LAS VEGAS – While subcompacts as a group are tanking this year in the U.S., and Ford has made it known it will abandon ship, Hyundai sees plenty of reasons why staying in B-cars is a good idea.

This month Hyundai U.S. dealers begin retailing the fifth-generation Accent subcompact, just as sales in WardsAuto’s Lower Small group are down 25.3% through October, the biggest decline of any vehicle segment this year.

But Hyundai says the relatively basic vehicles are an important entry point into a brand for many buyers, helping build loyalty as well as being an alternative to a used car.

“These buyers are typically shopping us against used vehicles, typically certified pre-owned vehicles, so we have to make sure this product offers exceptional value and exceptional featured content they can’t find in the used-vehicle market,” Mike O’Brien, vice president-product and digital planning for Hyundai Motor America, tells media here during an ’18 Accent preview.

After a day driving two grades of the new sedan (the hatch body style has been dropped due to a low take-rate) around greater Las Vegas, we find Hyundai partially has achieved those goals.

Considering there are some great used-car deals at the moment due to a slew of leased-car returns amid the trend toward CUVs, to say customers can’t find the new Accent’s feature content (for near the same price) in a pre-owned vehicle is not true.

But what is true is, as a new car, the Accent has great value-for-the-money, a long-standing Hyundai strength.

It also has surprising agility on the many twisting desert roads we encounter here, and fantastic fuel economy – with our real-world testing outdoing expected high EPA figures.

Like other categories, subcompacts suffer from size creep. The Accent is 1.2 ins. (30 mm) wider than before, as well as 0.6-in. (15-mm) longer and with a 0.4-in. (10-mm) longer wheelbase.

Its 103.9 cu.-ft. (2.9 cu.-m) of total interior volume puts it in the EPA’s compact category, and makes its interior roomier than the ’17 Ford Fiesta and ’18 Toyota Yaris iA. However, the ’18 Nissan Versa edges it out with 105.1 cu.-ft. (3.0 cu.-m) of total interior volume.

Sister-brand Kia’s Rio B-sedan, also redesigned for ’18, is just a tad smaller inside than the Accent, at 103.6 cu.-ft. (2.9 cu.-m).

The Accent’s Gamma 1.6L gasoline direct-injected 4-cyl., a 2012 Wards 10 Best Engines winner, carries over from ’17, but sees various updates (low-friction piston rings, variable fuel-pressure module, engine-control module software) that bring about a 6.6% improvement in fuel economy, Hyundai says.

That would put ’18 Accents with a 6-speed manual transmission at about 32 mpg (7.4 L/100 km) average and those with a 6-speed automatic at 31 mpg (7.6 L/100 km) combined.

We average 44.9 mpg (5.2 L/100 km) in our morning drive of a base SE model, a great result netted from steady-state cruising on freeways and 2-lane back roads, as well as slow speeds through Nevada’s Valley of Fire state park.

A shorter, more stop-and-go heavy afternoon leg in a Limited grade nets 36.5 mpg (6.4 L/100 km).

The declines in peak horsepower and torque – from 137 hp and 123 lb.-ft. (167 Nm) in the ’17 model to 130 hp and 119 lb.-ft. (161 Nm) for ’18 – are not noticeable behind the wheel, perhaps because Hyundai has upped low-end torque. The change makes acceleration relatively quick and unlabored.

The new Accent is not as agile as the first-gen Honda Fit, a toss-able, confident little car if there ever was one, but its handling reminds us a bit of that vehicle and feels miles ahead of its predecessor’s road manners.

Hyundai chassis engineers reworked the car’s rear suspension, going from very short shock absorbers mounted below the trunk at a 25-degree angle to more upright dampers set at an 8-degree angle and protruding into the wheel housing.

Also helping handling is the 28.7-percentage-point jump in advanced high-strength steel content, now making up 54.5% of the Accent’s body and improving rigidity.

Hyundai now has torque-vectoring control logic built into the stability-control system of many of its models, allowing for brake pressure on inside wheels to be applied in understeer situations.

The increase in advanced high-strength steel also improves noise isolation thanks to a stiffer subframe, as do more copious amounts of foam and weather stripping. Hyundai product planner Mike Evanoff says while the outgoing Accent used sound-deadening foam inside the pillars, this time Hyundai applies it to their outside as well.

Noise-damping materials are the same across grades, Hyundai says. Despite its smaller tires, we find road noise more obvious in the SE grade than the Limited-grade Accent. We suspect either the road surfaces traversed in the SE were rougher, or perhaps our car’s tires were over-inflated.

We also find the Accent SE prone to wandering in straight-line highway driving, lacking on-center steering feel.

The previous-gen Accent won a Wards 10 Best Interiors award in 2012 for a low-cost interior done well. The next-gen Accent’s cabin continues the tradition of being a handsome space that reads like an interior in a more expensive vehicle. Low-gloss hard plastics and a woven nylon seat fabric with a tasteful tiny check pattern give a high-end look, as do 2-tone color schemes.

Minor cabin complaints are the lack of a damped glove-box and center armrest in the SE grade (the Limited has both), and the glossy black frame around the 5-in. (13-cm) touchscreen in the SE, filling the void where the SEL and Limited’s 7-in. (18-cm) touchscreen fits perfectly.

The rear seat is cavernous for a B-car, with better outboard headroom than some midsize luxury sedans we’ve been in, thanks to the Accent’s relatively upright, not inward, C-pillars.

Being a B-car, switchgear largely is made up of knobs and buttons. After spending time in a lot of luxury models with complex HMI, controlling the climate system in the Accent is refreshingly easy.

Compared with the outgoing ’17 Accent sedan, the new 4-door SE adds the 5-in. touchscreen, as well as standard steering-wheel-mounted audio controls, cruise control and standard Bluetooth.

Wheels also go from 14-in. steel on the ’17 Accent sedan to 15-in. steel wheels on the ’18 4-door.

The new SEL and Limited grades offer additional niceties not expected in a sub-$20,000 car, including a 7-in. Display Audio screen, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and in the case of the Limited model, forward-collision-avoidance technology.

The Limited also has heated front seats, push-button start and three years of Hyundai’s BlueLink telematics service for free.

Pricing has yet to be announced, but to put things in perspective this reviewer paid $18,725 for a then-new ’02 Volkswagen Jetta compact sedan with none of that. It didn’t even have power windows. We’ve come a long way, baby.

Hyundai projects the Accent will continue to draw buyers both young and old, and that this year’s sales pace of about 5,000 per month should continue.

Accent U.S. sales fell 27.0% to 50,126 through October vs. year-ago, impacted, Hyundai says, by its move to slash deliveries of its cars to daily-rental fleets.

Kia’s Soul is the No.1-selling U.S. B-car so far in 2017, with just under 100,000 sold.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com