The 2020 Hyundai Sonata looks good. Its manufacturer-suggested prices are good, too, especially given its design. Its entire aura is enough to make anyone have to squint in order to confirm that it does, in fact, have a Hyundai badge on the front. For an automaker aimed at affordability, that’s a feat.
For the most part, the car lives up to the expectations its design creates.
(Full disclosure: Hyundai provided travel to and lodging in Arizona in order to drive its 2020 Sonata and an N-Line prototype, along with providing a few meals.)
The 2020 Sonata is a complete overhaul of the last model year, trading the old car’s generic looks for ones that—whether you love or hate them, and whether they’ll age well or not—were unexpected. And unexpected, in a vehicle market where the average car looks really, really average, is commendable regardless.
While the Sonata is a global vehicle, such an evolution and ambitious design revision is almost necessary in terms of the U.S. vehicle market. Buyers here are all about crossovers and SUVs, choking sedan sales and killing plenty off in recent years.
The Sonata hasn’t been immune, either. In 2012, annual Sonata sales were over 230,000. This month, Hyundai Motor America announced year-to-date sales as of November at 80,361, compared to 96,413 by the same time last year.
There’s still a month left in the year, but Sonata sales won’t be near where they were at the start of the decade. They likely won’t even match last year.
Sedans, thus, need to get buyers’ attention if they even want a sliver of hope to lure them away from their more bloated competitors. But the new Sonata isn’t only a major styling update, giving the car the looks it needs to have in order to distract from the growing crossover and SUV market. It’s also a testament to what Hyundai wants to be: a company that offers more niche, enticing vehicles, like the Sonata N-Line performance variant will be when it launches.
The new Sonata has a lot going for it. We’ll just have to see whether prospective buyers agree.
The Sonata comes with a few engine and transmission options, if we include the N-Line, and base MSRPs for trims range from $23,400 to $33,300 excluding the N-Line. All regular Sonatas come with an eight-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine, but the bottom two trims have a 2.5-liter unit that claims 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque while the top two have a 1.6-liter turbo with 180 HP and 195 lb-ft.
If you’re into big wheels, that’s one place where the four regular trims differ that’s noticeable from the outside: the bottom SE will give you 16-inch wheels, the SEL has 17s, and the SEL Plus and Limited both come with 18s.
Most of the safety features available on the top Limited trim are also standard on the lower ones, with the exceptions of: parking-collision avoidance assist; blind-spot view monitor, which puts a blind-spot camera on the instrument cluster when a turn signal comes on; and highway driving assist, which helps the car stay in its lane and at a safe distance behind others. That means even the $23,400 Sonata will have assistance systems for things like collision avoidance in certain situations, lane keeping, lane following, smart cruise control, and automatic high beams.
The N-Line, comparatively, will make a Hyundai-estimated 290 HP and 310 lb-ft of torque when it comes out, and still be front-wheel drive. It will have an eight-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission, and 19-inch wheels that aren’t available on other Sonatas.
Everything inside of the 2020 Sonata’s top Limited trim feels decent, and that’s all, which is a testament to both its exterior looks and the fact that modern cars are just really good. It has a comfortable ride with a bit of road and wind noise, and passengers can feel bumps in road well but not distractingly. Ride quality is very average—the Sonata’s suspension is no pillow, but it’s also not bad.
From the driver’s side, the interior of the Sonata looks well thought out. It’s big, shiny screen isn’t distracting, and the consolidation of buttons for features like seat heaters is a nice effort toward an uncluttered interior. There’s a huge amount of pocket space in the doors compared to the usual divot that only holds a smartphone vertically, a standard wheel heater if your hands get cold, and ambient lighting, if you’re feeling it.
The big center screen allows for easy app navigation, and the instrument cluster is put to good use: Digital gauges will splash to red when the car changes into sport mode, and the blind-spot monitor that comes standard on the Limited trim is helpful in a way that isn’t jarring. Unlike blind-spot monitors that wail with beeps if anyone or thing is in the intended lane when a turn signal comes on, the Sonata simply trades out a gauge temporarily for a video view of who or what might be over there.
But where the Sonata really does well, at least in its top trim, is the technology. In addition to all of the non-invasive safety features on the Sonata, reminders to grab the wheel from the assistance features aren’t annoying during highway driving, and across several minutes in traffic with lane-keep features on, the wheel only inadvertently nudged itself to the side a couple of times.
The Limited trim also comes with a standard 12-speaker sound system, which is optional on other trims except the base SE. It’s easy to see how good the system is when you pop on over to the “Sounds of Nature” section in the infotainment screen, which will make you feel like you’ve been transported to the middle of the Rainforest Cafe. (Or my idealized, magical version of what that sounds like, since I haven’t been in years.)
Certain trims and packages on the 2020 car also come with features like Blue Link and the Hyundai Digital Key, with the former—which is complimentary at first and then costs money—allowing drivers to check up on their vehicles and remote start or lock them from certain devices, and the latter allowing owners to give people temporary digital keys to their car. But don’t get too excited for a digital key if you have an iPhone, because they’re not yet compatible.
The interior of the new Sonata, while an improvement from the last one because it cleans things up a bit, is almost too basic. It could use a few accents simply to catch the eye, and that’s particularly noticeable on the all-black interior—it’s almost like staring into a well, up until the jarringly light gray headliner.
And while the car feels decent overall from the inside, looking closely will lead to some disappointment. Its overly simplistic interior is paired with too much noticeably cheap and plastic-like material, which is most obvious on certain parts of the door trims and centerpieces up front. It’s especially evident given how striking the car is from the outside, and from the front passenger seat.
That’s because the experience for the front passenger is just lacking. That’s the best way to put it. Some vehicles, like the new Sonata, are all about orienting the interior toward the driver—screens and center controls pointed their direction, making both an awkward reach of the passenger—which ends up leaving the passenger in a bucket of barren nothingness and feeling disengaged in the car. That, then, makes the flaws of the interior more noticeable.
Sure, you might not have a passenger much, but they’ll immediately get a sense of how bland that side of the car is when you do.
The actual driving experience is another place where the regular Sonata isn’t impressive, and that’s also probably due to its styling. The car just looks special whether you like the style or not, but its gas pedal provides nothing special in return, groaning at the press of your foot and not providing much actual pickup.
Sport mode in the car will give a driver more aggressive sound and the feeling of a quicker acceleration, but overall, the actual act of driving the Sonata isn’t that interesting.
The Sonata thus looks sportier than it feels, which is probably fine for most of the people considering it.
The 2020 Hyundai Sonata is the kind of car that, without the “H” on the front, those unfamiliar with it might wonder what (stylish) planet it came from.
But it’s a car from this planet, and it comes with a starting price affordable by most people who have the budget to buy a car new.
And while the Sonata’s looks and safety features might be its best aspects, that doesn’t mean the areas that fail to stand out in comparison—interior styling and performance, outside of the N-Line—are bad. They’re just not quite as good as the high bar the rest of the car sets, but they sure are good for the price.
Automakers know buyers aren’t flocking to sedans like they did, or even paying much attention to them in the crossover era. The Sonata’s tanking sales since the early 2010s prove that, and prove how the same old thing won’t work anymore if companies want to level out the sedan drop.
Hyundai has done its part, because unlike its predecessor, the 2020 Sonata is far from the same old thing. But, like everything else, buyers will decide whether the effort was enough.