Our epiphany - or maybe it was a thunderbolt - came as we were passing a cactus farm here in a 2001 Hyundai Elantra. The thought boiled down to this: The Koreans have landed a serious blow in the small-car wars with the redesigned Elantra. In fact, the 2001 Elantra may be the best value among entry-level cars, giving buyers on a budget an unexpected bonus from Asia.

"In the fast-food industry, they call it Super-Size," said David Ossenmacher, Hyundai Motor America's director of product and strategic planning. "It's the least expensive price in a big package."

Prior to our experience in the new Elantra, we spent a good chunk of the fall bopping around in basic, starting-under-$13,000 transportation. We've tested two versions of the redesigned 2001 Honda Civic and think it's definitely the best of the Japanese-brand compacts and near the top of the entire segment in terms of style, performance and content.

We've also sampled several models of the impressive Ford Focus, including a Kona edition complete with a Kona Blast bike and a Sony Limited Edition Focus featuring Xplod speakers and amplifiers located in the doors and trunk. Those are just two of the special-niche Focus models that Ford has featured this year to help broaden the car's appeal. The Focus is widely hailed as the benchmark in the class. But it wasn't until Anita went to California and spent a day in the new Elantra sedan that we began to understand Hyundai officials when they said the revised compact was helping to drive the Korean company's U.S. turnaround.

The Elantra, like the Civic and the Focus, is aimed straight at the heart of the compact market - working families that earn about $50,000 a year. Hyundai is scrambling mightily to catch up to competitors like Ford, which offers the Focus in a station-wagon model, too. Hyunda officials say they are planning to introduce a wagon-like Elantra five-door next spring as a 2002 model. However, the Korean automaker is definitely outclassed by Ford in terms of cool packages that customize the car for the buyer, such as the Kona and Sony editions. If you want to customize the Elantra, you're on your own. Still, the basic vehicle is a cut above the two previous generations of Elantra.

Ossenmacher said the Elantra's makeover was undertaken with the goal of making the car "more confident in appearance." The high-end compact was restyled from top to bottom, with a new chiseled profile that replaces the rounded, used-soap-bar look of its predecessor. Hyundai has stretched the new Elantra, making it slightly larger with more interior room. The 2001 version comes in a single trim level - GLS - and gets more standard equipment, including air conditioning, power accessories, AM-FM stereo cassette, tilt steering column and split-folding rear seat.

In terms of exterior dimensions, the Elantra is about two inches longer than the Focus and the Civic, and it weighs a bit more - 70 pounds heavier than the Focus and 200 pounds more than the Civic. You can feel that additional heft on the road, where the Elantra rides like a bigger car, thanks in part to its new standard 15-inch wheels and tires and an all-independent suspension with gas-filled shocks at all four corners.

Its standard four-cylinder engine also outguns the base powerplants in the Focus and Civic. Where the competitors offer single-overhead-cam engines - a 1.7-liter four in the Civic and a 2.0-liter unit in the Focus - the Elantra gets a double-overhead-cam 2.0-liter four that makes 140 horsepower. That compares with only 115 horsepower in the Civic and a measly 110 horsepower in the Focus. You can opt for slightly more powerful engines in either the Ford or the Honda, but they'll cost you more, and they're still not as powerful as the Elantra's twin-cam 2.0-liter engine.

That performance edge extracts a modest penalty in fuel economy. The Elantra is rated at 25 miles per gallon in city driving 33 mpg on the highway, equivalent to 25/33 for the Focus, but less than 32/39 for the Civic, with its much smaller engine.

Elantra has better standard safety features, including front and side air bags; antilock brakes are an extra-cost option. ABS and side bags cost extra on the base Focus. Side air bags are optional on the base Civic, but ABS is available only on the high-end EX model.

Base stickers on all three vehicles start at under $13,000, and are within a few hundred dollars of each other. The Elantra is priced from $12,499; the Focus, from $12,385, and the Civic, from $12,960. The big difference comes in how much the fully loaded cars cost. A well-equipped Elantra, with options like CD player, cruise control and moonroof, fetches around $15,000. A nicely outfitted Focus costs about $16,000 and a comparably equipped Civic, $18,000.

Warranty coverage is also superior on the Elantra. Hyundai's basic bumper-to-bumper warranty is for five years or 60,000 miles, with 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain coverage. In comparison, both the Focus and the Civic come with 3-year or 36,000 mile powertrain and bumper-to-bumper warranties.

Our initial impressions of these three worthy competitors still finds Focus dominating the small-car segment, with Civic a close second. But we have new respect for Elantra. If engine power and warranty coverage are top priorities, the Hyundai compact sedan may end up at the top of your shopping list. For $15,000 or less, it's an awful lot of car for the money.