N-troduction: Calling the Hyundai Sonata N Line a modern-day muscle car is a surefire way to get accused of automotive heresy. After all, it’s just a family sedan with a hotter engine, a stiffer suspension, a flashy body kit, and some red interior accents, right? Well, yeah, but the original GTO was just a Pontiac Tempest with a high-output V-8, upgraded chassis and drivetrain components, and various visual distinctions. The point isn’t to directly compare the souped-up Sonata to the legendary GTO. They’re obviously incomparable. Philosophically, though, they’re cut from the same cloth, only they exist in different eras.
The New York Times reports that, in 2020, millennials bought more new cars than baby boomers for the first time ever. Coincidentally, that aligns with the rapid expansion of Hyundai’s N performance subbrand, which makes many of its mainstream models more emotionally stimulating. The 201-hp Elantra N Line and the 286-hp Elantra N are prime examples. To see if the Korean automaker can teach a younger generation that cars can be fun—but mainly to see how the new N-branded version of Hyundai’s mid-size sedan holds up over the course of 40,000 miles—we welcomed a 2021 Sonata N Line to our long-term fleet.
Unlike the compact Elantra, the Sonata’s performance peaks with the N Line. It’s the only trim level that features a turbocharged 2.5-liter inline-four and an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The engine makes 290 horsepower and 311 pound-feet of torque. That’s nearly 100 ponies and 130 pound-feet more than the Sonata’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder base engine. With all that power solely feeding the front axle, there’s more squealing from the N Line’s front tires than a barnyard full of pissed-off pigs. Even in the default Normal drive mode, we found ourselves involuntarily burning rubber when leaving stops with relatively mild throttle inputs. As a result, we’ll be monitoring our test car’s tread wear. Every N Line rolls on intricately designed multi-spoke 19-inch wheels that can be wrapped with Continental Premium Contact 6 summer tires as a $200 option, but ours came with the standard Pirelli P Zero all seasons.
We regret not upgrading to the Continentals, because the N Line we track-tested with them outperformed our long-termer on the standard Pirellis. On summer tires, the N Line stopped from 70 mph in a short 152 feet; it needed 183 feet on the all-seasons. Likewise, the stickier tires helped the N Line generate a notable 0.93 g on our 300-foot skidpad versus 0.85 g. At least the tires on our long-term Sonata barely affected its acceleration times. It launched to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds and cleared the quarter-mile in 13.8 ticks at 104 mph. We’ll have to see if we can close the 0.2-second gap versus the summer-tire-equipped N Line during its exit test.
Still, the differences between the Sonata N Line and the rest of the lineup go deeper than tire options, an exclusive powertrain, and excessive wheelspin. The engine and transmission mounts are stiffer to better handle the higher torque output. Along with larger brake rotors all around, Hyundai says the calipers are revised to work with the bigger discs and upgraded brake pads. The N Line also has thicker anti-roll bars and features specially tuned dampers and slightly firmer rear springs. Its steering ratio is quicker, too, and the electric motor that assists the steering system is relocated from the column to the rack to improve the feel. The net result is a car that handles really well and drives more cohesively than the regular version. The downside is that the N Line’s ride is considerably stiffer.
Apart from the optional summer tires—which aren’t available on its corporate sibling, the Kia K5 GT—there are virtually no options to distinguish your N Line from your neighbor’s. Selecting the audacious Glowing Yellow paint might be one, especially since it has been dropped for the 2022 model year. Our 2021 example wears no-cost Stormy Sea (deep blue) paint and $169 carpeted floor mats that raise its $34,305 base price to $34,474 as tested. The N Line comes standard with a 12-speaker Bose stereo, a full suite of driver assists, heated front seats, passive entry, a panoramic sunroof, and wireless phone charging. Plus, it has a digital gauge cluster and a 10.3-inch touchscreen infotainment system with built-in navigation, as well as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
So far, we’ve racked up just nearly 7000 miles. Most of that was around our headquarters in southeast Michigan, but we’ve also traveled to the state’s Upper Peninsula and into Ontario, Canada. The N Line has a combined EPA rating of 27 mpg, which is what we’re averaging. The early logbook comments praise the car’s chassis tuning and transmission calibration. However, some staffers have called its interior drab. There are quibbles about the push-button shifter and that the plastic behind the door handles isn’t as nice as the surrounding trim. The driver’s seat height is also unnaturally high, leaving some of our noggins uncomfortably close to the microsuede headliner.
With thousands of miles left to go, we’ll ultimately decide if the sportiest Sonata excites us or exhausts us. And hopefully along the way we’ll also find out if the N Line can inspire this generation the way the Pontiac GTO once did past generations.
Months in Fleet: 3 months Current Mileage: 6969 miles
Average Fuel Economy: 27 mpg
Fuel Tank Size: 15.9 Observed Fuel Range: 420 miles
Service: $0 Normal Wear: $0 Repair:$0
Damage and Destruction: $0
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