First Drive: 2021 Hyundai Elantra

The latest Elantra proves Hyundai isn’t giving up on regular sedans anytime soon

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Automakers who use Germany’s Nürburgring to test and develop their cars often need such a demanding track because the car in question is of such high performance, it needs that kind of room to run. So it was just a little curious that Hyundai would invest so much time and money, hogging precious track time at the Ring — for the 2021 Elantra, a key player in the compact four-door sedan class.

As it turns out, Hyundai’s reason for being at the ‘Ring was to develop an Elantra N Line alongside a “track-ready” Elantra N, following the debut of the 2021 Elantra sedan and Hybrid, both of which benefit from chassis tuning and other improvements gleaned from so many hours on the track. While the track-ready Elantra N will be a holy terror with a 2.0-litre turbo-four and 280 horsepower managed via an eight speed automatic or six-speed manual, the N Line turns a basic Elantra into somewhat of a performance bargain that’s more than just a trim package.

Starting at $27,599, the Elantra N Line gets a unique interior and exterior, 18-inch alloy wheels and performance tires, a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission with paddle shifters, a 201-horsepower four-cylinder engine, bigger brakes, and a host of chassis improvements over the standard 2021 Elantra — transforming a humble sedan into a holy cow of a car.

Starting with the most obvious sheet metal crease this side of a Lamborghini, the new Elantra squints with a face that neither a Ferrari or Audi designer would sneer at. The rear, too, is elegantly styled in a design that won’t age quickly. All in all, it’s visually appealing from every angle, making the previous-generation Elantra suddenly look old.

Proportions are up, the car now lower, longer, and boasting more rear-seat legroom and overall passenger volume than the Mazda3Toyota Corolla, and Honda Civic — though the Civic still holds a small lead in trunk space. It certainly feels roomy inside, with good visibility all around and the back seat is usable. Compared to previous iterations of Elantra, the new seventh-generation car is by far the most spacioius, looking and feeling almost like a midsize sedan.

Starting at $17,899 for the base car that indeed comes with a six speed manual, the price rises through the five trim levels — Essential, Preferred, Hybrid, N Line, and the Ultimate that tops out at $28,299. Trims other than the N Line or Hybrid get the same 2.0-litre gasoline multi-port-injection engine from the outgoing car, but Hyundai says this version is more efficient thanks to a variable displacement oil pump and better piston cooling, among other tweaks.

Producing 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque, the raw numbers might not sound impressive, but when married to the variable automatic transmission, the coupling creates a decent amount of hustle. No one is going to smoke the doors off a Miata, but the Elantra can still hold its head high with good enough thrust and an excellent feel to the automatic that eliminates the whiny nature of other CVTs.

Handling feels tight and sure. Only modest lean is present when pushing hard into the corners. Steering isn’t exactly generous with feedback, but it’s easy to negotiate. Yes, there is some engine noise when the outer limits of full throttle are explored, but the transmission performs admirably in all aspects of everyday driving, shifting much like a regular automatic and not getting confused. The chain drive and wide ratio pulley system are on point whenever the driver calls for acceleration or deceleration.

The Hybrid uses a different engine, a 1.6L Atkinson-cycle four cylinder with 104 horsepower and 108 lb-ft of torque. It teams with a 43-horsepower electric motor drawing power from a 1.32 kWh lithium-ion polymer battery under the rear seat to produce another 125 lb-ft of torque. Together, the system has a net output of 200 lb.-ft. of torque. The engine and electric motor work in conjunction with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission. We did not, unfortunately, get a chance to drive the Hybrid on the first drive.

Instead, we spent all our time in the top-shelf Ultimate with the Tech package, and I swear, most people would think they were sitting in a compact Mercedes if they didn’t know the brand of car beforehand. Sweeping across the center console is a 10.25-inch colour touchscreen with excellent graphics and a sharpness and clarity that should embarrass Toyota. This is how you build a colour touchscreen, although the text for some of the icons is a bit on the small side.

While lower tier trims get an eight-inch display — now with wireless Android Auto & Apple CarPlay — the layout and execution of materials of the Elantra punches well above its weight. Another 10.25-inch digital gauge cluster with a configurable display joins the center screen, the two screens using a single piece of glass for a seamless, high-end look.

Everything is more or less where it should be, although a third and smaller glass panel on the left is vacant and seems odd, potentially the future home for touchscreen light switches. Customizable ambient lighting and wireless charging are pleasant touches, and the available eight-speaker Bose stereo system is the first in which I had to reduce the treble, so good are its tweeters and overall delivery of sound. The “sounds of nature” feature carries over.

Safety, too, is enhanced, however to get blind-spot monitoring with rear cross traffic alert — two of the most effective safety features today — requires a step up from the base Essential line to the mid-range Preferred trim. If safety is a priority, why not make it standard kit?

That’s not unlike a lot of other automakers, however, many of whom have stepped away from the sedan class altogether. Hyundai, on the other hand, sees nothing but potential here, especially in Quebec, since compact sedans are the strongest category for sales when it comes to passenger cars. That, and with a new Honda Civic in the womb, meant the new, seventh-generation Elantra would have to appear with more than just a facelift. The new Elantra has done that, with even hotter models to come.