Hyundai Sonata and Elantra N Line are fast, furious ‘n’ ’ffordable

The Elantra N Line is new to Hyundai family. The driving experience is enhanced for N Line performance with new suspension and steering tuning, revised powertrain mounts and summer tires. Additionally, Elantra N Line’s multi-link independent rear suspension, larger front brake rotors and summer tires make it a corner rascal, Hyundai says. Hyundai photo
The Elantra N Line is new to Hyundai family. The driving experience is enhanced for N Line performance with new suspension and steering tuning, revised powertrain mounts and summer tires. Additionally, Elantra N Line’s multi-link independent rear suspension, larger front brake rotors and summer tires make it a corner rascal, Hyundai says. Hyundai photo

Credit: David Dewhurst Photography

Credit: David Dewhurst Photography

Good news, enthusiasts. The Performance Club has taken new members. Everyone raise their glass to the Hyundai N Line.

Performance car trims are some of the most enjoyable fillies in the automotive stable. Born as regular autos, they are bred with steroids and big engines to believe they can do battle with sports cars. Thank the original 1984 Volkswagen Golf GTI and Honda Civic Si for this gift to autodom.

Over the years the club has delighted in paradoxes like the wee Ford Fiesta ST attacking Ford Mustangs out of stoplights. Or Honda Civic Type Rs hounding Porsches through the twisties. They’re fast, furious ‘n’ ‘ffordable.

Meet Hyundai’s new club entries: the terrific Elantra N Line and Sonata N Line. Hyundai? Really?

The Korean brand has been intent on beating Toyota Motor Corp. at its own game (the Koreans and Japanese have, um, history, you know) as a maker of dependable, value vehicles for the everyman. Want a dependable, luxury value like Lexus? Hyundai’s Genesis brand has that covered, too. Hyundai’s sister brand, Kia, seemed the wild child of the family with its ferocious Kia “Baby Audi A7” Stinger and rad Kia “Hamster Rapper” Soul Turbo.

Move over, Kia. Big brother’s got game.

Based on the 2020 Sonata’s new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the 2021 Sonata N Line version adds a turbocharger, a different cylinder head, and unique internals. These changes put the horsepower at 290 at 5800 RPM and the torque at 311 lbs.-ft. at 1650-4000 RPM. Hyundai photo
Based on the 2020 Sonata’s new 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the 2021 Sonata N Line version adds a turbocharger, a different cylinder head, and unique internals. These changes put the horsepower at 290 at 5800 RPM and the torque at 311 lbs.-ft. at 1650-4000 RPM. Hyundai photo

Credit: David Dewhurst Photography

Credit: David Dewhurst Photography

I’m a pocket rocket fanatic (my first car was a Golf GTI and I have a 2006 Civic Si in my driveway) and I’ll have plenty to say about Elantra N Line in a moment — but the Sonata N Line is the real breakthrough here.

We had a hint an N Line lineup was coming when Hyundai’s three-door Veloster hatchback suddenly grew horns — and an N badge — in 2019. But applying the badge to a mid-size sedan? That’s a welcome twist. I still pine for the Ford Fusion Sport and its 325-horse turbo V-6 that — like the rest of Ford’s rowdy litter of performance cars — was sacrificed to the SUV revolution. With all-wheel drive, it rocketed to 60 mph in just 5.3 seconds.

The Toyota Camry offers the wicked-looking TRD trim, complete with throaty, 301-horse V-6 engine common to other Camrys. The Sonata’s 290-horse, 311-torque, 2.5-liter turbo-4, on the other hand, is an N Line special. And it’s special.

So special that Hyundai programmed it with launch control, which I eagerly applied in the California canyons. Mat the brake. Mat throttle. Wait for revs to level at 3000 RPM. Release brake.

The Sonata surged forward on a wave of torque, the smooth, 8-speed dual-clutch box throwing off gears. The torque curve is so fat that corners approach in a hurry, but the big car is prepared. Bigger brake rotors, suspension bushings, summer tires, the works.

The car gripped beautifully through switchbacks, though Sonata could benefit from the ol’ Fusion’s all-wheel drive as the torque sometimes overwhelmed the front tires with wheel spin. But who’s complaining? As one who was dissatisfied with the Sonata’s ho-hum base engine offerings, the 2.5-liter turbo-4 is a welcome addition to a platform dripping with design, tech and value.

Under a panoramic roof, the roomy interior is state-of-the-art. Digital screens stretch across the dash infused with cool tech features like Digital Key so you can interact with the Sonata entirely with a phone in your pocket (look ma, no key). Like Camry TRD, the N Line adds aggressive exterior styling to differentiate it from other models. But N Line’s true peers in this segment are the 250-horse Mazda 6 and 252-horse Accord Sport — cars that don’t get performance badges but offer dreamy handling.

True to performance trim tradition, I found myself picking on bigger game. I hounded a 600-horse, $150,000 Mercedes-AMG S 63 across Sunset Boulevard’s roller-coaster terrain, the lighter Sonata snapping at the big Merc’s heels.

Lighter still is the Elantra which, like the Sonata, got a major makeover this year. The pair are two of the sexiest new sedans on the market. So it’s only fitting they should get moves to fit their hot bods.

The 2021 North American Car of the Year Elantra looks like something Lamborghini might have designed, if it made $20,000 compact cars. The Hyundai is rich with sharp angles and slashed body work. Somehow it makes a cohesive whole — and, unlike a Lambo, you can see out of it.

Stuff Elantra N Line with a 201-horse, 2.0-liter turbo-4 and manual transmission (an automatic, yawn, is available, too) and I wrung its neck all over north LA’s twisted canyons.

If a 200-horse compact sounds familiar, you’d be right. The Elantra N Line is aimed squarely at the 205-horsepower Civic Si, Honda’s two- or four-door hellion that (along with VW GTI) is the gold standard for pocket rockets. It’s part of Hyundai’s ambitious strategy to take on King Civic and its lineup of capable compacts. In addition to the N Line hottie, Hyundai plans to go after Honda’s $38,450 Type-R with a range-topping, Elantra N stuffed with a 2.5-liter turbo-4 making 276 ponies and 310 lbs.-ft. of torque. Oh, it’s on.

Nürburgring-tested Civic is a formidable adversary, and I lament that more Ford products that used to excel in this segment (Focus ST and RS) are no longer available. Filling the void, Elantra is making all the right moves — N stands for Nürburgring, where the N Line cars have been extensively tested. And Hyundai has been pushing the envelope by racing its Veloster hatch head-to-head against the Civic Si in IMSA’s Michelin Pilot Challenge (dominating the championship in 2020).

That commitment will be needed to hang with Honda. My last ride in a 2020 Civic Si was at Circuit of the Americas Formula One track last year, for goodness sake, where it excelled on one of the world’s most formidable race tracks.

The Elantra N Line shies from the Si’s performance benchmark by not offering a limited slip differential or magnetic shocks. The interior, too, is tentative in places such as an orphaned screen extension to the driver’s left.

But the Elantra is built on solid bones, and its manual shifter is superb. Coupled with tightly spaced pedals for heel-and-toe shifting, I found the Elantra easy to row hard through California’s hills. That inherent goodness will also serve well the Civic Type R-fighting Elantra N model that combines the torquey engine found in the Sonata N Line with the more nimble Elantra chassis.

It’s a solid one-two punch that will get tested immediately. The all-new, 2021 Honda Civic hits the market in mid-2021 with Si and Type R variants to follow.

This is one competitive club.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.

2021 HYUNDAI ELANTRA N LINE

  • Vehicle type: Front-wheel-drive, 4-door, 5-passenger sedan
  • Price: $25,105, including $1,005 destination charge
  • Powerplant: 1.6-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder
  • Power: 201 HP, 195 lbs.-ft. of torque
  • Transmission: 6-speed manual, 7-speed, dual-clutch automatic
  • Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.5 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 125 mph
  • Weight: 2,954 pounds (manual as tested)
  • Fuel economy: EPA 25 mpg city/34 highway/28 combined (manual); 28 mpg city/36 highway/31 combined (auto)

Report card

  • Highs: Daring looks; upscale interior
  • Lows: Incomplete dash display; no limited slip
  • Overall: 3 stars

2021 HYUNDAI SONATA N LINE

  • Vehicle type: Front-wheel-drive, 4-door, 5-passenger sedan
  • Price: $34,305, including $1,005 destination charge
  • Powerplant: 2.5-liter, turbocharged 4-cylinder
  • Power: 290 HP, 311 lbs.-ft. of torque
  • Transmission: 8-speed, dual-clutch automatic
  • Performance: 0-60 mph, 5.0 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 155 mph
  • Weight: 3,552 pounds
  • Fuel economy: EPA 23 mpg city/33 highway/27 combined

Report card

  • Highs: Fun, practical mid-size sedan; state-of-the-art interior
  • Lows: All-wheel drive option, please
  • Overall: 4 stars

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