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2003 Hyundai Elantra GT

  • Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away

Okay, the term GT may not be the most appropriate one here.

As nice a car as the Hyundai Elantra GT is, it's no great grand tourer, no comfortable sports car that can gobble great big distances in great big glugs of speed, no rakish two-door sedan with a big engine driving rear wheels.

What this Elantra is is an almost ideal urban commuter, with the space and comfort of a conventional sedan plus the added versatility of a hatchback for urbanites' diverse needs. It's as at-home shuttling three of your friends to the movies as it will be moving one of them into her new apartment.

This is not a bad thing, and it's a set of functions that the Elantra GT performs better than most.

The Hyundai's cabin feels roomier than the Mazda Protege5 (which is similar in concept), partly because the simpler vertical dash design doesn't bulge out toward the driver, partly because the roof's a bit higher and the seats sit a bit lower.

It's also as if every interior surface has been scooped out to find some extra space: even the horizontal space in front of the shifter has been turned into a handy storage tray, underneath a centre stack that already sports three smaller storage bins.

In the back, head- and legroom are adequate for two adults, and the rear seats flip down to form a nearly-flat (though not completely flat) load floor. Open the huge hatch and there's enough space in there for a medium-sized TV, some fairly substantial flat-packed furniture, or, um, several years' worth of old Saturday Stars.

Hyundai's interiors continue to improve by leaps and bounds, and the GT's interior is no exception. Though fit and finish is still a small step behind VW and the best of the Japanese, it's still very good, with matte-finish plastics well-assembled into generally stylish volumes.

The optional leather on the seats feels thick and durable, the instruments are backlit in trendy blue and red, the leather wheel and shifter feel great, and there are even good plastics in places you don't normally touch.

The design is conservative – a step back, I might argue, from the swoopy old Elantra – but there's no denying it's more practical and better-made.

The same could sort of be said of the GT's exterior, which despite its rakish hatchback and 15-inch five-spoke alloy wheels, manages to look more conservative than its sedan relative.

Maybe it's the European-spec black trim that replaces the body-colour stuff, or maybe it's the extra point in the grille, meant to give a more aggressive look but managing only to look more contrived.

Maybe it's the inevitable Saab associations: in profile, the Elantra GT has an uncanny resemblance to a five-door 9-3, which is a nice car but one that conjures up sensible connotations rather than overtly sporty ones.

But to suggest that this new Hyundai drives a bit like a Saab would be to pay it a compliment; Saabs are great, if not exactly grand, touring cars.

Though it's obviously less powerful and lighter, some of the same sensations are present: an excellent highway ride; a quiet, torquey engine on the highway (a boominess from the rear, not present in the sedan, is noticeable, though); as well as secure and stable, if not ultimately exciting, cornering performance.

The steering is light and easy, with okay feel, but it needs surprisingly big arm motions; the brakes feel fine, but they're modulated by a loosey-goosey pedal, and the shifter flops, rather than clicks, into gear – every motion you make in this car is big and fluid, making around-town driving a breeze.

And despite its surprising comfort over longer drives, in town is where the GT excels.

Starting at under $20,000, it represents fine value when you consider the high levels of standard equipment – everything from keyless entry to power windows, locks and mirrors to a height-adjustable driver's seat and alloy wheels are standard – and the versatility of its hatchback body will probably be of more use to active urban dwellers than recreational highway cruisers.

For them, a less-expensive but no less impressive Elantra sedan would be a better fit.

Freelance journalist Laurance Yap (yap @ mac.com) prepared this report based on driving experiences with a vehicle provided by the automaker.

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