement tire cost $131 and the repair kit fluid was a painful $94. (Mind you, a can of Fix-A-Flat is just $6.) Again, at least the tow was free.
In the end, the time and money spent on this adventure today yielded a key piece of advice: When you buy a new car, be sure you understand if it has a spare or repair kit. If you're like me and prefer to be prepared like a Boy Scout, consider choosing a spare tire when optional. Or at the very least, keep a jack, tire iron, and small board (to place the jack on in sand) in the trunk, just in case. In reality, the mpg difference will be negligible.
The final lesson: A charged cell phone can prove to be the handiest tool to have in a car.
See our guide to car maintenance.