A 290-HP Family Sedan With German Roots?
Cars require untold numbers of engineers to go from paper to sheet metal, so it always seems unfair to lay the success or failure of one at the foot of just one of them. That’s the nature of leadership, though. You take the win or the loss. Albert Biermann didn’t personally choose the parts and calibrations that make the 2020 Hyundai Sonata N Line drive like it does, but his philosophy has been so faithfully executed in the way it drives that it’s impossible not to recognize his influence.
Biermann, as it has been extensively reported, is a veteran of BMW. Before his hiring at Hyundai, it would have been hyperbole to compare the way a Sonata drives to a BMW because that wasn’t what Hyundai was going for, but now, things are different. Now, the new Sonata has a distinctly Germanic feel, and the new N Line performance trim especially so.
Patterned after German automakers’ strategies, N Line is a street grade performance trim rather than a full boat track package. Those are branded just “N,” and the Sonata isn’t slated for one of those models. Instead, the N Line trim packages a bigger, stouter engine, dual-clutch transmission, larger brake rotors with performance pads, and stiffer suspension bushings and dampers.
In this case, it’s a new turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder making about 290 horsepower and 310 lb-ft (subject to final calibration). It’s effectively a turbocharged version of the Sonata’s new base 2.5-liter Smartstream I-4 and will show up soon in other products from the Hyundai family of brands. Backing it up is a new eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission (DCT)—not related to the base car’s new eight-speed automatic or Hyundai’s existing seven-speed dual clutch.
This is good because the seven-speed has long had issues engaging its clutches smoothly at low speeds, and even in this prototype, the new eight-speed DCT has no such issue. Even when loafing around town, it engages smoothly enough to be mistaken for a more common torque converter automatic and shifts up and down smoothly and quickly.
An engineer riding along tells us the calibration isn’t finished, and features like launch control and automatic rev matching aren’t installed, but even driven hard it’s difficult to tell anything is missing. Slotted into its most aggressive Sport Plus driving mode, the transmission selects gears smartly enough to make the steering wheel paddles superfluous. If you choose to use them anyway, they respond immediately. As of right now, there’s no way to lock the transmission in manual mode (it’ll revert to automatic if you haven’t used a paddle in a while), and it’ll automatically upshift at redline, but that’s subject to change.
The transmission’s cleverness pairs particularly well with this engine, whose power delivery is decidedly nonlinear. It starts out linear, rising gently from idle to 3,000 rpm and providing ample torque for getting you through your commute. From 3,000 to 5,000, though, it takes off like a rocket with a fat surge of power that makes the car feel quicker than it likely is. A rough stopwatch test suggests the N Line will hit 60 mph in 6.0-6.5 seconds, roughly two seconds sooner than a standard Sonata with the optional turbocharged 1.6-liter engine.
The transmission essentially bifurcates these two behaviors, so you get either normal driving behavior or big power but don’t feel the transition as the turbo spools up. Drive lightly, and the car responds in kind, but put your foot down and you get all of it. Knowing what the car has in it, Normal mode can feel just a tad lazy if you like sporty driving, but you can coax it with a heavy right foot. Sport mode is a tad aggressive for driving around town, but if you want that sport sedan feel, it’s just right. Sport Plus is back road stuff, for when you really want to enjoy the ride.
Similarly, the new brake tune is just a tad aggressive in city driving. The initial bite is about perfect, but as you get about halfway into the pedal’s travel, the braking power suddenly increases and you have to be a little careful not to jerk your passengers around at a stop. Hyundai tells us the final brake pad compound is still being decided, so this, too, is subject to change. Perhaps the final formula won’t smell quite as much after a bit of hard driving, either.
The engineers might also change the damping a little, but it doesn’t need much. The firmness is commensurate with a sport sedan and really only makes itself known on patchy pavement. It means every sealed crack in the road is felt in the cabin, almost as if the wheels are really heavy and the suspension is filtering as much as it can. It’s completely forgivable, though, because of the handling it gives you.
In the best Germanic tradition, the Sonata N Line feels exceptionally planted at high speed. The car sinks down into the road like the best sports sedans and isn’t fazed at all by bumps and jolts. On the highway, it makes you want to set the cruise control at triple-digit speeds and just cruise, carefree. On a winding road, you barely brake for long sweepers as the car remains totally composed. Tighter turns encourage you to push the car a bit and put a smile on your face in a way you don’t expect a mainstream midsize family sedan to.
So well behaved was this car, we often forget it was even a prototype, at least until we noticed the odd looks from other drivers confused by the camouflage wrap. Hyundai says there’s still work to be done, but it doesn’t feel like there’s much left to do from behind the wheel. However much it is, we’ll get the final product in the fall as a 2021 model, likely in the range of $30,000 to start.