If you haven’t been in a Hyundai Elantra in recent years you could be in for a surprise, especially if you’re now thinking of one of the early “cheap and cheerful” models that easily got lost in a crowd and largely appealed to buyers on a tight budget. The 2021 Elantra is another matter entirely, with a bold design and plenty of features going for it. And two versions of the seventh-generation sedan, in particular, should completely transform Elantra’s image once and for all.
Lifting a page from upscale rivals like Mercedes-Benz and BMW, Hyundai has begun launching its own line-up of high-performance models and, like those German marques, the brand-within-a-brand known as “Hyundai N” comes in two levels. The first step up is the N Line which you could think of as the Korean answer to BMW’s M Sport. Hyundai N models are the top-tier performers, the brand’s answer to BMW M.
We got our first taste of the full-in N package with the Hyundai Veloster N. Now, the carmaker is readying both N and N Line versions of the 2021 Elantra, and we had our first chance to take both out for a day during a visit to Los Angeles earlier this month.
Overview: Why “N”? According to Hyundai officials, the name has a double meaning, representing both the company’s engineering center in Namyang, as well as Germany legendary race track, the Nurburgring, where much of the testing was done on the two models.
Hyundai is jut one of the many automakers hoping to burnish its image – and generate more revenue – by pushing into the high-performance space. As with a number of competitors, its new N Line can be thought of as “performance light.” Some are pretty much just design enhancements. In the case of the 2021 Hyundai Elantra, however, both N Line and N deliver significant boosts in power and handling, while also adding some distinctive exterior and interior design tweaks.
We had the chance to see just what Hyundai engineers achieved during a long day of driving along the coast and canyon country on the northern edge of Los Angeles.
Exterior: Like the less sporty versions of the seventh-generation Elantra, both N and N Line share some dynamic design updates. All versions adopt Hyundai’s new “Sensuous Sportiness” design language, with a lower nose, more ranked windshield and a fastback roofline. Easily the most distinctive – and controversial details are the sharp creases that slash across the front and rear doors.
Like other N Line models, the Elantra version features a black grille with unique badging and front fascia, as well as larger air intakes. It rides on 18-inch wheels and summer tires, though you can opt for all-season rubber, if you prefer. There also are black surrounds on the wheel wells, mirrors and side skirts. And the N Line model has its own exhaust and integrated rear spoiler, as well as a front lip spoiler. Projector headlights and full LED taillights are standard.
The Elantra N takes things a step further, starting with the five-spoke wheels it shares with the current Hyundai Veloster N. There’s a bigger rear wing to hold the big end down on the pavement – and with all that power, you need it when you start pushing into extra-legal speeds.
Interior: The surprise comes with the return to analog gauges on the N Line, rather than the upgraded 12.3-inch LCD screen found in upper trim-level versions of the 2021 Hyundai Elantra. It’s there on the Elantra N, however. Both feature 10.25-inch touchscreens for infotainment. The two N versions share sport seats borrowed from the Veloster N, as well as alloy pedals and other distinctive details giving the cabin a more sporty look and feel.
“… The Elantra N upgrades with the addition of dark chrome accents and red stitching inside, along with suede-like inserts in its leather seats …”
What you’ll also notice is that the N Line gives you the option of a manual transmission.
Powertrain: As already noted, the N models both offer upgraded performance compared to the main Elantra line’s 147 horsepower naturally aspirated 2.0-liter inline-4 (with a hybrid package also available).
The N Line bumps up to 201 hp and 195 pound-feet of torque thanks to a turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-4 that’s paired to a 6-speed manual or an optional 7-speed dual-clutch transmission that gives you paddle shifters on the steering wheel.
For serious performance fans, the choice is going to be the 2021 Elantra N. Here you get a 2.5-liter turbo-4 that makes a whopping 290 ponies, its 311 lb-ft of torque coming on fast as you mash the throttle to the floor. The engine choice comes as a bit of a surprise, as it was expected to use a turbo 2.0-liter package good for a bit lower 275 hp rating. As with the N Line, the Elantra N sends power to the front wheels through either that 6-speed manual or 7-speed DCT.
One of the ways Hyundai gets so much power out of the N’s 2.5-liter engine – and brings on torque so quickly – is through the combined use of multiport fuel injection at lower speeds, switching to direct injection at higher RPMs. The engine also features an integrated exhaust manifold, as well as piston cooling.
Technology and Safety: All versions of the Elantra get a variety of new technologies, including a larger touchscreen monitor that handles both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There’s Qi wireless charging along with lots of USB ports.
The Elantra can be ordered with Hyundai’s new digital key. The smartphone-based system allows numerous remote functions, including locking and unlocking, but also lets you operate the vehicle without bringing along a conventional key or key fob. And you can digitally “share” the feature with other drivers.
Hyundai offers a suite of advanced driver assistance systems on all Elantras, including the N and N Line, the performance models including useful technology such as blind-spot warning and forward collision warning with automated emergency braking.
Drive Impressions: The standard-issue 2021 Hyundai Elantra retains its live rear axle. The hybrid, N and N Line all go with a five-link independent rear and the payoff is obvious immediately, especially on the two performance models. Up front, it’s a McPherson strut layout.
We had the chance to drive out to canyon country in the Elantra N and found it surprisingly comfortable when driven at medium speeds on local streets and highways. But it came to life once we got away from traffic and pushed the limits on tight-and-twisty Decker Canyon Road. It’s the sort of crazed tarmac that regular drivers will try to avoid, with one sharp switchback after another, blind curves, off-camber turns and few guardrails to keep you from plunging into the canyon 100 feet or more below.
“… The N’s steering proved precise and responsive. It was easy to predict where it would point, especially as you could use all that low-end grunt to assist the steering wheel …”
Among the pleasant discoveries was the active sound system that enhanced the already impressive burbles and pops from the 2.5-liter engine. Oversized brake rotors were a clear plus, as well.
If I had the option, I’d have headed out in the Elantra N Line and back in the N. With so much demand from fellow journalists I was please to have time in both, no matter what. And, though I expected to find myself working harder, and significantly cutting back on my pace through Decker Canyon, I was surprised to see the smaller engine managing to deliver plenty of low-end power, the N Line’s suspension nearly as formidable in managing to keep me always pointing the right way.
Wrap Up: Hyundai plans to have at least a half-dozen N models coming. The automaker is in the process of deciding whether to retain the Veloster N as it expects most potential buyers will opt for the more utilitarian Elantra package.
But it’s hard to argue with the company’s logic. The 2021 Hyundai Elantra N is everything you might want from the sedan. It’s a blast to drive, offers great interior space, lots of features, and even gets reasonable gas mileage. For a bit less money, you can get the Elantra N Line. It’s not quite as powerful but, for most potential buyers, its turbo-4 will deliver more than enough.
Together, the two performance models drive home the fact that today’s Hyundai is a very different brand from what we thought we knew not that many years ago.