The motoring power wars have escalated to the point where the average hot hatch is able to break most speed limits in less than six seconds. That's great on track, and perfect for people playing Top Trumps, but it also means you can't explore the performance on road. According to Hyundai, the solution is warmed over cars like the Elantra SR Turbo. It isn't too cold, and it isn't too hot – the SR Turbo aims for the goldilocks zone. Does it connect?

On paper, the Elantra SR Turbo is a fascinating blend of sporty and mundane elements, combined to create a halfway house between an average sedan and something a bit more special. Power comes from a freer-breathing version of the turbocharged 1.6-liter engine from the Veloster Turbo, with 150 kW (201 hp) and 265 Nm. Not a genuine firecracker of a performance engine, but more than enough to feel quick at (or below) the legal limit. We averaged 9.0 l/100km (26 MPG) on our week with the car, up from the claimed 7.2 l/100km (32.7 MPG).

Although there's a six-speed manual gearbox available, Hyundai has gone to the trouble of developing a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic as well. Purists will always go for the stick shift when given the option, but the DCT makes a lot of sense if you spend a lot of time in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It does suffer from some low-speed hesitation, but that's more characteristic of the breed than an indictment on Hyundai.

Once you're up to speed, the gearbox slips through its seven ratios quickly. It's willing to run the engine right out to redline when you lay the boot in, although there's not a huge benefit to running beyond the torque peak at 4,500 rpm. Plastic paddle shifters on the wheel hand control back to the driver, delivering smooth upshifts and crisp downshifts on demand. The only real downer is the droney, flat engine noise you get flicking down the gears – a bit of theatre wouldn't go astray.

Of course, there's more to a performance car than the engine. Although it isn't a full hot sedan, the engineering team has gone to the trouble of swapping the standard torsion beam rear suspension for a fully independent setup. The change does eat into boot space, but it also allows for a more sophisticated tune than could otherwise be achieved. We've praised the Kia Sportage and Rio for their excellent suspension tune, and the locally-tweaked Elantra hasn't missed out on the magic.

Like the other Korean cars we've driven recently, it feels compliant and sophisticated over the sharp edges and speed bumps that plague the roads around Melbourne, Australia. But unlike its Kia step-siblings, the Elantra has an extra edge to its setup, designed to make it a willing companion on sinewy tarmac.

Consider it mission accomplished, because the SR Turbo is arguably the best handling car Hyundai has ever developed. It turns in sharply, and sits nice and flat through corners, just as you'd expect of any good hot hatch. The balance is resolutely neutral – it's hard to coax any oversteer out of the car, and barreling into a corner too quickly will bring about mild push from the Hankook Ventus Prime 2 tires – but grip is plentiful up to the limit, and the flat-bottomed steering wheel gives you a decent idea about what's going on with the front wheels.

The most impressive part of the car's dynamic repertoire is its ability to handle pockmarked tarmac. No matter what the road throws up, there's an unshakeable feeling to the way the SR Turbo shrugs off bumps, potholes and awkward camber changes. It is slightly held back by the lack of a proper front differential on wet tarmac though, spinning up the front tires a bit too easily on the way out of slow corners if you get a bit greedy with the throttle. Then again, the solution to that is simple: don't get greedy with the throttle.

Along with the not too hot, not too cold experience behind the wheel, the Elantra treads a neat tightrope on the practicality front. It's surprisingly big inside, with impressive rear legroom with taller drivers in the front, although the sunroof does eat into valuable driver headroom. Boot space is an identical 458 liters (16 cu.ft) across the whole Elantra range, but the SR Turbo swaps the full-size spare tire in base model cars for a space saver. Blame the multi-link suspension for that one.

All SR Turbos come with heated leather seats, parking sensors, blind-spot warning and rear cross-traffic alerts as standard. Hyundai's in-house touchscreen interface is well laid out but it doesn't include navigation, you're stuck using your mobile data and maps through Apple CarPlay or Android Auto connection instead. There's also a reversing camera, but the picture quality is likely to be familiar if you still think of television as "that thing that killed the wireless."

As for the exterior, well, that's going to depend on taste. I'd be steering clear of the Blazing Yellow (or Metallic Snot) paint, but the 17-inch wheels, twin exhaust tips and chromed front grille are all nice additions to a good looking base package. It's a small smattering of sporty touches, but they add just enough sparkle to back up the car's more focused feel. And for some, flying under the radar is perhaps the most attractive trait of all.

The Elantra SR Turbo starts at US$21,650 in the States and AU$29,990 in Australia. That puts it squarely in line with the Mazda 3 SP25 and Honda Civic Turbo in both markets. The Hyundai badge might not be associated with sports cars like its Japanese rivals, but the SR Turbo proves you shouldn't judge a book by its cover. A blend of space, pace and driving fun make the Elantra well and truly worth a look – and bodes well for the i30 N on the way later this year.

The Elantra SR Turbo is badged Elantra Sport in the USA. The car is mechanically the same as the one you see pictured here ... but the steering wheel is on the other side.

Product page: Hyundai (Australia)

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