The Road Beat tests the new 2021 Hyundai Elantra N Line
Want performance and pizzazz on the cheap? The Elantra N Line is here to scoop you up
Words and photos by Mitchell Weitzman
Hyundai is making this a bit of a habit lately. That is, coming out of nowhere, like successfully faking a field goal, to bring the world their 'N' badged crop of performance cars. Okay, this is an 'N Line' and not the full-fat Namyang like the already legendary Veloster N, but what an achievement for the money and their lack of experience in this segment. At just a shade over $26,000 all-in, the Elantra N Line represents a total performance bargain that normal people can all enjoy.
What is it?
Hyundai's Elantra N Line, taking their popular and long-running Elantra economy car and sprucing it up with extra horsepower, visual swagger, canyon-honed suspension, and a nifty dual-clutch transmission. Taking aim at a segment once dominated exclusively by Honda's Civic Si (Honda has yet to launch an Si model in its new and current iteration), Hyundai's foray into cheap performance isn't maybe quite a home run, but it's definitely a triple on merit and not a throwing error.
To start the transformation from Elantra to Elantra N Line, many of the visual accents have been updated to a gloss black, a common trend on performance cars. Paired with this example's deep Intense Blue paint and subtle tweaks to the front bumper, new wheels, and an integrated boot spoiler, the Elantra N Line shows its intent in the looks department. Some might find the overall shape and the triangular creases on the door vulgar, but it attracts pupils in a commanding way for a car this affordable. Remember, the last Civic Si was far from pretty to many people, being divisive. I feel this machine will follow a similar path, but at least to my eyes, I dig the style. Highly recommend this color, too.
Under the hood is a 1.6-liter inline-four with a helping of turbocharging, bringing power up to 201 horsepower and 195 lbs-ft torque. Those are increases of 54 and 63 over the last Limited model I tested with its naturally-aspirated 2.0L, respectively. Paired to an eager dual-clutch tranny (unheard of in cars below 30 grand), the rise in performance is unsurprisingly severe. 0-60 MPH drops from 8.2 seconds (as last tested) down to 6.2 thanks to its newfound boosted glory. Power is developed in typically fun turbo fashion, with a swelling of power occurring from just 2,000 RPM and reaching peak thrust by 3,000. With the snappy transmission, keeping it in the powerband and using the strong midrange is easy and addictive. It's no Porsche PDK, but this automated manual sure beats the hell out of any CVT and all but the best torque-converters (ZF's eight-speed auto in new BMWs is particularly brilliant). Overall performance and feel from this motor and transmission is actually incredibly akin to an older VW Golf GTIs, and that is meant as a huge compliment. A new GTI or Jetta GLI, for example, both cost several thousand more than this Elantra N Line, moving you well into a whole new price bracket. There's also the availability of a six-speed manual that I definitely would encourage over this dual-clutch to bring further driver engagement.
In the bends, the N Line is also very much at home as long you don't go expecting it to be a committed sports car on max attack. If you want that, Hyundai has more suitable options out and more coming. As it sits now on 18" all-season rubber, the front is resolute in providing grip to tackle a variety of canyons, mountains, and freeway onramps. Handling and balance are both composed enough to avoid crashing understeer and allow a fair amount of adjustability. The ride quality remains good, too. Unlike the bigger and hugely more powerful Sonata N Line, the more modest Elantra N Line doesn't have the firepower to so easily overcook the front tires, which makes it easier and more forgiving when cornering. Steering isn't wholly feelsome, but is direct and features a natural weighting for increased confidence. The wheels also feels particularly nice in the hands.
Despite making significant power gains, I found the economy only minorly impacted, with an average MPG of 32 in my time and 40 MPG very possible on level freeways. In light of its performance aspirations, this is still very much an economy car still in terms of both price and its gas mileage.
There is little to not like about the Elantra N Line. Some will dislike the looks while others will love it. Other tidbits are going to include an interior that neither disappoints nor wows. There are little 'N' cues here and there, like on the seats for example, and some red stitching, but the interior is very much standard Elantra fare with a mix of different plastics. The front chairs do have more lateral support than standard, but I wish they had more side bolstering and especially more shoulder support. To the left of the instrument cluster is an ugly and ungainly switch for driving modes (including a 'sport'), but it's a complete waste of space. It actually also resembles the evil HAL 9000 computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Back to those seats, though, because they likely are the largest single complaint I had with this car. In short driving, below an hour, they are fine. However, on longer distances, they were wildly uncomfortable. On a long schlep to Laguna Seca for the IndyCar Series race, I got out of the car feeling as if I just ran a 5k. I wasn't alone, as two different passengers who experienced the front seats had nearly identical complaints. So, not the greatest road trip car then; I can't remember the last time I was so negatively affected by the seats of any car over longer distances.
Maybe an inside the park home run then?
There's no way of hiding it - this is a remarkable achievement from the South Korean automaker. To bring this level of performance and unique features like an available dual-clutch transmission at this price point deserves a celebration. Until Honda comes out with a new Civic Si, there is no current competitor to this car. For about $25,000, and to get 200 horsepower and a capable-enough chassis, too, there is no alternative. And the fact that this comes it at the same price as even just regular, coma-induced Toyota Corollas speaks more to the fact. If you'd rather forgo performance for more comfort and a slightly better interior, the Elantra Limited costs about the same. The seats are a real disappointment, but on the whole, the Elantra N Line is a winner. It really does pose the question, "Why buy a cheap boring car, when you can have a cheap fun car?" The only real caveat is maybe you'd like to spend an additional five grand on the real Elantra N with 286 horsepower coming later this year...
2021 Hyundai Elantra N Line
As-tested Price: $26,360
Pros: Incredible performance for the price
Cons: Seats on long distances
Verdict: A winner and complete bargain