The Hyundai Sonata has been sold in the United States since 1989, but it was anything but a hot commodity until 2011. Then, in those halcyon days, Hyundai rolled out the sixth-generation Sonata, the most attractive product the company had ever built, which single-handedly changed the perception of Korean cars. And while the “fluidic sculpture” design language filtered through the rest of the Hyundai line, the seventh-generation model landed for the 2015 model year with dull design and a lackluster driving character. It was a big lump of “meh” after several years of “wow”.
The 2020 Sonata enters the model's eighth generation with a revitalized sense of design, a more engaging personality, and serious value argument at a time when customers care less and less about sedans. But where some automakers are dumping resources from cars into crossovers, Hyundai is proving that it can build sedans that are every bit as good as crossovers like the Palisade and Venue.
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This Sonata is what should have followed the sixth-generation car. The design isn't necessarily pretty, but it is striking. During our week behind the wheel, passersby at shops and in parking lots (remember when you could interact with random strangers?) stopped us to compliment the 2020 Sonata and ask what it was. Surely our tester's Glowing Yellow paint – a polarizing shade, in our opinion – had something to do with that, but the overall style certainly helped.
It's hard to overstate the Sonata's visual impact with pictures alone. You need to see this car in person, observe the way the running lights streak back into the hood or take in the squarish tail and the lighting signature to appreciate the good work Hyundai did. There's depth and presence to the shape of the sheet metal and individual styling elements. This is one of Hyundai's most exciting designs in over a decade.
The cabin lacks the exterior's presence, but the design itself is still impressive, with a bright, open quality. The steering wheel, with the yoke-like layout (there’s a lower horizontal spoke that stretches between 7 o’clock to the airbag cap and then to 4 o’clock) of the spokes is graceful. Hyundai may have cribbed this particular look from the Audi A8 – that's a fine car to take inspiration from. Like the big German, the dash is clean and largely free of needless ornamentation. Hyundai neatly fitted a tablet-style touchscreen display while avoiding the tacked-on look of some rivals thanks to the hexagonal shape and tiered style. Even the gear selector, which doubles as a rather comfy palm rest, feels like a careful piece of design.
Our only real critique is the SEL Plus trim's odd upholstery choice. A mix of black leatherette and suede-like material is inoffensive, but a bit dull. That dullness might explain the red contrast stitching Hyundai forces on Sonata SEL Plus shoppers. If you want this trim, avoid the awkward contrast between the red stitching and the metallic yellow paint.
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Especially with the SEL Plus' optional panoramic sunroof, the Sonata's cabin feels airy and comfortable. There's a sensation of ample space, even if the cabin is on the tight side. In particular, the cramped rear bench is snugger than the competition, with just 34.8 inches of legroom – the Toyota Camry and Mazda6 each have nearly four-inch advantages, while the Honda Accord has a voluminous 40.4 inches in back. Rear headroom is average for the segment at 37.4 inches with the sunroof.
The seats are comfortable enough, although the front chairs are a bit flat and lacking in support. The second-row bench is cushier, although as we've covered, it's short on space back there. Ingress and egress through both sets of doors is easy enough. And once buckled in, the Sonata treats its passengers to a plush, refined ride that soaks up bumps and isolates the interior well. Wind, tire, and suspension noise is impressive for the segment.
Look past the cabin's striking design elements, and some of the material choices are disappointing. The piano-black trim around the gear selector collects fingerprints like a Red Bull-addled forensic scientist, and a few of the plastic choices on the lower sections of the dash and doors have a real cheapness about them. The primary touchpoints are average for the class, though.
Hyundai offers two display options for the Sonata's center infotainment screen and instrument cluster. The former is available with an 8.0-inch screen or a 10.3-inch touchscreen, while the latter jumps from the standard 3.5-inch display with analog gauges to a 12.3-inch display screen only. As the pricier of the Sonata's two middle trims, the SEL Plus pairs its standard all-digital instrument cluster with the base infotainment screen, which seems an odd contrast.
The digital cluster is similar to what we've seen in other new Hyundai/Kia products, which is to say it packs crisp, clear graphics and some fun effects while changing drive modes. That said, the degree of customization is more limited than we'd like – here's hoping some of the neat touches from the redesigned Kia Optima's gauge cluster come to the Sonata.
Our tester's $2,750 Tech package upgraded the base touchscreen infotainment system to the 10.3-inch unit. Like the digital instrument cluster, the graphics and look of the operating system and display are top notch. As for inputs, the optional display is quick and responsive, with smartly laid out menus and a few clever features. In particular, the silly Sounds of Nature (a collection of ambient noises from different settings) is a refreshing accompaniment to the standard HD Radio, satellite radio, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto.
The SEL Plus is the cheapest way to get a Sonata with Hyundai's turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. This setup packs a modest 180 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. A firecracker the Sonata is not.
Low-end torque is adequate despite the stats, although its overall character is a bit dull from middling engine speeds on. Likewise, the exhaust note is as subtle as it is boring. Interestingly, the base 2.5-liter naturally aspirated engine is slightly more powerful, with 191 hp but 181 lb-ft of torque – regardless of engine, though, the Sonata can't stand up to more powerful competition, like the 2.0-liter Honda Accord or V6-powered Toyota Camry. If output is important, hold out for the 290-hp Sonata N-Line.
Whichever powerplant you choose, it works alongside an eight-speed automatic that sends power to the front wheels. The gearbox is mostly invisible while executing its casual upshifts and is willing to engage off the line. That said it hunts more than we’d like on downshifts. Overall, it's a perfectly average setup. If you're one of the six Sonata shoppers that will use manual mode, you'll find a character that remains as relaxed as in full auto.
Equally as dull is the Sonata's handling ability. The suspension tuning makes for a composed and smooth ride, but far from an engaging one. Relaxed body motions and a focus on comfort highlight the Sonata's abilities in corners, where it rolls, pitches, and dives predictably. The steering has some life, but lacks the directness, feedback, or weighting of a Mazda6 or Honda Accord. The Sonata is fully aware it's a mid-size family sedan and accelerates and turns accordingly.
The Sonata SEL Plus packs an impressive active safety suite. Even the base Sonata comes standard with adaptive cruise control, forward collision warning with automatic emergency braking, automatic high beams, lane-keeping assist, and a driver attention monitor. The SEL Plus adds blind-spot monitoring (technically, it starts on the SEL trim) and a near-field key, while the available Tech pack adds Hyundai's Highway Driving Assist.
HDA brings all the disparate goodies together for freeway use, keeping the Sonata centered in the lane, maintaining a safe distance to the next car, and keeping the speed locked. In practice, the system works adequately, taking the strain out of long highway journeys. The system is a good reason to order the Tech pack or upgrade to the Limited trim, which offers the equipment as standard.
Not only is the turbocharged 1.6-liter Sonata less powerful and more expensive than the base 2.4-liter, it's less economical too. The turbocharged setup returns an EPA-estimated 27 miles per gallon city, 36 highway, and 31 combined on 87-octane fuel. The base model, meanwhile, nets 28 city, 38 highway, and 32 combined.
As for the competition, the Sonata is largely a match with the turbocharged, 1.5-liter Honda Accord (29/35/31) while enjoying a comfortable advantage over the naturally aspirated 2.5-liter Mazda6 (26/35/29). The four-cylinder Toyota Camry leads the bunch, though, with 29 city, 41 highway, and 34 combined. Each vehicle listed runs on 87-octane petrol.
Prices for the Sonata start at $23,600, although you'll need $27,650 (plus $930 in destination charges) to score an SEL Plus. We'd strongly recommend tacking on the $2,750 Tech pack (panoramic sunroof, 10.3-inch touchscreen, 12-speaker Bose audio, and Highway Drive Assist) to that, for a total of $31,330 out the door. This is an excellent value.
Just consider the competition. Including destination, a Toyota Camry XLE starts at $30,410 and a Honda Accord EX-L demands $31,375. Neither of those prices includes a panoramic sunroof, an upgraded audio system, an all-digital instrument cluster, digital key, a wireless charge pad, or (as good as Honda Sensing and Toyota Safety Shield are) a technology as advanced as Highway Driving Assist.
The Mazda makes something of a compelling case, though. The Mazda6 Grand Touring has similar equipment deficits, but at $30,745, this turbo-only trim strikes a price/performance/content package that the Hyundai and the two other Japanese sedans struggle to match.
Gallery: 2020 Hyundai Sonata SEL Plus: Review
2020 Hyundai Sonata SEL Plus