Here in the (admittedly weird) year of 2021, the Hyundai Elantra won the North American Car of the Year award. That sentence may sound discordant — "Elantra" was long a byword for a forgettable, economical compact — but the win shouldn't surprise anyone who's been paying attention.
After all, the Hyundai Motor Group — which consists of Hyundai, Kia and Genesis — are building some of the most exciting cars on the road; they've claimed four of the past six NACTOY awards for best truck and SUV, and have had four other cars finish as top three finalists. The only real upset here is that the Elantra beat out its flashier corporate cousin, the Genesis G80 — but you can justify that beyond NACTOY jurors’ peculiar taste for sensibly priced sedans.
Here's why it deserves the honor: the Elantra is all-new for 2021, and it's offering a lot of versatility, with everything a 201-horsepower N-line performance model to a hybrid that can earn up to 54 mpg combined. I drove the conventional combustion Elantra in SEL trim, and even in that basic spec, it showed how Hyundai is providing a value proposition that should have Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla buyers (not to mention anyone considering a subcompact crossover) turning their heads.
Hyundai lead designer Luc Donckerwolke, formerly of Lamborghini and Bentley, has been working wonders with Genesis. He spearheaded work on the Elantra, which incorporates features found elsewhere in the Hyundai lineup.
Like the Ioniq 5, the Elantra employs Hyundai’s “parametric dynamics” design language, with three bold lines along the doors that meet to form a polyhedron. You get a prominent grille like the Tucson and a horizontal light bar at the rear like the Sonata. It’s an intriguing car to look at from multiple angles, something seldom said about a small mass-market sedan.
The interior feels refreshing, too. The asymmetrical passenger side bar provides a cockpit-esque appearance reminiscent of the C8 Corvette; my tester paired that with dual LCDs fit for a luxury car. It even extends the glass with an odd non-functional circular design element to balance the look.
The design distracts you from the compromise that Hyundai made: at least in SEL trim, some cheap-feeling Delta Airlines-grade material choices.
You won’t get hot and bothered when I rattle off numbers like 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque, or when I highlight the Elantra’s continuously variable transmission. But the Elantra does deliver a well-balanced — and, for its price point, refined — ride. Steering is precise and has a pleasant feel, and the car maintains body control while still being compliant enough to absorb the bumps. It’s a solid base for a car, which Hyundai has adapted for both touring car racing and Prius-fighting.
The Elantra’s not quick, but it’s quick enough for normal driving. If you don’t like drive like a loon, taxing the engine and barging into corners, the gas Elantra will be relentlessly pleasant, and maybe even a little fun. Plus, in this guise, it gets 35 mpg combined and 41 mpg on the highway.
The Elantra is not an expensive car. My SEL tester with the Convenience package, the Premium package, and a splurge for carpeted floor mats — and it still came out to just $25,110.
Plus, that outlay gets you many things manufacturers normally define as "premium features." I mentioned the dual displays already; you also get Hyundai’s adaptive cruise control, both keyless entry and push-button start, Hyundai’s Digital Key technology, the Bose premium stereo, wireless Apple Carplay and Android Auto, automatic high beams, LED lighting and alloy wheels.
When you add it all together, this Hyundai is aa $25,000 car feels like a $30,000 (or $35,000 car in many of the ways that count.
Base Price: $20,900
Powertrain: 2.0-liter inline-four, continuously-variable transmission, front-wheel-drive
Torque: 132 lb-ft
EPA Fuel Economy: 31 mpg city, 41 mpg highway
The results may surprise you.