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2021 Hyundai Sonata Test Drive Review

With the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line, the automaker makes a credible car for driving enthusiasts who still want sedans that are thrilling to drive.

8.5 /10
Overall Score

In a shrinking car market, the traditional sport sedan is increasingly rare. Designed and developed for people who prefer on-pavement performance but need passenger and cargo practicality, only a handful of dedicated non-premium sport sedans still exist, and most of those barely qualify for membership in the club. Enter the new 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line, which addresses both performance and practicality in a compelling midsize package and at a bargain price.

Look and Feel

8/ 10

Hyundai redesigned the Sonata for the 2020 model year, and the result is a love-it-or-hate-it proposition. Daringly distinctive from its broad grille to its tapered tail, this Hyundai is immediately identifiable at a glance as a Sonata, which is the point.

The N Line treatment applies functional and stylistic changes that amplify what’s appealing about the Sonata’s look while reducing what’s not. For example, the front fascia is restyled to include larger air intakes for improved engine cooling, the oversized inlets drawing attention away from the car’s unusual daytime running light signature that bleeds into the hood.

Gloss black side mirrors and window surrounds, and bold 19-inch aluminum alloy wheels, are the primary differentiators when viewing the car in profile. Around back, a subtle gloss black lip spoiler is present, along with a reworked bumper with a lower diffuser panel flanked by a four-outlet exhaust system.

The result is a more appealing Sonata with a traditional stealthy visual suggestion as to the performance enhancements under the car’s skin. If you’re looking for big scoops and wings, this isn’t your ride.

Hyundai takes a similar approach with the Sonata N Line’s upholstery and interior, dressing it with sport front seats featuring premium Nappa leather bolsters and Dinamica suede inserts, red stitching on the seats and steering wheel, aluminum pedal covers, and dark chrome accents throughout. A panoramic sunroof is standard, giving the car a two-tone appearance on the outside and making it feel roomier on the inside.

Performance

9/ 10

Fortified with a turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the Sonata N Line is about more than a stealthy sport sedan appearance. There are genuine hardware upgrades to this car that potentially vault it to the top of its class.

Based on the 2.5-liter four-cylinder offered in the standard Sonata, this turbo engine makes 290 horsepower at 5,800 rpm and 311 pound-feet of torque from 1,650 rpm to 4,000 rpm. A new eight-speed wet dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT) with paddle shifters, rev-matching, and a launch control system help to put that power to the car’s front wheels.

Drivers can choose between Normal, Sport, Sport+, and Custom driving modes. The car also includes an Active Sound Design (ASD) engine note enhancement system, and in combination with the sport-tuned exhaust, the result is a sound akin to the horizontally opposed four-cylinder in a Subaru WRX when accelerating. That’s a good thing.

Additionally, the Sonata N Line boasts significant improvements in engine and transmission mount stiffness, faster rack-mounted electric steering, larger front and rear brakes with higher heat capacity, and a sport-tuned suspension. It sits on 19-inch wheels wearing 245/40 all-season performance or summer performance tires, the latter a $200 option.

Evaluated on the roads of our usual stomping grounds in the Santa Monica Mountains near Malibu, California, the Sonata N Line proved a treat to drive. It doesn’t take long to recognize the effects of the Sonata N Line’s added stiffness, more responsive steering, firmer underpinnings, and sticky tires. Furthermore, while whipping the car down winding mountain roads, repeated hard use of the brakes proved them stout and trustworthy.

Though it’s front-wheel drive, understeer isn’t really an issue. The summer rubber and a slow-in-fast-out driving style effectively erase any liability associated with the drivetrain layout. Exit a corner and press hard on the accelerator, and the DCT’s N Power Shift function fires off sharp, decisive gear changes as the car quickly gathers speed with only an occasional hint of torque steer.

Better yet, the suspension expertly attenuates body roll and excess motion when driving hard on undulating pavement. Travel over a whoop-de-doo or depression in the road surface, and the dampers go right to work to minimize body motion. Pitch the car into a corner, and roll is almost non-existent. As a result, the car feels utterly glued to the ground. Yet the ride quality never beats you up, which is great news because you’re unlikely to spend your days exploring the Sonata N Line’s maximum handling limits.

On highways, in the city, and in the suburbs, the Sonata N Line is an agreeable sanctuary from the outside world. It is relatively quiet inside and conveys a sensation of heft and quality, engendering a feeling of security and inspiring confidence in the driver. Thanks to the suspension tuning, you’re always aware of road surface detail, but you exit the driver’s seat without requiring a visit to a chiropractor.

As far as fuel economy is concerned, the EPA says the Sonata N Line's powertrain should return 27 mpg in combined driving. We averaged 23.7 mpg on a 75.9-mile route. But keep in mind this included a photo shoot, ripping around on mountain roads in Sport+ mode, and Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic in Los Angeles. You’re likely to improve upon that figure.

Form and Function

8/ 10

Though the Sonata N Line has heated front sport seats, they aren’t overly bolstered in a bid to offer a compromise between comfort and lateral support. When you’re driving the car for fun, the Dinamica suede inserts help to hold you in place behind the steering wheel. When you’re driving simply to get somewhere, they offer impressive comfort. Better yet, the front passenger enjoys a manual seat height adjuster, making the Sonata N Line agreeable to both front-seat occupants.

Surprisingly, the new Sonata N Line doesn’t seem to be much more accommodating to rear-seat passengers than the redesigned Elantra N Line. The Sonata feels wider, but in terms of legroom, thigh support, and overall comfort, the primary differentiators here are rear air conditioning vents and a USB port, which are absent in the less expensive Elantra. Of course, the sporty Sonata N Line’s standard panoramic sunroof helps to alleviate claustrophobia. The materials are also a cut above the Elantra N Line, but the Sonata’s hard plastic front seatback panels could be unkind to the knees of taller passengers.

Interior storage space is both generous and practical, though the center console design with its blistered transmission control pod and wrap-around storage bin with a smartphone charger is rather inelegant.

Trunk volume measures a roomy 16 cubic feet, and a 60/40-split folding rear seat expands utility when necessary. The Sonata N Line includes Hyundai’s Smart Trunk hands-free release feature, which automatically pops the lid if you stand near the back of the car for three seconds. When you’re ready to close the trunk, there isn’t a handle on the inside of lid, so you’ll get your hands dirty if the car isn’t clean.

Tech Level

7/ 10

Though the 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line doesn’t include all of the technology available on other versions of the company’s midsize sedan, it is equipped with the features and functions you’re most likely to want and use on a regular basis.

For the N Line, Hyundai pairs a 12.3-inch digital instrumentation panel with a 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Navigation is standard, along with wireless smartphone charging and an adequate Bose premium sound system. The infotainment system also includes HD Radio, SiriusXM satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and a free three-year subscription to Blue Link connected services. It does not, however, offer a WiFi hotspot.

Frustratingly, Hyundai offers a power/volume knob but not a tuning knob. Instead, the driver must use the Seek and Track virtual buttons on the far right side of the display, or cycle through radio station pre-sets using steering wheel controls. While this approach certainly results in a cleaner looking cabin, it’s a step backwards in terms of user experience.

Additionally, due to the curvature of the infotainment panel on its left edge and the placement of the volume control knob, my knuckles regularly and inadvertently activate touch-sensing functions on the screen near the knob. That’s aggravating. So too can be the voice recognition technology, which accurately responded to most of my test prompts, but not all of them.

Ah, but when external or internal sources of stress impinge on your daily drive, the Sonata N Line’s infotainment system offers Sounds of Nature. Select this function, and you’ll have several ambient noise tracks from which to choose. It’s like a Calm app for your car.

Hyundai Digital Key is also standard for the Sonata N Line. It transforms your smartphone into a key that unlocks the doors and starts the engine. But, it only works with Android devices. If you’re an iPhone owner, you’re out of luck. But don’t fret. Just start the car with the key fob instead, and then enjoy the Sounds of Nature.

Safety

9/ 10

Every Sonata N Line is equipped with Hyundai’s SmartSense collection of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS). This is a comprehensive version of SmartSense, including adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go capability, forward-collision warning with pedestrian and cyclist detection, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assistance, lane-centering assistance, blind-spot warning, rear cross-traffic warning, driver-attention warning, and automatic high-beam headlights.

Additionally, the N Line has a Rear Occupant Alert system designed to prevent people from accidentally leaving kids behind in the car, a Safe Exit Warning system that alerts occupants that traffic is approaching from behind and it might be unsafe to open the doors, and a Level 2 ADAS called Highway Drive Assist.

Collectively, this is an exceptionally sophisticated package of ADAS. When active, the technology never startles and rarely irritates a driver, encouraging its continued use. We drove into the Hollywood area on a Friday afternoon, in thickening traffic. Highway Drive Assist worked smoothly and accurately, exhibiting no hesitation or confusion about what it should be doing. In turn, the driver comes to trust the system, reducing some of the stress that comes naturally when second-guessing the effectiveness of any Level 2 ADAS.

The standard Sonata rates high for occupant protection in a collision. However, given the changes to the N Line, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had not carried the standard car’s frontal-impact ratings over to it as this review was published.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) also had not assigned a rating to the 2021 Sonata as this review was written. As a result, please note that our safety rating is based on ADAS comprehensiveness and performance, and on the standard Sonata’s performance in crash-tests.

Cost-Effectiveness

10/ 10

When you buy a 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line, it comes one way with an MSRP of $33,200. The summer performance tires run another $200, and Hyundai will offer a short list of accessory upgrades, including floor mats ($155). So equipped, our test car tallied up to $34,550 including the destination charge of $955.

The 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line is a family sedan that drives and feels like it should cost thousands more. And when you consider the industry-leading warranty, the three years of free scheduled maintenance, and the three years of free Blue Link connected services, and the value here is downright amazing.

Updated by Christian Wardlaw

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