The Hyundai N division, which started life with the race-winning 2013 i20 WRC rally car, has ascended to a full-blown brand like BMW M – not surprising given Albert Biermann, Hyundai’s current head of research and development, honed his skills over a 20-plus-year career in Munich. The Veloster N halo hatch will soon headline several cars and SUVs wearing the badge, and the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line is an important part of that plan.
Here at Motor1.com, we’ve driven a few different variants of the current Sonata in the past couple years, reaching the same conclusions every time – the Sonata and Sonata Hybrid are comfortable, uniquely styled, and efficient, but a bit lacking in overt performance and soul. The Sonata N Line is here to put us all in our place, if my brief time in the slick sedan is any indication. In fact, I’m not sure it has any real competition, undercutting base-model luxury cars in price but providing so much more personality than nearly any other mainstream midsize sedan. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
N Lines And N Edges
The 2021 N Line is immediately recognizable as a member of the distinctive Sonata family, wearing a fish-mouth grille, tapering silhouette, and kinked LED daytime running lights that bleed into chrome hood trim. However, the N Line gets a unique front fascia, starting with a more open texture for the grille, which sits above three mail-slot air intakes and a wide chin spoiler. The vents on the bumper corners are more traditionally styled, giving the Sonata N Line a chunkier, more aggressive front appearance.
The sporty trim also gets wider side skirts, a unique rear diffuser treatment with four squared-off exhaust outlets, and a fluted rear trunklid spoiler that calls attention to itself by bridging the upper edges of the taillights. The final ingredients in the recipe are large 19-inch wheels with complex, lacy double-Y spokes, filling the fenders nicely and giving the Sonata N Line a planted stance in spite of a ride height that’s unchanged from the standard sedan.
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Stepping inside, there’s the usual blend of commendation and criticism. The N Line modifies its less sporty sibling’s unusual, airplane-yoke steering wheel with a thicker rim and more pronounced thumb rests. Leather and Dinamica suede upholstery covers seats with thicker bolsters, providing lots of support in both freeway and canyon driving – subtle red stitching and an N embossed into the seatbacks distinguish the N Line from other Sonatas. Of course, while most of the primary touch points are rather pleasant, the Sonata’s interior has a bit too much hard plastic to do a convincing impression of a premium sport sedan.
That said, the N Line boasts a long list of features that bely both its performance and its thoroughly reasonable $33,200 base price. A panoramic sunroof, adaptive cruise control, Highway Driving Assist, heated front seats, Bose audio, a 10.3-inch infotainment display, and a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster are all standard. Compared to the much less powerful, slightly more expensive Sonata Limited, the N Line misses out on a 360-degree camera, ventilated seats, and a few other luxury items; the trade-off is worth it for the N Line’s performance.
Like I said earlier, I really like the Sonata family, but that appreciation matured into genuine love upon hitting Malibu’s Decker Canyon Road in a pre-production N Line prototype. Hustling up the steep, tight corners was the work of a turbocharged and direct-injected 2.5-liter inline-four, producing 290 horsepower and 311 pound-feet. That power goes to the front wheels via an eight-speed wet-dual-clutch transmission that promises greater reliability and drivability compared to a dry design. That said, I noticed some clutch chatter at low speeds – hopefully Hyundai corrects that when production units hit dealers later this year.
Even with all that twist going to the wrong axle, the Sonata is a remarkably tractable sporty sedan, with plenty of grip and stability when pinning the throttle on corner exit (perhaps due to its optional summer tires). Turn-in is crisp thanks to a rack-mounted power steering system with a quicker ratio, giving the helm more natural, direct responses to driver input. Impressively, there’s a good amount of road feel through the wheel as well, particularly with the drive-mode selector set to Sport and Sport+ (which firm up the steering, sharpen throttle response, and hold gears longer).
Surprising camber changes and mid-corner bumps do little to upset this machine, and the steering responds to added lock with added yaw (but very little roll). That’s due to stabilizer bars that are 1.0 millimeter thicker up front and 3.0 millimeters thicker in the rear, as well as N-tuned shock absorbers, stiffer rear springs, and stiffer chassis mounts that provide immediate feedback without going overboard into harshness. The ventilated front brake rotors are 0.8-inch larger than the Sonata 1.6T, while the solid rears gain a full inch; meanwhile, higher-friction pads and enhanced cooling ensure plenty of bite and limited fade.
Taken in sum, the Sonata N Line is a marvelous sport sedan that drives better than some vehicles one class up – for example, the Hyundai boasted more balance than the Acura TLX SH-AWD I drove on the same stretch of road a few weeks ago, allowing me to attack the curves with more confidence. The Sonata keeps understeer in check marvelously, although there’s no limited-slip front differential or brake-based torque vectoring to prevent a one-tire fire if traction control is disengaged – in Sport mode, the electronic nannies do little to blunt the fun, so just leave ‘em active and you’ll have nothing to complain about.
Apart from the open front differential and a few natty interior bits, the Sonata N Line is pretty much beyond reproach. It’s a vehicle I keep coming back to, thinking, “Well wasn’t that a nice day in the mountains?” A split personality – somehow both rorty and relaxing – make it an ideal family car for an enthusiast.
In many ways, I even think it’s like a poor man’s Audi S4, offering the style and space of the conventional Sonata lineup but adding a strong dose of driving enjoyment that rivals like the Toyota Camry TRD and Honda Accord Sport 2.0T just can’t match. Since it traces its lineage to the stellar Veloster N, I shouldn’t be surprised to say that the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line is a very nearly perfect sporty sedan.