For years, the U.S. market has known Hyundai as a brand that makes good road cars and kind of stops there. The company has been safe, like its longer factory warranties and its tendency to focus on what does well rather than what serves a more niche audience. But Hyundai is becoming more daring by the model, and the driving the Sonata N-Line performance trim doesn’t just emphasize that—it screams it from the lungs of the Sonata’s most powerful engine yet.
The upcoming Sonata N-Line, along with the other sportier variants Hyundai’s introduced recently, are further proof of what Hyundai wants to be: a company that not only makes good cars, but one that also makes good cars.
We all know the difference, and it’s a big one.
(Full disclosure: Hyundai provided travel to and lodging in Arizona in order to drive its 2020 Sonata and an N-Line prototype, along with providing a few meals.)
The Sonata N-Line, when it comes around late next year, will be the newest addition to Hyundai’s growing lineup of specialty-oriented models. Since 2015 alone, the company has introduced the separate Genesis luxury brand, which even offers a manual transmission in the G70 sedan despite knowing sales would be meager, along with performance N trims and the mid-grade N-Lines at regular Hyundai—variants that, although new, are good enough to challenge performance trims competitors have made for years. Then, there’s the mid-engine, rear-wheel drive RM19 prototype that’s as loud as it is wild.
The N-Line will also be the top of the Sonata lineup in terms of performance, as Hyundai said at the launch of the 2020 Sonata that it doesn’t plan for the car to go “full N.” (Like Honda’s Si versus Type R, or Ford’s ST versus RS, Hyundai’s N-Line presents the step in the middle between the regular model of a car and the full-on performance trim, the N.)
The N-Line Sonata’s engine will make an estimated 290 horsepower and 310 lb-ft of torque, Hyundai said, and will come with an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. That’ll make it the most powerful Sonata ever, and far more powerful than any other Sonata Hyundai plans to offer—the other two engines on the car make a rated 180 and 191 HP, meaning it’s a huge jump to the N-Line.
The other main details Hyundai gave on the car were that it would come with 19-inch wheels that aren’t available on other Sonatas, while keeping the same front-drive layout. The prototype for the N-Line is still in camouflage, so at least some styling elements are hidden.
The two regular Sonata engines are almost disappointing next to the car’s new, sportier looks, since hitting the gas pedal is met with some groan and not a lot of go. But the N-Line solves that problem and then some, because next to the 180-HP turbo in the Sonata’s top Limited trim, the N-Line is a rocket.
After only a couple of minutes in what Hyundai called an “early production” prototype of the upcoming car, a few things were evident. It’s fast. It’s fun. It feels as sporty as the Sonata looks, whereas the regular Sonata does not. Its torque steer isn’t at all noticeable, despite the front-wheel drive.
The N-Line feels more planted and far more engaged than the normal model, and it lets a driver choose whether they’d like engine noise fed in through the speakers with a menu option rather than making them pull a fuse to get rid of it. Anyone who wants to fake it has a choice between “minimized,” “normal,” or “enhanced” sound, but it honestly sounds best when it’s off.
The N-Line, overall, just feels good. It feels like the Sonata that its new, more daring look was designed for, and it feels like yet another win for Hyundai in its pursuit of being a brand that does more than just make good cars. It feels like a win for Hyundai, a brand that makes good cars.
And we all know the difference.