During the small presentation the night before our drive in the 2017 Hyundai Elantra Sport, one journalist offered up a very straightforward question: "Why?"
Why, in a market that's making a clear move toward crossovers, would Hyundai release a sporty variant of a smaller sedan that's unlikely to appeal beyond a relatively small subsection of buyers?
In defense of the Elantra Sport, and possibly in defense of sporty versions of more pedestrian cars in general, Hyundai believes the demand is strong enough to be worth it. It wants to expand options for buyers. With this new Elantra Sport, Hyundai believes it will comprise some 10 percent of total Elantra sales, compared to 5 percent in its previous iteration.
The Elantra Sport isn't just some aesthetics package. Of course, looks do factor into it -- the car has more aggressive front and rear fasciae, larger wheels, unique running lights and standard HID projector headlights. The interior has a different gauge cluster, unique trim pieces, a flat-bottomed steering wheel and standard leather seats.
Under the hood is a 1.6-liter, turbocharged engine, good for 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque -- a far cry from the standard Elantra's 147-hp, 132-pound-foot four-banger. Both six-speed manual and seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions are available, sending all that power to the front wheels.
The engine is just the start. The Elantra Sport features a multi-link rear suspension, a more complicated setup than the standard Elantra's torsion beam. The mufflers are different, the intake has a special piece of piping that allows more air in for a better noise. Spring and damper rates are up, the steering ratio is smaller, and the front brakes are larger.
In order to showcase the Elantra Sport's newfound dynamics, Hyundai had us autocross its car at Tire Rack's test track in Indiana. There was a short road loop available, as well, so it was less of a "live with this car on a daily basis" examination.
The first thing that stood out was the exhaust note. With a little blip of the throttle, the noise that came out the Elantra Sport's rear end was surprisingly aggressive, like a muted variant of a Fiat Abarth product. It was pleasant, but sadly, it wasn't as apparent from the interior.
The autocross course gave us plenty of time to test out the car's handling. The stiffer spring and damper rates were apparent, with the car leaning less than a standard Elantra, but a road-loop spin proved that it wasn't so stiff as to be annoying in daily driving. While turn-in happened quickly, the steering was relatively numb throughout, sending little feedback from the road to the driver.
While it's always nice to have the option of a manual transmission, I felt almost nothing from the Elantra Sport's clutch. The bite point was difficult to figure out initially, and the shifter's throws felt less precise than I would have liked. The dual-clutch option was smooth, without many of the shudder-judder niggles present in other economy-car DCTs.
When it came time to bringing the Elantra Sport to a stop, the larger front brakes were welcome. Stopping happened without much drama, and despite repeated autocross runs with very little downtime in between, the brakes didn't start fading for hours.
On the whole, the Elantra Sport is a fun car. It hustles in a way the standard Elantra never will. And, with a starting price of $21,650 ($22,750 with the dual-clutch), it's pretty darn affordable. The only option is the $2,400 Premium Package, which adds navigation, a better sound system, a sunroof, dual-zone climate control and Hyundai's Blue Link connected-car suite.
Hyundai says its competitors are the Volkswagen Jetta GLI, Honda Civic Si and the new Nissan Sentra SR Turbo. I've driven the first two, and I would definitely recommend the Elantra Sport over the Civic Si, although that may change once Honda unveils a new Si on its updated tenth-generation platform. The Elantra Sport offers nearly the same experience as the GLI, but the Vee-Dub costs thousands more.
In that sense, it's a traditional Hyundai, offering 10 pounds of features at a 5-pound price point. It makes a great case for itself against a small subset of competitors, with properly sporty driving dynamics and a surprisingly potent exhaust note. If you're unwilling to spend the extra scratch required for the VW Golf GTI (the king of sporty economy cars), the Elantra Sport should suit you just fine.
CNET accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews. All scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms. However, for this feature, the manufacturer covered travel costs. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. The judgments and opinions of CNET's editorial team are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.