2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Tested
How to get away with murder...Hyundai just ordered a hit on all the establishment, and the new Sonata N Line is the one to carry out the order.
Words and pictures by Mitchell Weitzman.
This is not a ruse. No elaborate scheming required as a cover-up, because Hyundai just made the Saint Valentine's Day Massacre look like an episode of Days of our Lives, and they want the whole world to know who did it. This just in: the Hyundai Sonata N Line is a game-changer in the automotive world of affordable family sedans. Though, it's not about a game even, but rather, it's about sending a message. Some rival automotive executives might wake up this next morning with a horse's head beside them...
"To define is to limit," said Oscar Wilde's Lord Henry Wotton, and perhaps it would be cruel to put a label on this new Sonata. It should be just another entry in the already crowded field of anonymity, but it's so much more than just transportation. The regular Sonata was already an open window of a fresh morning breeze compared to the other established boredom-generators with it's unique look and upscale interior. Hyundai's N brand is here to take the Sonata to the nth degree, though. So what makes this Sonata N Line the new de facto leader of the Soprano Family?
Take the Sonata, throw in the newly-developed 2.5L inline-four that's bolstered by turbocharging, good for 290 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque from just 1,650 RPM. Second, pair it to a dual-clutch transmission, yes, like the same type of transmission that Ferrari and Porsches use, and then retune the suspension with stiff dampers and sway bars to devour corners and apexes like a heat seeking missile. Adding sticky Continental summer tires helps further. Oh yeah, the body and interior have received several tasteful and subtle aggressive vents and cues to show this newfound angry behavior, too. Also, it only costs $35,024.
Let's start with the interior. Open the door of this N Line and you're first greeted by bucket seats swathed in a microsuede. N Line badges are embossed into the back as means to tap into your spine and instill dark desires. The seats work splendidly, too, with great lateral support from the large bolsters and also manage to retain excellent comfort. One of the issues I had with prior Sonatas was a seating position that was just too high. The N Line somewhat fixes this, as I do wish you could lower the driver's chair even just a tish more.
The same satisfying buttons for PRND are there in the center, as is the same attractive looking and large infotainment screen. The steering wheel looks identical at first glance, with the same funky and odd lower spoke design, but then you notice the deep thumb grips and cutouts for optimal tactility and the looming paddle shifters behind. Don't forget the gorgeous and huge panoramic sunroof, too. However, I do remember some elements of the prior Sonata Limited being every so slightly nicer, but the interior is a lovely place to be, not to mention an exciting place to be thanks to those seats.
The outside is the same basic, attractive Sonata shape. However, this Sonata is wearing new wild 19" boots. The front bumper has received a subtle reworking to include new, sharp vents in the lower portion that compliment the large grill opening very nicely. Those same flowing and beautiful LED running light strips are present still, running along the bottom of the headlight housing and up along the chrome strip that outlines the hood. Seriously, that's such an original and awesome design how they fade into the chrome. The rear also has a a small lip attached and quad exhaust tips. Though, I must admit, quad exhaust tips? That's ambitious. And then tying it all together is the gloss black trim on the front grille, mirrors, roof, and elsewhere. It's all rather subtle in the thick of it, but this Sonata does have the understated menace lurking beneath that it needs. It's closest competitor, the Camry TRD, looks absolutely silly, cheap, and vulgar in comparison.
Aesthetics are important, but it's not the main mission of the Sonata N Line. Pull off your commute route and head down your favorite backroad and that's where the villain inside awakens. Select sport and/or sport + in the drive modes, pull a paddle to initiate manual control, and hold on. Attain at least 2,500 RPM and once your foot is down in the fibers of the floormat, the 2.5L inline-four takes a big deep breath of forced induction and simply flies to your first braking point. The rush that the turbocharged horsepower instills into your fingers and stomach is actually shocking at first, like, is this real life? It is, though.
0-60 MPH happens in 5 seconds dead (the last 'normal' Sonata Limited did it in 7.4). 50-70 takes just 2.5. For reference, this N Line is exactly as fast as a Nissan 370Z sports coupe. It's also as fast as a new 2.0L Toyota Supra. In fact, the only car I can think of that can keep up with this for the money is a new Mustang, another sports coupe. Yet, this Sonata is a four-door family car still unlike those others. Like Lord Henry corrupting young Dorian into his evil ways, this N Line is compelling me and the Sonata down a similar path.
As the motor races to the upper reaches of the tachometer, the speed is now piling on fast and maintains this frenzy until right before the redline, where it does show the smallest amount of fatigue up top that all small turbo engines suffer from. No matter, extend your finger and pull that right paddle and BANG! the dual-clutch swaps into the next gear with a distinct authority. It's not instant like it is in a new Porsche, but it snaps with a command unfound in any other affordable family car and blows away conventional automatics. To be honest, I didn't even know this car had a dual-clutch until adventuring in the boost for the first time. That goes to show how smooth and kind the transmission operates in normal use, even having the ability to creep from stops. Creeping is when you release the brake and the car idles forward; many other automated-manuals don't allow this. The Sonata's DCT behaves exactly like a regular, gentle automatic until it doesn't, until you put on The One Ring and want to disappear from the world. It's such a relief to have new cars like this come with such a charismatic transmission when many other boring mobility devices are stricken with dim-witted slushboxes or, even worse, CVTs. A Camry TRD's eight-speed auto, for example, doesn't even allow manual control and lollygags its way through ratios.
Salmon Falls Rd is a haven for auto and motorcycle enthusiasts alike in the foothills. Consisting of 10 miles of asphalt-spaghetti strewn throughout a canyon, it's easily one of the best driving roads in the Greater Sacramento area. The only catch is to be on the lookout for bicyclists in the middle of the road. Boasting a speed limit of 55 MPH, you can have the time of your life without ever breaking even 60. Once you get past the exhilaration of the Sonata N Line's bursting speed, you begin to notice the delightfully weighted and accurate steering. Turn-in is precise and the heft builds with a genuine response as you weight up the nose. The Continental summer rubber grips hard and digs in, with the rear following suit in your trajectory. Once you have your eyes set on the exit, you naturally careen the nose to the apex and apply the throttle slowly. The boost hits, and, instead of devolving into front-wheel drive understeer, it just grips and goes and pulls you from the corner and onto the next (as long as you're not playing whack-a-mole with the gas pedal, more on that soon). The engineers need a big congratulatory salute for bestowing such a decisive front-end and neutrality to the balance, if you know what you're doing. Overcook it and it will run wide at first, but it's easy to calm and correct.
From lower speeds or tight second-gear corners, if you're stomping on the throttle like an ape and with the nannies switched off then yes, you will generate wheelspin from the front axle and run into some understeer. What's surprising is that it doesn't really seem to induce crazy torquesteer when that happens. Yes, you do feel the power and traction struggle in the wheel, but what it doesn't do is attempt to arm wrestle you into the other lane, nor a ditch. Rather, it's more of a reminder to the driver. Of course, driven more properly and aware, understeer becomes hard to encounter as you learn how to feed the throttle and the limits of its tires. If someone complains about torrid push and slip from the Sonata N Line, they're just not doing it right. Remember, it has 290 horsepower you have to manage; you can't just floor it out of corners with that much power on tap.
0-60 runs are aided by a launch control that helps optimize grip off the line and takes advantage of the DCT. Without its use, the front does hop like a rabid rabbit, but acceleration times hardly diminished as the engine just absolutely punished its way (and the tires) to 60 and beyond - Honey badger don't care. Would this car benefit from all-wheel drive? Yes, of course. But I was perfectly happy with the spontaneous attitude of the front-drive layout and its involving charisma from all ingredients.
On these flowing, consecutive turns of Salmon Falls, you easily fall into a satisfying rhythm and learn to really lean on the boost threshold. Trail braking into corners helps settle the car and the transition from brake to gas, that little morsel of lift-off, anchors the nose down to your exit as you progressively apply throttle and then let it pull and whisk you away to the next. You find it's happiest in third gear and higher corners, but the balance is pure shock and awe from a mid-size sedan NOT made in Germany; Especially one that stickers for only $35k. Brakes are good, too, with a firm pedal feel, though a smell did begin to accumulate by the end of the run. Oh the smell of performance.
Which brings me to one thing I didn't expect: This bombastic carving of canyons was brought to an early end by a nail. Luckily, live tire pressure monitoring alerted of low pressure (anything below 25) and I quickly reduced speed to check the other tires' state of affiars. My first thought was to continue, maybe the pressures were low already, but the PSI dropped to 16 within another corner. Immediately, I pull over on a gratuitously placed large turnout and sure enough, the front right has a nail dead center. A quick jack job on the side of the road with the Sonata's supplied tools followed, and ten minutes later a space saver was fitted. A subsequent patch job by the local Goodyear a couple hours later had me back in action luckily. Weirdly, it still drove pretty dang good even with an anorexic spare.
Okay, so things I don't like. One, as much as I like the transmission, every time you come to a halt, the Sonata will automatically place the trans back into automatic mode from my preferred manual. Easy to fix, just pull the next upshift paddle on takeoff and you're back in manual. It would also beep each time as an alert, which I found more annoying than the act of changing from manual to auto. Also, when slowing down, you can get the faintest hint of some rattle coming from the clutch or flywheel. Hey, it's a performance car after all I guess.
There also is a little wind noise on the highway, too, rustling about the mirrors, but it's something most would never notice. And while sport mode would turn the digital instrument cluster red, the normal driving configuration gave elegant white dials. These were great in the daytime, but at night, they were too bright and harsh. The red of sport mode is far easier optically, so that's how I drove it from dusk onwards. And that's really it. Everything and anything else is so hard to generate any complaints over. The gas mileage was an initial worry, with myself thinking all this performance and the larger engine would neuter the standard Sonata's great efficiency. Nope, wrong. I averaged 27-28 MPG during my time (in simulated 'normal' driving) with it and 36 on the highway. I guess you could say that while I enjoyed the intense and industrial sound of the engine, it does also sound slightly fake, and it is, with the speakers giving augmentation.
So, competitors - Um, there really aren't any. This thing will blitz even a BMW 330i in performance and makes a Camry TRD look like a silly and slow Fast and the Furious prop car. In fact, it's the Camry TRD that comes to be the closest rival. Both are the same size, have similar power, and are the same price. Yet, the Camry TRD is miles slower and the transmission is a melted slushy. It has nice steering and good balance, but it's not even close to being the bona fide sport sedan that the Sonata N Line manages to accomplish. Because the economy is so close to the 1.6L in the similarly priced, but only slightly more luxurious Sonata Limited, and the driving experience can be so civil when asked, this Sonata N Line is my pick of both the Sonata lineup and among any mid-size sedan under $40,000. It's that good and it's that fast. The fact this incendiary machine can light your pants on fire the way it does, it's nothing less than a coup d'etat to the automotive world.
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line
As-Tested Price $35,024
The Road Beat Rating: 4.5/5
Pros: stupendous performance, amazing value
Cons: Limited by front-wheel drive
Verdict: An astounding sports sedan from the most unlikely of sources