Handsome, roomy, refined, and well-priced, the 2021 Hyundai Elantra promises strong compact-sedan value

2021 Hyundai Elantra

What changes will make the 2021 Hyundai Elantra different?

Likely very little after Hyundai made some notable improvements to its compact sedan for model-years 2019 and ‘20. In fact, expect this comely little four-door to remain unaltered until its next full redesign, probably for model-year 2022.

The 2021 Elantra sedan will return in three trims — mainstream, Eco, and Sport – each with its own engine and target audience. Hyundai also offers a four-door hatchback under the Elantra GT badge, but that car has different underskin engineering than the sedan and sells in far fewer numbers. This report covers only the Elantra sedan.

Model-year ’21 marks the 30th anniversary of the Elantra nameplate. Its breakout year came with introduction of the fifth-generation 2011 model. Its bold styling was a breath of fresh air for the compact-car segment, and it proved popular and influential. Today’s Elantra design, which debuted for model-year ’17 and updated for ’19, was more conservative. What it lost in style points, though, it more than gained in an improved driving experience.

Elantra was one the only compact car that didn’t suffer a sales decline for 2018, but it’s joined the crowd in 2019, with demand off 16 percent through May. Still, that’s better than the 19 percent decline for the segment as a whole.

Note that driving impressions and other subjective conclusions in this review are based on test drives of the 2019 Elantra sedan. We have not yet tested a 2020 model, but its powertrains and underskin engineering are shared with the 2019 Kia Forte, a sedan from Hyundai’s corporate cousin that we have tested. In other areas where the 2021 Elantra might be different, we will reserve judgment.

Should I wait for the 2021 model or buy the 2020?

Get the ’20. Little reason to wait for the ’21 – it won’t get substantive changes, but it will cost more. It’ll also carry the revised interior and exterior styling that came online for model-year 2019, as well as the new transmission lineup introduced for 2020. Most important, it’ll continue with Hyundai’s laudable model-year-2020 decision to make key safety features standard across the board rather than just on the most-expensive trim level.

Expect an unchanged lineup that’ll consist of mainstream SE, SEL, Value Edition, and Limited trims, plus more focused Eco and Sport grades.

Will the styling be different?

Not for 2021. Hyundai substantially updated the exterior design for ’19 with completely new front and rear fasciae. The grille and headlights took on a much more aggressive appearance and the tail got a neat remodel. It made a smart-looking sedan even more handsome, although the Sport grade took a small step back. The rather odd piece of trim above its grille and between the headlights looks like a pair of straight-edge razors ready to slice off the Hyundai logo.

No complaints about Elantra’s revamped interior. The ’21 will continue with gauges and a panel above the instrument binnacle that have a sporty, carbon-fiber look. It’ll also enjoy the new climate panel’s trendy design, along with the with dual-zone automatic temperature control made standard on all 2020 Elantras.

Expect 2021 SE grades to continue with a generic 5-inch touchscreen infotainment system. All other ’21 Elantras should again include a 7-inch display with support for Apple CarPlay and Google Android Auto. It’d be nice if Hyundai were to add the larger screen to the SE 2021, though failure to do so wouldn’t be a deal breaker if you’re looking at the entry-level Elantra. Likely to return as an option for the Sport and Limited will be an 8-inch screen with an imbedded navigation system that doesn’t require a connected smartphone.

The ’21 Elantra won’t be quite as roomy as a Honda’s Civic, but the cabin will still feel plenty spacious. The seats will again prioritize comfort over sporty bolstering, even in the tuned-up Sport model. Front and rear legroom are very good. Headroom is fine, though the very tall might feel a bit cramped beneath the housing of the power sunroof that should remain standard on the Value Edition and Sport and optional on the Limited.

Trunk volume will remain an impressive 14.4 cubic feet. Similarly generous will be interior storage, with a nicely sized glovebox, center console box, and cubby beneath the climate controls.

Any mechanical changes?

No, and probably not until the model-year-2022 redesign. For 2020, Hyundai replaced the six-speed automatic transmission that was standard on most Elantras with a new continuously variable transmission. CVTs perform the duties of a conventional automatic but without stepped gear changes. We haven’t tested a CVT-equipped Elantra but in our test of the mechanically similar Kia Forte we found the CVT a revelation. Unlike many CVTs, this Hyunda-Kia design delivers smooth response with none of the “rubber banding” sensation in which engine speed races ahead of road speed.

In the 2021 Elantra, the CVT will again pair with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with 147 horsepower and 132 pound-feet of torque. This drivetrain combination will remain standard on the SE, SEL, Value, and Limited.

Eco grades will reprise a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder of 128 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. It will again pair with a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. This powertrain is even more likeable than the 2.0-liter/CVT combo. The turbo’s extra torque is available at a lower engine speed than with the 2.0-liter, so the Eco feels that much snappier off the line. Despite harder, skinnier tires than other Elantras, the fuel-sipping Eco is more fun to toss into corners, too.

Elantra’s 2021 Sport grades will return with a 1.6-liter turbo four-cylinder with 201 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. For 2020, Hyundai dropped the six-speed manual transmission that had been standard on the Sport (and on the SE), leaving only a variant of the Eco’s seven-speed dual-clutch automatic.

We lament the loss of the manual, but the dual-clutch is well-behaved and the choice of the vast majority of buyers. The Sport’s handling won’t be as sharp as that of a Honda Civic Si or Mazda 3, but it’s stable and predictable. This is also the only Elantra sedan with an independent rear suspension rather than a less costly and less sophisticated torsion-beam rear axle. Shockingly, it’s not as dramatic an upgrade as you might expect That’s not a slam on the Sport as much as high praise for this particular torsion-beam design, which provides remarkably confident behavior even through bumpy corners.

No reason to doubt all ’21 Elantras won’t continue with a sense of refinement that exceeds their price class. The engines sound pleasant during acceleration and fade into near silence at cruising speeds. There’s impressively little wind or tire noise. Overall, this compact sedan feels more costly than it is.

Will fuel economy improve?

It did for 2020, thanks to the CVT, and those EPA ratings should stand pat for the ‘21. That means the 2021 Elantra SE should again rate an inspiring 31/41/35 mpg city/highway/combined. The other 2.0-liter models will continue with larger wheels and tires that should again trim ratings to 30/40/34 mpg. The CVT, incidentally, helped increase the rating of Elantras so equipped by 2 mpg city, 3 highway, and 2 combined. That’s a notable achievement.

Expect the 2021 Elantra Eco to repeat the small gain it enjoyed for 2020, as well, with ratings of 33/41/36 mpg city/highway/combined versus 32/40/35. Part of the improvement resulted from the addition of engine stop/start capability. Expect the 2021 Elantra Sport to again rate 26/33/29 mpg.

All models will continue to use regular-grade 87-octane gasoline.

Will there be new features?

Unlikely. When the fifth-generation Elantra launched for model-year ’17, the only way to get key driver-assistance features was on the flagship Limited grade equipped with the $3,000-plus Ultimate Package. This changed with the 2019 refresh, when most of those safety features were made standard on all but the SE model. For ’20, Hyundai included them on all models and will do so again for model-year ‘21.

The automaker bundles these important driver assists under the SmartSense tag. They consist of autonomous emergency braking, lane-departure warning with automatic steering correction, and drowsy-driver alert. Adaptive radar cruise control that can maintain a fixed distance from traffic ahead remained a Limited-exclusive option for 2020; don’t expect that to change for ’21.

The rest of the 2021 Elantra’s standard-equipment list should mirror that of the 2019-2020 lineup. In addition to dual-zone automatic climate control, the SE will include a rearview camera with guidelines that move when you turn the steering wheel. This is a welcome convenience not typically found on entry-level compact cars.

Moving to the SEL should again net 16-inch aluminum wheels (versus 15-inch steel rims on the SE), the larger infotainment screen with CarPlay and Android Auto support, along with voice recognition for the Bluetooth cell-phone link, automatic headlights, heated exterior mirrors, and blind-spot alert with rear cross-traffic detection.

The 2021 Elantra Value Edition should again have all that, plus a power sunroof, heated front seats, keyless access with pushbutton engine start, and Hyundai’s Blue Link telematics. Expect the Eco to largely mirror the Value’s equipment but with LED daytime running lights and minus the weight-adding sunroof. It’ll also continue to swap 16-inch alloy wheels for lighter 15-inch alloys.

For ’21, Limited grades will continue build on the Value Edition. While they aren’t apt to gain a sunroof, they should have 17-inch wheels, LED headlights and taillights, driver-seat lumbar adjustment, leather upholstery, and wireless smartphone charging.

The 2021 Elantra Sport will again be equipped similarly to the Limited but will add the sunroof while subtracting the wireless phone charging pad.

Will 2021 prices be different?

They’ll probably be marginally higher, thanks to year-over-year inflation. For reference, here are 2020 Elantra base prices, including the manufacturer’s $920 destination fee.

The SE started at $19,870, the SEL at $20,620, the Value Edition at $21,520, and the Limited at $23,720. Base price for the Eco was $22,170. The Sport was priced from $24,720, right in line with the Civic Si, which came only with a manual transmission while the Hyundai came exclusively with the dual-clutch automatic.

For model-year ’21, expect only the Limited and Sport to return with any factory options. They should again come in the form of packages. The Limited Ultimate Package ($3,350 for 2020) would add the sunroof, upgraded instrument cluster, driver-seat memory system, 8-inch infotainment screen with imbedded GPS mapping, and adaptive cruise control.

The Sport Premium Package ($2,050 for 2020) would again have the same features as the Ultimate Package except for the sunroof (which is standard) and radar cruise.

When does it come out?

Look for a 2021 Hyundai Elantra sedan release date in the summer of 2020.

Best competitors

Honda Civic, Kia Forte, Mazda 3, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Jetta

About Chuck Giametta

This nationally recognized, award-winning writer brings to Carpreview.com two decades of automotive testing and reporting for newspapers, books, magazines, and the Internet. The former Executive Auto Editor of Consumer Guide, Chuck has covered cars for HowStuffWorks.com, Collectible Automobile magazine, and the Publications International Ltd. automotive book series. This ex-newspaper reporter has also appeared as an automotive expert on network television and radio. He’s a charter member of the Midwest Automotive Media Association, the president of the Rocky Mountain Automotive Media association, and a juror for the annual Active Lifestyle Vehicle of the Year awards. Chuck writes from Colorado Springs, Colo. If you have a question for Chuck, write to him at [email protected]