Affordable small-car interiors are supposed to be tolerable, not a feast for the eyes, but that’s the only way to describe the inside of the new Hyundai Elantra.

Stylists used the auto maker’s new “fluidic sculpture” design language to create a unique interior that entertains and engages the eye with interesting shapes, textures and flowing surfaces.

From the curvaceous center stack and artfully designed door panels to the brushed metallic trim and firm, comfortable seats, the whole package looks, feels and smells like a luxury car, not a product for budget-minded consumers. Did we mention it has heated rear seats?

“Breathtaking design,” says judge Eric Mayne on his score sheet.

Hyundai has been making spectacular strides in vehicle engineering and quality, but until recently it has been cautious when it comes to design, borrowing ideas from other auto makers to create attractive but unoriginal exteriors and interiors.

Hyundai’s new role as a class leader in design just began with the swoopy exterior lines of the latest-generation of the hot-selling Sonata midsize sedan. Now the auto maker seems to be finishing the job with the interior styling of the Elantra.

“Hyundai turns a new page here, finally producing a vehicle with its own design character,” says Ward’s editor Dave Zoia.

Our judges especially are impressed with the center stack and the way designers substituted sensuous curves for the usually straight architectural lines that typically run from the top of car’s instrument panel to the end of the center console.

The door panel design also garners high praise, especially for the way the lines of the door handle are integrated into a graceful, sweeping arc that runs from the dashboard all the way to the rear edge of the door. “It looks like art,” writes one editor on his scoresheet.

At $22,000, our test car is not cheap, but it is loaded to the hilt with features. In addition to the aforementioned front and rear heated seats, a first in the compact segment, there are side-curtain airbags and high-quality leather on the seats, steering wheel and shift knob.

Other interior features not usually found in a car in this class are a big 7-in. (18-cm) high-resolution display screen with a rear-view camera.

It is rumored that Hyundai’s top brass in Seoul are concerned designers are going too far with the new design language. We disagree. Hyundai is just evolving so fast, it’s scary.

dwinter@wardsauto.com