2018 Hyundai Elantra GT delivers sport, tech and value in equal measure

Over the past couple of years, Hyundai has been working feverishly behind the scenes in preparation to launch its new performance sub-brand, N. The division's first offering, dubbed i30 N, finally launches this fall in Europe. Sadly, it's not earmarked for the US -- Americans will have to wait until next year to get their first taste of N. Until that time, the 2018 Hyundai Elantra GT Sport seen here may just be the next best thing.

Based on the same platform as the i30 N, this third-generation Hyundai Elantra GT doesn't have that car's red-meat mechanicals, but it still has enough punch to be entertaining. Base Elantra GTs start at $19,350 (plus $885 freight) and receive a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter inline four with 161 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque. If you enjoy driving more than the average bear, however, you'll want to splurge for the 1.6-liter turbo Sport model seen here. Not only does this $23,250 model have more power -- 201 horses and 195 pound-feet -- it's available lower on the tachometer, with peak torque hitting at 1,500 rpm. 

Of course, those figures aren't quite full-fledged sport compact power these days, but it's enough juice to get in the conversation with Honda's new Civic Si, Nissan's Sentra NISMO, and Volkswagen's base GTI. It's also enough power to have a good time. 

The Elantra GT's cabin is so capacious the EPA classifies it as a fullsize car.

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You've probably already picked this up from the photos, but the Elantra GT is attractive, taking a less-gimmicky approach to its visuals than its fellow Asian rivals. It's almost European looking, and that's not by accident — the GT was penned primarily Continental buyers in mind, and its conception was overseen by Peter Shreyer, a superstar designer who cut his teeth at Volkswagen and Audi. This hatchback can look slightly nose-heavy from certain angles, but overall, it's a crisp, handsome piece of design that should age well.

It's also a practical design. The Elantra GT is voluminous enough inside to technically qualify as a large car inside by the measure-masters at the EPA, and it's got a cargo hold that's nearly 25 cubic feet without folding the back seats. With them stowed, the GT gobbles groceries like Pac Man gobbles Power Pellets. Its 55 cubes shades even baseline competitors, including the Civic Hatchback, Ford Focus, and Mazda3, our reigning favorite five-door. In fact, it may not offer all-wheel drive or a trucklike countenance, but the Elantra GT offers more sport and utility than most small sport utilities. 

It may seem odd to prioritize talk of storage space in a sporty car review, but according to Hyundai's research, it's a key attribute among segment shoppers — some 32 percent of compact hatch buyers claim Outdoor Activities among their key hobbies. That's an even higher figure than entry-level SUV buyers. In other words, space for sports gear and lifestyle accessories is key, and the Elantra delivers.

The Elantra GT's cabin is about as straightforward as you'll find in a modern car.

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If you're considering an Elantra GT, it's not just the added power under the hood that should tilt you in the pricier Sport model's direction. The latter also gains a more advanced multilink rear suspension for improved handling (the standard GT makes do with a  torsion beam), and it also receives quicker steering, as well as revised damping and spring rates and a 15-mm rear antiroll bar. It also gets bigger disc brakes beneath its slightly larger 18-inch wheels, as well as grippier seats.

The net effect is that the Elantra GT Sport is a fun car to drive, with good power off the line, little discernible turbo lag, and solid midrange passing punch. I didn't have any testing gear handy, but 0-to-60 mph feels like it happens in about 6.5 seconds -- on par with the Civic Si, and on the unremarkable side of quick. Either model can be had with a six-speed manual gearbox, while the uplevel Sport is the only model to offer an $1,100 seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddles (if you don't want to shift the base Elantra GT for yourself, you'll get a conventional six-speed automatic as a $1,000 option). 

I sampled both gearboxes in the Sport and found them agreeable. Predictably, the manual was more entertaining, with a light, progressive clutch and a smooth-rowing gearbox, both of which were more pleasing than the Si I recently tested. The DCT executes snappy up- and downshifts when called for manually using the paddles, and it's refined enough when left to its own devices in stop-and-go-traffic. One minor annoyance: Even with the Sport button pushed, the transmission refused to hold gears at redline like a proper performance cogswapper — it always upshifted.

The 1.6-liter with the optional dual clutch makes for the quickest acceleration, and paradoxically, it also rates as the thriftiest Elantra GT you can buy, netting 26 miles per gallon city and 32 highway. The same engine with the manual transmission takes a big hit, registering an unimpressive 22 mpg city and 29 highway. If you don't want to splurge for the Sport, the entry-level 2.0-liter manual musters 23 city and 31 highway, or 24/32 with the automatic.

The Elantra GT's steering is direct, nicely weighted and reasonably quick, but even on the Sport, feedback is muted. The ride and handling balance is agreeable, and while this Hyundai's corner-carving prowess won't put Volkswagen's GTI on notice, it's still quite capable and entertaining -- and it's a lot cheaper.

Regardless of which trim you pick, the Elantra GT features a nicely designed cabin rendered in decent materials. Yes, there are hard plastic panels, but you'll find soft-touch plastics and upholstery where it matters most. Besides, Hyundai designers are better at straightforward ergonomics than just about any automaker these days, and the cabin's combination of simple design, legible gauges and a touchscreen infotainment system bookended by just-enough physical switchgear pays big dividends -- there's not much of a learning curve to this car.

8-inch touchscreen with knobs, buttons, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Congratulations are in order. 

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A few more words about that infotainment setup: Based on Hyundai's latest AVN 5.0 hardware, the system is snappy, intuitive, and thanks to its 8-inch screen, generously proportioned. Featuring standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration, there's also a decent backup camera with dynamic guidance lines, and the available navigation features HD Radio-sourced traffic and incident data, meaning you won't have to pay extra to stay in the know. 

Other unusual-for-the-class tech features include available wireless charging and Blue Link-enabled remote start using smart phones, wearables or devices like Amazon's Echo and Google Home. 

Any missing tricks? No 360-degree surround-view setting is available (still a relative rarity at this price point), and more importantly, if you're a purist who wants a manual gearbox, you'll miss out on a lot of tech and convenience niceties that are only available on two-pedal models. The $3,850 Tech Package on the Sport includes the aforementioned navigation system and Blue Link telematics, dual-zone climate control, cooled front seats (with power adjustments for the driver), a panoramic moonroof and a seven-speaker Infinity audio system. 

Elantra GT is loaded with virtues, but still has 55 cu-ft of cargo room for you to bring your own.

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Not only that, the Tech Package also includes a number of key advanced safety features, including intelligent cruise control with start/stop, forward collision warning, auto-brake with pedestrian detection, lane-keeping and high-beam assists, and even a drowsy-driver alert feature. That's a lot of gear to miss out on for the privilege of rowing your own gears, but perhaps diehard manual transmission enthusiasts won't mind. 

That caveat aside, the 2018 Elantra GT is a particularly versatile car for (relatively) short money. It's good looking, entertaining to drive, generously dimensioned and is available with a whole host of class-above luxury and safety tech. Who knows — it's versatile enough that it may even tempt a few people from joining America's legions of consumers defecting to SUVs. 

On second thought, that might take an even hotter version tuned by Hyundai's new N division. How about it, Korea?

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