2020 Hyundai Sonata First Drive - Comfort First

Tim Healey
by Tim Healey

Near the start of this decade, I thought the Hyundai Sonata was perhaps the most attractive mid-size sedan on the market.

I also thought it drove like crap.

The steering was disconnected from the road, it felt slower than its rivals, et cetera.

Hyundai’s next Sonata was better in terms of driving dynamics and on-road behavior, but its styling was conservative to the point of boring. It felt like Hyundai was flailing about, unsure how to build a car that both drove well and looked good, while its rivals were having no problem doing the same. Even its corporate sibling, Kia, was offering up an engaging and handsome Optima.

Enter the 2020 Sonata. It looks good (better from certain angles and with certain colors), but does it drive well? Can it walk and chew gum at the same time?

The answer is: It depends. It depends on what you want from your midsize sedan. Some of you want something sporty, to prove that needing or wanting to own a midsize sedan doesn’t mean you have to give up fun. You’re the parents who don’t go to a fancy dinner when you have a babysitter – you go to the same dive bar you did in your 20s.

Others are looking for comfort. You don’t care if your midsizer is fun to drive, because if you wanted that, you’d shop in another segment. You want sensible shoes.

Then there are those who want the Goldilocks treatment. You want sensibility and practicality and all that stuff, but you occasionally want to attack an on-ramp when you’ve had an extra shot of espresso. Just to remind yourself that you’re not as boring as the guy next to you in bumper-to-bumper.

What, then, is this new Sonata? Stylish yet sensible footwear.

(Full disclosure: Hyundai flew me to Scottsdale, Arizona, and fed and housed me, so that I could drive the Sonata. The company offered sunglasses that I did not take).

When thinking of cars the new Sonata reminds me of, I kept thinking not of the competition but of a dead-car walking in the large-sedan segment – the Chevrolet Impala.

Lest you think I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque and started sampling Walter White’s product, this comparison is limited. The Sonata is not like the Impala in most ways, of course. But like the Impala, it felt all-day comfortable, while still being relatively engaging to drive, if not sporty.

Hyundai wanted us journalists to highlight the car’s styling, especially some of the more interesting details, and some of the car’s tech grades. And I’ll get there. That said, how a car drives is more important to most buyers, methinks, than remote-control low-speed maneuvering or raked headlights or a digital key.

On the road, the Limited I drove with the 1.6-liter turbo engine (available in the SEL Plus and Limited trims; 180 horsepower and 195 lb-ft of torque) simply felt smooth and generated little wind/road/tire noise. Sure, the roads around Scottsdale are smooth (a world without potholes? Be still my heart), so perhaps the deck was a bit stacked. That doesn’t change the fact that this car is so quiet that gassy passengers will be outed as he/she who dealt it if the driver has the stereo on mute. If you must pass gas in a Sonata that’s not playing any sonatas over the stereo, make it be silent but deadly.

Goose the gas, and the engine does start making noise in the mid-range, but it’s pleasant enough. This engine has what Hyundai says is the world’s first application of continuously variable valve duration – the duration of valve opening is continuously variable in order to achieve the best fuel economy and performance. The 1.6T gains just two horsepower and keeps the same torque number, despite the compression ratio moving to 10.5:1 over 10.0:1.

Sonata’s ride is nice and smooth. Long-haul families, take note: This thing will be a good friend to road-trippers everywhere. It’s not just about a smooth ride or a quiet aural experience – the seats are comfortable enough for long stints.

Dynamics aren’t sacrificed at the altar of comfort – the steering feels well-weighted, and a flick into Sport mode livens the car up a little bit. Even when not in Sport mode, the 1.6 gets you moving with enough authority to make merging and passing a breeze.

If you must have true fire-breathing acceleration, Hyundai has a Sonata N Line on deck for some point in the near future. I got a crack at the prototype; check back in a few days for my words on the subject.

Controls are laid out logically, with the HVAC switchgear taking a simplistic approach. Hyundai went for function over form here, and while the look may be a tad boring, it’s appreciated as a driver.

There’s a bit more flair above, thanks to a large center-stack screen. The menus are mostly intuitive to use, and if you need to calm your road rage, you can command the Bose premium audio system to play nature sounds. Road-trippers with small bladders beware: Two of the nature options are water-based.

Longer (both in wheelbase and overall length), lower, and wider than what it replaces, this Sonata has a sloping rear roofline, a full-face grille, and headlights that rake upwards toward the windshield. Rear headroom doesn’t suffer much compared to the previous model, despite the sloping roof – the difference is just 0.2 inches.

I found the look to be handsome overall, although the large grille struck me as over-the-top, and the car looked better in bright colors. It’s a cohesive look that avoids being too outlandish, and it’s easy on the eyes.

While I drove the 1.6 turbo, the base engine is a 2.5-liter naturally-aspirated four-banger that makes 191 horsepower and 181 lb-ft of torque. Both engines mate to an eight-speed automatic transmission. Available drive modes include normal, sport, custom, and smart (adapts to driver habits to maximize fuel economy and performance).

Like its rivals, Hyundai is offering up a whole bunch of driver-aid tech as standard. The grouping is called Smartsense and includes forward-collision avoidance, smart cruise control with stop and go, lane-follow assist, high-beam assist, driver-attention warning, parking collision-avoidance assist, blind-spot collision-avoidance assist (standard on SEL and up), rear cross-traffic collision-avoidance assist (standard on SEL and up), blind-spot view monitor, and highway drive assist.

The blind-view monitor brings a camera view of your blind spot forth into the gauge cluster each time you flip on the turn signal. It’s a handy feature, especially in urban driving.

I mentioned the digital key earlier. If you have an Android smartphone, you can open the car by placing your phone near the door, and you can even temporarily grant someone else (your kid or spouse, say) access via phone, no matter how far you are from the car. You can also use a near-field communication card to do the same. Hyundai does plan to eventually offer this feature with Apple phones, but couldn’t pin down a time frame.

Hyundai’s BlueLink app allows users to remotely start the vehicle or to check on vehicle info, and available remote smart parking assist allows users who are standing nearby to remote-control the Sonata, which is useful if you’re trying to maneuver into a tight garage.

Other available tech includes a head-up display, customizable gauge cluster, wireless cell-phone charger.

Four trim levels are available: SE, SEL, SEL Plus, and Limited. The latter two get the 1.6T, and the SEL and SEL Plus offer equipment packages – Convenience and Premium for SEL, and Tech for SEL Plus. Hyundai expects the SEL to be the volume seller.

SEs base at $23,400, while SELs add things like heated front seats, blind-spot collision assist, rear cross-traffic collision assist, satellite radio, and dual-zone climate control. The Convenience Package adds the larger 12.3-inch gauge cluster, the digital key, and wireless charging, among other things, for $1,200. The $1,850 Premium Package requires the Convenience Package and adds leather seats, heated steering wheel, and Bose audio. A panoramic sunroof and LED interior lights are available on their own for a grand.

For $27,450, the SEL Plus adds the 1.6 turbo, 18-inch wheels, most of the Convenience Package goodies, and paddle shifters. The Tech Package gets 10.25-inch navigation screen, panoramic sunroof, LED interior lights, highway driving assist, and Bose audio. To fully load your Sonata, and to get the remote-control feature, you’ll spend $33,300 for a Limited.

Destination is $930 for all trims, and the car is on sale now.

Fuel economy is listed at 28 mpg city/38 mpg highway/32 mpg combined in the SE, 27/37/31 in the SEL, and 27/36/31 in cars with the 1.6.

This may be an oversimplification, but the hierarchy of mid-size sedans now appears clear. The enthusiast buyer will be shopping Honda or Mazda, the Goldilocks intender Toyota or Kia, and the comfort shopper will be looking at Hyundai, Nissan, and VW (I haven’t driven Subaru’s new Legacy enough to place it).

Comfort isn’t a pejorative, not in this segment. While some midsize sedan buyers want verve, most just want to get from Point A to Point B with ease, and with little expenditure in fuel or monthly payment. If the car isn’t boring, so much the better.

This is where the Sonata fits in. If you that disappoints you, wait a year or so for the spicier N Line.

Hyundai finally seems to be nailing the dynamics and styling mix, at least if you’re OK with dynamics that don’t quite meet the sport sedan threshold. That’s a recipe for a very good midsize car.

Not great, not bad. Very good. Certainly, one that can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Editor’s Note: A typographical error indicated the 2.5-liter engine made 191 lb-ft of torque. The correct figure is 181 lb-ft. We’ve corrected the information and regret the error.

[Images © 2019 Tim Healey/TTAC]

Tim Healey
Tim Healey

Tim Healey grew up around the auto-parts business and has always had a love for cars — his parents joke his first word was “‘Vette”. Despite this, he wanted to pursue a career in sports writing but he ended up falling semi-accidentally into the automotive-journalism industry, first at Consumer Guide Automotive and later at Web2Carz.com. He also worked as an industry analyst at Mintel Group and freelanced for About.com, CarFax, Vehix.com, High Gear Media, Torque News, FutureCar.com, Cars.com, among others, and of course Vertical Scope sites such as AutoGuide.com, Off-Road.com, and HybridCars.com. He’s an urbanite and as such, doesn’t need a daily driver, but if he had one, it would be compact, sporty, and have a manual transmission.

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  • Tankinbeans Tankinbeans on Dec 11, 2019

    Maybe don't wax poetic about the "styling." We have eyes and can see it. That front end is tragic and cohesive it isn't. Perhaps this looks good as a newfangled doorstop...

  • Stuckonthetrain Stuckonthetrain on Jan 08, 2020

    These gaping front maws are because of Euro ncap pedestrian safety regs, right?

  • Daniel J Alabama is a right to work state so I'd be interested in how this plays out. If a plant in Alabama unionized, there are many workers who's still oppose joining and can work.
  • ToolGuy This guest was pretty interesting.
  • NJRide So this is an average age of car to be junked now and of course this is a lower end (and now semi-orphaned) product. But street examples seem to still be worth 2500? So are cars getting junked only coming in because of a traumatic repair? If not it seems a lot of cars being junked that would still possibly worth more than scrap.Also Murilee I remember your Taurus article way back what is the king of the junkyard in 2024?
  • AMcA I applaud Toyota for getting away from the TRD performance name. TuRD. This is another great example of "if they'd just thought to preview the name with a 13 year old boy."
  • Jeff Does this really surprise anyone? How about the shoes and the clothes you wear. Anything you can think of that is either directly made in China or has components made in China likely has some slave labor involved. The very smart phone, tablet, and laptop you are using probably has some component in it that is either mined or made by slave labor. Not endorsing slave labor just trying to be real.