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2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line first drive review: Sharp sedan with performance to match

With strong turbo power, sleek style and tons of tech, Hyundai's new Sonata N Line is a seriously compelling package.

The N Line adds unique styling touches and some rad 19-inch wheels.

Drew Phillips

The Hyundai Sonata N Line punches way above its class. It might exist alongside cars like the Honda Accord Sport, Mazda6 Turbo and Toyota Camry TRD, but it's got the power, poise, style and tech to put premium sedans like the Acura TLX and BMW 330i on notice.

Before I jump in, there's one key thing to remember: This is not one of Hyundai's full-on N models like the Veloster hatch or upcoming Elantra sedan. N Line is more of a performance half-step, yet it's enough to transform the Sonata from a nice car to a nice car that moves.

The fun starts under the hood, where the N Line gets Hyundai's new 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-four. This is the same engine you'll find in the Sonata's kissin' cousin, the Kia K5 GT, as well as a number of other products, including the Genesis G80, GV80 and Kia Stinger. Here, the 2.5T makes 290 horsepower and 311 pound-feet of torque, and sends that oomph to the front wheels through an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission.

That turbocharged torque is available from just 1,650 rpm, so the Sonata has ample get-up-and-go when pulling away from stoplights. The transmission is also more than happy to downshift and put the engine in the heart of its powerband when requested, and it'll hold a gear through corners. Steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters are standard, so you can choose your own adventure. But while the DCT itself is quick to shift gears, the transmission is pretty lazy about responding to manual inputs.

What I like best about this powertrain is that it never feels high-strung. In the default Normal drive mode, the engine keeps its revs low and offers a smooth wave of torque, which is great for driving around town or cruising on the highway. Toggle the drive mode selector up to Sport and the throttle response sharpens and the transmission is a bit more eager to downshift, but even here, it's all cool and collected.

The 2.5-liter engine offers a smooth wave of torque -- 311 lb-ft, in fact.

Drew Phillips

Weirdly, stepping up to Sport Plus mode automatically turns off the traction control, which I guess would be fine for serious high-performance driving, but like, this is a Hyundai Sonata. I don't really recommend ever turning off traction control on public roads, and there's no mid-level ESC Sport setting like on Hyundai's full-fledged N cars. Sport Plus really feels like overkill.

The N Line has stiffer springs and dampers than the other Sonata models and it rides on 19-inch wheels. I can definitely see how the suspension tune might be a bit too stiff for some people's tastes day to day. It's taut, yes, but damped appropriately so as to never feel crashy or overly chatty. The steering is noticeably quicker, too -- Hyundai says the N Line has a ratio of 12.35:1 compared to 13.27:1 in the base Sonata. Similarly, the steering has solid weight and great, linear action, though I might like a touch more feedback.

Generally speaking, though, the Sonata N Line is really entertaining. The tradeoff for a slightly stiff city and highway ride is excellent handling. The weighty steering and firm suspension make the Sonata N Line eager to blast through California canyons, the low-end torque providing the extra shove necessary to quickly exit corners and power up steep hills. This car has a level of composure that's unmatched in the traditional midsize sedan class. To wit: The day before testing this Sonata N Line, I took a new BMW M440i up for a spirited canyon run, and while the Bimmer has a lot more power, I genuinely prefer the Sonata's steering and chassis tuning.

The N Line comes standard with Hyundai's upgraded 10.2-inch infotainment screen.

Drew Phillips

If there's one sore spot in all this goodness, it's that the N Line's front wheels often feel overwhelmed. Lay into the throttle while coming out of an uphill corner and you'll get some wheel spin, as well as a bit of understeer in tighter turns. Hyundai doesn't offer the Sonata N Line with all-wheel drive, and there's no limited-slip differential, either. I suppose that's the sort of thing that'd be reserved for a proper Sonata N, but that kind of hardcore sedan isn't in the cards.

The Sonata N Line at least looks the part, with a unique front fascia, larger air intakes, new side skirts and more pronounced exhaust tips. It's a cohesive look, too -- nothing about the N Line package appears tacked on. The sporty updo works well with the Sonata's otherwise handsome body sculpting.

Inside, the most obvious N Line upgrade is the pair of sport seats. With leather trim, cloth inserts and sculpted seatbacks, these chairs are as comfortable as they are supportive. A few N badges and some red contrast stitching are the only other changes you'll find, but given the standard Sonata is already a real treat to spend time in, that's hardly a complaint.

What's cookin', good lookin'?

Drew Phillips

The N Line gets the Sonata's digital gauge cluster, as well as its best infotainment option: a 10.2-inch touchscreen with navigation, Bose audio, Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There's a bunch of active safety tech onboard, too, including blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, lane-keeping assist and full-speed adaptive cruise control. The only things you can't get on the N Line? A 360-degree camera and Hyundai's Remote Smart Parking Assist (you know, Smaht Pahk).

All told, the 2021 Sonata N Line costs $33,295 including a $995 destination charge, and you can add summer tires for an extra $200. That makes this hotter Sonata more expensive than a Honda Accord Sport or Toyota Camry TRD, but it's far more rewarding to drive. Like I said earlier, I'd honestly put it closer to Acura TLX or BMW 330i levels of performance, and those cars are much more expensive.

That makes the Hyundai Sonata N Line a hell of a bargain, yet there's nothing "bargain" about it. It's a great-looking, great-driving sedan with tons of creature comforts, and proof positive that there's plenty to like about the "N Lite" N Line treatment.