Elantra moves up another notch Good fit and feel helps Hyundai drive bargains

First impressions are lasting.

Which is why door-handle and door-slam quality are so critical in a new car — they are the first things you actually feel.

When you get into the new Hyundai Elantra GT, you'll think you're getting into a car that costs way more than its price would suggest.

The door handle feels strong. The door closes with a Teutonic thud. Good start.

The impression lasts when you hit your first bumps, too. The body is solid, nothing flexes, there are no rattles.

If you've opted for the premium package, you'll be sitting on leather — not what any wise person would want in a car, but what do I know? In one of my test cars, the seat cushions were also extremely hard — every passenger commented on this. The second car was okay. Is this a breaking-in process, or perhaps variance in build quality? Suffering through leather is the only way you can get anti-lock brakes on the car (although four-wheel discs are standard on the GT model). You want the ABS, so I guess you really have no choice.

The premium package also includes a power sunroof and traction control, which are marginally useful, depending on your personal preferences.

The cabin is narrow, but there's height and length to spare, even in the back seat, which split-folds for further luggage-loading flexibility.

There are clever hooks in the back seat to clip the seatbelts to as well, so you don't lose them under the cushions when you fold the seat back up.

The seatback release latch incorporates a warning system — if the latch itself shows red, it means the catch isn't fully engaged.

Hyundai says there is a remote hatch-lid release lever, but despite looking, I couldn't find it. There is a button on the exterior lid handle itself, or you can use the keyless remote.

Lots of cubby bin storage, too. At first I thought the centre-console cup holders were too deep — a regular coffee cup would get lost in there.

A peek in the glove box turned up a plastic insert designed to alleviate just that problem. Clever.

The door map pockets are moulded to take a large water bottle — an idea borrowed, perhaps unintentionally, from the Citroen AX of about a thousand years ago. Or is it, great minds thinking alike? Another borrowed idea is the blue instrument lighting (Hyundai calls it "purple" — one of us is colour-blind). People never fail to go "ooh wow!" when they get into a Volkswagen with this feature — why not borrow good ideas wherever you can find them? Maybe Hyundai should start borrowing radios from General Motors. The units Hyundai uses are all-time teeny-weeny-button champs, impossible to operate when on the move. Repeat after me, guys: Big round knobs! Big round knobs! A total of 11 exterior colours are listed, but some are being dropped and others added during the mid-model year, so all may not be available.

No matter the exterior colour, the interior will be what Hyundai calls "Moonstone Gray." When you hear "moonstone," don't words such as "bleak" come to mind? What were the marketing folks thinking, never mind the interior decorators? Volkswagen doesn't have to sit up nights wondering how Hyundai makes all the pieces fit together, but it's more than acceptable for this class. The fat, leather-covered steering wheel is perhaps the highlight.

By this time, you'll have already decided whether you like the styling of the four-door hatchback variant of the Elantra platform. To me, there's an attractive, unusual, Saab-ish quality, a tubular, aircraft-fuselage-like sense to it.

Some neat details, too, like the small lights on either side of the rear licence plate.

The hatchback configuration is practical, too, although Hyundai, like Mazda with its Protege5, has (probably correctly) chosen to position the new body style as a sporty, rather than boringly practical, alternative.

The four-cylinder twin-cam 2.0-litre 140 horsepower engine isn't the freest-revving in the world — it feels a bit strained at much over 5,000 rpm. But it has adequate torque and motivates the car smartly.

I tried both transmission options for a week each. The four-speed automatic shifts decently, and doesn't sap too much power.

The five-speed manual will be the real enthusiast's choice.

This car didn't shift quite as well as I remember from my earlier, first-impression preview test, but it's not bad. I did sense the clutch seeming to hang up on quick shifts once in a while, but maybe that was my clumsy feet.

For some time, Hyundai has put more emphasis on suspension development than most new entrants to the car business. The company consulted with Porsche's engineering centre in Weissach, Germany and seldom has money been more wisely spent.

The GT gets around corners with the alacrity and confidence that only world-class suspension engineers can accomplish. A lot of this knowledge has been back-fitted into Hyundai's own engineering centre in Korea, and the results show.

Our GT uses the firmer European Elantra suspension. Even if you aren't a boy- (or girl-) racer, you'll appreciate the light, direct steering, the firm but composed ride, the secure handling.

Lady Leadfoot thought there was a lot of wind noise in the car; I didn't notice that as much as the fair degree of road noise emanating from the cargo area.

This is one of the real drawbacks of hatchback designs — if the cavity in the rear is left uncovered, it can amplify and transmit road rumble from the rear tires and suspension. Fitting the luggage cover over the area helps.

All of this, including air, cruise, power locks, windows, mirrors and remote keyless entry for $18,495? (Add a grand for the auto-box, two grand for the premium package.) How can you lose? Highs Excellent handling Practical, sporty hatchback Outstanding value Lows Drab interior Engine strangulated Package options restrictive

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