Ten years ago, I received my first Hyundai to work with for the purpose of evaluation and publication. It happened to be the then-new fifth-generation Elantra. I liked how Hyundai made progress on their compact sedan in design, engineering, and overall execution. It was so good, that it would eventually spur on sales growth every year to become one of the top models in its lineup.
The chance to write about four generations of Elantras – dating back to when I was renting the fourth-generation model and writing about it – is what this work is all about. To see the progress of a single model through multiple generations and watching the evolution – or, in some cases, revolution – of a vehicle.
When it came time for the newest Elantra – the seventh generation – it came as a surprise that it would claim the North American Car of The Year this winter. I will not question the jury for that award as to how they arrived at this conclusion. I need to see for myself.
A 2021 Hyundai Elantra SEL arrived for work to do exactly that – to see for myself whether the jury of the North American Car of The Year got this one right.
If you judge the new Elantra from the exterior, you will see that the jury was enthralled by its new look. The new style pushed the Elantra onto a new benchmark for its class. The front end is fresh with more triangular shapes and textures. The SEL adds a dark chrome trim along the lower bumper skin, adding a sense of drama to this intriguing front end.
The rest of the Elantra’s shape follows an angular fastback-like profile. The overall effect is sleek and low. The trunk lid comes up high, following an optical illusion with an “extension” of the rear glass on to the trunk lid – a gloss black panel, to be exact. The rear end also has an extended and integrated rear spoiler effect on the upper part of the trunk lid. The rear taillight is full length with larger units at the edge of the trunk/rear end.
On my SEL tester are a set of sporty 17-inch alloy wheels. You swore they look like they belong to the sportier N-Line model. Except, the N-Line wears 18-inch alloys. Wishful thinking…but, they do look great on this mid-line trim level model!
If one thing that seemed like a miss is the plastic piece on the C-pillar that extends the side glass profile. I was hoping they would replace that plastic piece with a glass pane…but, that’s just me.
Once you step inside the Elantra, you will find some items that are usually reserved for more expensive models that is found on this mid-level trim level sedan. For example, the 10.25-inch TFT instrument cluster might be seen on a higher Sonata or Santa Fe trim. It is a very nice surprise for the SEL trim, with its changeable instrumentation based on a selected drive mode.
The shifter is set lower than usual. Having a modern “short throw” shifter helps to elevate the driver’s atmosphere. All other controls have been updated along with the Elantra’s cabin.
Another issue I found on the Elantra was the use of a bar on the passenger side of center console. Front passengers found that they were limited in movement on their left side. Granted, it looks cool and will remind drivers of, say, a C8 Corvette. I do not think it works well with a compact sedan.
On the top of the center stack is a semi-tablet area for the 8-inch infotainment screen. Hyundai now offer wireless smartphone integration and charging, which makes for one less wire. Sounds was piped through eight Bose premium speakers – another feature that makes this Elantra SEL more upmarket than it one would think.
Seating in the new Elantra was comfortable and supportive. Not to mention the space inside the cabin front and back, with ample leg and headroom. You can safely seat 4-5 passengers inside, especially four adults. The cloth upholstery on this SEL tester felt durable and nice to the touch.
Open up the trunk, and you can load up to 14.7 cubic feet inside. While the wide trunk lid is more of a clamshell framed by the sharp design of the exterior, there is a bit of a step-down from the bumper for loading and unloading. You can also fold the rear seatbacks for longer items, however, you must opt for an upgrade package on the SEL to get them.
Underneath my tester’s hood is lovely a 147-horsepower 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. Connected to an Intelligent Variable Transmission driving the front wheels, I found this driveline just the right one for this sedan. The IVT does not act like a typical CVT, which helps in acceleration and cruising on the highway. It is also highly efficient, as I tuned in an average of 38.2 MPG for fuel consumption.
Another thing that probably sparked the jurors of NACOTY towards giving it their Ed Welburn-designed trophy would be its driving manners. Ride quality is top notch for a car in its class, which speaks volumes how Hyundai engineered its suspension to not only make things smooth sailing, but to ensure that road imperfections were absorbed.
You will also find how well the Elantra handles. It corners near-flat and stays composed when dealing with evasive maneuvers. There is a sense of overall confidence the Elantra exhibits in its driving experience. Keep in mind this is neither the N-Line, or the upcoming Elantra N I’m talking about. This is a mid-level trim model.
This sense of confidence continues onto the steering system. On-center feel is superb. Once you click the drive mode button into Sport mode, and the wheel is weighted heavily for better control. The turning radius is very good with solid response at the wheel.
The same can be said for the brakes. Pedal feel is solid, and response is extremely good. I found that it did exceptionally well in normal and panic stops.
One thing that may be the deal maker for the award-winning 2021 Hyundai Elantra is found on the Moroney. Pricing for the Elantra lineup starts at $19,650. Even in the “base” SE model, you do get a lot for that price. My SEL tester came with two upgrade packages that offer high value and a bit of upmarket flair. It came with a sticker price of $25,100.
Before you point out that the Elantra Limited is about $1,400 more than my tester, let me point out something. In these top-of-the-line models, they will come with the wider 10.5-inch infotainment screen with navigation. You gain a larger screen, however you will lose the wireless smartphone integration. If you get one of these, bring a USB-A cord for your device.
No matter which trim level you chose, the 2021 Hyundai Elantra is a winner. Not because the North American Car of The Year jury said so. It is because of it stands on its merits as an excellent choice in the compact car segment.
This generation also stands as a testament to how much this model has progressed over the decades. Hearing from my sister-in-how how her 2005 Elantra was not a good vehicle for her to a 2020 model that is much better. This is part of the story. The progression through four generations of Elantras on this website also points out how much Hyundai has put a lot of thought into progressing each one towards a higher benchmark.
In other words, the jury for the North American Car of The Year made the right choice.
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Hyundai Motor America
All photos by Randy Stern