LA JOLLA, CA – And the hits just keep on coming.

Following up the critically acclaimed Genesis luxury sedan and Sonata midsize sedan, Hyundai Motor America recently launched the new-for-’11 Elantra – a tremendously satisfying re-interpretation of the standard U.S. compact car.

Like the Genesis and Sonata, expect the Elantra to push Hyundai farther up the consideration ladder of consumers and carve deeper into the share of traditional segment leaders Toyota and Honda.

The folks at General Motors and Ford also should take notice. The all-new Chevy Cruze and redesigned Ford Focus now arriving at dealers are touted as redefining the segment, which Ward’s defines as Upper Small, but the Elantra will do its share of changing consumer expectations of compact cars.

Inside and out, the Elantra imparts an upscale feel by using quality materials and contemporary, if not at times flashy, styling.

For example, inside door panels of models recently tested here feature cloth inserts to match the seats. The inserts nicely break up an area of a compact car door that typically receives a piece of hard plastic, an enemy to elbows everywhere.

Not only do the inserts offer a degree of added comfort, they appear as if they will hide wear well, and their funky, wavy design is an excellent example of Hyundai’s “fluidic design sculpture” mantra, where shapes and character lines convey a sense of constant motion.

Hyundai smartly sees their value, too, charging $550 for the inserts as part of a preferred package on all but the highest-trim-level model.

Further underscoring how Hyundai manages to impart an upscale feel, the same door panel includes a handle that swoops gracefully down from the upper door to the armrest. On the way, it seamlessly integrates an audio speaker and door pull.

A cheap-looking headliner might be the interior’s only misstep, but gets pushed to the margins by items such as a sporty, leather-wrapped steering wheel with tilt and telescopic adjustment, push-button start, ice-blue lighting on a pleasantly straight-forward instrument panel and climate-control center, and a 7-in. (17.8-cm) navigation touch screen that does double-duty as a rearview camera.

Our $22,000 Limited-trim tester, slated for delivery to Hyundai Motor America President John Krafcik after the drive, also includes Bluetooth, iPod/USB connectivity, a pair of 12-volt plugs for up-front passengers, one-touch power windows and – in a segment first – heated seats for the rear passengers.

As further proof today’s compact cars are not just for compact people, Hyundai adds extra-long seat rails up front so taller people can stretch their legs. The leather is soft against the supportive soy-foam seats and breathes well through a day of driving along the Mexican border.

Nooks and crannies can be found throughout the car, making it a quick favorite for multi-tasking journalists.

Dropping down to the volume GLS model at $18,480, we find many of the same features as standard equipment, although the car’s sticker shows a buyer would get nicked $35 for an iPod cable. Ouch!

There’s lots of room inside, too. Hyundai simply makes smart use of limited space, as the car is not substantially larger than its predecessor – just an inch here and there – and the curb weight actually drops.

’11 Hyundai Elantra Limited
Vehicle type front-engine, 5-passenger FWD sedan
Engine 1.8L DOHC 4-cyl.
Power 148 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 131 lb. ft. (177 Nm) @ 4,700 rpm
Compression ratio 10.3:1
Transmission 6-speed automatic
Wheelbase 106.3 ins. (270 cm)
Overall length 178.3 ins. (452.9 cm)
Overall width 69.9 ins. (177.5 cm)
Overall height 56.5 ins. (143.5 cm)
Curb weight 2,877 lbs. (1,253 kg)
As tested $22,110
Fuel economy 29-40 mpg (8-6 L/100 km)
Competition Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Nissan Sentra, Mazda3, Chevrolet Cruze, Ford Focus
Pros Cons
40 mpg for all Polarizing design
Roomy interior Over-assisted steering
Excellent value Motor lacks motivation

As much as we admire the interior of the new Elantra, the car’s exterior design likely will be its biggest draw.

Hyundai’s California stylists are not politely asking for a minute of your time to consider the Elantra. They are dragging you by the ear to its hexagonal grille, teardrop headlamp casings and sharply creased hood.

At the profile, big wheel arches transition into a pair of bold character lines near the rocker panel and beltline, and then sweep up and rearward to a set of highly styled tail lamps and a rear clip that rivals Kim Kardashian’s curves.

Fluidic, indeed. And refreshing for sure, but Hyundai also takes a bit of a risk with this exterior in a segment not known for flash. Sales will tell the story in the coming months.

Under the hood, a naturally-aspirated, 1.8L 4-cyl. engine mated to a 6-speed automatic must be pushed high into the rev-range for results, unlike the free-spooling turbo in its key rival, the Chevy Cruze.

But once in its sweet spot, the engine helps the car merge and pass well enough for its segment. We are particularly impressed, however, at its ability to gobble up long grades of highway and the civility it exhibits under hard acceleration.

The 1.8L “Nu” engine is new with the Elantra, losing 74 lbs. (32 kg) off its 2.0L “Beta” predecessor and delivering a highway fuel-economy improvement of 18%.

Hyundai engineers booked most of the gains by switching to an aluminum block from cast iron, expanding the range of the engine’s variable-valve timing, ditching an outdated 4-speed transmission and ferreting out frictional losses.

The Environmental Protection Agency pegs the Elantra’s highway number at 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km). We averaged about 37 mpg (6.4 L/100 km) during mostly highway driving in our two test vehicles.

Buyers need not pay extra for the 40 mpg, either, as Hyundai likes to boast. All trim lines get that mileage, a proposition neither Chevy nor Ford can offer at this point.

The engine has a promising future within the company, too, evidenced by aluminum cylinder heads designed to accommodate “bolt-on” technology such as direct injection. Could a turbocharged Elantra be far away?

The Elantra also gets a new 6-speed automatic transmission built in-house. It’s a full 11 lbs. (5 kg) lighter than its predecessor and contains 62 fewer parts with an eye on greater durability and lower cost.

It’s a smooth-shifting gearbox and a big reason the little Nu engine behaves so well on the highway.

Hyundai’s electric power-steering system underwhelms again in the Elantra. It’s plenty quick but over-assisted, like the new Tuscon and Sonata, and needs a little more weight behind it for our tastes.

Otherwise, the car feels solid on the road and cabin noise is kept to acceptable levels, quite a feat considering the noise, vibration and harshness gremlins inherent in items such as the little 4-banger and low-rolling resistance tires.

Not as quiet as the Cruze, in our estimations, but more agreeable than you’ll find in Elantra’s Asian counterparts.

The Elantra comes with electronic stability control as standard equipment, a ’12 model-year requirement Hyundai has been out in front on for years now, and unites it with a nifty software package monitoring wheel slippage and providing necessary steering inputs to help steady the car during quick lane changes or slippery conditions. Six airbags come standard.

Overall, the Hyundai Elantra keeps pace with others in the segment, offering lots of features and comfort at a highly competitive price point with the best standard fuel economy of the lot. Like we said, the hits keep coming.

jamend@wardsauto.com