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First Drive: Hyundai Sonata N-Line adds mojo

Eighth-gen Hyundai Sonata arrives in N-Line guise with high-power turbo for $50,990

3 Jun 2021

LOOKING back through eight generations of Hyundai Sonata is like watching an awkward kid slowly come of age. 


You knew, deep down, there was potential lurking there but until something clicked, maturity was never going to happen. 


That lightbulb moment for Sonata was to simply stop being boring. In previous years, even when Hyundai got the exterior right, the interior wasn’t on the same page.


In the case of the previous seventh-gen model, the (locally tuned) ride and handling was spoiled by a rental-car ambience and one of the worst facelifts (in mid-2017) ever foisted on a car.


So it must be a huge relief for every market the Sonata competes in that this eighth-generation model finally has some sass, and for Australia, that personality shines even brighter because we’re only getting the range-topping N-Line.


Featuring an all-new 2.5-litre direct-injected and turbocharged ‘Smartstream-G’ four-cylinder tied to Hyundai’s classy eight-speed ‘wet’ dual-clutch transmission (DCT) from the updated i30 N, our 213kW/422Nm Sonata powerhouse shirtfronts the notion that Hyundai’s medium sedan is a snoozer.


It features a global sports suspension set-up with fixed-rate monotube dampers, which when brought here for evaluation, passed with flying colours. 


According to Hyundai Motor Company Australia (HMCA) general manager product planningAndrew Tuitahi, the local arm is “incredibly happy with the tune … out of the box it was fantastic.”


Even though Australia’s sedan market share has fallen from 23 per cent in 2011 to just seven per cent in 2020, Hyundai believes the Sonata N-Line will appeal to all demographics since more than half of that modest percentage are private buyers.


Indeed, after revealing the new Sonata N-Line early to dealers, HMCA was forced to stage a delayed release after admitting it under-called the volume required to satisfy interest in the car.  


While the DN8 Sonata generation debuted globally in March/April 2019, the N-Line variation only appeared last September and garnishes its newfound performance with a unique body treatment (N-Line front bumper, side skirts, black mirror caps and roof, and diffuser-style N-Line rear bumper with four exhaust outlets), 19-inch alloys with 245/40R19 Continental Premium Contact 6 tyres, and striking lighting signatures.


At the front, the chrome line that extends from the lower side window outline to the LED headlights seamlessly becomes the LED daytime running lights two-thirds of the way down the bonnet. 


And at the rear, a red LED band curls from the outer edge of the bootlid into the C-shaped tail-lights and then horizontally across the boot fascia.  


Supporting this on-trend lighting technology is an extensive list of standard equipment, with the only option being which colour to choose – White Cream mica, or for $595 extra, Hampton Grey metallic, Flame Red metallic or Phantom Black mica.


Inside, Sonata N-Line features perforated suede and Nappa leather upholstery with three-setting front seat heating and cooling, as well as a heated steering wheel, heated outboard rear positions, dual-zone climate control and rear air vents.


The driver gets 12-way electric seat adjustment with two-position memory (but only four-way electric for the front passenger), a head-up display (HUD), 12.3-inch ‘Supervision’ LCD instrument cluster with integrated blind-spot-view monitor, shift-by-wire push-button transmission selector, paddle shifters, four drive modes (Normal, Sport, Sport+ and Custom), launch control and personalised driver profiles (combining seat, mirror, HUD, ventilation and even radio settings into one).


Other equipment highlights include keyless entry/start, auto-fold mirrors, hands-free boot opening, a dual-pane panoramic glass sunroof with electric blind, rear door sunshades, electric rear window shade, wireless phone charging, 10.25-inch touchscreen with DAB+ and (wired) Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, embedded sat-nav and a 12-speaker Bose surround-sound audio system.


The Sonata’s safety suite meanwhile includes adaptive cruise with stop/go, active blind-spot collision avoidance, rear cross-traffic collision avoidance assist, driver attention warning, lane-keep assist, safe-exit assist, forward collision-avoidance and junction-turning assist, a surround-view monitor and parking sensors at both ends.  

In comparison to the rather odd proportion of the outgoing Sonata, approaching the all-new eighth-gen model for the first time feels like walking up to a classy coupe-sedan.


Not only is the new Sonata far more appealing to look at, it has a much more athletic stance on the road – in particular our solitary N-Line model wearing 19-inch wheels –and the driving experience goes a long way towards justifying that first impression.


Riding on a development of the N3 platform shared with Santa Fe and new Tucson, our Sonata N-Line with a sports suspension tune built around fixed-rate monotube dampers is hardly rental-car fodder. 


It’s all about being a responsive, fast-paced grand tourer that also happens to enjoy tackling tighter corners.


At those disciplines, the Sonata N-Line is impressively strong. It has great balance at higher speeds – resting confidently on its outside-rear Continental while resisting body roll and pointing with keen precision.


It feels stronger and more solid than an i30 Sedan N-Line, and displays unexpected fluency in its dynamic behaviour while its steering, which can feel quite meaty around town, finds a sweet spot as velocity increases.


About the only area where it struggles is low-speed ride. There’s nothing too jarring about it, but it clearly favours tight handling and taut body control over urban suppleness.


The other is traction out of tight corners. Channelling 213kW and a chubby 422Nm (from 1650-4000rpm) through an eight-speed transmission to the front wheels is no easy feat, and requires old-school restraint to prevent the inside tyre from going berserk when you’re pushing hard.


Admittedly that’s with traction-control off (but ESC still engaged) to stop the boosted Sonata from bogging down, though there’s surely something to be said for gifting this gregarious sedan the differential smarts it deserves.


On a straight road, it’s no problem – feel that 6.2-second-to-100km/h thrust and relish the speed of its dual-clutch upshifts – but on a really twisty one, it takes patience and skill to extract the best from the Sonata’s front boots.


The engine itself is a smooth, strong, seamless delight … providing you have the switchable ‘Active Sound Design’ muted. 


Its artificial whirring is an unpleasant waste of valuable R&D expense, yet the irony is its very existence detracts from the expense of the car.


Perhaps the push-button ‘drive-by-wire’ transmission selector falls into the same category, though the eight-speed DCT does a mostly polished job of making the Sonata N-Line feel performance-car-like while its impressive driving position, seat support and trim quality all point to a sizeable chunk of value-for-money in its $51K sticker.


Yet its cabin isn’t to the same standard of cohesion as other recent Hyundais. As an exercise in interesting design with acceptable four-person room and a comparable 510-litre boot, it’s terrific, but as a knockabout family sedan there are some loose ends.


The door pockets are undersized, with tiny bottle holders, the centre-rear seat offers marginal headroom (and comfort) for anyone near 175cm, and the angled climate-control screen in the centre stack is sometimes difficult to read and looks cheap compared to the classy HVAC in a Mazda6. 


A head-up display in need of a spirit level (it’s oddly tilted) is also undeserving in a car of this calibre. 


At least its latest-generation touchscreen/multimedia looks and works beautifully – in particular the very hipster ‘valve radio’ graphic – and a dozen Bose speakers positioned thoughtfully throughout the Sonata’s cabin do a splendid job of creating immersive music.


In the end, while the Sonata N-Line isn’t as consistent as it could be, nor is it a genuine all-rounder, it has a flavour that’s been sorely lacking in every medium-size Hyundai since the dawn of time (which in Sonata’s case was 1985).


It won’t be a high-volume model, but as a striking flagship for an increasingly accomplished line-up, it offers an interesting and involving antidote for boredom.


With previous-model stock exhausted during its last full year on sale, Hyundai sold just 71 Sonatas in Australia in 2020, compared to 836 units the previous year and 1024 units in 2018.


The best sales the Sonata nameplate has managed here since replacing the i45 (discontinued in 2014) is 1676 units in 2016.

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