At this year’s Arizona Auto Show, my teenage boys showed some unexpected enthusiasm for the Hyundai display, where they couldn’t keep their beady eyes off a certain little four-door hatchback. It was a new model for the compact Elantra, and they were all over it.

They weren’t the only ones. More recently, young people cast so many admiring looks at the bright-red Elantra GT that I was driving, it might have been a trendy sport sedan. But no, it was a non-trendy compact from Hyundai, which up to now has been a decidedly non-trendy auto company.

Who would ever think that the practical five-door configuration, long considered dorky, would come back with such a vengeance? Credit sport utility vehicles and other popular purveyors of station-wagon qualities without being station wagons. There are quite a few new four-door hatches for 2002, including Ford Focus ZX5 and Pontiac Vibe, that have captured people’s imaginations with their sporty images and accommodating designs.

And who would ever think Hyundai would rise so successfully from its near-death experience in the ’80s, when clunky design and spotty quality linked them with such bottom feeders as Yugo? The Elantra GT is yet another recent pleasant surprise from Hyundai, more evidence that the Korean company is hitting its stride and producing products that have good quality and driving characteristics as well as low prices.

The GT version of the Elantra sedan is an attractive little craft nicely enhanced by the hatchback configuration. Handling and performance are decent, and the interior is comfortable and well equipped. And that’s all for a bottom line under $15,000. For that, you get leather seats, side air bags and a six-speaker stereo with CD; power door locks, windows and mirrors, and remote locking; sport suspension, good-looking alloy wheels and four-wheel disc brakes; cruise control, fog lamps and air conditioning.

No doubt, that’s a lot of car for the money.

The 2-liter engine is not wildly powerful, but it is competent. Off-the-line torque is modest, and its maximum 140 horsepower comes way up at 6,000 RPM. But it gets there smoothly and comfortably. It’s really a nice-running four, a bit boomy under acceleration but settling down to a quiet burble at freeway speed.

In the test car, it was coupled with a five-speed stick shift that had a nice feel and mated well with the engine. A manual transmission is probably preferred here since an automatic would sap performance.

The most impressive part of Elantra’s driveability is its freeway manners, where many small, lightweight cars turn noisy and unpleasant. Here, the Elantra shows itself to be a smooth, quiet cruiser at 75 mph, muffling the noise from the rough concrete and transmitting very little engine roar. This is a major plus, making the Elantra feel like a bigger, more substantial car.

But being a small, lightweight car, there is a certain amount of tinniness about the structure , such as doors that feel too light and flimsy.

The well-furnished interior is nicely finished, and roomy enough for a tall driver and front-seat passenger, though rear-seat legroom is a bit tight. The six-speaker stereo sounded good, though in the test car, it had trouble picking up weaker stations.

Starting at $13,999, the few options added to the test car were a power moon roof, $650; California emissions (obviously not required here), $100; floor mats, $78 and a trunk cargo net, $38. Freight and handling were thankfully included in the base price.

Elantra’s low pricing really undercuts the Japanese competition. Add to that Hyundai’s fabulous warranty – five-year, 60,000-mile overall warranty; 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty and five-year, unlimited-mileage free roadside service – and you find a lot to like about this stylish little five-door.

And although the price is modest, there are really no compromises in terms of quality, performance or style

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