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Elegant Elantra opens the hatch to a sporty spin Hyundai elevates look and ride of its popular sedan

Having raised three girls, I know about 'the secret school'.

It's where girls learn to do things guys can't do.

Like that "hunhh!" thing with their voices. How to turn "Dad!" into a five-syllable word. How to wrap their wet hair in a towel.

I have never seen the school. I never caught my girls actually going to it. But don't deny it, kids, I know it exists.

I also know about the secret meeting that designers from all car makers attend, where they decide what the next Big Thing will be. A couple of years ago, they decided that for 2002, hatchbacks would be "in." Just about everybody has a hatchback this year.

Hyundai's hatch is the Elantra GT, Korea's biggest car maker choosing to put a sporty spin on the most practical variant of their compact car line. The hatchback model is new only for North America — it is already a fixture of Hyundai's Asian and European markets.

Although the hatch uses the same platform as the four-door sedan — hence, is identical in all major exterior dimensions — it is more than just a fifth door grafted onto the sedan body.

The GT's styling has a Saab-like quality to the rear end, with considerably more flair than its somewhat staid four-door cousin.

And of course, luggage capacity is not only improved, but access thereto is much better as well. The rear seatback split-folds in 60/40 proportion for added flexibility.

Mechanically, the GT uses the same 2.0-litre 140-hp four-cylinder twin-cam 16-valve engine as all Elantras, mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed electronic automatic transmission.

The sporting theme continues into the suspension, which utilizes firmer spring, shock and anti-roll bar tuning than our sedan, borrowed from European Elantras.

Stocky 195/60R15 Michelins are wrapped around alloy wheels.

Brakes are four-wheel discs, with ABS part of the premium option package.

The GT is well-equipped, with leather-wrapped wheel and shift knob, power windows, locks and mirrors, air conditioning, an AM-FM-single CD player radio, cruise, and remote keyless entry.

That premium package also includes power sunroof, traction control and leather upholstery. In other words, you have to put up with a lot of stuff a true sporty driver would not want in order to get the vital ABS. Bad idea.

Safety gear includes second-generation front air bags with passenger presence detector — the right bag goes off in a crash only if there's someone sitting there to benefit therefrom — plus front belt pretensioners and force limiters. The rear doors have child safety locks, and there are child safety seat anchors back there, too.

On the road, the Elantra GT has a solid feel that you won't believe, if the last Hyundai you drove was an old Excel. There's a tightness to the body that makes it feel almost German.

Our ride and drive route, over pretty but not very challenging roads in the Kawartha Lakes region, didn't provide a lot of opportunity to evaluate the ragged-edge handling of the GT, but the car easily dealt with anything we could throw at it.

Steering is quick and precise, cornering is flat and crisp, yet the ride quality is very good.

The engine gets a bit noisy when pressed, and never seems to rev quite as freely as it appears to want to — it may loosen up with a few thousand klicks. Performance is still good.

The manual shifter is excellent — smooth, slick, but not notchy — and clutch take-up is strong and silky. The automatic isn't quite as successful, as it saps some of the power. It's smooth enough, though, and will likely be the choice of the majority of Elantra GT buyers.

The cabin is a little on the narrow side — you may find yourself rubbing elbows with your passenger.

But the Elantra GT is generally a pleasant place to be — well-built, from good-looking and fine-feeling materials.

Sure, the optional leather upholstery in my test car has no place in a sporty sedan.

There was an odd whistling sound coming from the under the dash from time to time — an HVAC flap moving around, perhaps? But overall, there's a feeling of quality here.

Maybe it shouldn't be surprising, then, that Hyundai recently scored second overall in the Canadian J. D. Power initial quality survey.

Hyundai thinks that some 25 per cent of Elantra buyers will opt for the GT version.

With its added practicality over the sedan, its excellent road manners, tons of equipment and a list price of only $18,465, I'm going to guess it'll do much better than that.

E-mail: jim @ jimkenzie.com

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