2021 Toyota Camry SL v Hyundai Sonata N Line comparison


It’s a battle of the mid-size sedans, as a segment mainstay defends its title against a new-generation upstart.

There’s little chance the Toyota Camry needs an introduction. It is synonymous with mainstream, mundane motoring – or at least it was, up until this latest generation.

The Hyundai Sonata, on the other hand, while still a name with some history, has never quite reached Camry-like levels of success.

Now, with the latest-generation Sonata, Hyundai has honed its approach into a single, performance-oriented model loaded with equipment and pitched as a potential alternative to more glamorous Euro medium sedans.

The Camry, meanwhile, moved in the other direction. Performance is off the agenda, but fuel-saving hybrid tech takes its place in the range-topping Camry SL.

Can the flash and flair of the new Sonata unseat the long-term class benchmark?

While it doesn’t need too much introduction, the 2021 Toyota Camry SL is an interesting model. The Camry range is back to being the smallest it’s been for a long time.

There’s a petrol engine available in the base model only, but a hybrid in every other variant. There are four trim levels to choose from, from the fleet-special Ascent, home-buyer Ascent Sport, sporty-skewed SX, and the range-topping SL.

Having just one top-end powertrain to pick from keeps things simple. Whereas once you had the choice of four-cylinder or V6 petrol, or four-cylinder hybrid Camry SLs, now there’s just SL Hybrid, with that one-and-done model priced from $46,990 plus on-road costs.

That gets you a decent haul of equipment too (more on that later) and leaves no options, aside from the colour. A panoramic roof, 18-inch wheels, sports bumpers, rear lip spoiler… The whole lot comes standard.

While it may not be the first name you think of when it comes to a mid-size family sedan, the Hyundai Sonata probably deserves a spot on your shopping list.

With something of a semi-premium pitch, the new Sonata isn’t messing around when it comes to features and equipment. Or powertrain, for that matter, but I’ll get to that.

Without a cut-price entry model to entice buyers in, just one flagship model flies the Sonata flag. N Line trim aims to blend some aggressive visual cues with a more dynamic handling package – something you can live with Monday to Friday and enjoy on weekends.

With a starting price of $50,990, the Sonata kicks off with a slightly higher price than the Camry SL, but like its competitor it takes the all-in sports luxury equipment approach, with details like daytime running lights inset in the chrome bonnet mouldings, 19-inch alloy wheels, gloss-black mirrors, spoiler and side sills, and a panoramic sunroof.

Key details 2021 Toyota Camry SL Hybrid 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line
Price (MSRP) $46,990 plus on-road costs $50,990 plus on-road costs
Colour of test car Blacksmith Bronze Flame Red
Options Metallic paint – $575 Metallic paint – $595
Price as tested $52,328 drive-away (Melbourne) $56,367 drive-away (Melbourne)

Toyota’s approach to sensible functionality is hard to argue with. Jump into a Camry and before your first day in your new car is out, you’ll have mastered all the key controls.

Standard equipment includes keyless entry and push-button start, leather seat trim, heated and ventilated front seats, powered front seats with two-position driver’s memory including the electrically adjustable steering column, auto lights and wipers, and auto up/down windows on all doors.

Climate control is a two-zone system, with vents (but not controls) for the rear seats.

There’s something rather sofa-like about the Camry’s front seats, as you slide in easily. And while there’s not a heap of side support, getting comfy is about as easy as it gets. Unfortunately, there’s also a feeling that you sit atop, rather than in, the Camry’s seats, which are just a touch too high and flat.

While there is a super-clear head-up display, in the spirit of legibility the info displayed is comically oversized. Camera-based speed-sign recognition is a very welcome feature, though.

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In the rear seats, passengers get more than enough room to spread out and get comfy, but tall occupants won’t love the available headroom. Blame the panoramic roof, which eats into headspace significantly at the rear.

Conversely, shorter travellers might find the seat bases a little too long. For my 169cm height, the rear of a Camry offers stacks of legroom, but I need to scootch forward just a little to keep the seat base from jutting into my legs.

Boot space in the Camry measures 524L, with a 60:40 folding rear seat to provide additional space when needed. The Camry’s boot is manually opened and closed, and released either from the key fob, button on the boot, or from inside the car.

Hyundai has rolled the sporty exterior styling into the interior, with nappa leather and suede seating surfaces wrapping nicely shaped and sculpted seats, and a sprinkling of red contrast stitching. Nothing too heavy-handed, though.

Standard equipment includes keyless entry and push-button start, heated and ventilated front seats, heated rear seats (outboard), electrically adjustable front seats with two-position driver’s memory (but manual steering adjust), auto lights and wipers, and auto up/down windows for the front doors only.

Climate control is a two-zone system, with vents (but not controls) for the rear seats. A climate concierge function allows you to link the seat heating and cooling, and heated steering wheel, to the climate system to allow hands-free all-climate comfort in extreme weather.

The Sonata also offers a powered rear windscreen and manual rear door sun blinds to help keep sun intrusion to a minimum.

There’s a well-tailored feel to the Sonata’s front seats. Plenty of adjustment and some extra downward travel mean drivers of all shapes and sizes can set up where they like. While the N Line seats are a bit more shapely, they’re not aggressively firm or grippy, just secure.

Hyundai’s head-up display delivers clear and concise info but without the Camry’s plus-sized character sizing. There’s not as much to see, with speed zone alert in the cluster, not the HUD, but blind-zone alerts in the driver’s line of sight. That speed info is also navigation-based (stored by the car, not camera-based) and is notoriously out of date on most roads in and around Melbourne.

While it looks swoopy and almost coupe-like from the outside, the rear of the Sonata offers easy access and prodigious legroom. The rear blinds add a layer of comfort for long-haul travel, and the seat is sized and angled just right for everyone from the very short to the very tall.

Some members of the Drive team stop the tape at 194cm and were still able to stretch out in the rear. While the Sonata packs in a sunroof too, its mechanism did less damage to headroom and kept those tall occupants away from the headlining, just.

The Sonata’s boot is generous, but not quite as big as the Camry, with a claimed 510L, and a 60:40 folding rear seat to provide additional space when needed. There’s no power boot here either, and annoyingly no grab handle to help close it. But along with release options on the key fob, button on the boot (hidden with the H badge), or from inside the car, the Sonata also lets you pause at the rear of the car for a few seconds to auto-pop the boot with the key in your pocket.

2021 Toyota Camry SL Hybrid 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line
Seats Five Five
Boot volume 524L 510L
Length 4905mm 4900mm
Width 1840mm 1860mm
Height 1445mm 1445mm
Wheelbase 2825mm 2840mm

Infotainment and Connectivity

Upgrades for the 2021 model year saw the Camry infotainment screen moved up slightly and the air-con vents moved down. It’s a better solution and makes the 9.0-inch touchscreen easier to glance at.

The infotainment system itself comes loaded with satellite navigation, AM/FM/DAB+ radio, Bluetooth and access to Toyota Connected Services via an inbuilt 4G mobile network connection.

It’s also possible to link your car to your phone via a Toyota Connected app and check on things like fuel level, odometer and vehicle location. From inside the car there’s both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity via wired connections.

Toyota’s a little more skimpy when it comes to USB points. There’s just one in the front of the cabin and two at the rear, all USB-A. There’s also a 12-volt barrel plug up front, but whereas older Camrys had a wireless charge tray, the new model goes without.

The infotainment system pairs with a 7.0-inch part-digital instrument display nestled between analogue gauges. Audio is via a nine-speaker JBL-branded audio system, which sounds decent but doesn’t push any significant volume.

Hyundai might be moving towards a Benz-style slab of display space in its newest models, but the Sonata sticks with a slightly more traditional dual-screen layout.

At the top of the dash sits a 10.25-inch touchscreen panel, with bright colours and rich contrast, making the Camry’s washed-out display look pretty ordinary. Standard satellite navigation, AM/FM/DAB+ radio, and Bluetooth are included, as are Hyundai’s ‘sounds of nature’ relaxing ambient noise files.

Hyundai includes wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto but doesn’t feature any live or connected services. As some compensation, there’s a punchy, crisp, and clear 12-speaker Bose audio system 

The Sonata comes with a wireless charge pad, 12-volt barrel plug and two USB-A points up front, but just one USB-A in the rear.

The Camry range carries a five-star safety rating back from 2017, which continues with the 2021 update. All models in the range feature Toyota’s Safety Sense package, which includes lane-departure alert with lane centring, forward collision warning and autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, automatic high beams, adaptive cruise control and road sign recognition.

All Camry models come with seven airbags, two ISOFIX and three top tether points, and a reverse camera, while the Camry SL also includes blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, front and rear park sensors, and surround-view parking cameras.

The current-generation Sonata is currently untested by ANCAP. Under the title Hyundai SmartSense, the Sonata includes lane-departure warning with lane keep and road edge detection, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection and junction intervention, lead vehicle departure alert, rear cross-traffic alert and avoidance assist, and safe exit assist.

The interior carries six airbags, two rear ISOFIX and three top-tether child seat mounts. Also included are a 360-degree parking camera, blind-spot monitoring, and blind-view cameras, driver attention monitoring, high-beam assist, manual speed-limit assist, and adaptive cruise control.

At a glance 2021 Toyota Camry SL Hybrid 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line
ANCAP rating & year tested Five stars (tested in 2017) Not yet tested
Safety report Link to ANCAP N/A

There’s no doubt Toyota takes the lead in price outright, undercutting the Sonata slightly, but you need to take those savings with slightly less equipment and a much less powerful drivetrain.

On the flipside, running costs should also be low. Claimed fuel consumption is just 4.7 litres per 100 kilometres, and the absolute worst we could get out of the hybrid Camry was a 6.1L/100km reading, with a final average of 5.4L/100km.

Toyota’s capped-price service plans also impress, with the first five services (at 12 months or 15,000km intervals) costing $220 each, or $1100 all up.

Warranty coverage is a standard five years, with no distance cap for privately owned vehicles. The hybrid battery has an available warranty of up to 10 years with an annual ‘hybrid health check’, and the engine and driveline are covered by a seven-year warranty when serviced on time according to Toyota’s service schedule.

The Sonata’s higher buy-in price is offset somewhat by a greater performance potential and some extra equipment trinkets. There’s more than just window dressing at play here too, with the Sonata N Line borrowing a trick or two from the i30 N.

Claimed consumption is, naturally, higher than the hybrid Camry’s at 8.1L/100km, but on test this sat higher, finishing at 10.2L/100km after a week of urban commuting plus a country road run out of town.

Capped-price servicing is a touch more expensive, and potentially more frequent, for the Sonata. Intervals are 12 months or 10,000km, and the first five visits are $350 each, or a total of $1750. Unlike the Camry, which asks for a diet of 95-octane premium petrol, the Sonata is rated to run on 91-octane regular unleaded.

Hyundai offers the Sonata with a five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty.

At a glance 2021 Toyota Camry SL Hybrid 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line
Warranty Five years / unlimited km Five years / unlimited km
Service intervals 12 months / 15,000km 12 months / 10,000km
Servicing costs $660 (3 years) / $1100 (5 years) $1050 (3 years) / $1750 (5 years)
Fuel cons. (claimed) 4.7L/100km 8.1L/100km
Fuel cons. (on test) 5.4L/100km 10.2L/100km
Fuel type 95-octane petrol 91-octane petrol
Fuel tank size 50L 60L

If driving a car were akin to a human interaction, the Camry SL is basically a hug from mum. It’s soft, quiet, comfortable and reassuring.

The electric half of the hybrid powertrain means the petrol engine doesn’t need to work too hard in general commuting. Pull up at the lights and the engine stops, accelerate away and the electric motor starts first. It’s all very sophisticated.

The 2.5-litre non-turbo petrol engine produces 131kW at 5700rpm and 221Nm at 3600-5200rpm, while the electric motor can provide 88kW and 202Nm. Combined power is rated at 160kW.

Clever powertrain management means the CVT automatic is able to use one or both systems to power the car, and you’ll never really know what’s going on. It’s all very smooth, responsive and requires no driver input.

You can lean on the car to perform and it does a decent job of winding on pace in a hurry, but at best it’s swift rather than outright rapid. The engine can start to buzz when pushed, and the CVT automatic, which is commendably smooth, isn’t a willing performance participant.

Handling is stable and predictable, but the Camry feels very soft. It’s an absolutely lovely thing to run over rough-shod rural roads, swallowing up imperfections and disguising jitters and lumps from patchy tarmac.

It’s also very relaxed on the open road. Quiet with little in the way of road or wind noise.

The brakes, which switch from harvesting energy under light pedal pressure to friction braking with more pedal pressure, have a nice consistent feel, but are always a little on the soft side. Again, great for passenger comfort, but sometimes not as responsive as the driver might like.

The Camry works well with its driver-assist function, although lane centring – with two modes – can feel a little too twitchy when set to maximum, and a little underwhelming in its less aggressive mode, just needing something in between.

There’s an instant and obvious athleticism to the way the Sonata drives. It’s not an unforgiving or unrelenting sports car, but it certainly feels fitter than the Camry.

There’s more of an instant rush from the 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol engine, and the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic feels more responsive under pressure, without compromising low-speed, around-town flexibility.

Some of that N DNA can be found in things like N Power Shift, a transmission shift map that keeps the throttle partially open under heavy acceleration for a more urgent feel, sacrificing a little refinement in the process.

You can also set the augmented exhaust sound as you’d like it, and while I’m normally not a fan, in the Sonata’s case, having it on its softest setting actually seems to fit well. Having it off leaves the car a little too quiet, or turning it all the way up is a little too obnoxious.

Tip into a corner and the front wheels deliver more info to the driver, there’s more weight to the steering, and quicker and more accurate responses.

The suspension isn’t wafty in the way the Camry is, so that means on rural roads you feel more of the bumps and vibrations from the road surface. While you wouldn’t call it stiff or uncomfortable ever, it’s not as cushioned.

Point it at a winding road and the planted stance and impressive grip really cement the Sonata as the sports car of this pair. While it is a little more taut, on long freeway runs it remains comfortable and you can emerge from long stints behind the wheel feeling relaxed.

With driver-assist functions in action, the Sonata feels a bit more mature, but things like lane assist aren’t always as confident in negotiating tighter-radius bends and require a little more human intervention.

Key details 2021 Toyota Camry SL Hybrid 2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line
Engine 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol-electric hybrid 2.5-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol
Power 131kW @ 5700rpm (petrol) + 29kW (electric), 160kW combined 213kW @ 5800rpm
Torque 221Nm @ 3600-5200rpm (petrol), 202Nm (electric) 422Nm @ 4000rpm
Drive type Front-wheel drive Front-wheel drive
Transmission CVT automatic Eight-speed dual-clutch automatic
Power to weight ratio 96.7kW/t 130.2kW/t
Weight 1655kg 1636kg
Tow rating 400kg braked, 400kg unbraked 1400kg braked, 700kg unbraked
Turning circle 12.4m 11.0m

Ultimately, these two unassuming mid-size sedans will appeal to slightly different audiences.

With a fresh outlook on the segment, the sporty Sonata N Line actually does a convincing job of stepping in as the driver’s choice. It’s not a market the Sonata has traditionally gone after, but with Hyundai’s N division keen to turn everything it touches to gold, all the right ingredients are there.

It also balances the ledger with impressive space, liveable comfort, and a very plump standard equipment list. While there’s no fleet-focussed base model to drive sales volume, that’s perhaps not such a bad thing.

There is a list of solid reasons for the Camry’s success, however. It is a benchmark for ride comfort, serenity and efficiency.

There are some blemishes – like the headroom-robbing sunroof – but for the bulk of buyers it will work effectively, and is encouragingly cheap to run and service.

It might lack a toy or two compared to the Sonata, but in top-spec SL guise it offers an impressive amount of equipment, drives better than any Camry before it, and – in the reality of sitting in gluggy, slow-moving urban traffic – is a happy companion.

The Camry also has the right suppleness and comfort to make the great Aussie road trip a magic carpet ride. Even if that does mean it lacks the verve and enthusiasm of the more finely honed Sonata.

Close though they may be, and both very impressive, the Toyota Camry SL pips the Hyundai Sonata at the post. Not sharper, but certainly a more rounded all-rounder.

Overall Ratings

Drive’s Pick

2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan

8.4/ 10

2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan

8.2/ 10

Ratings Breakdown

2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan
Ride Quality
2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan
Handling & Dynamics
2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan
Driver Technology
2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan
Interior Comfort + Packaging
2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan
2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan
Infotainment & Connectivity
2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan
Fuel Efficiency
2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan
2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan
Fit for Purpose
2021 Toyota Camry SL Sedan
2021 Hyundai Sonata N Line Sedan

Kez Casey migrated from behind spare parts counters to writing about cars over ten years ago. Raised by a family of automotive workers, Kez grew up in workshops and panel shops before making the switch to reviews and road tests for The Motor Report, Drive and CarAdvice.

Read more about Kez Casey