The Hyundai Elantra is a bread and butter car for Hyundai, and the seventh generation of the compact sedan has arrived with eye-catching design, making us do a double take similar to what the midsize Hyundai Sonata did last year. Most people have not seen the new Elantra beyond pictures, but MotorTrend was able to secure a pre-production model for a closer look at the 2021 model that will go into production this fall and go on sale at the end of the year.
Although we did get to do some limited driving, at Hyundai’s request, driving impressions can’t be shared because it is a pre-production car—a work in progress—and an early enough build in the development process that some of the features that will be offered were not yet functional. We respect that—a cake is not tasty before it is baked—but we can share a lot more details about the car’s styling, features, and our overall impression.
Cars are a declining segment, but don’t count them out yet. The compact car segment accounted for 6.4 percent of total new vehicle sales in the United States in the first half of the year, and midsize cars were 7.2 percent. It means automakers still sell 1 million small cars a year.
The Elantra follows the Sonata as the second vehicle introduced under Hyundai’s new design theme, which aims to make cars sensuously sporty. That sounds ambitious, but the first two efforts are promising. They are also different. The Elantra is sharper in its lines than the more rounded Sonata, but they have similarly sloped C-pillars. They share the same architecture, but the wheelbase was shortened for the smaller Elantra.
Seventh-Generation Elantra is Longer, Wider, Lower
Overall, the new Elantra is 2.2 inches longer than the outgoing model, including a wheelbase that grew by 0.8 inch. It is also 1.0 inches wider and lower. The front is a mix of angular and sporty lines pointing to the cascading grille. The standard LED headlights are worth a closeup look, especially the three pieces converging to the center, and they are a further testament to Hyundai’s emphasis on lighting. That focus created the unique running lights in the chrome strips that extend up the hood of the Sonata. Elantra does not go that far, not surprising given that it is the smaller, more price-sensitive car. Also, the chrome strip is a Sonata thing—not an Elantra design cue. More lighting illuminates the decklid and sides of the new Elantra.
Key Differences from the Sonata
Additionally, the Elantra did not copy the Sonata hood that extends to the grille; the Elantra has a traditional hood cut. But the Elantra hood is detailed with a series of creases. In fact, the whole car is punctuated with carefully placed lines and creases. Most interesting: The parallel character lines run from the front to rear fender and the third diagonal line between them, as if Zorro was working out his signature slash. The complex shape removes any sense of bulk or flab in the sides. Most controversial: The many crinkly lines at the back.
To promote the sporty image, the front is designed to give the illusion of far larger front air intakes than they are—and serve as placeholders for the 2021 Elantra N Line, which is notable for its bold intakes. From the back, the horizontal lines, including full-width lighting, are designed to make the car look wider.
The side profile is coupe-like with a fast C-pillar, blacked out rear quarter windows, and a pronounced crease that extends the roof to the back to create a natural spoiler. To maintain manageable headroom in the back, the new architecture made it possible to lower the seats. Rear legroom is unchanged from the previous generation. Hyundai claims the Elantra has the most passenger volume in the segment at 113.6 cubic feet. A quick comparison with the main competition confirms this, and the Elantra even bests some crossovers, including the Toyota RAV4, BMW X2 and Mazda CX-30.
In terms of visibility, the A pillars are thicker, but the openings are larger. The dash was pushed down for a wider field of vision and to create a more open feeling in the driver-centric cockpit. There is a 10.25-inch TFT display that adjoins the 10.25-inch infotainment screen that is tilted 10 degrees toward the driver. It is a single piece of glass, and the graphics are clean and crisp. Of interest, there is a small additional screen to the left of the TFT, which is black with a dotted line through it. It is a graphic placeholder for information in the future. Our guess: It will provide performance data for the Elantra N Line when it joins the lineup to replace the Elantra Sport.
Carryover Powertrain but New Hybrid and N Line
Hopping inside the Elantra, you are greeted with soft symphonic music when you turn the car on and off. Under the hood is the carryover 147-hp, 132-lb-ft, 2.0-liter inline-four mated to a continuously variable transmission, while the 2021 Elantra Hybrid uses a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine and an electric motor to achieve a total system output of 139 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. The Hybrid pairs with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, and Hyundai anticipates it will achieve 50 mpg-e. The Elantra rides on 15-, 16-, 17- and 18-inch alloy wheels. The N Line will have a different powertrain, but no details have been released yet. And product planner Mike Evanoff does not rule out the possibility of a manual transmission for the N Line.
Further contributing to the cabin mood, there are 64 colors available for ambient lighting. The colors default to colors pinned to each drive mode—green for eco, red for sport, blue for smart and white for normal—but there is a color wheel in the nav screen to customize it the cabin lighting.
The four-spoke steering wheel is not flat-bottomed, but it is an interesting design that incorporates flat hand rests. I also like the grab handle in the center console on the passenger side only so the driver does not feel hemmed in.
In terms of materials, the dash is a textured black plastic, broken up by chrome trim. The doors have a grained synthetic plastic polymer that feels like rubberized leather, jazzed up with swooping lines of stitching. The material feels like it could resist any form of wear, tear, or spills. There is a little bit of softness on the armrest, but I would not use the word plush. The headliner is cloth.
Some Serious Room Back Here
Seats are black perforated leather with contrast stitching and decent bolstering. There are seatbelts for three passengers in the surprisingly roomy rear seat, and that includes headroom. Front legroom is not best in class, but rear legroom is. Total passenger volume beats the competition, and the Elantra has the segment-best passenger room but not cargo room. The center portion of the back seat pulls down to an armrest with cupholders, and there is a mesh cargo pocket on the back of the hard plastic passenger seat. That is the end of the amenities for rear passengers; there are no air vents or controls or USB or charge ports.
The gearshift goes from a pistol grip to a T-bar for a more upscale feel. The button to select drive mode, as well as camera view, parking assist, and auto hold are all integrated around the gearshift; it’s both easy to find and use. Little touches include deep-set cupholders for tall drinks with an insert that can be taken out, rotated, and popped back in for smaller cups.
Hyundai says offering wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connection is a segment first. Pop your phone into the wireless charger, which has a cooling feature to keep the phone from overheating, and they will stream wirelessly. This feature was not yet operable in the pre-production model, so its effectiveness could not be tested. Wireless connection is only offered with the 8.0-inch screen for the 2021 model year, but cars with the larger screen are still hardwired for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. A nice feature: Two devices can be connected so you can have your phone going with Waze while a second device plays music through the eight-speaker Bose sound system. USB ports and 12-volt power outlets sit above the phone charge mat for easy accessibility.
Hear a Fireplace Crackle
An easter egg of sorts: Swipe through the nav screen to settings, and find “sounds of nature” to hear the sound of waves, an active forest, a rainy day, snowy village, open air café, or a crackling fire.
In terms of safety, the Hyundai SmartSense package of features is standard and includes automatic emergency braking, lane keep assist, and lane follow assist that centers the car in the lane, as well as high beam assist, blind-spot avoidance assist and rear cross-traffic collision avoidance assist. Blind-spot avoidance assist prompts the car to flash and sound a warning if there is an unseen car in the next lane, and the car will brake on one side to guide it back in the lane if necessary. Highway drive assist allows you to set the cruise control to react to changes in the speed limit. It reads signs as well as using map data. Smart cruise control is an option.
Following the Sonata’s lead, the 2021 Elantra also has Hyundai digital key that uses a phone app to unlock the car; then you put the phone in the charge pad to be authenticated, which allows it to start the car. A credit card-sized NFC card also provides access, essentially serving as a valet key.
The dynamic voice recognition that launched on the Sonata is also on the Elantra. It better recognizes natural speech patterns for commands. It was not on the pre-production car to test. Hyundai’s Bluelink pings the web for information and will check the car’s vitals, such as fuel level, battery health, and it will offer remote start, set the cabin temperature, heat the seats, and turn on the defrost. Rear occupant alert reminds you that something was put in the backseat, whether it is a small passenger or a briefcase.
Trim levels include the base SE, the volume SEL that has optional Convenience and Premium packages, the N Line, and Limited. The hybrid, which looks like the conventional Elantra but with different badging and displays, is available in SEL and Limited only. Both the N Line and hybrid are made in Ulsan, Korea, while the mainstream models are built in Korea and Montgomery, Alabama.
All in all, the Elantra is a looker. It will stand out on roads crowded with SUVs and pickups. It is a nod to the sporty nature of the car segment that is not dead yet and will continue to live if automakers like Hyundai continue to invest and innovate instead of just phoning it in.