They say you should never judge a book by its cover. They say looks aren’t everything. They say beauty is only skin deep. They say it’s what’s inside that counts. They say a lot of things, but when I saw for myself the Hyundai MD Elantra up close I forgot about all that for a moment.

This is a product of Hyundai’s ‘Fluidic Sculpture’ design language, and it shows – everything seems to flow. The headlamps sweep back towards a shoulder line that gently kinks at the C-pillar, creating a leaf-shaped glass area. A waistline starts from the front wheel arch, marks the position of the outside door handles and finally punctuates the tail lamps. The waistline is so pronounced it creates ‘hips.’

Look at it side-on and you notice the headlamps and tail lamps are of about the same shape and surface area. Its short overhangs are about the same length too – the rear is only 100 mm longer than the front – and with a roofline that bridges bonnet and boot in a constant parabolic curve, this is a car of very balanced proportions.

And who could miss that front end? Some might call it fussy, but the way the bonnet lines meet at the grille and then form a hexagon around the triple-slatted lower intake, you have to say, is pretty original. It’s a handsome car that manages to stand out without being offensive. Oh, and it’s locally-assembled, which is why you see an Inokom badge on the nose.

Hyundai is on a roll with the MD Elantra, especially in the US where it is the recipient of numerous awards and accolades including 2012 North American Car of the Year. They’re no longer strangers to the Malaysian market either, and their global confidence is growing, which shows in the Elantra’s bold styling. Of course, how the styling will hold up in the years to come is a different matter, but for now, looks-wise, it’s a big tick in my box.

The fluidity continues inside, with dashboard and door pulls being particularly swoopy (even the steering wheel spokes, to an extent). It’s interesting at best, but there’s a downside – due to the adventurous shapes, the central air-con vents have had to be relegated to small areas on either side of the centre console, which is a bit awkward-looking.

That is not to say air-con performance suffers, for the cooling system features double-pipe plumbing, which Hyundai says “results in faster cooling and less load on the air-con compressor.” Indeed, no complaints as far as air conditioning is concerned – cabin temperatures are brought down to comfortable levels very quickly, and maintained even on the hottest of days.

In terms of fit and finish, it has to be said that while everything’s put together very well, the perceived quality of the materials used do lag somewhat behind its main rivals. I say ‘perceived’ because I have no doubt they’ll hold up to many years of abuse, but they do not feel so. Buttons and switches are all in the right places, but again, there’s still a plasticky lightness in their operation. Think of the buttons on a calculator. But hey, they do the job.

Practicality and space? Oh yes. Cubbyholes are in abundance (including an overhead compartment for you to put your sunglasses), and they’ve clearly been cleverly thought out, for all are within easy reach and don’t require much of a stretch. There’s even a shopping bag hook on the centre console, and I counted eight cupholders in total – surely a record for this segment. The cabin has an airy feel, helped by the sunroof and the fact that it really is quite spacious inside.

You’re looking at 420 litres of luggage space; open the really light boot lid and pull the two catch release knobs to fold the back seats down and obviously you get a lot more. With the rear bench folded, the centre seat belt is in the way. Try as I did, I couldn’t find a way to get rid of it. It’s a safety thing, of course. But if I had a really wide cabinet to transport, I might have to saw it in half first.

The MD Elantra is offered here in four variants: 1.6MT Standard, 1.6AT Standard, 1.6AT High Spec and 1.8AT Premium, with prices starting from RM88,888, OTR with insurance. Standard kit for all include ABS with EBD, auxiliary, USB and iPod functionality, electric power steering, leather seats, two airbags, fog lamps and automatic headlamps.

My test car was the 1.8AT Premium, which costs RM114,888. Exclusive to it are 17-inch alloys (the other variants get 16s), a tilt-and-slide sunroof, Nappa leather seats, Audio Visual Navigator, dual-zone automatic air-con, automatic wipers, power driver’s seat and cruise control. It also has keyless entry and start (only the Standard manual doesn’t get this), ESP with VSM and aluminium pedals (the High Spec gets these too). That’s a lot of kit, I’m sure you’ll agree.

The Premium is also the only Elantra variant that gets the Nu-series 1.8 litre powerplant. Featuring Dual Continuously Variable Valve Timing, the twin-cam engine develops 150 PS at 6,500 rpm and 178 Nm of torque at 4,700 rpm – 30 PS and 21 Nm more than the 1.6 litre unit found in the lower-spec Elantras. It’s a free-revving thing; imperceptibly quiet at idle and capable of delivering a fair amount of go on demand. Put it this way – as far as power is concerned, the average Elantra buyer is not going to be left wanting.

However at engine speeds exceeding 3,000 rpm or so, its note turns rather harsh and unpleasant, and the escalating volume intrudes into the cabin. This can happen quite often, as there’s not much torque on tap and the six-speed automatic has to change down a cog or two, relying on revs to pull the Elantra up steeper gradients.

I took it to Ipoh and back one day, averaging about 110 km/h on the highway. Ride comfort at speed is very good, and wind noise is kept well at bay. Pull out to overtake, though, and there’s the engine noise again. The steering is perhaps a little over-assisted at speed, which doesn’t inspire much confidence in its slight lack of feel.

At the end of the day however, it was a very relaxed and comfortable drive, helped by the supple Nappa leather seats (not like the hard stuff you get from the Germans). Over the 400 km jaunt, I used 28.8 litres of petrol, which translates to an average fuel consumption of 7.2 litres per 100 km for that journey.

If you feel like a spot of sporty driving however, you may be left underwhelmed, for the Elantra does not feel dynamic. A big part of it is down to the numb steering, but also because the body tends to roll quite a bit through fast, tight turns, especially when you change direction even only moderately quickly.

Gear changes in manual mode aren’t particularly quick either. Sudden changes in road camber can also unsettle the chassis, but then again for a car weighing only 1.2 tonnes or so, it is acceptable. Really, this isn’t a sports car, doesn’t pretend to be one and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Perhaps what you’d most like to know about is how it drives day-to-day, around town. Well, now you’re thankful for the light steering as it really makes a difference when you’re trying to get out of tight spots. The rear window is actually quite small, which impedes visibility slightly, but there’s always the reverse camera. Gear changes are largely seamless, except for low speeds when you may encounter a jerk or two; nothing alarming though.

I liked the brakes; they’re effective, have good pedal feel and are linear in operation. Generally, it’s an easy car to drive, and it goes about its business in a fuss-free fashion. I’d say it’s more at home within the city than going out of it. To emphasise the point, it has an ‘ECO’ indicator that pops up in the instrument panel when you’re going easy on the right pedal.

The Audio Visual Navigation system is a touch-screen affair that brings together entertainment, voice-guided GPS, Bluetooth and the aforementioned reverse camera. It has to be said that the system’s response is slow and isn’t very touch-sensitive. The screen is difficult to read in daylight even on its brightest setting, and the graphical user interface does not make it look like a premium product. The GPS once took nearly 20 seconds to calculate my route, and I was stationary at the time!

To sum up, the Hyundai MD Elantra is a worthy buy if value for money, practicality and stand-out looks – its strongest assets – are what you’re after. It’s easy to drive and does everything expected of it. Hyundai even throws in a generous five-year or 300,000 km warranty. For a second opinion (or rather, a first opinion), do read Danny’s account of his test drive in the Elantra’s home country.

And there you have it – an entire review of a Korean car without any ‘Gangnam Style’ references. Have a great Sunday, for that rhymes with Hyundai – right, Hyundai North America?