Despite the onslaught of crossover SUVs, small cars are still in demand.
They’re affordable, economical, good value and surprisingly well-appointed. Hyundai’s last Elantra was a huge hit for all those reasons. Now that the competition has upped the game with more toys, better design, more premium materials and more power, let’s see how the all-new 2021 Hyundai Elantra Ultimate keeps up with the new compact class.
On the outside, the 2021 Elantra dares to be different. From the quirky character lines on the side that create a diamond motif to the cubist rear end to the aggressive yet smiling front grille, there is a whiff of Peugeot here. However, the proportions lack a bit of elegance. The front and rear overhangs are massive and create a slight sense of frumpiness to the way the Elantra carries itself. The lighting package is quite sharp though with full-width LEDs out back on higher trims and solid LED headlamps on our top-spec test car that are a decent upgrade from halogen units. Some will love the Elantra’s styling and some won’t, but that’s okay.
The design inside the 2021 Hyundai Elantra is quite avant-garde. Technology dominates with an available digital instrument cluster and large infotainment screen taking centre stage while the door panels and console-integrated passenger grab handle combine to create a cockpit feel. Rear seat space is excellent and the driving position has a range of adjustability with the steering column’s generous tilt and telescoping range and plenty of seat travel. The heated seats are quite feeble and will struggle to warm frozen bums even on the hottest setting, but at least our test car sports them on all outboard seats front and rear.
The Elantra’s big draw of big screens certainly impresses passengers, but it comes at a cost. The full-spec big-boy infotainment screen and digital cluster are only available on the top Ultimate trim with the Tech package. That cluster is fairly slick, although configurability is lacking in comparison to some competitors like the Nissan Sentra. For instance, the song playing only flashes in the cluster briefly when it comes on and there’s no screen to permanently display what’s currently playing on the stereo.
The infotainment screen itself is big at 10.25-inches and offers good black levels but is surprisingly infuriating to operate. There is no hard button for “Home”, although there is a programmable button. The menu structure is very dense with lots of options on the main menu displayed as tiny tiles. Trying to change the colour of the ambient lighting is roughly as difficult as trying to assassinate a murder hornet with a bagel wrapper.
In terms of auditory experience, the Bose system in our Ultimate test car lives up to the audiophile saying of “no highs, no lows, must be Bose.” While the sound signature is slightly bright, bass is both slightly distorted and lacking in punch while treble is a bit hollow. Staging is also sub-par with no real surround effect to speak of. It’s not up to scratch with competitors’ premium stereos, but it outperforms almost every base system in the segment.
Many of the interior materials in this new Elantra are a marked step down from those in the outgoing model. The only soft-touch plastic to be found is on each front door armrest and although the dashtop feels slightly springy, it also has the texture and elasticity of a basketball. The grab handle on the console digs into the passenger’s knee and the whole thing just feels like a step down in material quality from the previous model. There are a few nice touches though, like the use of high-quality fabric on the door panels and the backs of the front seats. The multi-colour ambient lighting also does a good job of adding a dose of class to the interior.
Powering the Elantra is a 2.0-litre twin-cam four-cylinder engine making an unrefined 147 horsepower and just 132 lb-ft. of torque hitched to a continuously variable transmission. Powertrain response is a bit laggy, and elicits some coarse noise from the engine instead. Fortunately, Hyundai has programmed the CVT to ride the torque band in moderate acceleration which keeps engine noise subdued and prevents the rubber-banding and coarseness some CVTs are known for. Observed fuel economy was 7.4L/100km over our week of testing, a fair tick off the government rating of 6.7L/100km combined.
Fortunately, Hyundai has had the good sense to appoint Albert Biermann as their head of R&D and my god, does it ever show with this new Elantra. Who’s Albert Biermann? He helped a very small Bavarian automaker set up a few cars like the V10-powered E60 M5. As a result, the Elantra has one of the best chassis tuning setups of any compact car right now. The steering is very accurate without being knife’s-edge twitchy, torsional rigidity is stiffer than the CN Tower and the high-speed damping is phenomenal, offering up huge grip and composure while still giving Elantra drivers an absolutely creamy ride quality.
Gentle understeer is the Elantra’s general attitude when pushed hard, although that’s easily neutralized with a tactical lift of the throttle or stab of the brakes. This is a platform that can easily handle an extra hundred horsepower and the way the Elantra carries itself down the road is its biggest highlight.
In summation, the 2021 Hyundai Elantra is the Las Vegas of compact cars. Lots of glitz, lots of design and it can dance doesn’t feel as sincere as it could. It would help if pricing were inexpensive, but our top-trim test car retails for $28,625 and for that money, buyers can be shopping the Mazda3 GT, Volkswagen Jetta Execline and Toyota Corolla XSE.
The sweetheart of the Elantra range is likely the Preferred trim which includes a heated steering wheel, blind-spot warning and proximity key for $21,899. At that price, it undercuts a comparably-equipped Corolla, Jetta or Mazda3 by enough that the amount of kit on hand makes up for it feeling a bit cheap. The 2021 Hyundai Elantra Ultimate may offer unique style, but it also needs improvement to keep up with the best and brightest compact cars on sale today.