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Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace. Value, simple functionality and good looks are always key components on Savage’s evaluation checklist. The Sunday column aims to give an honest account of a vehicle’s merits after a week’s test drive during which gas mileage is measured for a real-world report.

2021 Hyundai Elantra SEL Review

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Mark Savage
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The 2021 Hyundai Elantra SEL combines good looks and excellent performance with great gas mileage.

Surprises tend to hang out at the low end of the automotive market, where expectations may be lower because, well, prices are lower.

That continues to be the case with Hyundai’s popular Elantra compact sedan, refined and upgraded for 2021. I had the SEL model, just one up from the base and a sweet spot for Elantra to be sure.

READ: 2020 Hyundai Venue SEL Review

In brief, here’s what it has going for it, price, reliability, performance, looks, and solid safety and comfort features. Oh, and did I say price? Yes, yes and yes!

Let’s start there, knowing full well that an average vehicle purchase price these days is about $40,000. The base Elantra SE starts at $20,645 including delivery, but the smart money is on the SEL model, one step up at $21,895. At that you get a refined feel, fastback coupe styling with distinctive grille, and a light easy driver with just enough power to feel spunky at times.

But even without the Premium or Convenience packages that the bright Calypso Red ($300) test car added to push it to a still modest $25,400, it’s still well equipped, a Hyundai hallmark.

Standard safety features include blind-spot warning and avoidance, forward collision avoidance with pedestrian recognition, rear cross-traffic avoidance, lane-keeping assist, safe exit warning, driver attention warning, plus a high-beam assist. Even some luxury makes still charge extra for at least one of these features, usually packaged with some major luxury items that brand managers know their customers will take at a high rate.

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Credit Mark Savage
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The base Elantra SE starts at $20,645 including delivery, the SEL model is one step up at $21,895.

Inside there are some goodies that you might not expect until you reach at least a higher trim level, such as Hyundai’s Blue Link Connected system for safety, an 8-inch touchscreen, proximity key and push button start, dual climate control system and wireless Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. That final item isn’t wireless on the Limited model which comes with its own navigation system, but it’s on this lower trim line. Bravo!

Driving? That’s actually borderline fun here because like a Toyota Corolla, one of its key competitors, it’s light and packs lively steering. At 2,868 lbs. it’s gained only about 50 from an earlier test Elantra and handling remains just as good with easy and precise steering. Elantra feels so refined and well planted that it’s easy to toss into corners if you’re having a bit of fun on a winding rural road. The car is nimble.

Power is nothing to get excited about, but the Smartstream 2.0-liter I4 delivers 147 horsepower, which is just right for a car this light. A Sport drive mode is easy to engage via a button on the console if you want to add some pep to its acceleration. Certainly, in Normal mode it’s fine for city driving, but jump onto a highway, tap the Sport mode button and away you go. Good acceleration that you can dial back to Normal once you’re to cruising speed.

There’s now an electronically controlled CVT automatic that actually works well with the engine so that while city acceleration is moderate it can give you a burst of power to the front drive wheels in an instant.

Ride is comfortable too as Elantra now rides on a slightly stretched 107.1-inch wheelbase. That helps smooth the ride and with a torsion beam rear suspension the Elantra seems more well-controlled and comfy on bumpy city streets than some competing compacts.

Moving up to the hybrid model, SEL HEV, or beyond to the performance N Line versions, will get you a multi-link rear suspension, which in theory is better for car control and ride. But this torsion beam system seems to work extremely well in real world driving.

Inside the red beauty came with black cloth seats and hard black textured plastic dash, but the low lean lines of the dash and doors make the Hyundai’s interior look stylish. The three satin chrome strakes across the dash blend into the air vents and the stitching in the cloth door inserts blend into that line. Well thought out.

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Credit Mark Savage
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The interior of the Elantra features black cloth seats and hard black textured plastic dash, but the low lean lines of the dash and doors make the Hyundai’s interior look stylish.

The steering wheel is black leather here with satin chrome trim on the lower wheel hub and face and then there’s black gloss trim by the shifter on the console and further back by the cup holders. Black gloss trims the touchscreen and large projected instrument cluster too.

My only problem with the styling is that the door release handles are down a bit low and somewhat hidden within the door trim. I’m sure it’s something an owner would get used to, but I fumbled for the door release for most of the week.

The dash is well laid out and the big projected instrument panel is easy to read and the gauges change colors dependent on the drive mode you choose. The touchscreen is simple to use while driving too.

Elantra’s seats are fine with some hip and lower back support. The driver’s seat gets power controls including a lumbar adjustment. What really stands out is the roomy rear seat, which grew by 2.3 inches as the entire car grew 2.2 inches longer. That, plus some additional shoulder room makes this more comfortable for four adults.

In back is a good-sized trunk for a compact and split rear seats that will fold down.

To move the Elantra a little more upscale, the test car added the Convenience package for just $950, including an upgraded forward collision avoidance system that also recognizes cyclists, smart cruise control with a stop & go feature to safe fuel, a spiffy 10.25-inch projected instrument cluster, a wireless charging pad, heated front seats and heated outside mirror, plus electric park brake and leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob.

That’s a value and makes the car all that much more comfortable and enjoyable.

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Credit Mark Savage
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The EPA rates the Elantra at 31 mpg city and 41 mpg highway, the test vehicles got 34.3 mpg in a mix of driving. If you want even better fuel economy, up to 54 mpg, then the SEL HEV or Limited HEV hybrid models may best suit you and help reduce carbon emissions.

A $2,100 Premium package adds more bling, so not as necessary. Still, it upgrades to 17-inch tires and alloy wheels while also adding dark chrome accents to the exterior a long with taillights with LED and bulbs. Inside it delivers a solid Bose premium audio system with 8 speakers and a 60/40 split folding rear seat along with some rear seat-back pockets. You also get a digital key system you can use with your phone and turn signals in the side mirrors.

Two final points, the first a very slight downer and that’s the touchy key fob. Had this in my pocket as I shoveled around the car during one of our February snow blasts and the fob kept unlocking and relocking the car, not a big deal. More annoying than those beeps was that the fob always popped the trunk open. Weird, and it let snow plop into the open trunk!

On the bright side, fuel economy is excellent considering this is NOT a hybrid. The EPA rates the Elantra at 31 mpg city and 41 mpg highway. I got 34.3 mpg in a mix, nearly exactly what the trip computer said. Amazing! And with gas prices on their way up again, that’s a win.

If you want even better fuel economy, up to 54 mpg, then the SEL HEV or Limited HEV hybrid models may best suit you and help reduce carbon emissions. The hybrid uses a 1.6-liter I4 and a dual-clutch 6-speed automatic. Power is about 140 horses with the hybrid’s electric motor added, and the HEV starts at an affordable $24,545 with delivery.

Move up to the Limited hybrid, which is loaded with a lot of the optional add-ons of the test car and the sticker grows to $29,095. Again, that’s still well below the average new car cost.

Also note that performance-minded drivers who have been considering souped up editions of a Honda Civic, Corolla, Mazda3 or Nissan Sentra, may want to consider the N Line. It bumps that 1.6-liter I4 up to 201 horsepower with a turbo. N Line also comes with, get this, a 6-speed manual gearbox. Not many makes offer a manual anymore. For the less shifty buyer there IS a 7-speed automatic. N Line starts at $25,095. Talk about a high-value street racer!

In any trim the Elantra offers a lot for a little, and now with the N Line and hybrid models there is something to satisfy anyone’s budget and performance mindset.

Overview: 2021 Hyundai Elantra SEL

Hits: Good looks, good performance, excellent mpg. Sport mode boosts acceleration. Great safety and comfort content for price, including heated seats, wireless phone charger, sunroof. Roomy rear seat for a compact car.

Misses: Inside door release handles are somewhat low and hidden, touchy key fob wants to open trunk often.

Made In: Montgomery, Ala.

Engine: 2.0-liter I4, 147 hp

Transmission: CVT automatic

Weight: 2,868 lbs.

Wheelbase: 107.1 in.

Length: 184.1 in.

Cargo: 14.2 cu.ft.

MPG: 31/41, 34.3 (tested)

Base Price: $21,895 (includes delivery)

Invoice: $21,073

Major Options: Calypso Red paint, $300

Convenience package (forward collision avoidance w/pedestrian/cyclist recognition, 10.25-inch instrument cluster, smart cruise w/stop-go, electric park brake, leather-wrapped wheel/shifter, wireless charging pad, heated front seats, heated outside mirror), $950

Premium package (17-inch alloy wheels/tires, power sunroof, dark chrome exterior accents, LED/bulb taillights, Bose premium audio w/8 speakers, side mirror turn signals, 60/40 split folding rear seats, digital key, passenger back seat pockets), $2,100

Carpeted floor mats, $155

Test Vehicle: $25,400

Sources: Hyundai, Kelley Blue Book

Editor's Note: Mark Savage's auto review column, Savage On Wheels, looks at a new vehicle every week and tells consumers what’s good, what’s not so good, and how the vehicle fits into the marketplace.

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