Honda’s Civic Si has been a perennial favorite of enthusiasts who don’t need something luxurious to have a good time. Buyers like the affordable economy car that mixes a potent engine, manual transmission, and other hardware upgrades over a “regular” Civic to make it a bit more fun without punishing the driver day to day. Hot on Honda’s heels comes Hyundai, with a slightly-spicy variant of their Elantra sedan. The 2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line is not the top dog in the sedan’s lineup, but it’s the one more buyers will choose given its price, right around $25,000.
“Save the manuals” has been a war cry of enthusiasts since, well, I was a kid at this point. Every year is the year that the three-pedal manual transmission is dead for good. Availability is now actually thinning, but Hyundai gets props for making a six-speed the standard offering on the 2021 Elantra N-Line. Of course, having a manual doesn’t mean much if it’s not engaging behind the wheel.
What Is It?
This is a 2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line, which sits to the side of the “normie” Elantras like the Elantra SE, Limited, and Hybrid. In food terms, it is “American spicy,” which is honestly plenty for a lot of folks. Hyundai sticks a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder under the hood, which produces 201 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque. That six-speed manual is standard, and the two-pedal option is blessedly not a lazy torque-converter, but a seven-speed DCT.
Every Elantra N-Line is front-wheel drive, and Hyundai’s only big misstep here is routing power through an open differential. Honda has included a limited-slip diff as standard for a while now – and will with their just-launched 2022 Civic Si. Hyundai did revise the suspension for N-Line use, though, with firmer shock damping and stiffer spring and sway bar rates both front and rear. The twist-beam rear suspension of other Elantras is ditched for an independent rear suspension, a setup that Hyundai also employs on the Elantra Hybrid – obviously, with softer everything around it.
Brakes are upsized by about an inch, wheels are unique to the Elantra N-Line, and if you choose the manual, you’ll get some Goodyear Eagle F1 summer tires. DCT-motivated Elantra N-Lines get all-seasons.
Inside, the Elantra N-Line is well-equipped but not lavish. You’ll find unique seats that are a mix of cloth and leather, a totally-fine sound system, and an eight-inch infotainment screen supporting wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Analog gauges are your only option. Other Elantras can have a digital cluster and 10.25″ infotainment setup (with no wireless capability) but I didn’t miss it here. The focus is on driving and this is all good enough.
The whole shebang weighs about 2,954 pounds, and choosing the DCT adds 66 pounds to that figure. MSRP of my 2021 Elantra N-Line with the manual transmission came in a few dollars over $25,000.
Back Roads in the Elantra N-Line
The notion of “back roads” in the Washington, DC area is laughable, but they can be found. Despite driving this car around Thanksgiving, I managed to find some roads away from the throngs of other (slow, Tryptophan-stuffed) drivers and gave the Elantra N-Line a good romp.
Most pleasing to me was the steering, which is light-ish on center but firms up as you build speed and turn in to a corner. Is it the best ever? No, but it’s good for this sort of car. The same can be said for the brakes, which are appropriately-sized and offer good initial bite and a progressive pedal as you get in to them more and more. Hyundai’s suspension changes work well, offering a controlled body without feeling overly harsh or crashy.
I never really longed for more power, either. The sub-3,000 pound curb weight and 201 horsepower work out to about 14.7 pounds per horsepower, which is quick if not outright fast. The N-Line is torquey down low, which helps out of corners, though the open differential shows its weakness at the same time. It’s just tough to put power down – you are rewarded for rolling on to the throttle with a deliberate-yet-delicate foot. If you get all excited, the N-Line is all too happy to plow straight ahead as you crank the wheel left or right.
Where I have a harder time with the specific Elantra N-Line I drove is with its manual transmission, and all of its supporting acts. Hyundai’s got a very light shifter paired to a very light clutch pedal. It works well in city traffic, but doesn’t really give you any feel to speak of, either. I could deal with the lightness, but it’s paired to engine tuning that “rev hangs” every time you depress the clutch. Rev hang is programmed in to many new manual-transmission cars to reduce emissions, and it’s annoying in every single instance. I had a tough time being a smooth driver when driving aggressively, given how the N-Line was programmed.
City Streets in the Elantra N-Line
My clutch complaints (and associated goings-on) mattered less in day-to-day driving, where less effort and a lighter pedal are preferred. Even in DC holiday traffic, I didn’t get tired of “dealing with” a manual transmission. For more sedate driving, the transmission and associated hardware and software tuning are all entirely fine, though I still wish the shifter was a bit heavier or offered more feeling as it’s artificial no matter what.
Despite Hyundai cranking up the suspension stiffness – rear spring rates are reportedly up by 71 percent, front rates only by 26 – the Elantra N-Line is compliant enough in the city. It’s undoubtedly more firm than an Elantra SEL or Hybrid, but it’s not irritating in the slightest.
I appreciated the relatively-low dashboard and generally good visibility, too. The outgoing Civic Si gave me (some) bathtub vibes, and the Elantra N-Line is a marked improvement. Seating was “fine” for a tall driver, though I wished for more adjustable lumbar and a deeper bottom bucket or extendable thigh support. Bolsters are supportive without being obnoxious in daily use.
For a manual transmission to be worth buying, it has to be engaging. Hyundai has built a good, sporty-enough, value-laden sedan in this 2021 Elantra N-Line, but the manual comes across as a bit sterile more than anything. You get to go through the motions of picking your gears, but the rewards of doing so aren’t what they could be.
Throughout my week of driving – roughly 200 miles in total – I kept wishing I’d hop in and connect with the Elantra N-Line a bit more. Was today the day where I really found its personality and it all clicked? That day didn’t come. It’s all very good, to be sure. It’s a lot of car for the money, and I would undoubtedly prefer it to the outgoing Honda Civic Si, which has a similarly blasé manual transmission but worse visibility and a bathtub-y driving position. But Honda’s got a new Si now and I’m curious how it’ll stack up to this N-Line.
Competition is good for everyone, and I’m glad the 2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line is here for the party. I have enjoyed the Veloster N – substantially so – every time I’ve driven one, and I am hoping the full-on Elantra N will offer the feel and personality that I missed in this case. The Elantra N-Line is not a bad car in the slightest, but I think the DCT would be the more engaging transmission to choose.