It’s a brave carmaker that pastes the word “Eco” onto a vehicle, especially now, when gasoline costs less than half what it did eight years ago. Eco can mean economical, as in cheap, but that’s hardly aspirational—who wants to drive around in something that proclaims we can’t afford a Mercedes-Benz? Or Eco can mean ecological, and here I suspect that most saviors of the planet would prefer hybrids or electric cars to humble gas-burners. But this is a 2017 Elantra—the re-engineered sixth generation of Hyundai’s strong-selling but fairly modest small car—and it’s called an Eco. What’s going on? Cheap, or green? Who are the Eco’s target buyers?

The new Elantra comes in three flavors, all with front-wheel drive, four doors and (theoretically) seats for five: the base SE, which starts at about $18,000; a thoroughly dolled-up Limited for $23,000, which we looked at back in June; and the Eco. The first two trim levels come with a 2.0-liter, four-cylinder gas engine rated for 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque; a 6-speed automatic transmission is standard, but the SE can be had with a manual gearbox, also a 6-speed.

Its name aside, the Eco costs $21,000, so we can rule out ramen-noodle-diet cheap. It has a relatively tiny 1.4-liter Four turbocharged to just 128 horsepower—but a hearty 156 lb-ft of torque. As the saying goes, we shop horsepower, but we love torque. Horsepower gives us top speed (now useless anywhere but the German autobahn at 3:00 AM, when traffic is light) while torque equals acceleration. Acceleration is useful everywhere, from highway on-ramps to city streets crowded with pushy taxis. The Eco feels stronger than its numbers, and at 65 MPH its little mill is humming along at just 2000 RPM.

To make the most of its engine, the Eco also gets a unique transmission—not a CVT, the continuously variable belt-drive whiner that shows up in a lot of bottom-feeders, but a genuine 7-speed dual-clutch automatic with real gears. As found in Audis and Porsches. It operates as smoothly as any fluid-drive slushbox, or can be shifted precisely by hand.

So far so good, but we’re still looking for the meaning of “Eco.”

While the other two Elantras earned fuel-efficiency ratings from 26 to 38 miles per gallon, the Eco scores 32 and 40 MPG, in city and highway driving, and 35 MPG in combined use, on regular gas. With very little highway time and no babying, we achieved an indicated 37.4 MPG overall, and without resorting to the Eco’s ECO drive mode. We can drive an Elantra Eco for a year—10,000 to 12,000 miles—on less than a thousand dollars worth of today’s gas. This is early Toyota Prius territory, but with none of the hair-shirt behavior of economy economy cars or the cost, complexity and batteries of gas-electric hybrids.

All this makes the Elantra Eco both fairly cheap, as in affordable, and also pretty green. Furthermore, it’s comfortable and unexpectedly quiet, too. And it stops and goes well—on new or broken pavement, in a straight line or through the bends. It’s even semi-hemi-demi-luxurious.

Like all 2017 Elantras, the Eco has a new pushbutton system that alters its performance from eco to normal to sporting. It also gets, standard, a hands-free, self-opening trunk lid, blind-spot and rear cross-traffic monitors, lane-change assist and seven airbags. It does not get the Elantra Limited’s active emergency braking and self-guidance systems, but there is a notable array of other “premium” features, from a rearview camera to keyless starting, two-zone automatic climate control, seat heaters, Apple and Android Carplay, Pandora and something called Soundhound, plus LED running lights and a steering wheel loaded with toggles and buttons.

Hyundai’s target Eco buyers, then, are cost-savvy people who don’t care all that much what others think; who have small families and a daily commute that could include highway miles; and who don’t need four-wheel drive, extra ground clearance or trailer-hauling ability. Or who simply want something affordable, smart (as in intelligent, rather than chic), and comfortable yet compact for those many occasions when they don’t need the pickup truck or the giant SUV.

—Silvio Calabi

Plus

Compact outside, nearly midsize inside
37.4 MPG without battery or diesel power
Rides and drives at least 5 grand more than it really costs
Typical Hyundai value for money
Those Hyundai warranties
Minus

Slightly touchy brakes in town
Occasional hesitation on launch (gearbox?)
No lumbar adjustment in seatbacks