2020 Hyundai Sonata first drive review: Striking style, Tesla-like tech
Stacked with bold style and class-leading tech, Hyundai muscles back to the front ranks of the midsize sedan race.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
A "Dynamic Lasso made from chromic strip" sounds like an ass-kicking weapon designed to hang from Gal Godot's waist in the next superhero blockbuster from DC Comics. Instead, it's the defining design feature of the 2020 Hyundai Sonata.
Ask any of the stylish men and women who beaver away at automakers' CAD workstations, and they'll tell you: The essence of a successful car design can be expressed in a couple of simple lines or "gestures." That's true, but rarely do those lines end up playing as visible and central a role in defining the look of production car as they do in this Alabama-born, Korean-badged family sedan.
I'm referring, of course, to the prominent bands of chrome that encircle the Sonata's side glass (daylight opening, or "DLO" in designer speak), only to plunge down either side of the hood, where these ribbons abruptly kink outwards at the nose to underline each headlamp. That metallic trim element, which Hyundai designers have christened "Dynamic Lasso," hides an important secret: Much of it is transparent when backlit. When the Sonata's daytime running lamps are switched on, that chromic strip illuminates from the LED headlamps' outer reaches, forming an unusual inverse-checkmark pattern that extends halfway up the hood. It's a look that won't be for everyone, but day or night, it's a striking, unexpected touch ensuring Sonata won't be mistaken for its rivals.
Stretching just beyond the yawning shadows of Hyundai's gigantic, 2-million-square-foot assembly plant, the immaculately paved, rolling hills outside of Montgomery reveal that this new Sonata's boldness isn't superficial. On the contrary, it's in the marrow of this midsize sedan's bones, on ready display in this car's countless cutting-edge features. The 2020 Hyundai Sonata isn't perfect, but if you want the latest high-tech goodies and you don't have the budget (or the desire) to go for an electric sedan from Elon Musk and Co., well, friend, step right this way.
2020 Hyundai Sonata delivers high-tech, high-style family motoring
Codenamed "DN8," the 2020 Sonata is the first model to be based on Hyundai's third-generation platform, a modular architecture set to underpin numerous vehicles spanning different segments. Longer and lower than its far-more-conservative predecessor, the new car rides atop a longer, 111.8-inch wheelbase and features a shorter front overhang and a dramatically tapered roofline that lends the profile a fastback, four-door-coupe-like design. In fact, the rear glass is raked sufficiently that you could be forgiven for thinking it forms a hatchback, like a cut-price Volkswagen Arteon. However, the Sonata is actually a traditional three-box sedan.
When it hits US dealers in December, the Sonata will be offered with a pair of Smartstream four-cylinder engines. Base SE and SEL models will receive a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter GDI engine offering 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. The premium option found in SEL Plus and Limited trims is a 1.6-liter T-GDi powerplant. Turbocharged and featuring the world's first application of Continuously Variable Valve Duration (CVVD) for enhanced efficiency and power, this downsized inline four delivers fewer horses (180) but a handful more pound-feet (195). You can spot the 1.6T on the street thanks to its unique gloss-black grille with triangular elements. (For my money, the base car's chrome-slat grille is actually significantly more appealing.)
If bothering to produce two different engines with such similar outputs seems like an odd decision to you, we're of like minds. It's especially curious considering the base engine is estimated to be 2 miles per gallon more efficient on the combined EPA fuel economy cycle than its smaller, turbocharged relative (33 miles per gallon combined versus 31). Look beyond the headline numbers, though, and you'll note that the 1.6T's torque curve is much broader, with the peak arriving from 1,500 rpm (the 2.5L doesn't ramp to full strength until 4,000 revs), suggesting better drivability. Without time in the 2.5L, I can't yet tell how noticeable any performance gap is between these engines.
Watch this: Five things you need to know about the 2020 Hyundai Sonata
No matter the engine, a conventional eight-speed automatic will be hung from its output shaft, directing power solely to the front wheels. In contrast to what we had heard during our early drive of a Korean-spec car in April, Hyundai executives at the launch said there are no plans for an all-wheel-drive version to compete with the Ford Fusion, Nissan Altima and Subaru Legacy. Hyundai officials tell Roadshow that AWD variants only make up single-digit percentages of most rivals' overall sales. Fair enough, but assuming this latest word is the definitive one, this would be one of very few areas where the Sonata's decision-makers seem to lack ambition.
Because our first drive of a US model was also so early, only preproduction 1.6-liter Limited models were available. (Assembly of the base 2.5 liter is expected to commence later this year, closer to the 2020 Sonata's on-sale date.) Thankfully, 1.6T proved to be an agreeable partner, and not just because top-spec Limited models feature a full complement of tech. The engine is a good match for the chassis, offering enough power underfoot both off the line and for freeway passing. The transmission can be a bit lazy to kick down (even with the drive mode toggle set to Sport), so the 1.6T's paddle shifters are convenient for preemptive downshifts ahead of pulling out to pass (or when looking to induce engine braking on steep descents).
Ride and handling
Despite maintaining the outgoing Sonata's basic front MacPherson strut and rear multilink suspension setup, Hyundai says more rigid subframes front and rear combine to yield better steering and handling, plus, braking response has improved due to an upsized booster. I wish I could tell you that the Sonata is eager to hook up in corners, all hot and heavy like seniors at prom, but I'd be spinning a yarn. Instead, the Sonata handles predictably, confidently and steering feels noticeably better than I remember from its predecessor.
At least in this guise, on Michelin Primacy all-season rubber, Hyundai isn't angling for the sport sedan crowd. Competitors like the Mazda6 and Honda Accord deliver higher-fidelity responses and ultimately, more driving enjoyment. Not incidentally, most rivals also offer larger turbo fours or V6 engines that deliver more power. I expect this shortcoming to be remedied in the not-too-distant future with a bigger engine (likely a 2.0T), but for now, mum's the word officially. Representatives on hand at the media launch did confirm this chassis is designed to accommodate electrification, and I wouldn't expect Hyundai to back away from its history of eventually offering hybrid and plug-in hybrid variants.
For the vast majority of family sedan buyers, of course, driving finesse isn't nearly as high on the shopping list as comfort, tech and safety. And the 2020 Hyundai Sonata feels set to ace the competition in these important disciplines.
It starts with a fully modern and well-executed interior featuring a deeper range of available tech than any of this car's rivals. While low-end models make do with analog gauges, the Sonata is positively Mercedes-esque in its ability to be optioned not only with a 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster, but also a 10.25-inch wide-format touchscreen infotainment system. At 8 inches, even the base infotainment screen is as large as some rivals' top-trim displays, and all Sonatas feature standard Apple CarPlay and Android Auto integration. Hyundai's easy-to-use navigation is available, as is 360-degree camera coverage and dual Bluetooth support (one for telephony and the other for audio streaming).
The Sonata is also the first Hyundai to offer Bose audio -- the premium setup offers 12 speakers and Centerpoint surround sound processing. There's even a crisp and large (8-inch) head-up display available, although like many such systems, I had trouble seeing it wearing polarized sunglasses.
All of this cabin tech is nicely integrated into the sleek dashboard that affords an expansive, almost sports-car-like forward view when combined with the Sonata's unusually low hood and raked windshield.
I've sampled Hyundai's pushbutton shifter in other models, including in the company's excellent new Palisade. I feel the same about it here as I did in that three-row SUV, which is to say that it's somewhat gimmicky, but fine. Unfortunately, the e-shifter doesn't free up any bonus space underneath the way it does in Hyundai's crossovers, but the center console is nevertheless well organized.
Overall ergonomics and material finishes are nice, as is the switchgear feel. Despite its preproduction status, my tester was utterly squeak and rattle free, delivering a cabin experience smartly isolated from road and wind noise. I'm not sure the Sonata's odd-looking four-spoke steering wheel is my taste, but overall, this interior is a fine place. That's even true in the back seat, which manages to offer more headroom than the Altima and Accord without resorting to awkward knees-up postures.
I'll get to the Sonata's bumper crop of advanced safety gear momentarily, but what really lends this Hyundai its high-tech halo are a couple of class-exclusive party tricks: Digital Key and Remote Smart Parking Assist.
Digital Key builds on the knowledge Hyundai's software engineers have gleaned from their well-known Blue Link app, adding Near Field Communications and Bluetooth Low Energy tech. This enables you to leave your key at home and simply tap your Android phone against the door handle to lock and unlock the vehicle or start the engine. Hyundai also includes a hotel-key-like NFC card that can be handed to valets, and digital keys can be sent to the mobile phones of friends or family to grant temporary access with or without driving privileges. It also feels like Hyundai may be setting the stage for future ride-sharing opportunities. Sound like anyone we know?
Watch this: No fob required with the Hyundai Sonata Digital Key
Remote Smart Parking Assist
The Sonata is Hyundai's second model to get Remote Smart Parking Assist -- the first being the company's limited-volume Nexo fuel-cell crossover. RSPA lets drivers remotely start their cars and pull them forward or backwards into or out of tight parking spots. Activated by the car's key fob, the system uses the car's 13 ultrasonic parking sensors to ensure the car doesn't inadvertently pull into anyone or anything. The system is capable of slight steering inputs to straighten out, too. Since you have to be in close proximity to the vehicle for the tech to work, It's best to think of RSPA as a simpler, less abuse-prone version of Tesla's controversial new Smart Summon.
Both Digital Key and Remote Smart Park Assist performed flawlessly during a staged demo, but I'll want more time trying them out in everyday life before I decide whether this tech is genuinely useful or just for party tricks.
Geared up for safety
Standard safety gear includes autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, intelligent cruise control with stop-and-go, as well as Safe Exit Assist, which leverages radar to prevent doors from being opened into traffic. Like other recent Hyundais, Blind-Spot View Monitor, which shows what might be hidden in your rear three-quarter view in the digital gauge cluster, is optional, as is rear cross-traffic alert with auto brake.
Also optional is Highway Driving Assistant, essentially adaptive cruise control with lane centering and speed-limit cognition. In my limited testing, HDA worked well, but there were times when its myriad small steering corrections did feel a bit busy on winding freeways.
MSRPs have yet to be announced, but they're expected to stay roughly in-line with today's car, suggesting a model spread between $23,000 and $32,000. Either way, it's clear the Sonata will offer unrivaled amounts of high-tech convenience and safety gear in its class.
There's an argument to be made that Korea has turned to audacious design because global sedan sales are shrinking, and the company feels it needs to flaunt its latest model's virtues. Either way, nobody should be surprised at the 2020 Hyundai Sonata's boldness. A decade ago, the "YF" sixth-gen Sonata's Fluidic Sculpture design set the midsize segment on its ear. But after a chilly initial reception in its home market, Hyundai got cold feet, eventually replacing that car with the comparatively conservative "LF" just now exiting dealers. It appears Korea has learned its lesson -- this new exterior look actually originated not in Hyundai's California design studio, it's a home-grown design.
If Hyundai wants to challenge segment stalwarts like the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord for segment leadership anew, the company needed to go big or go home on the Sonata's tech and design. Fortunately, it appears the new car does exactly that... plus it's got a Dynamic Lasso to rope 'em in.
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