Let’s face it: Midsize sedans rarely excite. Examples like the Toyota Camry epitomize the idea of a transportation appliance, little more than a cold collection of car parts for those who just want to get from A to B. As the market shifted toward crossover SUVs, though, buying anything without plastic fender cladding and AWD now feels like an enthusiast move against the grain.
Of the select automakers still dedicated to building sedans, a few offer performance-oriented variants that take advantage of that enthusiast market. Our preference has been for the Honda Accord Sport 2.0T over the Toyota Camry TRD. With a fully redesigned Hyundai Sonata in town and the influence of the Korean automaker’s newly proven N division, we may have to reconsider.
The second model year of this redesign brings the 2021 Sonata N Line, a new sport-focused variant of the midsize Hyundai. Although it’s not an all-out N car like the riotous Veloster N or upcoming Elantra N, the athlete of the Sonata range features an engine with nearly 100 hp more than any other variant plus unique wheels, dual exhaust outlets, and N Line front and rear styling.
Hyundai was kind enough to lend us a production-spec prototype Sonata N Line to put to the test. How does it hold up? Frankly, it’s excellent.
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The Numbers Game
You’ll find the biggest difference between the N Line and a standard Sonata under the hood. In place of the piddly powertrains at work in the base car and the Sonata Hybrid sits a version of the 2.5-liter turbo-four offered in the Genesis G80 and GV80.
In this application, the engine develops a hearty 290 hp and 311 lb-ft of torque. Those numbers compare favorably to the Accord turbo-four’s 252 hp and 273 lb-ft, and the Sonata’s powerplant offers fewer horses but more torque than the Camry’s 301-hp, 267-lb-ft V-6. We’ll note that the Sonata works with an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic routing power to the front wheels instead of the eight- and 10-speed conventional autos in the Camry and Accord.
Performance is not at the top of most sedan buyers’ priority lists, but among this company, it matters. With newfound power and torque, this Sonata slings to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds, tying the discontinued Ford Fusion Sport for the quickest non-luxury midsize sedan we’ve tested. The Honda and Toyota are about a half second behind to 60 mph, and the gap remains the same at the quarter mile.
Drivers are most likely to feel the difference in passing power. Hyundai’s N-modified Sonata accelerates from 45 to 65 mph in 2.5 seconds compared to 2.8 in the Accord or Camry. The Sonata is quicker ’round our figure eight, too, speaking to superior braking performance (stops from 60 mph in 110 feet are 6-9 feet shorter) that helps deliver higher average grip in that test.
So yes, the Hyundai Sonata N Line is a proven athlete, but that wouldn’t mean much if it were a bad teammate. That is not the case. This Sonata’s cabin is as airy and spacious as its less performance-minded siblings, and for the N Line the seats are upholstered in black leather and microfiber with red details.
The front sport seats are another model-specific touch. They don’t just look great, they also feature more lateral bolstering to keep the driver secure under high cornering loads. The bolsters are adjustable, too, so you can tighten them to keep yourself from sliding around in the mountains and open them up to relax on the drive home. Although this feature is available in some luxury cars, it’s unheard of at this price point.
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The Sonata N Line’s standard tech is also impressive. A 10.3-inch center infotainment display trounces the 7.0- and 8.0-inch touchscreens in the Camry and Accord, although it’s smaller than the optional 11.6-inch system in the Subaru Legacy. That said, Hyundai’s interface is responsive and easy to use, even for drivers unfamiliar with the system. Hyundai also includes a 12.3-inch instrument cluster display with different themes for each drive mode.
Hyundai’s Highway Driving Assist semi-autonomous tech is included as standard, too. It combines adaptive cruise control and lane centering for a system that performs more confidently than the one in the $80,000 long-term Mercedes-Benz GLE 450 I drove to the test track. Even the shortest following distance left enough space for a car to scoot ahead of me, but other than that, it’s perfect.
Candidly, I like nearly everything about this interior. The climate control system utilizes handsome, nicely weighted knobs and hard buttons. The elongated armrests are not only comfortable, they create a long, ergonomic grab handle for tugging the door closed.
Sitting in the back behind my just-over-6-foot self, there are about 4 inches between my knees and the seatback. Despite the sloping roofline, there’s even decent headroom front and rear, although I wouldn’t want to be much taller.
As soon as you flex your right ankle, it becomes obvious this is a Sonata unlike the others. Both the Sonata Hybrid and the standard car with the optional 1.6T engine can feel wheezy and underpowered; the N Line has enough grunt to flash the traction control light even in Normal mode. This 2.5-liter turbo-four doesn’t sound great (few four-cylinders do), but once on boost there’s enough torque to compress the seat padding behind you at a moment’s notice.
Ride quality is on the firmer side, which makes sense for a sporty variant like this. You learn more about the imperfections of the road than you would in a standard Sonata, but it’s not punishing. Tire noise is noticeable. Some staffers also noted a bit of dual-clutch transmission clunkiness in the shifts between gears.
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Driving some noodly bits of tarmac leading up to Mount Baldy, I really began to appreciate the N Line. The body control is outstanding; this car moves like a single mass rather than a collection of cobbled-together parts. It’s as if Albert Biermann—who famously joined Hyundai after years leading BMW’s M division—chiseled the thing from a single billet of Korean steel. This ranks as one of only a few non-German vehicles to display such Germanic high-speed composure.
I carried more speed through these bends than I expected to. The steering is weighty and immediately accurate off-center. Grip is impressive, too, thanks in part to the optional 245-section summer tires fitted to our test car’s standard 19-inch wheels. Through a corner, though, the front tires give way before anything else, and turn-in suffers at higher entry speeds.
In the tighter bits, the front-end limitations and open diff mean the N Line struggles to put down power, but only if the driver attacks the apex with much more aggression than the typical midsize sedan buyer. Were Hyundai to make a whole-hog Sonata N (not just an N Line), I’d recommend a limited-slip front differential like the one at work between the front wheels of the Veloster N.
Should I Buy It?
It’s at somewhere around six-tenths that the Sonata N Line feels the best, confidently linking apexes and finessing through corners instead of crushing them, and that’s how it seems this car will be driven. For that one twisty section on your evening commute, the surprise mountain pass on a road trip, that fleeting moment of fun buried amid hours of the highway slog, the N Line is a capable, willing, engaging companion.
And the N Line executes the slog well, too. This Sonata’s driver-assist tech is well tuned and genuinely useful, its cabin generously proportioned and thoughtfully designed, and its infotainment system easy to use. This is the Sonata to buy. We won’t make any grand statements until we can drive them back to back, but if this Sonata N Line prototype is any indication, that Accord better hold on to its lunch money.
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