There’s a war between Japan and South Korea. No, the East Asian neighbours aren’t pointing missiles at each others’ territory, or even joining forces against the belligerent North – the “war” is happening right in our backyard. Waged between fervent Japanese car fans and their Korean counterparts, our comments section and mamak car talk are the battlegrounds, among other forums.

This is of course a new phenomenon. No such battle existed five years back, when Korean brands were still finding their way in auto world. The Japanese, and their salesmen, never felt threatened – Korean cars were dismissed as lower quality wheels for budget hunters who couldn’t shell out more for a Toyota or Honda. And they were mostly right – besides value for money, there were little else going for previous gen Hyundais and Kias.

How things have changed. The Koreans haven’t abandoned “value for money” as a proposition, but perceived quality, technical ability and styling have all caught up, and in some instances, surpassed the stalwarts. No, today’s Hyundais aren’t perfect cars, but they’re really giving the Civics and Corollas of the world a real fight.

Let’s now take a look at the fifth-generation Hyundai Elantra, the reigning North American Car of the Year. Coincidentally, the last time a compact won that title was in 2006, when the revolutionary eighth-gen Honda Civic wowed the crowd…

One of the main pillars of Hyundai’s transformation from also-ran to almost-desirable is styling. You can built a great car, but if it’s boring from the outside, it’s never going to get the attention it deserves, especially so for a challenger brand. Hyundai’s decision to give its new range bold styling was risky, but it’s paying off handsomely.

Personally, my eyes don’t fully agree with every Fluidic Sculpture product that they’ve churned out so far. Never really got the Sonata and Tucson’s fussy faces, and I think the size/proportions of the Accent don’t speak the design language very well. But the Elantra is a different matter.

For me at least, everything looks “right”. I’m no designer, but the Elantra has enough size for the flowing lines to come into play, and the shape is very athletic – the roofline is truly coupe-like (a term that’s overused and abused these days) while the daylight opening (side window area) is sportscar-like shallow.

The Sonata can appear thick on its sides despite the Passat CC inspiration, but there’s no such issue here. Best angle for me is the rear three quarters view, where those wavy tail lamp clusters guide your eyes down the “spine” that skewers both door handles.

There’s no empty patch that will make you go “I think they should have put something here”. The rear also doesn’t look narrow and tall, something that afflicts many C-segment sedans today. Brilliant.

If the exterior is shapely, the dashboard matches it in flair. It’s a riot of curves and shapes in here, but the focus point is the centre stack, or more precisely, its narrow waist. This set of opposing curves is repeated on the steering wheel as well.

It’s a little too busy for me when paired with our Korean test car’s two-tone interior, but the local spec’s all-black theme softens the impact. Not to all tastes, but no one can accuse Hyundai of being safe and boring! Proceed to the Volkswagen camp if you want a solid but sombre business-like atmosphere.

Speaking of VW, the German “air of solidity” isn’t present here, but I suspect that it’s down to the effect of the funky vs serious dashboard design. Like how one would presume that the guy in the suit is more successful/wealthier than the guy in tee and jeans.

Probing deeper, quality wise, there’s nothing the Elantra’s cabin lacks compared to Japanese rivals. The feel of the materials, the way the knobs turn and the fit of the buttons are all good. Cabin quality has been good for quite some time now, but the Koreans are picking up more finesse as they go along.

We tried the 150 PS/178 Nm 1.8-litre automatic and it was so much better to drive than the previous-gen Elantra. Compared to its predecessor, the MD Elantra’s controls feel a lot more natural – the steering has more weight to it and feels more connected to the ground, while the brakes aren’t too grabby.

The engine is very well insulated at idle and low revs, and it provided sufficient pick-up and linear response to not feel lacking.

The six-speed automatic does its job competently in the background. Hyundai’s self-developed slush box isn’t the fastest shifting or most “sporty feeling” around, but it’s far from the worst six-speed auto we’ve tried. I don’t remember it being indecisive or hunting in the Elantra.

But no, the Elantra isn’t one to delight the super keen driver. It does well for the most part, but once you really drive it hard, it’s apparent that the Hyundai is tuned for comfort.

It feels lightweight and agile enough in corners, but there’s quite a bit of body roll, the steering could do with more feel, and it isn’t the last word on grip. Also, the Nu engine isn’t as sweet revving as the 1.8 SOHC in the Honda Civic.

So it’s no driving champion, but the Elantra rode well, at least on smooth Korean roads (we’ve yet to drive it in Malaysia) and is a much sharper tool than before. Now that it’s launched here, I’m looking forward to reacquaint myself with the Elantra again, in 1.6 manual form perhaps.

The fact that it isn’t the best car to drive hard doesn’t matter a bit to buyers in this segment. What really matters is that Hyundai has brought to market a great package that includes standout looks, good quality and decent performance. For me, it does one thing very well, all else decently, and nothing wrong at all, the Elantra.

The Hyundai Elantra is now in showrooms. Click here for our media preview report for full specs and prices.