Few of the cars which have had a GT label applied to them have really been Grand Touring machines, so I can't kvetch too much about Hyundai misappropriating the designator - big time.

The Elantra GT is hardly a vehicle in which you'd want to spend a great deal of time devouring long distances.

But it is a car which should strike fear in the hearts of competitors, not so much for what it is, but for what it augurs about the major Korean manufacturer's ability to contain costs while producing a desirable product.

Given its price point and execution, it is truly one which exceeds expectations, in all but one crucial area.

Introduced for the 2002 model year, the Elantra GT is based on the same platform used to support the sedan GLS, introduced at the turn of the millennium. But instead of being a mere cosmetic variant, it is a fundamentally different model. If logic were the persuasive force in auto buying decisions, the sedans would languish on dealer lots, now that the new series is available.

For a bit more than a thousand-dollar premium, selecting the GT gets you many advantages over the sedan: a "European" suspension with gas-filled shocks and larger anti-roll bars front and rear, a new power steering pump for the rack-and-pinion aiming mechanism, and Michelin tires on alloy wheels. It also has leather seating (you read right!), air conditioning, power steering, windows and door locks, AM-FM-CD stereo and fog lamps, as well as new side air bags.

Most importantly, perhaps, in a right-brain sort of way, it gets you a fifth door, in the form of a hatch, once the hallmark of econoboxes but now making a comeback as a desirable extra. With the new configuration, you get 28.3 cubic feet of cargo volume vs. the 12.9 afforded by the trunk of the sedan. Passenger volume remains the same, 94 cubic feet, which puts the Elantra GT squarely in the Environmental Protection Agency's compact territory.

Settling a frame designed for large cars into position behind the wheel of the Elantra, I did not feel unduly constrained, after some fiddling with the six-way manually adjustable driver's seat, which I found I did not need to push fully rearward. With such giving people in front, a couple of adults could manage in the rear for club-hopping, but they wouldn't want to make a Grand Tour. Three small kids would look as cute back there as anchovies in the can. The seat of course folds down, 60-40.

The Elantra is propelled by a 2-liter aluminum-and-cast-iron four-banger. Nothing too trick here, but with 16 valves it makes a respectable 140 hp at 6,000 rpm, 133 foot-pounds of torque at 4,800.

Lacking such trickery as multiple intake paths or variable valve-and-camshaft timing, the engine shows considerably more enthusiasm around 5,000 rpm than it does farther down, but it slogged at 2,500 without undue complaining or bucking.

The car I tested was equipped with the standard 5-speed manual transmission, which I daresay would be a better match for this peaky powerplant than the available four-speed automatic.

The 5-speed was quite acceptable for this price class, neither a delight to operate nor an impediment to wringing the engine. The clutch was fairly light and easily feathered.

The power was sufficient to make this 2,635-pound car feel peppy, and it ran from 0-60 in just under nine seconds, with deft clutch engagement and plenty of revs.

The five forward ratios seemed apt, and the final drive cog was 3.65:1, giving the Elantra plenty of mechanical advantage. It runs 23 mph per 1,000 rpm in overdrive fifth. At 70, then, it was running at three grand and became a bit boomy; the engine gets raucous when pushed toward the 6,500 redline.

EPA estimates - 87-octane fuel, of course - are 25 mpg city, 33 highway. I logged 26.7, and that was on winding country roads with the hammer down.

The GT's Michelins are of a decent size, at 195/60/15, and they had very good grip on both wet and dry pavement. The Elantra, despite its diminutive dimensions, felt quite stable running through some heavy standing water.

The GT, as noted, gets rear discs instead of the sedan's drum brakes. Both front and rear are 10.1 inches, a generous size for the weight class. They showed no fade, and were very good at ignoring moisture.

Hyundai had to hold back a little, and they did so by making antilock optional. Nonetheless, the car behaved quite respectably when I tried some pseudo-panic stops on both wet and dry macadam. I scold Hyundai for making antilock available only as part of a $1,000 package, which also includes a power moonroof and traction control.

I wouldn't describe the steering as crisp, but it is light, reasonably fast, and showed good self-centering response when exiting a turn. Rolling down the freeway, the Elantra found its way without excessive correction. As always, I would have appreciated more tilt in the steering wheel.

Ride quality was decent, especially in light of the truncated 102.7-inch wheelbase and so-called European suspension. The twin sway bars kept roll well in check, and the springs and shocks were well tuned to provide impact-damping without either extreme, of jiggle or mushiness.

The basic four instruments are unusually large and extremely legible, red needles playing against a lovely indigo-lighted background.

Air conditioner and radio controls are accessible and uncluttered.

The stereo is of a fairly basic type, with only bass and treble tweakers to modify its output, but was nonetheless eminently listenable - far better than I expected in both tonality and tuner sensitivity.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has crash-tested the Elantra sedan with side air bags, close enough in this case to venture some inferences.

In NHTSA's 35-mph frontal barrier test, the Elantra GLS afforded a four-star level of protection to the driver, five-star shielding (the top mark) to the co-pilot. In side impacts, the front cabin rated five stars, the rear, four, a competitive score which shows compliance with federal standards.

It was a different story, though, when the Elantra GLS was subjected to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's more-demanding, though perhaps more realistic, 40-mph crash into an offset, deformable front barrier. The car rated poor overall, the worst rating they give. A seat latch failed, and the Institute said the frontal air bag deployed late, allowing the crash dummy to move around more than is desirable, hitting its head and injuring its legs. Hyundai disputed the initial test, so IIHS conducted two more, which it says just confirmed its earlier findings.

The institute rates the Elantra better than only the Kia Sephia in the class of small cars. Top marks went, in order, to the Subaru Impreza, Honda Civic, Mitsubishi Lancer and Volkswagen New Beetle. Ten other vehicles scored better t han the Elantra, including such plausible alternatives as the Ford Focus, VW Jetta and Golf, Toyota Corolla and Mazda Protege.

Manufacturer's suggested on the Elantra GT with 5-speed manual is a palatable $13,999. The tester had carpeted floor mats ($78) and a trunk cargo net ($38). With freight, total asking price was $14,610. Payments on just such a car would be $296, assuming 48 coupons, 10 percent interest and 20 percent down.

Edmunds.com says buyers currently are wangling about $800 off the asking price, which makes the Elantra seem compelling indeed. I would urge a sober examination of the crash-test data, however, especially if the purchase is being made on behalf of an inexperienced driver.

"The Gannett News Service"