2021 Hyundai Elantra Limited shows Cheap and Cheerful can be Interesting, too
Hyundai has transformed their bold new Elantra into a champion prizefighter of the compact sedan world. It really is that good.
Cheap (sorry, I meant affordable) cars aren't meant or supposed to be exciting, but I found myself rather stirred when the newly redesigned model was first unveiled, and even more so when I first saw it in the flesh this past month at Sonoma Raceway when I picked it up. Could Hyundai make a reasonable car that people would genuinely want? Well, they did, and it's the new Elantra.
Step 1, and the easiest way to make any reasonably normal object exciting, is to give an alluring and brave design. Consider that done. Not only is the Elantra's exterior an exercise of boldness, but it's also actually just a good looking machine. The outgoing and extremely popular Honda Civic has claim to being bold, too, but it's not attractive by any means. Bold to them just means a mish-mash casserole of shapes and edges that add only to vulgar excess. Not so with the Elantra. I mean, look at the door, how that crease makes it become three dimensional. The large grille balances elegance and ostentatious in a bizarre fashion that somehow just works, and the front appears low and tapered rather than tall and ungainly. In person, in my eyes at least, I like the aggressive nature of the aesthetic because of how it blends its unique look without going overboard. It's eye-catching for sure, and will cause other drivers' pupils to pan along with you to get a better look at this unique creation that makes some Corollas look dreary on Nyquil.
The interior continues the tasteful extravagance with a look that's properly of this decade. Behind the wheel, the Elantra gives the impression of being in a cockpit with how the innards seem to wrap itself around you in the driver's seat. The view out the front is immense, too, with a large and clear look ahead, yet you don't feel like you're sitting too high either. Stretching from all the way left across you are multiple connected 10.25" displays, plus an additional one that as of yet serves no purpose besides showing several dotted lines. Maybe a future software update will bring some functionality. The main unit has navigation and is touch operable while including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto for phone integration and works with ease. The digital instrument cluster looks nice during the day with the silvery-white tachometer and speedometer, but I do strongly dislike the piercing brightness they produce at night. When the headlights come one, they only ever hardly just dim when they should change to a different color altogether. Switching the Elantra into sport mode cures this as the dials take on a red motif instead.
Nonetheless, the steering wheel feels comfortable in the hands and with a good grip, but once past the main controls things do you feel somewhat less impressive, but remember this Limited only stickers for $26,600. I will say that some of the materials in the cabin didn't have the quality of the daddy Corollas like an XSE, but it's very good nonetheless, and also nicer than a similarly priced VW Jetta. The leather-trimmed Seats are good, too, having comfort on several 2 hour trips in the Elantra, and I liked the canvas accent pieces on the doors and seats, too. Yes, it may sound like I had more gripes than likes in here, but I did positively enjoy the interior for its swanky design, just the white gauges bothered me at night, but I also struggle outdoors without sunglasses so that might say a lot. In an easier way, it's very respectable environment to spend time in.
Space is enormous inside. The trunk can take as much as any small sedan can fit, so whatever grocery shopping from Winco or Costco, or your luggage for a trip, the Elantra has the space in the boot. The rear seats were a surprising delight, too, with ample head and legroom for anyone. For a supposed compact car, you'd never know it. What's more is that the Elantra Limited is convincingly quiet on the move. Even on the freeway and over 70 MPH, it's surprisingly hushed with only minor road and wind noise which contribute to a far more relaxing journey. The ride quality is comfortable and controlled, too, not jostling occupants over bumps while remaining collected and at ease.
The engine might be only a 2.0L inline-four cylinder with 147 horsepower, but it serves its purpose well here. It's not fast at 8.2 seconds to 60 MPH, but it's barely behind that of a Corolla SE so much as not even be noticeable in its deficit. A Jetta with its 1.4 turbo engine is quicker than either but suffers from turbo lag that admittedly isn't for everyone (I oddly enjoy it). A Civic Sport with it's 1.5 turbo will dust them all, though. And then there's the Elantra N Line with 201 horsepower to think about...
However, with those 147 ponies on tap, I was never in need of extra power as I know that's not the mission of this car. In normal driving, the Elantra performs admirably enough to get you up to speed without issue. Aiding the engine was a mystery shock of a transmission. Spoiler, it's a CVT, a continuously variable device which historically slogs and slips its way in and out of your nightmares - really, CVTs are like an unnecessary catheter. But the shock was that this CVT was even a CVT because I thought it was a traditional automatic; it behaves that well. Normally one of these automotive warts will annoyingly hold RPM when you accelerate, causing loud, sustained groaning from the engine, but not this one, at least not during regular driving habits. If all CVTs acted as such, few would ever complain about them. You definitely can't complain about the efficiency. On a 200 mile round trip to Sonoma Raceway and back for the GT World Challenge races, this Elantra averaged 43 MPG, and that's the entire trip, including a small bit of traffic and making good pace on Interstate 80. Overall, that number dipped only slightly to 37. This engine and transmission combination delivers outstanding real-world fuel economy.
While the Elantra Limited is far from being a sports car, the Hyundai does deliver a level of pizzazz through the steering that came as a pleasant surprise. I expected the Elantra to have ho-hum handling in the pursuit of another entry-level sedan that's boring to drive, but that is not the case. Driving dynamics, all around, impressed. Turning and steering with a certain eagerness, it's thoroughly one of the better driving cars in its class. The steering feels nicely judged, too, with a natural weighting and response and you can even attack corners rather hard, not in an outrageously exuberant way, but attack still. On the freeway cruising, I found the Elantra easy to drive and refrained from any type of wandering at speed. Overall, a very good showing from the Koreans on this front as they continue to invigorate driving pleasure in many of their models. And this behavior is from the luxury rendition of the Elantra; there's an available N Line model with almost 60 more horsepower, a more focused chassis, and your choice of a six-speed manual or automated dual-clutch trans. Now that is enticing.
'Normal' cars aren't supposed to be exciting, hence why they're called normal. This Elantra seemingly breaks that trend by way of its dramatic and cool design inside and out and pleasant dynamics on the road. At the as-tested price of $26,600, it represents exceptionally great value considering all the equipment onboard for technology and safety. You've got all the active nannies like collision avoidance, blind-spot, adaptive cruise control, and even a cyclist detection aid. Going back to the design, what's more important than just a bold design though is the fact this new Elantra presents a risk, and mainstream automakers need to take more risks. I hope it pays off because the new Elantra is worthy of the hype. This Elantra is good enough to where I think I'd recommend the Limited model over a base Sonata. I can't wait to try the N Line and see the real sporting side to Hyundai's grand and grandly affordable concoction.
2021 Hyundai Elantra Limited
As-Tested Price $26,600
Pros: Bold design, excellent fuel economy, good to drive
Cons: Maybe too bold for some?
Verdict: A risky and bold win for Hyundai.