One of the sportiest Hyundais in history could well be best-in-class.
Pop quiz: What has nearly 300 horsepower, excellent handling, a smooth ride, distinctive styling, and a spacious cabin with seating for five? The Audi A4 S-Line or Alfa Romeo Giulia would qualify – until limiting your pick to vehicles costing less than $35,000. At that price point, no vehicle fits the brief better than the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line.
The Sonata N Line faces off against the Toyota Camry TRD, Honda Accord 2.0T Sport, and mechanically identical Kia K5 GT, but savvy shoppers ought to compare it with entry-level luxury cars, like the Acura TLX, Audi A4, and BMW 330i, too. With a long list of go-fast goodies (like a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four with 290 horses and 311 pound-feet), 27 miles per gallon combined, and nearly every luxury feature in Hyundai’s arsenal, the Sonata N Line plays the numbers game very well. But it also excels in qualitative measures, with its polished handling, interesting design, and drive-faster personality impressing everyone on board.
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Styling is subjective, but I absolutely love the Hyundai Sonata’s basic shape. The sloping front end, oval side window opening, and bold tail lights remind me of the car I learned to drive in, a 1996 Ford Taurus, which endears me to the Korean sedan instantly. But the Sonata is much more avant-garde than that oddly proportioned jellybean, its front end boasting check-shaped headlights, LED signature lighting that fades into an unusual chrome hood accent, and massive grille openings and aero ducts sporting N Line–signature chevron accents.
The Sonata’s modern, aggressive side profile – gotta love that arching shoulder line – has been begging for more attractive rolling stock since it debuted for 2020, and the N Line obliges. Look at the 19-inch wheels closely and you’ll see a machine-finished swirling pattern interwoven with some gloss black Y-spoke mesh, a design that’s undeniably intricate (if also a bit fussy). Kinky side skirts, a subtle trunk spoiler, and N-specific exhaust outlets housed in a gloss black diffuser round out the exterior changes, turning the already individualistic Sonata into an exuberant sport sedan.
Inside, the Sonata N Line gets the same 10.3-inch center touchscreen and 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster as the Limited model. Unique to the sporty trim are a pair of supportive, well-bolstered front bucket seats and a rear bench wearing genuine Nappa leather with Dinamica inserts. Hyundai says the interior is black, but to my plebeian eyes, it looks like a richer, more interesting dark gray. Whatever the case may be, the seats, armrests, and steering wheel get subtle red accent stitching, helping underscore the car’s zesty intentions.
If any part of the Sonata N Line could be called average, it’s the cabin’s interior materials. The upmarket leather and sueded microfiber upholstery contrast with a fair amount of hard plastic on the center console, brushing up against the driver and front passenger’s knees during hard cornering and long highway stretches. The front and rear door panel armrests are comfortable, but the aft window sills are hard, reflecting cost-cutting that feels a bit downmarket. And the shiny black infotainment surround and shift selector trim attract fingerprints like bees to honey, feeling a bit flimsy in the process.
The Sonata N Line’s front-row passengers get the star treatment, with those trim-specific buckets offering the best balance of long-haul comfort and twisty-road support of anything in the Hyundai lineup. Heated seats are standard too – perfect for an early-Sunday canyon blast. Space up front is near the top of the class, with 46.1 inches of legroom beating out the Camry TRD, Accord Sport 2.0T, and Mazda6 Grand Touring Reserve (may it rest in peace) by about 4 inches each. And 40.0 inches of front headroom are likewise segment-best – the Camry TRD is the nearest competitor, at 38.3.
The rear bench is pleasant, with that Nappa/Dinamica combo treating eyes and hands, but rear legroom is only 34.8 inches, down 3.2 inches on the Camry, 3.9 inches on the Mazda, and 5.6 inches on the Accord. There’s just enough space for adults to get comfortable, thanks to good thigh support and competitive headroom. The 16.0-cubic-foot trunk has the Camry (15.1) and the Mazda6 (14.7) beat, but the Accord’s 16.7-cube rating is best in this set. Like the Camry and Accord, the Sonata rests its trunk lid on large, exposed gooseneck hinges that pinch boxes when closing the hatch, while the Mazda’s hinges are concealed.
Thanks to those massive wheels and a sport-tuned suspension, ride comfort is clearly compromised somewhat compared to less dynamic siblings like the smooth-riding Sonata Hybrid. Even so, the N Line does an excellent job of smothering little impacts like coarse paving and expansion joints, and it dispatches larger bumps with a decidedly Teutonic thump. That isn’t terribly surprising, given Hyundai’s current president and former head of research and development, Albert Biermann. The BMW M alum was clearly involved in the Sonata N Line, which rides like Bavaria’s best.
The 2021 Hyundai Sonata is one of the most tech-forward midsize cars available, particularly on trims (like the N Line) that come with the aforementioned 10.3-inch center touchscreen and 12.3-inch gauge display. By comparison, the similarly priced Camry TRD’s 7.0-inch infotainment display looks positively downmarket, and the 8.0-inch systems in the Mazda and Honda are only marginally better. That’s doubly true of the Hyundai’s superior infotainment system, which offers crisp graphics, decently quick processing, and good response to touch inputs. A point goes to the Mazda for wireless Apple CarPlay, though – Hyundai requires a cord.
While the Sonata’s digital gauges look crisp and sleek (particularly when switching from normal to sport modes, which causes an explosion of red to illuminate the tachometer and speedometer), it would be nice if they offered more diversity in design. The space between the gauges can swap between trip computer, audio, driver-assist, and map displays, but the analog-style instruments themselves remain static, save the mode-specific color changes. If you’re going to replace analog gauges with a screen, why not allow them to look like something other than analog gauges if desired?
As competent in daily-driving situations as it is, the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line exhibits an incredible penchant for twisty roads. The midsize sedan is front-drive only, an odd omission given the modular platform’s all-wheel-drive flexibility on cars like the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia K5 GT-Line, but otherwise, Hyundai went to great lengths to disguise the Sonata’s commodity bones in pursuit of backroad excellence.
The turbocharged engine makes its 310 lb-ft at just 1,650 rpm, putting inattentive drivers and other rolling roadblocks firmly in the rear-view mirror at every passing zone. It puts power down exceptionally well too, routing grunt through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission. Hyundai isn’t a stranger to DCTs, but this new one’s wet-clutch design should be more reliable than former outings. It’s also just as responsive and zesty, cracking off shifts with bolt-action speed. Fiddle with the smallish gear paddles if you must, but the gearbox does just fine on its own when trail-braking, mashing the throttle, or putting around town.
Somehow, the nearly perfect suspension setup is even more impressive than the powertrain. Stiffer suspension bushings and a rack-mounted power steering system improve turn-in response, which is just about as good as any front-drive car I can remember. Cornering grip from the optional $200 summer tires is phenomenal, with a 245-millimeter section width front and rear. N Line–specific monotube dampers, larger front and rear sway bars, and stiffer rear springs give the Sonata much more neutral handling behavior, even yielding some gentle lift-throttle oversteer when desired.
The only fly in the ointment, carrying over from the first time Motor1.com sampled the N Line, is a lack of traction on corner exit. In tight bends, the inside front tire lights up like a flint fire starter with any throttle application, resulting in some unfortunate post-apex understeer – a mechanical limited-slip differential would do wonders here, but even Hyundai’s brake-based system could do better. Except for that little snafu, the Sonata N Line is an absolute delight on a twisty road, particularly one with sweeping turns that help hide its tractive shortcomings.
All Sonatas come standard with automatic emergency braking, adaptive cruise control, lane centering, lane departure prevention, and sharp LED headlights with automatic high beams. Additionally, the N Line also gets blind spot monitoring (a mirror-mounted warning light and a camera display in the digital gauge cluster) and Highway Drive Assist, which integrates lane centering and adaptive cruise in one package, and it also proactively slows the car slightly before entering a freeway curve. The driver-assist technology works well in most conditions, matching the sophistication of the Honda and Mazda and exceeding that of the Toyota.
With a combined fuel economy rating of 23 city, 33 highway, and 27 combined miles per gallon, the Sonata N Line isn’t much thirstier than the slightly more expensive Sonata Limited (30 combined). It’s also more efficient than the Honda Accord 2.0T Sport and Mazda6 Grand Touring 2.5 Turbo (26 mpg combined), and it absolutely walks away from the 23-mpg Toyota Camry TRD, what with its naturally aspirated 3.5-liter V6. Like those rivals (and unlike many of those aforementioned luxury cross-shops), the Sonata N Line can run on regular fuel. We saw about 22 mpg in our week of aggressive, sporty driving.
The 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line starts at $33,300, with two options: $200 summer tires, which this tester had, and $400 premium paint, which it did not. A $1,005 destination charge brought my Stormy Sea Blue N Line to $34,505. For the amount of performance and luxury on offer, that seems to be a good deal to me (although my dream N Line would wear the extra-charge Glowing Yellow paint). It also makes the pricier Sonata Limited superfluous, unless you really want a surround-view monitor and ventilated seats. The N Line is a bit more expensive than its competitive set, the rest of which start at less than $33,000 before options and destination.
However, while the Honda and Mazda feel like merely very nice family sedans and the Camry TRD is overly boy-racere without actually adding much performance, the Hyundai Sonata N Line is a proper sporty car that just so happens to carry four adults and lots of stuff in comfort. Spending the extra $1,000 or so on a Sonata N Line should be a no-brainer for anyone who loves driving but needs practicality. And on the other side of the coin (pun intended), the Sonata offers massive cost savings, but few sacrifices, to those willing to forego a luxury badge on their sport sedans. The N Line is a vehicle that really punches above its weight.
Sonata N-Line Competitor Reviews:
Gallery: 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Review
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line