2021 Hyundai Elantra first drive review: Standout style with plenty of substance
Hyundai is launching a few new 2021 Elantra models right now, including the super-efficient Hybrid and zippy N Line. They're all pretty great, and that's largely thanks to the fact that the standard Elantra is a solid foundation on which to build. It drives well, looks cool and has a bunch of new tech -- all the things you'd want in a modern compact sedan.
At first, I thought the new Elantra's design was a little much, but the more I see it -- especially in the real world -- the more cohesive it looks. My favorite angle is actually the rear three-quarter, where you really get a sense of the fastback shape, which is sliced through the middle by a horizontal light bar and pointy taillights. It's like something out of anime. I'm into it.
Like most cars, the Elantra looks best all loaded up in high-end trim -- in this case, that means the Limited model with its full-LED lighting and largest 17-inch wheels (only the N Line gets the best-looking 18s). Base SE models roll on 15s while the mid-range SEL comes standard with 16s, but at least Hyundai delivers alloy wheels across the board -- no steelies and hubcaps here.
Dimensionally speaking, the 2021 Elantra is 2.2 inches longer, 1 inch wider and 1 inch lower than the outgoing sedan, so it still very much has a compact footprint. Interestingly, though, thanks to increased headroom and legroom, the Elantra has 99.4 cubic feet of passenger space, which actually bumps it up to the EPA's midsize classification like Hyundai's own Sonata. Neat.
Comfy cabin with a focus on tech
Design wise, the Elantra's interior is way less weird than its exterior, with relatively simple styling and cleanly organized controls. I love the knurled ends of the turn signal and wiper stalks, which are similar to what Hyundai offers in the Sonata . The Elantra Limited has soft leather on the steering wheel and seats, and the surfaces you touch most are nicely grained. There are a few cheap bits, sure, but it's mostly stuff like the transmission tunnel and steering column, so you won't notice it on the regular.
There's one odd thing that's worth mentioning: the backlit design element to the left of the gauge cluster -- you know, the thing that kind of looks like it should be an air vent. This is where you'll find the drive mode dial on the DCT-equipped Elantra N Line, but here, it's nonfunctional. In fact, the standard Elantra's drive mode button is on the center console next to the gear shifter. Weird, right?
A 10.2-inch digital gauge cluster is optional on the Elantra SEL and standard on the Limited, and I definitely recommend springing for this upgrade. The TFT-LCD screen is nice and crisp with colorful graphics, and the dial designs change based on the selected drive mode. No other compact sedan offers an IP this flashy or configurable.
Most Elantras will roll out with an 8-inch central touchscreen, flanked on either side by large shortcut buttons and a bit of black plastic. Spring for an Elantra Limited and you get a 10.2-inch high-res screen with embedded navigation. Strangely and frustratingly, it's the smaller 8-inch setup where you'll get wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto; this smartphone-mirroring tech requires a wired connection with the larger screen.
If you do plan to use one of the cord-free options with the 8-inch screen, be sure to get an Elantra SEL, since that's the only way you can get a wireless charging pad. The Limited has one standard, but since it has the larger display, you still have to plug your phone in if you want access to your apps. The Limited is also the only Elantra to receive Dynamic Voice Recognition software, which is Hyundai-speak for natural-language commands -- kind of like the "Hey, Mercedes" feature built into the German automaker's MBUX software. Hyundai's Android-only Digital Key makes its way to the Elantra, too, where it's optional on the SEL and standard on the Limited.
While I'm on the subject of tech, let's talk about the Elantra's advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS). Forward-collision avoidance, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist, a driver-attention monitor and Hyundai's Safe Exit Alert are all standard -- that last one prevents occupants from opening a door into a cyclist's path when parallel parked. You can add full-speed adaptive cruise control and automatic forward-collision braking to the SEL in an option pack, though both are standard on the Limited. Finally, there's the Highway Drive Assist feature, which combines lane-following, lane-centering and adaptive cruise tech for easy-peasy freeway driving. You guessed it, it only comes on the Elantra Limited.
If you want the most entertaining Elantra, get yourself an N Line. If it's fuel economy you're after, the Elantra Hybrid is your jam. Every other version uses the same engine: a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated inline-four with 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. This I4 is paired with a continuously variable transmission, which helps the Elantra to return respectable EPA fuel economy estimates of 33 miles per gallon city, 43 mpg highway and 37 mpg combined.
The Elantra isn't exactly quick, but the 2.0-liter engine has enough pep to get the sedan up and out of its own way. Uphill highway sections require a heavy right foot, though thankfully, the CVT doesn't buzz or drone at higher revs when more power is needed. In addition to the Normal setting, you can pick Sport or Smart drive modes, the former adding a bit more throttle response, the latter reining in your aggressive tendencies for the sake of better efficiency. Neither really change the Elantra's overall character, so maybe just leave 'em alone (unless you want to watch the digital gauge cluster animations when the modes switch, which is nifty).
The Elantra is a daily driver and errand-runner, and it's tuned as such. The steering is light and somewhat vague, but the ride is really comfortable. What's more impressive is how quiet the Elantra is inside, even at highway speeds. That makes driving it long distances less fatiguing. It's just a shame the seats aren't more comfortable; the Limited's leather chairs are kind of flat and unsupportive.
Compared to other compacts, the Elantra certainly isn't the most fun to drive, but that's not necessarily a priority for most small-car shoppers. A Honda Civic is a little more nimble and a Mazda3 is definitely sharper, but the Elantra is plenty likable on its own. It might not be the sportiest, but it's definitely one of the quietest and most tech-laden offerings in its class.
Affordable and better than ever
The 2021 Elantra is affordable, starting at $20,645 for a base SE including $995 for destination. The mid-tier SEL comes in at $21,895 and the fancy-shmancy Limited will set you back $26,445. That puts the Elantra on the lower side of average for the class, which is a pretty great place to be.
Hyundai originally made a name for itself by offering strong value propositions in highly competitive vehicle segments. The company still does that today, but the company's cars are far more competitive -- in many cases, they lead the pack. The 2021 Elantra isn't necessarily a shoo-in for the best compact sedan available in the US; nearly every player in this segment brings a lot to the table. But by offering tech features normally reserved for luxury cars and some seriously sharp, standout styling, this seventh-generation Elantra makes a stronger case for itself than ever before.