SANTA MONICA, CA – The compact Elantra is Hyundai Motor America’s best-selling car in the U.S., exceeding 100,000 deliveries each of the past six years. It also was the first model in Hyundai’s lineup to reach 1 million unit sales, a feat accomplished last year.

This might explain why the all-new ’07 Elantra arriving now leans to the conservative side of the styling ledger. True, the new Elantra is a vast improvement over the model it replaces.

But the new car is innocuously inoffensive and fails to make its own styling statement. It easily could be mistaken for one of its primary competitors, the Toyota Corolla.

The new Elantra is downright unaffecting, perhaps because of the need to appeal to such a large and diverse customer base.

Hyundai boasts of the Elantra’s “expressive character line” – a beltline that rolls like waves on the sea – but it has a tendency to fade into the overall sheet metal.

Company planners may think sure and steady conservatism is the path for Hyundai to get to the crucial half-million annual sales mark in the U.S. next year, after admitting it would fall short in 2006.

Still, it would be nice to see the South Korean auto maker begin to take more design risks. Hyundai’s quality-improvement story is well known, as is its safety story. But will there ever be a styling story at Hyundai?

The new Elantra carries over the previous model’s 2L DOHC 4-cyl. with intake-only

continuously variable valve timing. The mill makes 138 hp and 136 lb.-ft. (184 Nm) of torque, placing the Hyundai slightly below the new Nissan Sentra and Honda Civic (both 140 hp); well below the Chevy Cobalt and Dodge Caliber (148 hp); and ahead of the Corolla (126 hp) and Ford Focus (136 hp).

The 2L 4-cyl.’s torque falls in the middle of the pack.

However, Hyundai was able to improve fuel economy by 4 mpg (59 L/100 km) through reducing friction at idle, boosting transmission efficiency and cutting the sedan’s weight 60 lbs. (27 kg).

With either a manual or automatic gearbox, Elantra achieves 28/36 mpg (8.4-6.5 L/100 km) city/highway. The 4-speed automatic – some competitors have more advanced and efficient 5-speed units – includes a lock-up torque converter to boost efficiency at higher speeds, Hyundai says.

On the road, the Elantra has a pleasing MacPherson independent front and multi-link rear suspension that, keeping with its sedate outward appearance, is relatively compliant.

But a nice amount of feedback is provided through the car’s rack-and-pinion steering, which isn’t as overly assisted as in the Sonata midsize sedan and new Santa Fe cross/utility vehicle.

Mated to the commendably smooth-shifting and standard 5-speed manual, the Elantra 4-banger is able and generally willing in most maneuvers.

But when joined with the optional 4-speed automatic, the mill is uninspiring, hesitating when climbing even moderate hills on the drive back to Santa Monica from the desert town of Ojai, CA.

Downshifts are abrupt, a situation that likely could be rectified by stepping up to a 5-speed automatic with a tighter gear ratio, as Honda has done with the Civic.

The Elantra minimizes the typical noise, vibration and harshness often associated with 4-cyl. mills. In fact, the 2L’s creamy idle makes it difficult to know whether the engine is running.

Still, we can’t help but wonder how much better the new Elantra would be with Hyundai’s 2.4L 4-cyl. World Engine, co-developed with DaimlerChrysler AG and Mitsubishi Motors Corp., which Hyundai already is offering in the Sonata (developing 162 hp).

The new Elantra has a wheelbase of 104.3 ins. (265 cm), up 1.6 ins. (4 cm) from the outgoing model. It is 177.4 ins. (451 cm) long and 69.9 ins. (178 cm) wide. Height is 58.3 ins. (148.1 cm). Both height and width have increased, up 2.2 ins. (5.6 cm) and 2 ins. (5.1 cm), respectively, from the previous generation.

The dimensional boosts help propel the Elantra to the front of the pack in interior volume (including passenger and cargo space), outpacing the Sentra, Corolla, Civic, Focus and Cobalt by a wide margin, and even besting tightish midsizers such as the Acura TL, which has 110.4 cu.-ft. (3.1 cu.-m) of room vs. Elantra’s 112.1 cu.-ft. (3.2 cu.-m).

Hyundai moved the front seats forward 1.8 ins. (4.6 cm), allowing for increased levels of rear legroom, an attribute still lacking in many compact cars.

Overall, the interior is pleasing, with high-quality materials, such as a circular-knit headliner fabric and premium cloth for seating surfaces.

In response to complaints from owners of previous-generation Elantras, the new car abounds with storage cubbies, including a dash compartment, seatback pockets, rear cupholders and a dual-level armrest with ample space inside.

Hyundai offers its first auxiliary audio jack in the new Elantra and hopes to roll out the feature to its entire lineup in the next year.

There is a standard 172-watt AM/FM/XM/CD/MP3 audio system (vehicles with XM capability began production Oct. 16, and XM service is free for three months). Optional is a 220-watt premium sound system that adds a 6-disc CD changer and an external amp.

Bluetooth connectivity will be optional later this model year, Hyundai says.

Three trim levels of Elantra are offered for ’07: the GLS, which should account for 70% of sales; midrange SE (accounting for 20% of the mix); and high-end Limited, which comes standard with leather seats (front seats are heated) and will account for 10% of sales.

Gone is the hatchback body style, although Hyundai hints it may return eventually.

Hyundai is targeting 100,000 first full-year sales in the U.S., below recent years’ tallies due to projected supply constraints.

Including destination and handling charges, the Elantra begins at $13,995, $670 below ’06 pricing due to the lack of standard air conditioning. An Elantra SE is $16,295, while a Limited model costs $17,295.

The ’07 Elantra is on sale now at U.S. Hyundai dealers.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com