Used to be the no-brainer choices in the compact car world were Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic and Mazda3. Then Ford and Chevy got on their A game with Focus and Cruze. All of these are decent cars in a segment that is white hot.

And now there s Hyundai Elantra.

I ll cut to the chase, the 2012 Elantra is a very good automobile, perhaps the most compelling car in its class. It is stylish, roomy, well made, full of features and priced right. Tough to beat that combination.

A Bold Move

The outgoing model, generation four, was a pleasant looking vehicle. A friend of mine has one that he beats up on and it always gets him from point A to point B without any fuss or muss. Since Hyundai has decided they want to take over the world, that sort of dynamic isn t good enough for them anymore.

The new model is a bold move forward. Hyundai s design language may be called fluidic sculpture but it sure like flame design to me (with a nod to Chris Bangle and his BMW creations). If there were ever a car that physically embodied Mattel s Hot Wheels logo, this would be it.

Bang For The Buck

Consider this- my top-of-the-line Limited tester has keyless locks and ignition, an easy to use nav system, backup camera, iPod and Bluetooth phone integration, warms nearly everyone s kiesters, and bathes the good-looking cabin with sunshine from the sunroof. All this retails for $23,300, and yes, that includes destination. In professional auto writer s jargon, that s called a heck-of-a-good-deal.

That all means nothing if the drivetrain disappoints. It doesn t. Elantra s 1.8-liter 4-cylinder churns out 148 horsepower and remains smooth until the upper rev range. The automatic transmission is a six-speed with manual shift mode. The six-speed manual is not available on Limited models. There are disc brakes at all four corners (11 in front, 10.3 in the rear, naturally they re ABS). Remember, Uncle Sam mandates electronic stability control now.

0-60 happens in a competitive 8.6 seconds, not that you ll be drag racing your neighbors. The smooth six-speed goes about its business without calling any attention to itself. Nicely done Hyundai. Elantra s ride quality is set up more for comfort but it still scampers around corners quite nicely. It s fun to fling about in town.

Driving enthusiasts will want more feedback from the tires, some additional heft from steering wheel effort, and less body roll in hard maneuvers but Hyundai s done a great job of tuning Elantra for the mass market.

If you re looking for a quiet cabin, Elantra is not as hushed as the class leader Chevy Cruze or even Ford Focus. In fact, my ears find Hyundai s lower priced Accent to have less road noise than its big brother.

Cheap To Feed Too

Fuel economy is one of the top reasons why people buy compact cars. Elantra achieves the magical marketing number everyone strives for these days, an EPA rating of 40 highway, 29 city. Don t think it s possible in the real world? With the cruise control set for 62 miles an hour I got an average of 43 (in the right lane of course). At a more realistic speed of 75 it dropped to 36 MPG.

Fuel economy this good brings up a very good question- Is the added expense of a hybrid system worth the extra cost if your miles are mainly driven on the freeway? Take Prius for example. It s EPA highway rating is 48 mpg, making it about 18 percent more efficient than Elantra. That s good but depending on how much you drive it may be hard to recoup the additional financial investment.

Bold Inside

Elantra s cabin is not a penalty box, materials all look and feel quite nice. It s common for the plastic that surrounds the window controls to hard, here that surface gets soft-touch paint. A wave pattern perforated into the leather seats gives the cowhide some panache. Controls all have a uniform quality feel and the seven-inch touch screen gets an interface that is simple and intuitive, something premium brands don t always achieve.

Small touches aren t ignored, the door release handles feel better than those found in cars a class or two higher and small cubbies throughout the interior are always welcome. A quick tap on the turn signal stalk gives three blinks, encouraging lazy people to signal. Even the sun visor s pull-out extensions are design to provide maximum coverage, again, better than some luxury vehicles I ve driven lately.

Want dual-zone or automatic climate control? Sorry, unavailable (though remember, this car is 23K). Those looking for a premium audio experience will have to turn to the aftermarket (even though the spec sheet says it pumps out 360 watts of power). The volume knob with its inverted pie plate shape is more stylish than grippy.

Attention drivers that sit close to the steering wheel- Check the windshield pillar on your test drive, it may block your left side visibility. This phenomenon is becoming more common as cars become more aerodynamic. Limited Elantras add a telescoping feature to the tilt adjustable steering wheel but for some, including my wife, it s not enough.

Show Your Friends Some Warmth

As for the back seat, at least two of your adult friends should be happy. The outboard positions have a generous amount of leg and foot room. Headroom is okay too. The big surprise back here is that the seats are heated. Storage in the doors will hold your Coke. A foldable center armrest helps people get comfortable. No power port or pocket on the driver s chair though.

Time for a TP Test smackdown. Corolla and Cruze hold six packs of Kirkland brand two-ply bath tissue. Honda s new 2012 Civic swallows a lofty seven. Elantra s boot is very spacious, matching Civic. Watch out though, gooseneck hinge arms can pinch cargo when closing the lid. Need more trunk room? Elantra will oblige with split folding seatbacks.

Don t expect to get a deep discount on an Elantra. I stopped into a dealership while car shopping with my wife and the only unit they had on hand was a demo. Basically, people are buying them before they hit the lot. The only problem Hyundai has is making enough of them.

Elantra starts at $17,200 with a manual transmission. Add in Hyundai s 10-year warranty and their new trade-in value assurance plan and it s a mighty solid proposition. It s a new brave new world in the auto industry, everyone has great product these days. It makes it both easier and hard to shop for a car these days. That said, if you re shopping for a compact sedan and dismiss Elantra because of preconceived perceptions, you re only cheating yourself.

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