2021 Nissan Sentra vs. 2021 Hyundai Elantra: a Good Time for Compacts

2021 Nissan Sentra vs. 2021 Hyundai Elantra: a Good Time for Compacts

05/25/2021

You can probably think of many words to describe your first car—in my case, a 2003 Saturn Ion—but “sporty” or “lively” are likely not among them. Almost two decades since the mostly forgotten Ion was born, compact sedans have turned a corner: Though not all of them are lively or sporty, they deliver the character, spirit, and great looks most first cars didn’t. Cases in point: The 2021 Nissan Sentra and 2021 Hyundai Elantra.

Both the Sentra and Elantra have been around for decades, but neither was recognized for the way they drove. But things are different today. Even the last-gen Elantra caught our attention, claiming third place out of seven in MotorTrend‘s most recent compact sedan Big Test. The Sentra, meanwhile, is worthy of an award for being the most improved car, as the last generation finished in last place.

With flashy designs and modern technology, today’s 2021 Nissan Sentra and 2021 Hyundai Elantra compete in a segment that continues to resonate with buyers despite the popularity of crossovers. But do they have enough to be better than the segment-leading (and recently updated) Honda Civic?

The Specs

Looking at their specs, you’d think the Sentra and Elantra came out of the same R&D room. The Elantra is powered by a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated l-4 engine that produces 147 horsepower and 132 lb-ft of torque, and is mated to a continuously variable transmission (CVT). Our Elantra Limited test car carried a $26,610 price tag, and like most Hyundais these days, its list of convenience and comfort features is long and attractive.

Similarly, the Sentra uses a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated I-4, this one making 149 hp and 146 lb-ft. Like the Elantra, its CVT routes the power to the front wheels. Our top-spec Sentra SR test vehicle also came with a long list of options, with this particular car ringing at $25,985.

Inside

Unlike their powertrains, the Elantra and Sentra offer different vibes in terms of interior and exterior design. The Elantra’s aggressive external lines are notable in a segment that’s known for being bland, and its cabin offers an upscale look. Two 10.3-inch screens dominate the cockpit, giving the Elantra Limited a Mercedes-like feel. The infotainment touchscreen is easy to control and comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. However, while the base versions get wireless smartphone connectivity, Limited models must use a cable for CarPlay and Android Auto. (For some reason, the bigger screen doesn’t allow wireless functionality.)

More than just fancy tech, Hyundai’s designers paid close attention to detail—from the door-panel stitching that perfectly matches the air vents to the slim ambient lighting line that runs across the dashboard. The 2021 Elantra hardly feels like an affordable compact sedan. “Ergonomics are top notch,” said senior staff editor Conner Golden. “It’s a silly thing to focus on, but I really like the placement of the interior door handle. Your hand falls right to that zone at rest, and opening the door feels less like escaping from the car and more like you’ve arrived.”

The Elantra’s biggest downside is the quality of its materials that betray the entry model’s $20,655 base price. Touch the door panels and dashboard, and the plastics feel as hard as a rock. Even on the armrests, the padding is thin, causing elbows to hurt after a four-hour drive.

The 2021 Nissan Sentra, on the other hand, is equipped with softer, higher-quality plastics on par with the best of the segment. Armrests—both in the door panels and center console—are well padded, and plastics feel nicer even in areas you’re not expected to touch often.

Nissan designers approached their cabin in a different way, but they also took some styling cues from luxury automakers like Mercedes. The jet-inspired air vents look like they came straight from our 2021 Car of the Year-winning E-Class, adding an upscale look to the cabin. The Sentra SR came to us with contrast-color stitching on the door panels, dashboard, and seats. “It’s a significant step-up in quality from Nissans even three years ago,” Golden said.

Our biggest complaint with the Sentra’s cabin is its infotainment system, especially when compared to the Elantra’s. It is not intuitive and lacks modern graphics, and though its instrument cluster looks OK, it comes from the same parts stockpile Nissan has used for more than a decade.

Both cabins are spacious and ample, but the Nissan feels roomier in the second row, thanks to its more generous roof line; people who stand six feet and taller will feel the headliner touching their hair.

Performance

While compact cars aren’t necessarily known for their performance (the Civic Type Rs and Veloster Ns of the world notwithstanding), you still usually like to feel a connection to the machine. The Sentra’s improvements over the last generation are impressive: The Japanese sedan didn’t just improve in our 0-60 mph tests, but it handles better and finally drives like a proper compact sedan. This Sentra sprinted to 60 mph in 8.0 seconds, a big 2.0-second improvement compared to the last-generation 2016 Sentra SL. That’s something we don’t see often.

The Sentra’s enhancements were more notable on the street. During our loops around California’s Palos Verdes Peninsula, its ride felt settled over the broken pavement, with its shocks effectively isolating the vibrations from the cabin. The steering feels nicely weighted, providing good feedback of what’s happening with the front wheels. Power is average for the segment, but it’s a night and day difference compared to the last Sentra.

Whether you’re riding on surface streets or the highway, the Sentra’s noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH) is remarkably superior. “The Sentra should win on its NVH alone,” said Golden. “Compared to the chainsaw rasp of the Elantra, the Sentra’s economy-spec four-cylinder and CVT combo is reasonably well-damped behind extra sound deadening. It’s still a bit loud but a noticeable improvement over anything else with a CVT.”

The Elantra’s small engine. meanwhile, makes itself known when pressing the throttle—and not in a good way. “Like most CVT-equipped cars in this segment, hard acceleration returns an awful WAAAHHHH effect that persists for too many seconds. If you merge often, wear earplugs,” Golden said, only partly in jest.

While neither sedan shines in terms of acceleration, the Elantra was 0.4 second behind the Sentra in our 0-60 tests at the track. Off the track, the Elantra’s bland steering lacks the Sentra’s sharpness, as it just feels light and artificial. The Elantra’s four driving modes—Sport, Smart, Eco, and Normal—help somewhat, but even in Sport mode it lacks the Sentra’s direct feel. On the other hand, although the Hyundai’s springs feel softer than the Nissan’s, the Elantra exhibits good body control and still managed to absorb divots and pavement imperfections well.

Safety

With Honda and Toyota pushing a laundry list of standard safety features across their lineups, the 2021 Hyundai Elantra and 2021 Nissan Sentra disappoint in this arena. Neither has nearly as many standard safety technologies as the Civic or Corolla.

Indeed, these technologies only become available as you move up the ladder on the Elantra’s trims, with the Limited offering all the goodies you can think of: adaptive cruise control with stop and go, lane-keep assist, automatic emergency braking, etc. “Good adaptive cruise and lane keep/steering assist, but the automatic braking blew me away,” Golden said. “It’s as perfectly modulated as anything I’ve driven from Mercedes or BMW—better, even. The stop-and-go function was also quite effective.”

The Sentra falls short of offering lane-keep assist, but it comes with lane-departure warning, adaptive cruise control, rear automatic braking, and automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection. On the road, these systems didn’t function as well as the Elantra’s, and the lack of lane-keep assist increases the driver’s workload on the highway versus the Hyundai. We’d love to see Pro Pilot Assist—Nissan’s bundle of active safety features—in the Sentra one of these days.

Which one is better?

As far as comparisons go, this one is close. Both cars raise expectations in the compact sedan segment. Make no mistake: these aren’t cheap wheels like my old Saturn. The 2021 Nissan Sentra and 2021 Hyundai Elantra are stylish, modern, advanced models that continue to play a competitive game in the compact class. High school and college students would be lucky to own a car this fun, as would anyone who enjoys saving a few bucks while still having access to a good time and nice style when it comes to their automotive experience.

Although both are similarly priced, the Elantra brings a bit more value to the table, and it feels a tad more stylish and perhaps better equipped. But the Sentra feels more engaging on the road, something we didn’t expect to write.

It was difficult to choose a winner as both have few weak points. Perhaps their biggest weakness is the fact the Civic exists, as neither car is as strong as the Honda (and the new Civic looks like it will keep kicking ass). But between these two, the 2021 Nissan Sentra is better by a nose: Its handling feels a bit sharper, its interior feels a bit more spacious, and its materials feel more premium. The 2021 Hyundai Elantra puts up a great fight and is a notably competitive product, but in this specific battle, the Sentra takes the top spot.

Nissan Sentra Pros

  • Enhanced driving dynamics
  • Spacious cabin
  • Striking design

Nissan Sentra Cons

  • Limited driver-assistance features
  • Small, old infotainment screen
  • Lack of driving modes

Hyundai Elantra Pros

  • Sharp interior styling
  • 41 mpg on the highway
  • Advanced safety features

Hyundai Elantra Cons

  • Vague steering feel
  • Limited rear headroom
  • Loud engine

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