The enjoyable and value-packed 2009 Hyundai Accent proves that an entry-level economy car needn't be a penalty box.

A flagship vehicle is one that's been chosen to serve as a gleaming representation of its manufacturer's ideals and philosophies. The 2009 Hyundai Accent isn't Hyundai's flagship; the upscale Genesis takes that honor. Still, one could argue that the Accent is a more appropriate ambassador, since it's the most affordable car offered by a manufacturer that has built its brand on affordability.

The Accent is a back-to-basics economy car that's easy on the pocketbook, yet it's actually pleasant to drive, and the stereo is one of the best you'll find at this modest price point. Performance and refinement levels are now fully competitive with leading rivals, and the Accent delivers on Hyundai's promise of extraordinary bang for the buck. In fact, this pint-sized Hyundai qualified as an Edmunds \Most Wanted Sedan Under $15,000\ two years ago.

The 2009 Hyundai Accent receives powertrain and other tweaks that boost fuel economy from 3-8 percent over last year's figures. There are also content upgrades, including the addition of cruise control, keyless entry and power accessories on specific trim levels. As before, enthusiasts on a tight budget will want to check out the SE coupe, which delivers more exciting performance thanks to its sport-tuned chassis and B&M sport shifter for the manual-transmission model.

This nifty economy car has a lot to offer, but there are other worthy picks to consider. The Mazda 3 is the class leader when it comes to entertaining driving dynamics, and the Honda Fit shines on the strength of its flexible interior and nimble handling. Both the Nissan Versa and the Ford Focus will be of interest to those seeking upscale options like Bluetooth connectivity. However, the Accent remains a worthy choice. If you're shopping for an entry-level economy car, we'd give the Accent a look.

The 2009 Hyundai Accent is a five-passenger compact offered in three trim levels: GS, SE and GLS. The GS and the SE are two-door hatchbacks, while the GLS is available as a four-door sedan only.

The base GS two-door hatchback makes do without a standard stereo, but it does feature 14-inch steel wheels, intermittent wipers, two 12-volt power outlets, a six-way-adjustable driver seat with a fold-down armrest and a reclining 60\/40-split rear seatback. Air-conditioning, power accessories, keyless entry, an alarm and a 172-watt CD\/MP3 audio system with satellite radio and an auxiliary audio jack are optional. The Accent SE two-door hatchback includes the GS's optional features as standard equipment. It also comes with 16-inch alloy wheels, a sport-tuned suspension, foglamps, a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, a rear center armrest with cupholders and a short-throw sport shifter on manual-transmission models. The Accent GLS sedan includes standard air-conditioning; otherwise, it mostly shares its options list with the GS. Cruise control is newly available on all models, and the SE can now be fitted with a sunroof.

Driving

While no speed demon, the 2009 Hyundai Accent is a perfectly acceptable performer. The ride is compliant on GS and GLS models, while the SE's firmer suspension tuning trades some comfort for greater road-holding capabilities. The cabin remains relatively quiet during highway cruising. All in all, the Accent is one of the more endearing entry-level economy cars from behind the wheel.

Powertrain

The front-wheel-drive 2009 Hyundai Accent is equipped with a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine delivering a respectable 110 horsepower and 106 pound-feet of torque. A five-speed manual transmission is standard on all trims, and a four-speed automatic is available as an option. The Accent's EPA estimated fuel economy is 27 mpg city\/33 mpg highway and 29 mpg combined with the manual gearbox, while the optional automatic checks in at 26\/35\/29 mpg.

Safety

All 2009 Hyundai Accents are equipped with front-seat side impact airbags and full-length head curtain airbags. Antilock brakes are standard on SE coupes and optional on GLS sedans. In government frontal impact crash testing, the Hyundai Accent sedan scored a perfect five stars for front-occupant protection. Despite the standard side airbags, though, the Accent didn't fare as well in the side impact category, earning four stars for front occupant protection and just three stars for rear-seat passengers. In testing done by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the Accent received the second-highest \Acceptable\ rating for frontal offset collisions but the worst-possible \Poor\ ranking in side impact tests.

Interior

The Hyundai Accent's thoughtful design pays dividends inside. There's more total interior volume than you'll find in either the Honda Civic or Toyota Corolla -- cars that are larger on the outside than the Accent. The Accent's interior layout is simple and functional, with a clean two-tone color scheme. Materials quality is acceptable, and the cabin is comfortable and offers good outward visibility. Cargo room is about average for the class, with more than 12 cubic feet in the sedan's trunk and nearly 16 cubic feet in the hatchback.

Pro

Supportive seats, refined highway ride, roomy interior, unusually satisfying stereo for this segment, impressive warranty coverage.

Con

Low side-impact crash test scores, sluggish acceleration with automatic transmission, harsh ride over irregular surfaces.