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Driven: The 2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line Refuses to Grow Up, and That’s a Good Thing

This feisty little sedan is also a performance bargain.

MALIBU, California—I needed precisely three seconds to fall in love with the 2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line. I grabbed the keys to an anonymous gray one—actually, all of the new 2021 Elantra N-Lines look pretty anonymous, regardless of color—and headed out to the main road, revving hard and dumping the clutch so I could dart in front of a slow-moving truck. The immediate feedback from the Elantra N-Line was everything I could ask for: Quick. Light. Feisty. This was a car that wanted to get out and play.

2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line Test: Bringing Back Memories

Happily, we were right smack in the middle of my favorite curvy roads, and playing was the agenda. Bombing through the curves brought me back to the early 1990s and my days at a British car magazine, days spent zooming around in crappy cars poorly suited to such shenanigans. Not that the Elantra is crappy or poorly suited; it's really an overachiever with a lively engine, well-engineered suspension, and (optional) summer tires that never say die.

Talented though the hardware is, it doesn't get in the way of the Elantra N-Line's Peter Pan personality. Other versions of the Elantra feel like grown-up cars, effectively shrunken Sonatas, but the N-Line feels, as I do, like it's permanently stuck in adolescence. It helps that the N-Line gets the cheaper interior fittings from lower-spec Elantras, including analog gauges instead of an LCD panel, and a simple small-screen stereo, all in an effort to keep it price-competitive with Honda's venerable Civic Si. And it is: Honda hadn't announced 2021 pricing at the time of writing, but Elantra N-Line's $25k price tag undercuts the 2020 Civic Si sedan by a little more than a thousand bucks.

The 2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line I tested had a six-speed stick, which meant it didn't have a drive-mode switch. Cars equipped with the seven-speed dual-clutch automatic (priced $1,100 more) get a sport mode that tightens up the throttle response, the shift pattern, and the steering effort, but manny-tranny cars have just one mode, and they sure as hell make the best of it. The steering is light, but it loads up like a spring as you dial-in more lock. The body leans just a tad as you turn-in, but as the suspension loads it quickly loses its compliance and takes a firm set. An independent rear suspension (which replaces the standard Elantra's beam axle) helps it hold its line over mid-corner bumps, and the super-sticky Goodyear Eagle F1 summer tires fitted to stick-shift cars provide a level of grip far greater than I expected from a budget sportster. (Automatic cars get Hankook all-season performance tires.)

2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line Test: Can Turbo Lag and Corner-Exit Wheelspin be Good Things?

Under the hood is the same 201-horsepower/195 lb-ft, 1.6-liter turbo we've come to know and love from the Veloster R-Spec and the now-discontinued Elantra GT N-Line. There is noticeable turbo lag, but I didn't think it was a hindrance in my test; in fact, it kind of added to the fun. You can effectively turn the turbo on and off with the accelerator pedal, and once the boost is on, the engine just screams. Once you get the timing down, you'll know exactly when to light up the turbo for a good corner exit. (Just remember to keep the revs up—if you're below 3,000 rpm or so, your request for boost will be summarily denied.)

The Elantra N-Line lacks a limited-slip differential, so it exits corners as clumsily as you'd expect: The inside tire lights up, the traction control tries to rein it in, and you can feel a fight breaking out between the powertrain and its nanny. Any responsible automotive journalist would criticize such behavior, but I'm as irresponsible as the Elantra N Line, and this mini-temper-tantrum put a grin on my face every time. It's the N-Line's raw, slightly-unrefined manner that makes it a rolling laugh factory.

Only one thing really bothered me about the Elantra N-Line, though, and that was its dull duds. Hyundai blacked out some of the Elantra's trim and gave it unique wheels, but it's still too sedate-looking, especially given its endearingly childish nature. Surely Hyundai could add in a little of the Veloster N's red pinstriping without completely devastating sales of the upcoming Elantra N?

I suppose I could mention the Elantra N-Line's roomy back seat and sizable trunk (marred by a small opening), which makes it a useful hot rod for folks with families. But I won't, because I'd rather concentrate on how much freakin' fun I had wailing through the curves.

2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line Test: Not the Quickest, but Definitely the Most Fun

We get to drive some very expensive and talented cars, quickly on some very challenging roads. It's an awesome part of the job, but you really have to concentrate on your driving, and while it's usually enjoyable, it's not always fun. The 2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line, on the other hand, is nothing but fun. Drive it as fast and as hard and as sloppy as you want; who cares if your line isn't perfect? Who cares if you have to fight corner-exit wheelspin? The Elantra N-Line doesn't, and neither should you. Cheap(ish) performance cars shouldn't be about making the best time.  They should be about having the best time—and if you agree with that notion, the 2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line hits the bullseye.

2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line Highlights

2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line Pros

  • Quick and feisty
  • Very grippy with optional summer tires
  • Roomy family-friendly interior
  • Bargain price

2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line Cons

  • Doesn't look much different than a regular Elantra
2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $25,095 (base)
ENGINE 1.6L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve I-4/201 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 195 lb-ft @ 1,500-4,500 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed manual
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 25/34 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 184.1 x 71.9 x 55.9 in
WHEELBASE 107.1 in
WEIGHT 2,954 lb
0-60 MPH 7.0 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 140 mph (est)