Manufacturers generally send automotive outlets “a rich mix” of their swankiest cars—that is to say a selection of highly optioned vehicles—hoping to make a favorable first impression. So we were pleasantly surprised to find a mid-level 2021 Hyundai Elantra SEL in the Detroit press fleet. These days, the current Elantra wears no trim level identification badges to alert the public of your penury or profligacy, so you’re totally free to choose the version you prefer. Which should that be?
How Basic Is the 2021 Hyundai Elantra SE?
Starting at $20,655, the 2021 Hyundai Elantra SE offers virtually no factory options beyond the choice of six exterior colors plus gray or black for the fabric interior. It rides on rental-fleet-ready 6.0 x 15-inch steelies wearing plastic caps and poverty-grade 195/65 rubber. You must start it by twisting a key, gauge your road and engine speeds by looking at analog gauges, adjust your temperature and fan manually, and flop the rear seat and its three non-adjustable headrests down in one piece. The SE gets a bright, sharp 8.0-inch touchscreen infotainment system with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, but the sound gets rendered by a measly four unbranded stereo speakers.
What Does the Elantra SEL Trim Buy You?
Paying just $1,250 more for an Elantra SEL ($21,905) upgrades the wheels to 6.5 x 16-inch aluminum pieces sporting meatier 205/55 tires. It also buys snazzier premium cloth seating material that looks and feels kind of like wetsuit fabric and features a bright, almost reflective-looking white accent stripe up the seat back centers that in some ways makes them look cooler than the monochromatic leather in the Limited. You also get a proximity key with pushbutton start and smart trunk release, dual automatic climate control, Blue Link connectivity, an upgrade to six audio speakers, SiriusXM satellite radio, lighted vanity mirrors, an auto-up driver’s-side power window, and dual automatic climate controls. It’s also worth noting that adding all this content drops EPA fuel economy by 2 mpg each in city/highway/combined from the SE’s 33/43/37 mpg to 31/41/35 for the SEL and Limited.
How Much Elantra Limited Stuff Can You Get on an SEL?
If you deem the base SEL to be insufficiently swanky but you’re reluctant to make the $4,550 jump to the Elantra Limited trim grade ($26,455), you’re in luck. The SEL offers two option packages that incrementally narrow this opulence gap. A $950 Convenience package gets you adaptive cruise control with forward collision avoidance assist, a fully digital 10.3-inch instrument cluster display, heated front seats and mirrors, an e-parking brake, wireless device charger, and leather wraps for the steering wheel and gearshift lever. Or go for broke and add $3,050 to get all of the above plus a sunroof, power driver’s seat with lumbar adjustment, an eight-speaker Bose premium audio system, 7.0 x 17 aluminum wheels and 225/45 tires, rear LED lighting, a 60/40 split-folding rear seat with adjustable head restraints, and Hyundai’s new digital key feature that allows certain phones to serve as the car’s key.
What Does the Limited Have Over a Loaded Elantra SEL?
If you only option up your SEL, the Joneses may notice your lack of LED low- and high-beam headlights as you come and go at night. If you double-date with them, they may judge your lack of leather seating and cupholders molded into the rear of the center console. The Limited also gets a bigger 10.3-inch infotainment screen with built-in navigation and SiriusXM data services like NavTraffic, NavWeather, plus sports and stock info. (But then, are you really going to subscribe to keep that info coming after the three-month free trial?) Oh, and in the SEL, your insurance company may notice if you crash into something in reverse that might otherwise have been prevented with the Limited’s reverse and parking collision-avoidance assist. Finally, only an Elantra Limited model can be painted orange.
What About the Other Trims?
For boy-racers there’s also an N Line ($26,205), which swaps out the Elantra’s 2.0-liter 147-horse/132-lb-ft engine for a 1.6-liter 201-hp/195-lb-ft turbo I-4, plus even bigger (18-inch) rolling stock and racy cues like blacked-out trim and a trunk-lip spoiler. The Elantra N-Line shares most Limited features except the 10.3-inch screen and Bose speakers. A full-on Nürburgring-tuned Elantra N model is coming for 2022, boasting 275 hp and 260 lb-ft. We loved our drive of a prototype. And on the other extreme end of the spectrum lies the Elantra Hybrid, starting at $24,545 in its stripper Blue trim and $29,095 as a Limited.
Which Elantra Is Best?
When considering the three mainstream variants, we’re with Goldilocks—2 extra mpg and a $1,250 savings wouldn’t lure us down into the entry model any more than an orange paint option, LED lights, or 2.3 inches more touchscreen would entice us up into the Limited. Everyone in our Detroit office who drove the charming Elantra SEL found it to be great looking, reasonably fun to drive, and a stupendous value for just $25,110.