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Driven: The Excellent 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line Might Be Hyundai’s Biggest-Ever Surprise

Only one big flaw mars this sure-footed, extremely capable sports sedan.

WEST HOLLYWOOD, California—There comes a time in everyone's life when you can say, "Now I've seen everything." For me, that moment came after test driving the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line, a biggish Korean sedan that thinks it's a biggish German sedan. This car is a genuine Korean bargain with American muscle-car acceleration and European road manners, and if only Hyundai had fitted it with a limited-slip differential, it'd be just about perfect.

The 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line drives like a true gentleman's sports sedan, one that refuses to let grip overrule compliance or compliance overrule grip. It speaks about its abilities but never shouts them. Drive gently around town and the Sonata N-Line feels like a top-of-the-line sedan should—comfortable, quiet, dignified. Crank it up on your favorite curvy road (as I got a chance to crank it up on mine) and it exhibits poise, finesse, and grace. And also, catastrophic corner-exit wheelspin, but we'll get to that in a minute.

2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line Test: Subtle Styling, Serious Hardware

For those unfamiliar, N-Line is Hyundai's mid-point between its standard cars and its all-out track-ready N models like the Hyundai Veloster N and the upcoming 2022 Hyundai Elantra N we also took for a spin. Big props to Hyundai, which could have created the Sonata N-Line by merely jazzing up the regular Sonata's body trim and making the springs a little stiffer. Instead, it created the Sonata N-Line (as well as the new Elantra N-Line) by making meaningful hardware upgrades to both the powertrain and suspension.

The 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line gets its own engine, a big 2.5-liter, turbocharged four-cylinder rated at 290 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque, which is (obviously) a significant upgrade over the 180 hp/195-lb-ft engine in the Sonata SEL Plus and Limited. This engine drives the front wheels through the same eight-speed dual-clutch transmission used in the N models. It's a wet-clutch design, which allows it to handle more power with better heat dissipation. This gearbox is a nifty unit, with take-offs so smooth I would have never guessed it was a dual-clutch; in normal driving, it moves off from a stop as smoothly as does a torque-converter transmission. For quicker starts it has a launch mode, but the frank truth is that the transmission works so well on its own that I forgot to even try launch mode.

Meanwhile, springs, anti-roll bars, powertrain mounts, and shocks are all beefed up and stiffened, and the steering-assist motor moves from the steering column to the steering rack for better feel and precision. Tire choices include Continental ProContact summer tires or Pirelli P Zero all-seasons.

Exterior and interior upgrades are subtle—perhaps a bit too subtle. The grille, lip spoiler, and mirrors are done up in gloss black, and the 19-inch wheels and quad exhaust ports are unique to the Sonata N-Line. There is heavier bolstering in the seats, and features like the 10.25-inch widescreen infotainment display and a Bose stereo befit a top-of-the-line car. You could argue the 2021 Sonata N-Line is a bit too subtle; I think it'd look great with the red-stripe treatment from the Veloster N. That said, for a car this quick, perhaps fading into the background isn't such a bad thing.

2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line Test: Are You a Sonata or a Muscle Car?

And quick it is: Our colleagues down the hall at MotorTrend tested a 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line from 0-60-mph in just 5.3 seconds, 1.8 seconds quicker than the old Sonata 2.0T. Its quarter-mile time of 13.9 seconds is quick enough to dust off most '60s-era muscle cars. The 2.5T delivers peak torque between 1,650 rpm and 4,000 rpm, and in the real world that translates to no detectable turbo lag—you just goose it and it goes. Hyundai artificially augments the engine sound with a deep, authoritative note that certainly sounds the part of a big, torquey engine.

In terms of the suspension's behavior, it's easier to talk about what it doesn't do than what it does. Run it hard through the curves and there's no wallow, no float, no skipping around on mid-corner bumps. The steering is lovely, well-weighted, and precise. The 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line turns-in smoothly and stays planted when put to the test, exhibiting excellent stability, and that's all the more remarkable when you consider how comfortable and unflappable the ride is. It's so spot-on in its ride-handling balance, you'd think Hyundai hired one of BMW's most talented chassis engineers to be its ride-and-handling guru. Oh, wait, that's exactly what Hyundai did.

2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line Test: One Big Fault

The Sonata N-Line has one glaring fault, and in most cars it'd be enough to turn a positive review into a negative one, but perhaps not here. That problem is corner-exit understeer, and it's the reason most front-wheel-drive performance cars (like Hyundai's Veloster N, the awesome Honda Civic Type R, and that old favorite, the VW GTI) are fitted with limited-slip differentials.

With 311 lb-ft available over such a broad rpm range, the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line has enough trouble controlling wheelspin in a straight line. Coming out of a corner, breaking the inside-front wheel loose is inevitable no matter how gently you squeeze on the power, and once it starts spinning it ain't gonna stop. The problem exhibits itself in Sport + mode, which deactivates ESC, and the fix is simple: Changing down to Sport mode, which is exactly the same but with ESC active, keeps the inside wheel under control. Unlike the Elantra N-Line, in which the fight between power and ESC is a battle royale, the Sonata's systems work in harmony, and running with ESC active did nothing to diminish the joy of my drive.

In most reviews, something like this might lead me to slap my review with the dreaded missed-opportunity label. No question, the Sonata N-Line would be a better car with a limited-slip differential and a much better car with all-wheel-drive. But when you consider the price—$34,195, plus $200 for the summer tires—how can anyone complain? The new Sonata N-Line has the poise and acceleration of a BMW 5-Series, and it undercuts the not-as-skilled Toyota Camry XSE by more than $2,000, and beats it by 0.5-second to 60 and 0.06 g on the skidpad. For a deal like that, we can all deal with leaving ESC activated.

What we have here, then, is an excellent sports sedan, and if you want to get all car-geeky and consider where Hyundai was just 15 years ago, it's an honest-to-goodness miracle. Though not flawless, the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line we tested is a seriously impressive car, a sports sedan that gives you an authentic European driving experience at a good old-fashioned Korean bargain price—and it's even assembled in America.

Now that I've driven a Hyundai sedan that can legitimately run with BMWs, I think I really have seen everything.

2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line Highlights

  • New sporty version of the mid-size Sonata
  • 290-hp, 2.5-liter turbocharged engine
  • Upgraded suspension, steering, and brakes

2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line Pros

  • Outstanding power
  • Suspension handles aggressively but never gets uncomfortable
  • Bargain price

2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line Cons

  • Handicapped by severe corner-exit wheelspin
  • Exterior styling is too understated
2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line Specifications
ON SALE Now
PRICE $34,195 (base)
ENGINE 2.5L turbocharged DOHC 16 valve I-4/290 hp @ 5,800 rpm, 311 lb-ft @ 1,650-4,000 rpm
TRANSMISSION 8-speed dual-clutch automatic
LAYOUT 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 23/33 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 192.9 x 73.2 x 56.9 in
WHEELBASE 111.8 in
WEIGHT 3,552 lb
0-60 MPH 5.3 sec
TOP SPEED N/A