A strong engine, supple ride, responsive handling, luxury interior, decent styling and a dynamite stereo. And it's a Hyundai. Go figure. Despite its lame name, the XG300 is an attractive package of high-end features in a midsize car that competes against the top-drawer versions of Accord, Camry, Passat, Sable or LeSabre. Being a Hyundai, the price tag undercuts them all.

Every time I drive a new Hyundai, I notice how much better it is than the last Hyundai I drove. For a long time, that wasn't saying much. But with this new sedan, the South Korean automaker has no reason to apologize, because it does most things quite well.

So you might say that Hyundai has finally hit its stride, that maybe the South Korean automaker has turned into the strong force that everybody has been expecting. If the XG300 is any indication, Hyundai has at least arrived on stage.

This is Hyundai's first foray upstream, the first time it is marketing a luxury car in the United States. One passenger climbing on board exclaimed, "Leather in a Hyundai?" Yes, it does seem weird, considering the bargain-basement image that has propelled most of its products.

And pricing does play an important role with the XG300, which comes standard with a full boat of luxury features and equipment for just a shade north of $23,000. That gets you upgraded versions of the competition, but certainly nothing special or high end.

On the test car, the bottom line is actually cheaper than the base price because of credit for a deleted automatic climate control.

The interior is surprisingly nice, surprising only because of the legion of spartan Excels and Sonatas that many of us have owned, used and discarded in the past. Roomy and comfortable with a full array of comfort and luxury features, the cabin presents itself as nicely as anything else in its class. The plastic wood inserts cheapen the look, though. There has to be a better way.

At the curb, the maroon sedan looks quite classy, though also a bit stodgy. The front aspect with its gleaming grille is nice though generic, and the rear treatment looks almost like a baby Bentley. That's kind of cool, but the body style looks too much like an amalgam of designs in conflict. Not bad, but it could have been better coordinated.

Driving impressions were almost totally positive. I liked the ride provided by the firm, well-controlled suspension, which also soaked up bumps, dips and uneven surfaces with aplomb. This is quite a departure for Hyundai, in my experience. The rack-and-pinion steering is direct and responsive, and the cornering is balanced and predictable. Freeway driving is quiet and steady.

The standard 3-liter V-6 is smooth, and with over 190 horsepower, plenty powerful enough for this midsize car. Though in today's world, where similar V-6s are pushing into the 240 horsepower range, there was some feeling of midrange weakness under hard acceleration. The automatic transmission comes eq uipped with a Shiftronic feature to allow sporty driving when desired, but I mostly left it in "drive." Notably, the transmission is a five-speed, unheard of at this price.

Other favorable features: four-wheel disc brakes, front-seat side airbags, leather seats, automatic climate control and a fine stereo system with CD. Any way you cut it, that's a lot of XG300 for the money. And while concerns linger about Hyundai durability, mostly due to the first batch of imploding Excels, there can be no gripe about Hyundai's standard warranty, which includes 10-year or 100,000-mile powertrain and five-year, unlimited mileage roadside assistance.

Accepting Hyundai as a builder of a luxury sedan could be the real challenge, but those doubts should evaporate once you get inside and see what your 23 grand will buy.