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The 2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line.

Photography by BRENDAN MCALEER/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Ferrari’s new 296 GTB offers a thrilling 818 horsepower and race-bred performance. What’s the price tag? In the immortal line from The Fast and the Furious, the first movie in the high-octane franchise: “More than you can afford pal – Ferrari.” So let’s take a look at a compact Hyundai instead: The Elantra N-Line.

But fret not. Ferrari hasn’t won many races recently – but Hyundai has. Not only can Hyundai’s motorsport division – dubbed N – boast back-to-back World Rally Championships in 2019 and 2020, but the company’s race-prepped Elantras just blew the doors off everybody in their Touring Car Race debut, finishing first and second. Ferrari is a marque with a long racing heritage, producing sports cars for an exclusive clientele. Hyundai is just starting to build their motorsport portfolio, but they make fun cars for everyone.

This little red four-door sedan is the sort of thing Hyundai is up to. It’s not a full N series version – though there is one on the way – but what Hyundai calls the N-Line version. It offers a little more performance than the standard Elantra, while being practical, nicely optioned and not very expensive.

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Hyundai has produced an uncluttered and businesslike cabin in the 2021 Elantra N-Line.

N is Hyundai’s shorthand for the company’s research and development centres in Namyang, South Korea, and Nuerburgring, Germany. Products like the firecracker Veloster N have deeply impressed skeptical critics, and proved themselves capable of going toe-to-toe with recognized compact performance nameplates like the Honda Civic Type R.

The Elantra N-Line is intended to dial down the heat a little and prevent running costs from boiling over budget. Its closest rival is the Honda Civic Si, or at least it would be if the Si badge wasn’t currently on a brief hiatus as new Civic models roll out.

Further, Hyundai offers something the Civic Si didn’t: a properly performance-oriented automatic transmission. All Civic Si models were manual only, which is great for the purist, but excludes those who find shifting a chore on the commute. The Elantra N-Line comes with a snappy seven-speed dual-clutch, which is the only transmission on offer at present in Canada.

Other performance-oriented tweaks include 18-inch wheels fitted with Hankook high-performance, all-season tires. These offer excellent grip, wet or dry, yet still have reasonable road noise and wear characteristics.

The standard Elantra gets a 2.0-litre engine that’s tuned for economy first. The N-Line gets a 201-horsepower turbocharged 1.6 litre, which has what feels like exactly the right amount of power. It’s not enough to get you in trouble, and not enough to hold you back. Modern turbocharged engines have good low-end torque, and the N-Line’s quick shifting seven-speed makes the most of the 195 lb-ft on offer.

The car has a 201-horsepower turbocharged 1.6 litre engine, which feels like exactly the right amount of power.

Where this little sedan really shines is not in the numbers but in its balance. In sport mode, it’s an especially zippy little beast, but one that’s friendly and inviting. It’s not a hooligan like the more-pressurized full N models. It’s the best of what sporty compact cars used to offer: fun-to-drive flair for the masses.

The steering is sharper than the standard Elantra, and the suspension a little more aggressive without being harsh. Initial response when turning into a corner is very good, and on a curvy back road, the N-Line becomes a willing dance partner. This is the kind of car where you don’t have to wring out every last drop from the engine and chassis to have fun.

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And here’s what no sports car sales person is ever going to tell you: speed limits haven’t increased all that much in the past 20 years. That new 800-horsepower Ferrari pretty much only works in two settings: at a racetrack, and showing off while parked. Everywhere else, it’s a liability. The zippy Elantra N-Line, on the other hand, isn’t too fast for its own good. Instead, it puts a smile on your face pretty much every time you drive it. That it does so without prising too much from your wallet makes it even more likeable.

Tech specs

2021 Hyundai Elantra N-Line

Base price/as tested: $27,799/$28,199

Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder turbo

Transmission/drive: Seven-speed dual-clutch automatic/front-wheel drive

Fuel economy (litres/100 kilometres): 8.4 city/6.6 highway

Alternatives: Kia Forte Turbo, Honda Civic Hatchback, Jetta GLI

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Looks

The Elantra N-Line is a striking-looking machine.

The previous generation Elantra was a handsome offering, but a bit derivative. This new version aims to be more daring. With N-Line cosmetic add-ons that include a rear lip on the trunk, bigger wheels and LED lighting, it’s a striking-looking machine. The best angle is probably from the rear three-quarter. Up front, the aggressive grille begs the question: why does every modern car have to look like the Big Friendly Giant’s ear-hair trimmer?

Interior

N-Line Elantras get a performance upgrade too, with nicely bolstered seats and accents like aluminum pedals. The garnishes are nice, but it’s the effectiveness of the basic Elantra layout that impresses. Apart from the odd position of the drive mode button – up high, to the left of the instrument panel – Hyundai has produced an uncluttered and businesslike cabin here. It’s also slightly roomier than some rivals.

Performance

While enthusiast drivers might look longingly at the manual Elantra N-Line available south of the border, the Canadian model’s dual-clutch gearbox is no slouch. There’s a reason the manual gearbox is an endangered species, and it’s because even conventional automatics have become so good. A dual-clutch is even quicker than a regular automatic, and fires off crisp, precise shifts. This is the type of technology Porsche puts in the 911, and while Hyundai’s gearbox is perhaps not quite so razor-honed, it’s really satisfying to drive.

Technology

The touch screen is fast and easy to navigate, and is simple enough to not be a distraction.

Hyundai’s touch screen interface is among the best in the business. It consistently connects to Apple CarPlay quickly, is fast and easy to navigate, and is simple enough to not be a distraction.

Cargo

Total trunk space for the Elantra is 402 litres, which is only a little behind that of rivals like the new Civic. The seats fold 60/40, with the release operated from the trunk. There’s a fair bit of a lip when folded, but they do fold quite flat.

Verdict

A practical and efficient sedan that’s not too compact for family-hauling duties, enhanced with just enough performance to be really good fun.

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