"We need to do something with the sedan." Those are the words of Hyundai's worldwide head of design, Sang Yup Lee, who is the man charged with doing that something. To save the sedan, Hyundai is going all-in on design, maximizing the body style's advantage over crossovers inherent in its longer, lower proportions. That's the motivation behind the new, eighth-generation 2020 Hyundai Sonata.
The new car stands in contrast to the conservative current Sonata, instead seeming to pick up where the flamboyant 2011–2014 model left off. The standout looks begin with improved proportions, afforded by a new platform. The car is longer (by 1.8 inches), lower (by 1.2), and wider (1.0). There's a 1.4-inch greater stretch between the axles, and the front overhang has been trimmed by 0.8 inches while the rear has grown by 1.2 inches. The cowl is lower and moved rearward, and the hood is longer. The lower roofline slowly tapers as it moves rearward, ending at an ultra-short rear deck.
Then come the artful details, many of which were inspired by the 2018 La Fil Rouge concept. Up front is a low and wide grille. Character lines along the side of the car get thicker and thinner as the underlying sheet metal curves slightly inward and outward, providing a contrast between sharp edges and soft forms. The upper crease wraps around the trunk to become the rear spoiler. At the rear, the full-width taillamps end as facing C-shapes.
The most dramatic design flourish is the thick chrome band that extends rearward from the headlights, over the hood, and encircling the side window glass. What's neat is that the forward part doubles to become the daytime running lights, which fade out as they extend up onto the hood. The only off-note, to these eyes, are faux air-inlets ahead of the front wheels that mar the upper-trim versions. Lee says that the new Sonata marks the beginning of a new design identity for Hyundai, although he describes it as one that allows for more individuality among models than is seen in the current lineup.
Despite the new Sonata's lower roofline, interior space has not been severely compromised. While rear-seat space trails the best in class, a 6-foot passenger sitting behind a similarly sized driver has adequate headroom and good knee room. Foot space, though, is a little tight. Up front, the low cowl and narrow A-pillars make for a good view out. The luxed-up examples we test-drove in Korea were equivalent to our top-spec Limited in their trim and equipment, and the dash and door panels feature convincing faux-leather-wrapped elements, although there is grained plastic on the sides of the console. Nappa leather-trimmed seats were stitched in a squiggly zig-zag pattern, which struck us as more imaginative than diamond-pattern stitching. Ambient lighting along the edge of the dash and on the door panels offers a choice of 64 colors. The gearshift lever has been replaced with gimmicky pushbuttons, which is perhaps the one area where it doesn't pay to imitate the Honda Accord.
While the interior, thankfully, does not banish all knobs and switches, that's not to say this latest Sonata lacks for tecno-wizardry. Far from it. A sharp 10.25-inch touchscreen sits front and center in the dash, its edge curving around toward the driver's side. This latest Hyundai infotainment system is seen also in the just-introduced Palisade and Kia Telluride SUVs, and it can display one, two, or three functions at once. It's standard on the Limited and optional on the SE and SEL (the base S makes do with an 8-inch unit).
In front of the driver is an available head-up display and a 12.3-inch virtual instrument cluster (Limited and SEL Plus, optional on SE). The virtual cluster's novel trick is that when the turn signal is activated, a camera feed showing a view to the rear on that side of the car replaces one of the gauges — either the speedometer (left turns) or the tach (right turns). Hyundai calls it Blind-Spot View Monitor (not to be confused with blind-spot warning). It's similar to Honda's Lane Watch but we think it's more useful because it works on both sides rather than just the right, and the image appears in front of the driver rather than taking over nav/audio screen. Blind-Spot View Monitor would be particularly welcome in areas where there are a lot of cyclists on the road.
The splashiest bit of tech, however, is Remote Smart Parking Assist, in which the car can be guided into or out of a parking space via the key fob. Previewed as the more grandly named Automated Valet Parking System on the Le Fil Rouge concept, the system isn't quite up to the level of that show car — which could autonomously go find a parking space and park itself — but it's impressive nonetheless. The Sonata's Remote Smart Parking Assist must be actively controlled by the driver, and it can only pull straight in or out; it doesn't steer. The driver stands outside the car and, using the remote, starts the engine and then moves the car out of the space by pressing the forward or backward buttons on the key fob. Lift a thumb off the button, and the car immediately stops. Similarly, one can direct the car into a tight space, and then shut off the engine. It's a feature that is just entering the luxury market, but is entirely new to this segment.
The Sonata also is the first Hyundai to offer Digital Key, in which a smartphone can lock and unlock the car using near-field communication, and also can start the engine. An owner can use the system to share access to the car with another user, including for a set period of time — just the thing for the car-sharing economy.
All models come with forward collision warning with pedestrian detection and automatic emergency braking, plus a driver-attention monitor, and adaptive cruise control that can brake to a stop (the driver must nudge the accelerator or tap the Resume button to get the car moving again). Also standard is lane-follow assist, a more robust version of lane-keep assist that doesn't just read lane markers but also can follow the car ahead. We found it to be adept at steering the Sonata without a lot of ping-ponging between the lines.
U.S. cars will have a naturally aspirated 2.5-liter inline-four (SE and SEL trims), offering 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. The SEL Plus and Limited models will be powered by a turbocharged 1.6-liter four, good for 180 horsepower and 195 pound-feet. Both mate to an eight-speed automatic. A more powerful turbo-4 and a plug-in hybrid are likely to be added to the roster. If Hyundai is serious about stanching the flow of sedan buyers pouring into crossovers, it should offer all-wheel drive in the Sonata, as Nissan has done with the Altima for 2019 and Subaru has had in the Legacy, but Hyundai will only say that they're reviewing all-wheel drive for this model.
Our on-road drive was in Korean-spec models powered by a 160-horsepower, 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated four and a six-speed automatic. It's a combo that's we won't get, which is just fine because we found it underpowered for this car, with languid throttle response. The 2.0-liter's engine note is irrelevant, but the Sonata also exhibited a fair bit of road noise on the Seoul-area freeways. We had a brief go in one of the U.S. powertrains, the 1.6-liter turbo. It felt stronger than its 180 horses in a quick blast around Hyundai's handling track, and also offered surprisingly linear throttle response for a small boosted engine tasked with motivating such a large car. Hyundai's internal testing has the 1.6T's 0-60 acceleration in a dead heat with its most obvious rival, the Honda Accord 1.5 turbo.
The Accord sets the standard for the segment in its chassis tuning, and the Korean-market Sonata seemed far off the Honda's pace in terms of cornering, steering response, and bump isolation. But our time on the handling track in the U.S.-spec 1.6 turbo gave us hope. That car felt far more buttoned down, and its steering had some reassuring heft and also felt more responsive, perhaps in part because it rode on more sporting rubber. Those impressions, though, are preliminary. Final chassis tweaking of the U.S. cars continues — with our version getting specific damper and power steering tuning. We're also told that the 2.5-liter cars will be tuned more for comfort than the turbo model. We shall see when the 2020 Sonata arrives here this fall.
We'll also see whether the move to make midsize sedans into stylish and high-tech objects of desire can succeed. Hyundai is not the only automaker making this play, but the 2020 Sonata unquestionably is further down this road than its rivals.