In 2010, Hyundai replaced its previously-drab Sonata with a fresh design that shook up the segment drastically. The result was over 230,000 sales in 2012 – a figure the South Korean brand hasn’t matched since. The company is now trying to find that spark once again with the new 2020 Hyundai Sonata, and it’s betting on an eye-catching design to lure in customers, a strategy that worked well a decade ago.

In fairness, the rise in crossover popularity has played a major part in the Sonata’s declining sales – every midsize sedan in the segment has felt the same sting. But take one look at the last-generation Sonata and it’s hard to find passion in the design. For 2020, Hyundai radically changed the Sonata with a design language and plopped it atop a new platform – the combination makes the car lower, wider, and longer. But the most interesting styling cues are in the details.

2020 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive
2020 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive

Determined To Stand Out

Evolving beyond your typical daytime running lights that are embedded in the headlight, the Sonata features LED strips that wrap around the headlight and trace up the outer edges of the hood, meeting two metal accent trim pieces just over the front wheel arches. Hyundai claims this wild detail is a first on a production vehicle – and it looks absolutely wild. Meanwhile, the taillights are one continuous element, running the width of the trunk.

Complementing – that’s probably the right word – the lighting design is what has to be one of the most controversial mugshots currently in the industry. The Sonata’s front grille is positively massive and gives the car an ultra-wide stature. All things considered, the design has the office split, which is likely the same case for the general buying public. One thing is for sure, the Sonata is the most visually striking vehicle in its segment, and looks like nothing else for the road. This cannot be said for some of its main rivals from Honda, Toyota, and the rest of the crew.

Hyundai Sonata
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Subtle Interior, Big Improvements

If you’re not immediately attracted to the Sonata’s exterior styling, your best bet is to spend most of your time sitting in it. The car’s interior offers a pleasant redesign, without the controversial looks found in the sheet metal. Most of the cabin’s influence comes from the flagship Palisade crossover SUV, including the optional 10.2-inch touchscreen infotainment system and optional 12.3-inch digital gauge cluster, and drive-by-wire transmission selector.

The aforementioned pieces of tech are good, too. Though an 8.0-inch touchscreen comes standard, the bump up to the bigger unit is the right move. It’s quick to react, intuitively laid out, and fairly fingerprint-resistant. Luckily, even if you don’t opt for the upgraded screen, Apple Carplay and Android Auto come standard.

In top-tier trim levels, the Sonata comes loaded with leather seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bose sound system, panoramic sunroof, and LED interior lighting. But even without all the goodies added, the Sonata’s cabin is mostly free of hard plastics – save for the lower center console – and incorporates nice soft-touch materials. Despite a sloping roofline, there is plentiful headroom for all passengers, though rear passenger legroom drops slightly from the previous generation 0.8 inches to 34.8. Fear not, though, even our six-foot-three inch co-driver managed to ride in the backseat without protest.

Incorporated into the optional digital gauge cluster is some thoughtful safety kit, including a lane-change-assist camera view from either side mirror. Beyond that, the Sonata brings a decent suite of standard safety tech, including adaptive cruise control, emergency autonomous braking, driver attention warning, and high-beam assist. Extras like blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert are optional, though they’re available on the second-to-lowest trim level.

2020 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive
2020 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive

Sonata On The Streets

Powering the Sonata are two available engines. Well, three, but the third is specific to the forthcoming Sonata N-Line, which won’t go on sale until the Fall of next year and gets its own turbocharged powertrain. The base engine, which we do not get to sample, is a 2.5-liter four-cylinder, making 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. The optional engine is a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder, which puts out 180 horsepower and 195 lb-ft. Yes, you read that correctly: the optional engine makes less power but bests the 2.5 just slightly in the torque category, which Hyundai says makes it the more desirable option. Both engines mate to an eight-speed automatic transmission. In terms of efficiency, the 2.5 returns 27 miles per gallon city, 37 highway and 31 combined. The 1.6 only concedes one MPG on the highway, achieving 27 city, 36 highway, and 31 combined.

In our first few miles of driving, the Sonata immediately exhibits an easy, enjoyable demeanor. The 1.6 offers enough punch to get the car moving, and the eight-speed is a dramatic improvement over any of the prior Sonata’s gearbox options. Don’t mistake the Sonata’s aggressive looks for a sports car, though. Around corners, the Sonata feels somewhat floaty, and understeers when pushed too hard. And although switching the car into Sport mode firms up the steering, the rack still feels too light to provide useful feedback to the driver. There’s a sense that Hyundai kept the standard Sonata’s driving dynamics on the softer side in order to make room for the N-Line model.

Where the Sonata is lacking in sportiness, it makes up for with comfort. The ride quality is great, even across some less-than-ideal roads. Hyundai says it worked to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness levels, and it appears to have paid off. The engine is quiet and the chassis feels extremely solid. In terms of noise, only at highway speeds did we notice excess wind noise entering the cabin. Otherwise, the Sonata is less buzzy and better refined than your average midsize sedan these days.

2020 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive
2020 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive

Value At The Top

The 2020 Sonata starts at $23,400 for the entry-level SE trim, with three additional trims atop that. The loaded Limited trim that we drove comes in at $33,300 with specific features like a head-up display, LED headlights, ventilated front seats, and ambient lighting. Though it offers more power, a similarly equipped Toyota Camry XSE crests $35,000, and the same is true for the Honda Accord Touring, which starts at over $36,000. Even with a less potent engine, the Sonata still offers slightly better value with similar content, especially on higher trim levels.

Even with the value proposition, the Sonata is not the runaway winner in the segment, especially if you’re in the market for a sporty-feeling sedan. It’s a well-optioned, easy-to-drive car that is worthy of consideration but feels more cushy than engaging from behind the wheel. And as for whether or not its radical new styling can re-capture buyers is something we look forward to finding out.

Gallery: 2020 Hyundai Sonata: First Drive

2020 Hyundai Sonata Limited

Engine Turbocharged 1.6-Liter Four-Cylinder
Output 180 Horsepower/ 195 Pound-Feet
Transmission Eight-Speed Automatic
Drive Type Front-Wheel Drive
Efficiency 27 City/ 36 Highway/ 31 Combined
Weight 3,336 Pounds
Seating Capacity 5
Cargo Volume 16.0 Cubic-Feet
Base Price $23,400
As-Tested Price $33,300
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