Water is wet, the Pope’s a Catholic, and sedans are tremendously out of fashion right now. These are all blatantly obvious points, but the last is one that really irks me. As someone who’s parents both owned sedans during my childhood, I’ve always been a sceptic as to whether an SUV really is necessary for all of the people who think that it is for them, but regardless, it doesn’t change the fact that the role of the sedan in the car world has changed today.
No longer are they for families and sales reps the way they once were – the role sedans take on in modern car lineups is actually sometimes that of a sex symbol. With designers free to do as they please – few are actually going to buy the thing, so why play it safe? – some of the once-average sedans on the market have become real stunners now.
The 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line is a perfect example of just this. While the Sonata previously was a bit of an oversight in the class, as most people would just buy a Toyota Camry instead, this all-new model instead aims upmarket in its level of specification, but without sporting a price tag that will break the bank for the average sedan buyer.
Offered solely for the Australian market in sporty N Line trim at a cost of $50,990 before on-road costs, it does mark a price hike of more than $5000 over the outgoing Sonata Premium 2.0 Turbo – a model which earned more favour with the Queensland Police fleet than buyers here in Oz – but it doesn’t take long at all to figure out where all that extra money goes.
While I typically don’t comment on styling too much as it’s obviously quite a subjective matter, just look at this thing. It’s both aggressive and angular, but incredibly svelte in profile. I’m a sucker for a full-width rear lightbar as well, and the way the daytime running lights continue up and fade into chrome along the sides of the bonnet is genius. Even the hints of sportiness shown in areas aren’t at all over the top. Hyundai, quite frankly, has nailed it here. No wonder it’s earned a starring spot in Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins which, by pure coincidence, is out the day after this review.
It’s on the inside that it shows it’s got some substance to back up the style, though. While there’s still a fair whack of grey plastic to be found, the majority of finishes are just that tiny bit nicer than you’d find in the average Hyundai model.
It’s all right on the mark where it counts most, though. The steering wheel is a great size and is clad in nice perforated leather, and the paddles on the back of it are nice and big, really encouraging you to use them. The N-branded bucket seats are not only very supportive, but are clad in incredibly soft and supple suede and Nappa leather to deliver a nice blend of sportiness and premium aspiration, too.
It’s right up to scratch when it comes to tech as well. The 12.3-inch instrument cluster screen and 10.25-inch infotainment screen are both very crisp and high res, and there’s integrated satellite navigation, wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (shame it’s not wireless, but it’s hardly the end of the world), a wireless phone charging pad, and a head-up display to boot. An impressive 12-speaker Bose audio system handles the tunes, too.
Comfort has been clearly addressed also, with heated and ventilated front seats, heated outboard rear seats, a heated steering wheel, and dual-zone climate control with three automatic levels and an auto defogger all standard. There are sunshades integrated into the rear doors as well, along with a powered rear sunshade and a panoramic sunroof as well. It’s safe to say, then, that there’s not much you’re missing out on in this, as it puts the spec list of most European sedans this size to absolute shame.
Given it’s sporting the N Line badge – and Hyundai, unlike many companies, seems to take such a designation decently seriously – it’s packing plenty in the way of performance as well. Sporting a 2.5-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine under the bonnet that makes a very healthy 213kW at 5800rpm and 422Nm from 1650-4000rpm, Hyundai doesn’t make an official 0-100km/h sprint claim, but you can expect it to reach triple digits somewhere between 5.5-6.0 seconds which is certainly a time not to be sniffed at.
It’s an undoubtedly muscular-feeling engine with a bit of an old-school feel to it as there is some perceptible turbo lag. Once you really get on boost, though, it really pulls along quite healthily indeed, with it delivering a properly effortless wave of torque for you to ride. It might not deliver European levels of refinement, but the performance means it gets a thumbs up from me. The fake engine noise pumped into the cabin does feel a bit try-hard and overdone though, although it’s easily switched off or even turned up higher if you’re so inclined.
What does get another thumbs up, though, is the brilliant eight-speed dual-clutch transmission that backs the Sonata’s turbo power plant. An in-house wet clutch design, it isn’t quite as foolproof as one of Volkswagen’s DSG units and requires you to get in tune with it a bit more to get the best out of it. Once you manage that, though, it really delivers the goods.
With it in Sport+ mode – such a driving mode being on offer is surely a sign of Hyundai taking this thing’s performance credentials seriously – and using the paddles, off-throttle downshifts are truly instantaneous. Upshifts are pretty crisp as well, although not quite as lightning fast, but in normal driving they are imperceptibly smooth.
If there’s something that lets it down, though, it’s that the Sonata is still front-wheel drive. While it’s absolutely fine for straight line pulls and normal daily driving, when you really put the hammer down there’s a lot of tugging at the wheel on the exit from corners – something which is only amplified in Sport+ mode, or when the roads are wet and greasy.
It’s a shame as it’s a really competent package otherwise, handling-wise. The ride leans to the firmer side, meaning it remains incredibly level, yet it doesn’t detract from the comfort factor too much at all. The steering feels solid and beefy as well, and overall, the car feels to have a larger footprint on the road than it actually does.
Were it not for the torque steer and with merely a touch more power and noise, the Sonata N Line would truly feel like a proper N product, but even as it is, it comes daringly close. The N Line badge really is fitting, then, as the sportiness is more than skin-deep. It’s just that I can’t help but feel that with a decent all-wheel drive system, it would feel really special – think ZB Holden Commodore, as V6 AWD models were incredibly competent handlers, but even better.
As it sits, though, it matches up well with what’s really it’s biggest rival – the Mazda6. The Mazda may feel more plush and premium inside, but there’s no doubt that the Sonata is more modern, more powerful, and sharper dynamically. At only a hair more than the Atenza model price-wise, I think which one is the better bet today is pretty clear – love the Mazda6 as I may.
For what it is, though, the 2021 Hyundai Sonata has come leaps and bounds from the previous generation to the current. I don’t doubt the Queensland Police will love the added power over the old model they’ve been using, and Joe and Jane Public are going to love the extra kit and of course the sexy styling. After all, if it’s good enough for G.I. Joe’s operatives, it should be good enough for you, too.
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line List Price: $50,990
- Performance - 8/108/10
- Ride & Handling - 8/108/10
- Tech & Features - 9/109/10
- Practicality - 8/108/10
- Value for Money - 8.5/108.5/10
Pros: Sexy styling, strong turbocharged engine and responsive DCT, standard equipment list puts European sedans to shame, feels pretty sharp dynamically
Cons: Torque steer lets it down when it comes to performance driving, ride is on the firmer side at times, still a lot of grey plastic on the inside
In a nutshell: The 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line comes daringly close to feeling like a true N product, and with only a few tweaks it’d be right there. As it stands, though, it’s a really compelling buy that outperforms its closest rival and looks properly stunning while doing so.
Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Hyundai Motor Company Australia for six days with a full tank of fuel.