Appearance matters. It bespeaks attitude. When it comes to cars, it tells us what a manufacturer thinks about the intended consumers of its products.

That is why the 2011 Hyundai Elantra Limited PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle), driven for this week’s column, ranks as a standout entry in the growing market for small, fuel-efficient automobiles. Its designers honored the Asian notion of “face,” which speaks to dignity and pride.

Check it out. This is no ordinary box-on-wheels fuel-sipper. It is, instead, gifted with elegant lines exterior and interior. It’s muscular, yet its refined side panels are highlighted by a gentle ridge that flows up, down and around the car’s rear quarters, giving it the appearance of liquid motion.

The Elantra’s front end is sculpted with the care of a Lamborghini. It has all of the appearance of an exotic, much more expensive automobile. Yet it has none of the persona of cheap jewelry or fake Rolex watches sold on the streets of Seoul in South Korea or Shanghai in China. What is there is real, intended, carefully fitted and exceptionally well executed.

More delight is found inside, where many car companies often go overboard in their attempt to conceal the humble origins of what is being offered. But in the new Elantra, there is thoughtfulness and harmony. The elegant yet strong and flowing lines of the car’s body also find comfortable residence in its cabin. Even the buttons for power windows and door locks are carefully sculpted, fitting nicely to fingertips for incredibly easy access and operation.

Dashboard-mounted air vents twin with those in interior door panels. An optional 7-inch navigation screen with high-definition backup camera crowns a center console that flows effortlessly from the dashboard to the floor between the seats for driver and front passenger. Ergonomics rule. All controls are easy to see, reach and use.

I have read complaints elsewhere that the new Elantra’s cabin materials are less than premium. That strikes me as silly griping — slamming what is very, very good in homage to more costly perfection.

This is, after all, the 2011 Hyundai Elantra — an economy car with a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $14,830 for the base GLS, $17,080 for the mid-line GLS PZEV, and $19,980 for the top-of-the-line Limited PZEV. That’s not exactly luxury strata pricing.

Yet, for that money, Hyundai offers an Elantra loaded with more standard equipment than most rival automobiles in the compact economy segment. In fact, the Elantra Limited PZEV is better equipped than many larger sedans in more expensive segments. The Limited PZEV’s standard equipment, for example, includes front and rear heated seats, front side and full rear curtain head air bags, four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front/solid rear), and electronic stability and traction control.

On top of that is a Hyundai new-vehicle warranty that beats guarantees offered by nearly all other car companies — five years or 60,000 miles overall coverage, 10 years or 100,000 miles coverage on the engine and transmission, seven years and unlimited miles anti-perforation rust warranty, and five years with unlimited miles Hyundai roadside assistance.

It all makes the 2011 Elantra an ideal choice for first-time car buyers or for parents buying cars for children going to college.

How does the new Elantra drive? The answer is “sensibly.”

It is a small, front-wheel-drive car with a standard 1.8-liter, 16-valve, inline four-cylinder, gasoline engine (145 horsepower, 130 foot-pounds of torque). It’s fast enough to get you a speeding ticket on any regulated roadway, and it’s nimble and agile enough to competently maneuver through traffic jams in Baltimore, the District of Columbia and New York.

But, in addition to its good looks and long list of standard equipment, what I also like about the new Elantra are its generous cabin space and its stingy fuel economy. Five adults can find genuinely comfortable seating in this one on long road trips seldom interrupted by the need to stop at filling stations. The new Elantra does indeed deliver 29 miles per gallon in the city and 40 miles per gallon on the highway. I like this one.