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2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line first drive review: A punchy performance preview

The contrasty camouflage wrap is mostly for show. Beneath it, this Hyundai Sonata prototype previews an exciting N-Line performance model coming next year.

The camouflage can't hide the Sonata's curvy shape.
Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

A few weeks ago, we took our first drive in the redesigned, US-spec 2020 Hyundai Sonata and, to no one's surprise, it was rather good. However, the Sonata N-Line prototype I find myself piloting today is a very different animal.

The camouflaged prototype seen here wears N-Line badging on the grill, steering wheel and center console trim, and sports dual exhaust tips out back. Designed to obscure elements of the prototype's design, this colorway ironically only seemed to attract an uncomfortable amount of attention wherever I went. Thankfully, beneath the eye-popping anti-aesthetics, this N-Line model also boasts a significant performance upgrade, including nearly 100 more pound-feet of torque than the 1.6-liter turbocharged models we've driven previously.

Best of both worlds

The base engine for this eighth-generation Sonata is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. The upgrade from there is a slightly more sophisticated 1.6-liter turbocharged setup that makes 180 hp and 195 lb-ft. (I know, it seems more like a lateral move, but the 1.6T is supposed to be a smoother, better-driving engine.)


Displacement and forced induction, the N-Line's 2.5-liter turbocharged mill combines the best of the two base engines.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

The N-Line model's powerplant is sort of the best of both worlds: a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder that outputs an estimated 290 hp and 310 lb-ft of torque, making this the most powerful Sonata model ever.

The 2.5T exhales through the aforementioned dual-exhaust system, which is louder than the 1.6-liter, but is quiet enough to not be annoying or drone when just cruising around. On this early prototype, the exhaust note isn't quite finalized, so it could potentially change by the time the Sonata N-Line becomes available next year.

The sedan's torque reaches the front wheels via an eight-speed, dual clutch transmission -- the same wet clutch transmission, I believe, that you'll soon find in the Veloster N, but with a slightly different tune. The N-Line model also gains a Sport Plus driving mode with more aggressive throttle and shift programming than the Sport mode on the Sonata 1.6T.

The Sonata N-Line pulls away off the line with a confident shove into the seat. The miles per hour pile up with significantly more zest -- but not much more drama -- than with the smaller turbo, with shifts that are fired off quickly, but with smooth transitions between gears. Overall, the sedan scoots with a surefooted, premium feel. Again, transmission tuning isn't quite finalized -- for example, the gear holding algorithm is still being tuned, so I noticed a bit of hunting between sixth and seventh gear when cruising in Sport Plus -- but Hyundai's engineers assured me that the kinks would be ironed out over the next few months. 

The handling department

The N-Line also boasts handing upgrades to compliment the extra power, starting with wider, 19-inch wheels wrapped in either Pirelli all-season tires or -- as equipped -- optional Continental PremiumContact 6 summer rubber (sized 245/40R19). Hyundai's engineers wanted the bigger contact patches so badly that the Sonata N-Line's suspension control arms have been tweaked to accommodate the broader rolling stock. 

Of course, there are the requisite stiffer springs and dampers, along with stiffer suspension and subframe bushings. The new hardware lowers the N-Line's ride height by about 5 millimeters, which is basically imperceptible at curbside.

On the road, the Sonata N-Line's ride feels a bit firm -- noticeably more so than the standard setup -- but not rough, harsh or jarring over cracked highways. There's a tad more road noise, but overall this still feels like a car that you could daily drive or even road trip in comfortably.

I'm told that N-Line will feature enlarged brakes, but the rotors equipped on this prototype appears to be the same 12.8-inch stoppers as the Sonata SEL model. Stopping performance felt about the same as the non-N Sonata -- accounting for the stickier rubber. I could be wrong, but perhaps this is another one of those hardware details that will change leading up to the production run.


These certainly look like the same 12.8-inch brakes as the SEL Plus model. Feel like 'em, too.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Expanding the envelope

Driven back to back with the 1.6T SEL Premium model, I am impressed by how similar the N-Line feels to the other trim levels. This should be obvious, I hear you saying, but you'd be surprised how piling on an extra hundo pound-feet can unbalance a car's character, especially one with front-wheel drive, where all manner of bad behaviors can crop up with a ham-fisted application of power. This doesn't seem to be the case with the N-Line. 

Acceleration, grip and, perhaps to a lesser degree, stopping power have improved in concert, keeping the balance intact. There's no noticeable torque steer or wheel hop during full throttle launches and, while there's noticeably more grip during cornering, the sedan's steering still feels relaxed and neutral around town. The ride isn't obnoxiously harsh and the exhaust is still fairly quiet at moderate throttle. This still feels like a midsize sedan -- like a Sonata -- but with a bit more hustle when you need it.

And yes, that means this isn't as hardcore a transformation as the Veloster N is relative to its namesake, but that's why there's the "N-Line" designation. Does that mean there's still room for a sharper, true Sonata N to appear down the line? Maybe; it's a safe bet that Hyundai is at the very least thinking about it.


You can't see much detail beneath the camouflage wrap, but the dual exhaust is an easily visible (and audible) upgrade.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Coming in fall 2020

The Sonata N-Line is still, as I mentioned, in development, and won't hit the road until late 2020 with a 2021 model year designation. A lot could change between now and then, but this is a pretty close representative of what to expect.

Another aspect that hasn't been nailed down is the price. The 2020 Hyundai Sonata will start at $23,400 for the base SE, but the 1.6T comes online at the midrange $27,450 SEL Plus trim level. At the top of the known lineup is the $33,300 fully loaded Limited model. Will the N-Line's sticker slip between the SEL Plus and Limited or stretch to a new high? That'll depend on what standard features and amenities Hyundai packages with this new spec. Expect to learn more next year.

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.