And the 2021 award goes to... Hyundai Elantra
While a cadre of 'Car of the Year,' honors proliferate the World Wide Web and what remains of pulp-type buff books/newsstand publications, the North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY) honors carry a special sparkle in the eyes of the automotive elite, aka the auto manufacturers themselves.
Rather than a single publication or sole WWW address, NACTOY honors (KNACK-TOY in acronym speak) derive from a pool of 50 seasoned auto scribes sprinkled throughout Canada and the U.S.
If this Elantra tune rings familiar, it's because Hyundai's compact sedan took top honors back in 2012 during its fifth-generation reveal, joining a select club of multi-win honorees (Chevrolet's Corvette and the Honda Civic round out the chummy club).
For the 2021 beauty contest, 'Car of the Year' finalists whittled down to Elantra, Nissan's compact Sentra sedan and the mid-size Genesis G80 sedan (Genesis being the recently minted luxury division of Hyundai).
Historically, winners were announced every January during a pre-show ceremony prior to the North American International Auto Show opening in Detroit. In 2020, bold plans to reschedule the NAIAS to a warmer Summer time frame ran head long into a COVID-19 lockdown. While auto shows have largely gone dark during the pandemic, NACTOY awards have continued uninterrupted, kicking off the automotive calendar year in January.
Elantra's win reminds all that four-door sedans remain a viable, if not practical choice. The traditional Big Three domestic automakers have largely paused sedan production for the foreseeable future, opening up opportunities for others to pounce.
Full journalistic disclosure; this Scribe's long-term, long-time marital partner purchased an Elantra new back in 2013. Wifey speaks highly of the Elantra selection, more so then of her spousal selection.
Personal preferences aside, Hyundai provides much to celebrate with this seventh-generation Elantra. It's a fuel-efficient, competitively-priced, well-equipped choice when debating purchases within the compact sedan circuit. Elantra continues offering exclusive front-wheel drive.
Exterior wise, it measures 2.2-inches longer and one inch wider; all while shedding some unwanted weight. Wheelbase (distance between front and rear axles) grows by 0.8 inches with height shrinking by the same 0.8 inches. It's longer, lower and wider with angular edging; which in Hyundai's in-house lingo, translates to 'Parametric Dynamics.' Engineers also lowered the center of gravity enhancing agility.
The front grille now employs a diamond pattern (replacing horizontal slats). In fact, the diamond theme intermingles throughout the exterior. At the vehicle's other end, rear window dimensions grow, now more reminiscent of a coupe size. The short deck lid features winged side edging meeting up with side rear fender lines. Thin front A pillars match up with rear C pillars, narrower than previous generations.
A goodly number of high-tech safety nuances now come standard across the board including rear cross traffic alert, blind spot collision avoidance, lane keep assist, lane follow assist, forward collision avoidance and automatic high-beam lighting assist. Additional safety options are offered when climbing the trim level ladder.
Conventional trims include SE, SEL and Limited. Step up to the high-octane Elantra N Line (all new in 2021) and graduate to a turbocharged 2.0-liter engine spitting out 276 horses and joined by a sports tuned suspension, six-speed manual transmission and adaptive dampers among other high-octane additives. It's the most potent and powerful Elantra of the past seven generations.
The 'N' in N Line references Namyang, a South Korean research center where fun testing happens. N-Line upgrades are also found within the mid-size Sonata sedan and in the 2022 model year, the compact Tuscan crossover.
While Hyundai's Sonata historically offered consumers a gas-electric hybrid powertrain option during the past half-decade, the compact Elantra now boasts its first gas-electric hybrid option in 2021 reaching 50 miles per gallon in combined city/highway estimates.
Conventional SE, SEL and Limited trims soldier on with a serviceable 2.0-liter naturally aspirated (non turbo) four-cylinder engine generating 147 horses. A glide-smooth "Smartstream Intelligent Variable Transmission" prioritizes fuel economy, not track-specific performance as reflected in superb highway estimates north of 40 miles per gallon (41 to be exact). City miles checks in at a hearty 31 mpg while utilizing regular, 87-octane fuel.
What exactly is a Smartstream transmission? It's Hyundai's tweaked CVT (continuously variable transmission), which instead of five or six planetary forward gears, utilizes gear ratios.
The reimagined interior updates with the latest tech-friendly touches. Both Android Auto and Apple CarPlay Smartphone interplay come standard with wireless connectivity now offered (no need to bring a plug-cord along) working in tandem with the eight-inch multi-function display (a larger 10.25-inch screen comes optional) skewed ever-so-slightly in the driver's direction.
Also, available in SEL trims and above, a "Digital Key" allowing Elantra to be started, unlocked and driven without a key or key fob, instead relying upon Smartphone interplay.
Pricing starts a smidge under Twenty Grand at a competitive $19,650 for SE which includes a decent array of standard equipment for a base model. While SE and Limited sell largely 'as is' (no factory option packages to muddle through) the mid-grade SEL offers two, a $950 Convenience Package and $2,100 Premium Package. Limited trims come standard with upgraded leatherette seating and both Convenience and Premium Packages optional in SEL.
Our SEL tester started at $20,900. After adding both option packages, $300 for premium Calypso Red exterior paint and $155 for carpeted floor mats, the bottom line reached $25,400 including the $995 destination charge.
Inside, pull-type chrome handles locate lower down the doors. In fact, entire seating positions reside lower. The redesign produced one of the segment's largest volume interiors, resulting in acceptable headroom for those six-feet, two inches and shorter. Row two could handle three adults in a pinch, but two travel in optimal comfort.
Electronic push-button start is dashboard-bound on a shelf-like perch, located away from steering wheel/column interference. The redesigned, highly animated instrument panel mimics a traditional analog version with two circular gauges (right-side speedometer, left-side tachometer) with insert gauges (fuel and temperature, respectively) along the circular bottom. A multi-paneled center window commands from a steering wheel button.
Narrow horizontal air vents separate the dashboard's top and bottom regions with the multi-function flat screen atop (with convenient twist knobs for volume and radio station selection). Dual-zone temperature-setting knobs reside below the equator flanking two rows of ventilation push buttons.
Three drive modes come standard (normal, sport and smart) all summoned by a push button between front buckets nestled in a column including the electronic parking brake. Inline dual beverage holders reside aft of the transmission shift bar and fore of a small, hinged storage bin. The most prominent regional 2021 addition goes to a sizeable passenger-side grab handle right of the cup holders allegedly for these riders to grasp during spirited turns. But, as someone who sometimes carts around octogenarians, it also serves as a useful stabilizer.
A couple of items still residing in the same location for several generations: fuel and trunk release levers remain floor-bound left of the driver's bucket.
Hyundai generates miles of positive press from its 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty coverage, the industry's longest. As an added perk, the South Korean automaker introduced basic maintenance coverage in early 2020 that once was privy to high-end automakers. Hyundai's three-year/36,000-mile 'Complimentary Maintenance' covers periodic oil/filter changes and tire rotation (among other basic nuances) saving some cash during the first few years. 2021 Hyundai Elantra
Price as tested: $25,400
Engine: 2.0-liter, inline four-cylinder
Wheelbase: 107.1 inches
Overall Length: 184.1 inches
Overall Height: 55.7 inches
Overall Width: 71.9 inches
Curb weight: 2868 pounds
Powertrain warranty: 10 years/100,000 miles
Fuel economy: 31 mpg City/41 mpg Highway
Assembly: Montgomery, Alabama