Words: Calvin Chan
Photography: Calvin Chan
Published: August 30, 2020
Gone is the bland and conservative Hyundai Sonata, and in its place is a radically designed and entirely reimagined family sedan from Korea. This new 2020 model flips everything we knew and expected from the Sonata on its head, as it now sports distinctive lines, a flashy new interior with oodles of leather, and a bold front fascia. Along with updated tech and a revised powertrain line up that promises to be more fuel efficient, Hyundai’s bread and butter sedan aims to take down the kings of the segment, the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord.
With a massive catfish grill and a coupe-like sloping roofline whose silhouette reminds us of the Mercedes CLS and Audi A7, it’s clear the Sonata wants to stand out and get your attention. The hexagonal exhaust tips on the rear right side give off a sporty vibe, and the full-width taillights make the rear more appealing than the front. The chrome strip that runs from the headlights all the way to the C-pillar serves as a visual trick to elongate the body of the vehicle, and the aggressive looks pay off in spades by appearing more distinctive on the road than the Camry and Accord, but it has its drawbacks.
Right off the bat, you can tell the seating position is off. The front seat has been mounted so high up that my head just about nudges into the roof, forcing me to retract the seatback more than usual and assume an awkward driving position, and I never found a comfortable spot to dig in and relax. This usually only happens with small American SUVs like the Jeep Compass, whose seat positioning favours those with short arms and long legs. It doesn’t help that the Sonata’s steering wheel doesn’t telescope much either, or that the large but pretty panoramic sunroof digs into precious head space. We can blame the sloping roofline for that. Surprisingly enough, the detriment to rear seat headroom isn’t as bad as we thought, as my six-foot frame can fit back there with just enough wiggle room, but it is still strikingly less than that offered in the Camry, Accord, and Legacy.
At least the interior stands out with top-shelf materials on our fully loaded Ultimate test vehicle, overwhelmingly convincing us that the Sonata Ultimate could easily be marketed as an entry-level luxury product. When an economy car from Hyundai feels more premium than a Cadillac CT4 or Lincoln Corsair, I think that says something. Those with a keen eye will notice that the Sonata borrows a lot of stylistic cues and switchgear from the Kia Telluride and other familial examples - not a bad thing in the slightest. The odd steering wheel design resembles a human body but it’s a welcome mix of retro and modern. The push button gear selector panel replaces a traditional shifter, opening up precious center console space, but the buttons don’t respond instantly. For example, when I come to a full halt and press Park, then let go of the brake pedal, it doesn’t register instantly, and continues to roll forward in Drive. To remedy this, you have to push the button, then wait a full second before the gear engages, before letting off the brakes. It’s a minor inconvenience but still one at that.
Overall, the Sonata exudes a very European feel inside. Even the window switches relay solid feedback, and the knurled column stalks feel better than the ones in new Mercedes models. The 10.25-inch center touchscreen remains positively responsive, doesn't get flushed out by direct sunlight, and is cleanly integrated into the dashboard without sticking out like a sore thumb. It is, however, positioned too far away from the driver’s seat to be categorized as accessible, and with my seatback reclined even more due to the low roofline, I have to actively lunge my body forward just so my arms can reach the screen. The unit doesn’t require a rotary dial but it could really use one.
Notable features exclusive to the Sonata include the blind spot camera display showing up on the instrument cluster, working much like the HondaWatch system on Civics and Accords, except here it shows up when signaling both left and right. Another is a feature I never thought I would see on a Sonata, which is the Remote Start Parking Assist. Working much like the BMW system in the 5 Series and 7 Series, by using the Sonata’s keyfob, you can move the car up to ten metres forward and backward, assisting you in parking in and out of a tight parking space or a narrow garage point. Or if you happen to be street parking and need to move your tires to restart the time limit. Nevertheless, it’s not a feature that will prove to be overwhelmingly useful to the majority of drivers, but it’s still a nifty party trick to show off at your next family gathering, when your Sonata magically ‘rolls away’.
The powertrain is arguably where the Sonata is lacking when compared to its peers. There are two engines on tap: a naturally aspirated 2.5-litre four-cylinder that delivers 191 hp and 181 lb-ft, and a turbocharged 1.6-litre that produces 180 hp and 195 lb-ft. Both are routed through an 8-speed automatic, so no buzzing and boring CVT transmission here, and front-wheel drive is the only choice.
The outputs between the two engines don’t appear staggeringly different on paper, but the resulting power delivery and overall driving experience is night and day. The naturally aspirated mill runs deep into the latter half of the gauge, requiring a long push to get the most out of the engine. The 1.6-litre however produces maximum thrust just before 2,000 rpm, and provides decent and usable thrust at low speeds. It is still slow by comparison, struggles to keep pace at highway speeds, and is constantly out of breath when you ask too much of it. Otherwise, shift engagement and throttle delivery is gentle and polished but the 8-speed transmission comes off as lazy and lethargic. Overall, the Sonata even with the uprated turbo-four engine is nowhere near as vigorous or as athletic as the Subaru Legacy and its optional 260-hp 2.4-litre turbo-four, or the Toyota Camry with its sleeper 301-hp 3.5-litre V6. On the bright side, a little birdie has told us a more powerful turbocharged engine is coming the Sonata’s way, so there is hope for those wishing for extra forward propulsion.
At least the ride is comfortable, and the Sonata clearly favours cruising along in a straight line rather than carving corners at speed. The steering is light and twitchy, similar to the Volvo S60, making it tricky to become consistent in applying rotation and getting the front wheels to point exactly where you want them. The synthetic vagueness and artificial rotation zaps any connection between driver and powertrain, but there is favourable grip to be found. Keep in mind that the Sonata is front-wheel drive only. There is no all-wheel drive available here unlike the Legacy AWD or Camry AWD. But the fuel consumption is mightily impressive. Over a mix of both city and highway driving, we averaged 8.6 L/100km.
There is a great deal of value to be found with the new Hyundai Sonata. With a starting price of $26,999 for the base Preferred model, standard features include adaptive cruise control, lane keep assist, blind spot warning, a heated steering wheel, remote engine start, and front heated seats. On top of a well-executed interior and a rather controversial but bold exterior, the Sonata might not prove to be the popular choice within the family sedan segment, but is still a stand-out alternative for those who dare to stray away from the norm. The Sonata breaks the status quo with a sporty silhouette but the resulting awkward driving position, compromised interior space, and lacklustre turbocharged powertrain has us shying away from recommending it as the go-to family sedan. The Sonata doesn’t topple the kings, but its new approach and daring formula should help stir up the segment. And as they say, a rising tide raises all ships.
Model: 2020 Hyundai Sonata Ultimate 1.6T
Paint Type: Flame Red
Base Price: $38,799
Price as Tested: $40,609
Length/Width/Height (mm): 4,855 / 1,865 / 1,475
Curb weight (kg): 1,527
Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder
Horsepower: 180 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 195 lb-ft @ 1,500 - 4,500 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Engine & Drive Configuration: Front engine, FWD
Fuel Consumption ( City / Highway / Combined ) L/100km: 8.6 / 6.6 / 7.7
Observed Fuel Consumption (L/100km): 9.2