Montgomery, AL - Hyundai has been building Sonatas in Alabama for the past 15 years, so it was only fitting that we recently headed down to the southern American state for a first opportunity to drive the eighth-generation 2020 Sonata. Some may remember that the Korean automaker had plans, back in the late 1980s, to base its North American operations in Bromont, in Quebec’s Eastern Townships. Looking at this massive complex in Alabama, which employs 3,000 workers, makes one rue the missed opportunity for the province of Quebec.
But that’s now the distant past. In more ways than one, a lot of water has flowed under the bridge for Hyundai since then, and specifically for its Sonata sedan, the first generation of which was based on a Mitsubishi chassis and engine. The 2020 version is, needless to say, infinitely more modern. But as in 2011 when Hyundai wanted to give a boost to the concept, designers creating generation eight have used provocation as a tool it could brandish.
A polarizing concept
Judging by the online comments the new design has engendered, in the eyes of many the grille and especially the hood that descends below the beltline without a joint make the front end look like that of a bullhead fish. Some like it, but more hate it; I count myself in the first group, in fact I love this initiative that gives the car distinct, undeniably different styling.
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What’s less successful, though, is the inch-wide chrome strip that stretches from the headlights along the hood and all around the window frames. It's a nod to the 2011 Sonata, which featured a similar detail; apparently it’s the graphic representation of a lasso. The too-obvious joint in the middle of the strip gives the impression of an after-market add-on and spoils the otherwise homogeneous style of the sedan. The fake 4-door coupe profile is probably the best angle to look at the car from.
The model’s new platform (which will also serve as a basis for future Hyundai SUVs) lowers the centre of gravity and results in both a longer wheelbase and a total length that verges on 5 metres.
The LED headlights offer a beautiful visual signature in the front, signaling a strong, bold presence, and the LED taillights that curve around the trunk lid are certain to attract attention. With a coefficient of drag (cx) of just 0.27, this new Sonata is also aerodynamic - a quality that contributes to a quieter ride and better fuel economy.
Choice of two engines
The Preferred base model comes with a 2.5L 4-cylinder engine making 191 hp and 181 lb-ft of torque. Designed to maximize fuel economy, it offers a quiet and comfortable ride.
The high-end models (Sport, Luxury and Ultimate) come with a 1.6L turbo engine that is actually less powerful with 181 hp to play with, but with more torque at 195 lb-ft, giving more vigorous acceleration and saving a little on fuel.
The Ultimate model we drove on this day maintained an average of 7.L/100 km during our nearly 500-km journey through parts of Alabama and Louisiana. Both engines are coupled to an 8-speed automatic transmission that drives the front wheels (there is no 4WD version). The push-button transmission includes paddle shifters in the 1.6L turbo variants.
For those wondering if the hybrid model will be back, the answer is yes, but only next spring. And for those who want a more dynamic response under the right foot, a Sonata N-Line will arrive in the late summer of 2020. There are no details forthcoming from Hyundai at the moment, but the most powerful 2019 Sonata delivered 245 horsepower in the turbo version. Hyundai should do a little better than that with the N-Line.
Embedded technology has become a must when it comes to higher-end sedans and Hyundai is right there with the best of them. Hyundai Smart Sense Tech technology is standard on all 2020 Sonata models; the suite of driver assistance systems includes front-end collision assistance, intelligent cruise control, on-road assistance, driver monitoring, collision avoidance, blind spot monitoring and cross traffic assistance.
Among the optional technologies, two are particularly noteworthy. The first is called "Blind Spot Monitor" and if you already know about Honda LaneWatch, this configuration is even better. While the Honda system only shows you the video of your right blind spot on the dashboard's center screen, the Hyundai cameras will display your blind areas on the left and right sides (depending on which turn signal you’re using) and display them on the tachometer (left) and the tachometer (right) on the dashboard in front of the driver. Simple and very effective.
There’s also the "Remote Smart Parking Assist" (RSPA), a system designed for tight parking spaces like at condominiums. Using the arrows on the key fob, you can steer your car into the tight space like a drone and turn it off. When it's time to go, just flip the procedure and bring the car to you. The key can work up to 10 meters, in theory anyways.
Users can store their individual settings (seat and mirror positions, sound) in the application profile. It’s also possible to remotely share access to the vehicle, so for example a digital key can be sent as an invitation, with a defined duration (from one minute to one year) and you can even set restrictions on the type of access (for the valet, or a young drivers). Note as well that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility is included standard, usable via a 10.25-inch screen.
On the road
Leather was a dominant presence in our Ultimate version, but otherwise the base-model Sonata gets fabric coverings. The cockpit is driver-focused with a display screen tilted to the left. The seats are comfortable, the best driving position is easy to settle on and the instrumentation is intuitive.
The sloping shape of the hood we mentioned above helps to provide good visibility and the length of the car, even at 5 metres, is not at all intimidating. Large windows also help provide unobstructed sightlines. Passengers, no matter where they are in the car, will be comfortable and the trunk is generous with its 453 liters of cargo space.
If you're looking for some real nervy driving when behind the wheel, however, you'll have to wait for the N-Line version. The 1.6 turbo engine that we tested is flexible, quiet and economical, but it isn’t sporty - which in itself is not a fault, it’s just clear in this case that Hyundai’s engineers have chosen to deliver a more controlled driving experience.
For the moment no pricing has been announced yet even if the car arrives in a few weeks at the dealers. We already know that these prices will be comparable to those of the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the twin towers that still dominate a category that, even as it continues to struggle, still represents a significant market segment. Although the price will probably be a little higher than the outgoing model, this Sonata represents a step forward both in terms of technology and the refinement of the drive.
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Excellent level of technology for the price
Excellent fit and finish
We like less
The 1.6L engine is an underachiever
No four-wheel drive
The push-button gear selector