Shopping for a compact car is typically an exercise for your left brain. This hemisphere of your mind where logic resides delights in how rational and economical cars in this segment can be.
Meanwhile, the more visually oriented right side of your brain (that also dabbles with emotion) hears "compact car" and goes numb with boredom and starts replaying episodes of "The Cosby Show." After all, what's more visually stimulating than one of Heathcliff's sweaters?
Thankfully, Hyundai's 2011 Elantra takes traditional compact car sensibility and mixes in just enough aesthetic moxie and creature comforts to keep the right side of your brain engaged.
The most likely source for neurological rapture in your left brain will be the Elantra's class-leading fuel economy of 29 miles per gallon in the city and 40 mpg on the highway. With the price of gas rising faster than Moammar Kadafi can update his resume, this efficiency may well push the car to the forefront of consumers' shopping lists in the coming months. During 270 miles of testing, I saw an average of 30 mpg in my $22,905 fully-loaded Elantra Limited.
Although it may not be the only car in its segment to hit the magic 40 mpg highway number, this Hyundai is the only one to do so at every trim level without optional packages or special versions. This isn't a thirsty segment either; peers include the Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Jetta, Chevy Cruze, Ford Focus and Honda Civic.
Helping the Elantra achieve this mileage is a new 1.8-liter, four-cylinder engine putting out 148 horsepower and 131 pound-feet of torque. The engine is mated to a standard six-speed manual transmission on the base GLS model. A six-speed automatic with a manual mode is offered as optional on the GLS and is standard on the Limited. Both transmissions get the same gas mileage.
The engine's power is enough to move the car around, but it has a coarse note during acceleration at low speeds, with too much noise making its way into the cabin. Blame Hyundai's slightly overreaching diet; the company went to great lengths to keep the Elantra's weight down in the name of fuel economy. Unfortunately, a bit too much sound deadening was left on the factory floor.
Meanwhile the six-speed automatic is a great asset. It stays out of your way during normal driving and in manual mode it rips off shifts with a firm expeditiousness you don't often see in this segment.
On the road, this Hyundai's handling is nothing that will excite or bore either side of the brain. A sport sedan this is not (which is fine, as most EIantra buyers probably don't expect it to be.) Although not as eager to carve up the curves as a Ford Focus, the Elantra is certainly composed. Body roll is minimal, there's good grip and the understeer is negligible.
Unfortunately the numb electric power steering takes away a few degrees of confidence; it could provide more feedback to the driver.
What isn't numb is the Elantra's appearance. Dubbed "fluidic sculpture" (isn't that what Trump calls his hairpiece?), the styling on this compact Hyundai extends the brand's look into a segment not known for its style.
The car starts with an open-mouth grille that gives way to curvaceous headlights, which sit in front of a short overhang and dissolve into the vehicle's beltline. Starting just below the side-view mirrors, a second character line extends to the rear of the Elantra, where it fades into the taillights with a flourish. All this succeeds at making the car look more expensive than it is.
That impression is also aided by the car's size. Although it sells in the compact segment, the Elantra's interior volume gets it classified as a mid-size car by the Environmental Protection Agency. There is plenty of legroom for a car full of your tallest friends, though you'll likely hear your taller rear-seat passengers complain about tight headroom. Blame the Elantra's sloping roofline. Trunk space is stellar.
The rest of the Elantra's cabin is nicely done. The materials are of a higher quality than one might expect for a car with a base price of $15,625. The controls all have a substantial quality to them, and everything is laid out in a logical manner and feature a brush of the exterior's curvaceousness. Finally, the seats hugged and supported me like only a Cosby sweater could.
The base Elantra GLS lacks standard air conditioning (really?) but does feature XM Radio with iPod input and a six-speaker sound system, power windows and locks, a trip computer and keyless entry. The automatic transmission is part of a $2,250 option package on the GLS.
The more expensive Elantra Limited starts at $20,775 and comes with leather, a moon roof, heated front and rear seats, 17-inch alloy wheels, Bluetooth and steering-wheel mounted controls.
The $2,000 premium package for the Limited adds a touch-screen navigation system with iPod integration that continues to be one of the simplest and best-performing systems in the industry. Also included is a backup camera, 360-watt sound system and push-button start.
All Elantras also come with six air bags; traction control; stability control; anti-lock, four-wheel disc brakes; and a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty and five years of roadside assistance.
By most metrics, the Elantra wins the segment only in fuel economy. The 2012 Ford Focus has more horsepower and handles better, the Chevy Cruze has more air bags and trunk space, the Nissan Sentra has more interior space and the Toyota Corolla has a lower starting price for an automatic transmission. Updated or new versions of the Honda Civic and Mazda 3 loom on the near horizon.
But your left brain may relish this Hyundai: On top of the car's efficiency, it excels in each of the other categories with a consistency few others in the segment can match. Meanwhile, the right brain receives its fix with the up-market styling inside and out.
It's a win-win. No reruns of "The Cosby Show" necessary.