LOS ANGELES, Calif. — When you have a really good current-generation vehicle, it’s hard to follow up with a completely new vehicle. There’s a lot of pressure to do better – or at the very least hold the line. This is the challenge Hyundai had with the all-new 2021 Elantra because the current model is really flipping good.
And, frankly, Hyundai hasn’t always been successful following up an exceptional vehicle with something even better. Case in point: The 2015 Sonata. It was perfectly OK, but not as stunning as the preceding generation.
Thankfully, the automaker seems to have learned from past experience.
The 2021 Hyundai Elantra is outstanding with visually interesting styling and a plethora up-level technology.
Zorro was here
Let’s start with the design. When we first discussed the 2021 Elantra on the Consumer Guide Car Stuff Podcast, we were intensely focused on the distinct Z pattern on the side of the vehicle. We called it the “Zorro Slash,” and we may have even come up with a cocktail of the same name to celebrate it.
This design is very noticeable and bold. While I’d like to say it looks different in real life than the photos, it doesn’t. I’ll admit originally it was a bit jarring, but the more I look at it, the more I like it.
Combined with the interesting lighting signature and attractive grille pattern, you have a fresh vehicle that looks more upscale than it is. In fact, it’s really hard to believe this car bases at $20K.
The interior is also exceptional. Though we were in top-tier trims, the design language will be the same throughout the lineup – even if the materials change.
The biggest focal point on the Limited trim I drove was the single piece of glass that goes from the left of the steering wheel all the way through to the center stack touchscreen display. The digital cluster is clear and attractive, and the touch screen is a visual delight of four-color graphics.
My one what-in-the-heck design moment centers on the white circle on that glass to the left of the steering wheel. It looks like it should do something, but it doesn’t. I probably would have left that black.
An eco solution
In addition to making a dramatic design leap, Hyundai adds a hybrid to the Elantra lineup for the first time. This is just one of a long line of electrified vehicles we’ll see from the automaker in the next few years as it works toward more eco-friendly solutions.
The hybrid is equipped with a 1.6-liter, 4-cylinder mated to a 43-horsepower electric motor, and total combined output is 139 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. While this is a nice bit of power for a compact vehicle, the nicest part is the fuel economy. EPA estimates top-end, higher-contented vehicles should get 50 mpg in combined driving. The lower contented vehicles should get 54 mpg.
I was driving the top-tier model and averaged 47.7 mpg. Since I’m not a sedate driver, I’ll consider that a win – especially since we were driving through mountains and hit some aggressive twisty bits.
The Elantra gasoline model, is equipped with a 2.0-liter, 4-cylinder engine, which delivers 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. Even though there is no hybrid boost – mild or otherwise – this is still a fuel sipper, and EPA estimates 35 mpg in combined driving (for the Limited model). Remarkably, in more than 75 miles of highway and city driving – in addition to a few idle stops – I averaged 36.8 mpg. Another win.
But how does it drive?
Both the hybrid and gasoline models I drove were top-tier trims for their respective powertrains, which included up-level materials, including leather seats and larger wheels, so my driving impression may be slightly different than if you were opting for a base trim.
But the overall experience was really good for an entry-level compact sedan. There was certainly some engine and ambient noise that crept into the cabin, but it was generally quiet at cruising speeds.
A far cry from entry-level vehicles of yore, the Elantra feels solid and planted on the highway, and it holds its ground on twisty-turny roads. There are Normal, Sport and Smart modes, and I spent time toggling through them all. My personal preference, Sport, should come as no surprise. It tightens up the steering just a tad and increases throttle response by revving at higher RPMs.
I don’t usually spend too much time switching modes, but it will be worth it in the Elantra if you’re on anything other than straight highways or city streets.
Geeking out over tech
While I liked the looks and appreciated the fuel economy on the 2021 Elantra, I really loved the tech-forward strategy Hyundai has employed on this vehicle. As execs pointed out during the preview presentation, a lot of the technology on the Elantra is stuff you’d expect to see on much higher-end vehicles. Things such as wireless charging, near-field communication and enhanced natural language voice commands.
And speaking of that wireless charging, Hyundai has added cooling technology to the charge pad, so your phone doesn’t overheat while it’s charging. That is pure brilliance, and I wish a couple luxury German automakers would figure this one out.
Wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard and look vibrant on the available 10.25-inch touchscreen.
But one of the cooler bits of tech available on Elantra is the Digital Key, which basically lets you use your phone as a key. It also recognizes the phone being used and resumes all presets associated with that specific phone. Plus, if you need to give someone temporary access to your car, you can transfer the Digital Key to a friend or family member as well as designate usage type.
For example, if you want to give a teenage child access to the vehicle to get a bag out of the trunk, you can designate access to the vehicle through their phone but the inability to drive.
Standard safety makes sense
One of the goals Hyundai set for itself is in the area of safety. The outgoing generation of Elantra is an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Top Safety Pick, and this new model should hold that line – if not head for a Top Safety Pick + award.
As a part of the Hyundai Smart Sense safety suite, standard features include blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, automatic high beams, lane keep assist, safe exit warning and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection.
Available safety tech includes adaptive cruise control, automatic reverse braking and highway drive assist.
One weird thing
As I was going through the trims and specifications, I noticed something odd. Wireless CarPlay and Auto are standard (yay!), but wireless charging isn’t. OK, not ideal, but not super weird. The weird part is as you level up and opt for the Limited trim, CarPlay/Auto are no longer wireless, and yet wireless charging is standard. Huh?
I assume it has to do with the transition from the 8-inch screen to the 10.25-incher, but that seems like a non sequitur. You can’t have wireless charging and wireless CarPlay/Auto, so one way or the other you’ll have to use your cord for something.
If I had my choice, I guess I’d rather have wireless CarPlay/Auto because you won’t always need to charge your phone when you drive. But the fact that there is no wireless CarPlay/Auto with the up-level screen is just plain weird.
Trims and pricing
There are three trims available for the gasoline version, and when you hit the top-tier Limited model, there are no packages or options – it’s all in as is.
SE ($19,650): Includes wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, 8-inch audio display, cloth seats, blind spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, two USB ports, Bluetooth phone connectivity.
SEL ($20,900): Adds passive entry, push-button start, smart trunk, Blue Link connected car services and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Plus two packages become available Convenience ($950) and Premium ($2,100).
Limited ($25,450): Adds 10.25-inch touchscreen display, dynamic voice recognition, heated side mirrors, leather seats, heated front seats, Bose premium audio, wireless charging, Digital Key, and adaptive cruise control and reverse automatic braking.
The hybrid drops the base SE trim and keeps the top two trims.
- SEL Hybrid ($23,550)
- Limited Hybrid ($28,100)
Above pricing doesn’t include the $995 destination fee.
The bottom line on the 2021 Hyundai Elantra
I really love pretty much everything about the 2021 Hyundai Elantra – well, except for that weird wireless conundrum. But everything else, though, that’s pretty awesome.
The styling, the tech and the standard safety features plus the base price is a winning equation. Then when you factor in decent handling and exceptional fuel economy – on both gasoline and hybrid models – it’s a slam dunk.
If you’re looking at the competitive set, only the Nissan Sentra comes close to matching what you’ll get with the new Elantra, but it doesn’t have a hybrid.
I’d say there aren’t many bad cars these days, but there are a handful that are just better. Elantra is one of the betters.
Blogger’s Note: Driving impressions in this “First Look” review are from an invitation-only automaker launch event that allowed special access to the vehicle and executives. Hyundai covered our accommodations, meals and transportation costs.