2020 Hyundai Sonata Review: Car of the Year? (Its That Good)

The 2020 Hyundai Sonata is a strong exception to the rule that sedans are dying. The car looks sleeker and sportier, significant safety gear comes standard, the upper trim line lets you press a key-fob button to summon your car out of the garage before you get in, blind spot detection cameras show video of approaching cars in the instrument panel, and the Level 2 self-driving feature works well.

The tech just keeps on coming: Forgotten car keys will be a thing of the past with the Sonata because you can use your phone as a key (as long as its Android, not Apple) or use a hotel-key kind of NFC card you hold against the lock. The optional head-up display offered is first-class and includes blind-spot warnings, a Hyundai trademark. Oh, right: The Sonata also carries four or five people comfortably, is exceptionally quiet, and is front-drive-only, although AWD is possible when a hybrid version arrives and might power the rear wheels as well.

The 2020 Sonata (the red car) measures 193 inches long, 73 inches wide, and 57 inches high. Thats versus the 191 x 72 x 58 inches of the seventh generation. The sloped roof gives the Sonata the flavor of a coupe without too much impact on rear space.

How the Sonata Changed for the Better

The breakout 2010 Sonatas Fluidic Sculpture Design had lots of noticeable side creases and sales zoomed. Hyundai softened the look on the 2014 model with Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 with an asymmetric dash layout and less prominent creases; sales went soft, too. Maybe coincidence. For the 2020, eighth-generation Sonata, arriving at dealers as of the final weeks of 2019, its on to Sensuous Sportiness with a horizontal layout of panels and controls and floating dashboard components. The center display is 10.25 inches diagonal on upper trim lines. The Sonatas side view suggests a four-door coupe or hatchback. Its longer, lower, and wider, and with a longer wheelbase. Back seat room appears to suffer a bit, while front seat room is class-leading, Hyundai says.

There are two new four-cylinder engines with essentially the same power and same eight-speed automatic. The base engine is a 2.5-liter Atkinson Cycle four called with gasoline direct injection, a monstrous 13.0:1 compression ratio, 191 hp, and 181 pound-feet of torque reached once you hit 4,000 rpm. Continuously variable valve timing (CVVT) optimizes the time engine valves open relative to speed and load. Combined fuel economy (on regular fuel) is 32 mpg for the entry SE, 31 mpg for SEL.

Hyundais first-even shift by wire system.

Higher trims get a 1.6-liter GDI turbo, 10.5:1 compression, with 180 hp and 195 pound-feet of torque, but virtually all the torque is on tap from 1,800 rpm on, so the car feels peppy from almost the moment you drop the throttle. CVVT is not uncommon on good engines now, and for the 1.6 turbo, theres a Hyundai-engineered first: continuously variable valve duration (CVVD),which optimizes how long the valves remain open before closing. Hyundai says it improves mpg, eco-friendly engine control, and performance.

The eight-speed Hyundai Shiftronic transmission has shift-by-wire control (that is, no mechanical shift gear), which is necessary to do the garage-auto-exit trick (below). Its on all 2020 Sonatas except the high-performance N Line due in about a year. The car has four modes: Smart (adapts to the driver), Normal, Sport, and Custom (user set) that control steering effort and engine/transmission mapping. The shocks are not auto-adjusting, so it doesnt affect ride quality.

Hyundai blind spot sensors are backed up by side/rear-facing cameras. Flick the turn signal and the speedometer (left side) or tach is replaced by an over-the-shoulder video kind of view. Very slick.

Safety up the Wazoo

Hyundai is a leader among automakers that give you a bucket of safety tech standard even on cars costing less than $25,000. This is standard on all 2020 Sonatas:

  • Stop and go adaptive cruise control (advanced smart cruise control in Hyundai terminology)
  • Forward collision warning, auto emergency braking, pedestrian detection (forward collision-avoidance assist with pedestrian detection)
  • Auto high beams (automatic high beam assist)
  • Lane keep assist (steers the car back from the lane edges)
  • Lane centering assist (lane follow assist)
  • Driver drowsiness detection (driver attention warning)
  • Tire pressure monitoring system (TPMS)
  • Rearview camera with dynamic guidelines when backing up (the camera, but not the guidelines, are required in the US)

Whats missing? Hyundai did not put blind spot detection (blind-spot collision avoidance assist) and rear cross-traffic alert (rear cross-traffic avoidance assist) on the entry SE. Regrettable move. We prefer cars that have the key driver assists on all trims. It simplifies the buying process you know every Sonata has the core safety you want and reduces disappointments after the car is delivered and you find somehow you or the salesman got you into the wrong trim line.

Wed cut some slack to automakers if the entry trim had marginal sales, say 5 percent, but Hyundai estimates Sonata SE will get 10-15 percent penetration. Insurance-group safety ratings may someday limit the top rating to cars that do well on crash tests and also have a solid set of safety assists on all trims, else they will call out the offending trim lines. Even with BSD/RCTA standard, the SE would not cross a significant price plateau in this case, $25,000 including freight.

The slickest safety option is Blind-Spot View Monitor (BVM), a pair of side cameras that watch overtaking cars in the lanes to your side and rear. Flick the turn stalk and you get a rear-facing view of that lane (photo above). It is immensely useful and we hope it will be adopted by the industry, much as everyone else (including Hyundai) added the surround-view camera system pioneered by Nissan. BVM is essentially Honda Lane Watch except a) its on both sides, b) it supplements but doesnt replace blind spot detection warnings, and c) the Hyundai display is in the instrument panel (where you just glance down), not the center stack screen (where you must glance over and then down). Its a rare occasion when somebody outdoes Honda engineers, and Hyundai should take a bow for BVM, and then license it to the rest of the industry (and also offer it on more Sonata trim lines). BVM is also on Hyundais midsize Palisade SUV.

Highway Drive Assist centers the car and paces cars ahead, as long as you have your hands on the wheel every 10 seconds. Or so. (Note to safety zealots: The driver was hands-off for a few seconds only.)

Highway Drive Assist for Autonomy

A rear three-quarter view of the 2020 Sonata.

Other safety options are blind-spot collision avoidance assist, rear cross-traffic alert, rear parking collision avoidance, and Highway Drive Assist. HDA is Level 2 autonomous driving; it fuses the talents of lane centering assist and adaptive cruise control. On our test drive on divided and undivided highways, it worked like a champ. You have to keep your eyes on the road, and supposedly your hands on the wheel, at least every 10 seconds. But I clocked hands-off (with eyes glued to the road) self-driving segments of a minute or more.

Since Level 2 demands your ongoing attention, unlike future iterations of self-driving, drivers cant ignore watching the road for long periods. But HDA will save lives of think-well-live-forever teens who dont look up while texting and inadvertently cross the center lane to no good ending. This is why parents who think, hey, a four-year-old car is great for my high school (or college) student, instead should buy the newest, safest car for the teens, and the used car for themselves. Young adults should be in the safest car, not the most affordable. Such as in the Sonata.

Hyundais version of the Tesla Smart Summon promises less. But it delivers on all that it promises.

RSPA: Auto-Summon Your Car from the Garage

If HDA is the safety trick youll want, RSPA, or Remote Smart Parking Assist, is the convenience trick. It fetches your car out of the garage, or from a head-in/back-in stall. You start the car remotely. (Open the garage door, first, actually.) Press the forward or backward button and the car moves. You start the car moving, you stop it. It uses the 13 yes, thirteen sonar sensors to avoid scraping the side of the garage, so it pretty much steers straight out. If you (the driver) cocked the road wheels while shutting down, RSPA straightens the wheels before moving. By design, the car travels just 30 feet/10 meters max, so it lacks the super-wow factor of Tesla Auto-Summon that covers longer distances. But it will also avoid the YouTube videos of Teslas that went rogue and hit, or were hit, in parking-lot mishaps.

The biggest advantage accrues to people who live in small urban garages, or suburbanites with overflow possessions lining the walls.

A trim piece running up the hood line lights up when the lights are on. Off, it appears silvery.

Plastic NFC Card as Key, Phone as Key

The Sonata comes with the usual wireless-entry keys. But you can also use a plastic card, which looks like a hotel key card with embedded near field communication (NFC), to walk up, unlock, start up, and drive away. Lose it? The front desk cant make you one, but the dealer can for about $20.

Hyundai Digital Key using an Android phone (only). Sorry, iPhone fans.

Expect to hear this acronym a lot in the next couple of years: PAK, or phone as a key. Your Android smartphone can be a key as well, using both NFC and Bluetooth low energy (BLE). BLE works from 30 feet away for lock/unlock and panic. NFC can unlock the door when held against the handle, and authenticate the driver when the phone is placed in the center console Qi wireless cradle.

All of this works because every Sonata has embedded telematics called Blue Link (which has nothing to do with Bluetooth or diesel fuel) with three years of service included. Hyundai added enhancements for more remote vehicle status info, remote start enhancements, and remote driver profile management. The cloud stores each family drivers navigation, multimedia, and cluster menu settings. The cloud also lets the car owner assign access to a guest, mechanic, or possibly a ride-share renter, all without needing to transfer a physical key. As long as the other people have Android and not Apple phones. iPhones dont work because while they have NFC, Apple reserves it for Apple payments. So the rest of the world has to convince Apple to loosen up a little, stop talking about security problems as if theyre totally insurmountable, and join the progress of technology.

Hyundai Sonata entered the US market in 1996. Its fluidic sculpture redesign in 2010 pushed sales past 200,000 for six years and a sales level half to two-thirds the sales of midsize-sedan sales leaders Toyota Camry and Honda Accord. The generation-eight Sonata addresses sagging sales for the last three years. (2019 sales estimated.)

Is There Room for More New Sedans?

In the first half of 2019, seven in 10 vehicles sold in the US were an SUV or pickup truck. Midsize sedans such as the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Nissan Altima, and Hyundai Sonata have fallen in sales from 2.5 million in 2012 to 1.8 million in 2018. Hyundai did its part, falling by half, probably helped by the aforementioned softening of the 2010 fluidic sculpture design in 2014 that made the Sonata stand out less to buyers.

But Mike OBrien, VP of product and digital planning, says enough automakers are bailing on sedans that theres plenty of market opportunity for those who remain. Ford and Fiat Chrysler will essentially get out of the sedan business. Buick has or will discontinue the LaCrosse and Regal, making it an all-SUV brand in the US. Chevrolet will kill the Cruze, Impala, Malibu, and the Bolt plug-in hybrid. Muscle cars will live on such as Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang.

As of October 2019, the top midsize sedan sellers are:

  1. Toyota Camry
  2. Honda Accord
  3. Nissan Altima
  4. Ford Fusion (due to be canceled)
  5. Chevrolet Malibu (due to be canceled)
  6. Hyundai Sonata
  7. Kia Optima (sibling car to Sonata)
  8. Volkswagen Passat
  9. Subaru Legacy
  10. Mazda6

The cockpit materials, fit, and finish are closing in on Mazda. (Thats a compliment to both.)

Sonata Trim Lines and Prices

The Sonata comes in four trim lines, or grades. Hyundais OBrien said the bottom and top trim lines have few options. Why? At the entry-level, buyers want an affordable payment plan, OBrien says. At the top, they want everything. So its the middle trims where the options packages live.

Hyundai switched the Sonatas premium audio from Harman to Bose. It has 12 speakers.

The entry Sonata SE, $26,430 including $930 freight from the Montgomery, AL, factory, is very nicely equipped with one exception: no blind-spot detection. But it does include the safety tools listed above, and an 8-inch center stack LCD that runs Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Exterior lights are LED. Alloy wheels are 16-inches, and theres no shame in that: Less aluminum alloy means more rubber tire sidewall, which means fewer pothole blowouts. You get one 12-volt socket and one USB jack.

The SEL. $26,430, most importantly brings in the blind-spot detection and rear cross-traffic alert, along with bigger alloy wheels (17-inch), a hands-free trunk release, 4.2-inch LCD trip computer, leatherette (vinyl) upholstery, an 8-way driver power seat, heated front seats, and a second-row USB jack. The car gets HD radio, satellite radio, and Blue Link (telematics). The $1,200 convenience package brings a 12.3-instrument LCD instrument panel, Hyundai Digital Key, wireless phone charging, and another rear USB jack. The premium package, $1,850 (plus you must take the mandatory convenience package), adds 12-speaker Bose audio (which sounded very good), leather seats, and and a heated steering wheel. A panoramic sunroof adds $1,000.

The Limiteds head-up display.

The SEL Plus, $28,830, moves to the turbo engine with paddle shifters, 18-inch alloys, full-LED taillights and LED turn signals, Dinamica suede/leatherette seats, the 12.3-inch instrument panel, wireless charging, and Hyundai Digital Key. The one option, the tech package, $2,750, rolls in the sunroof, LED interior lights, a 10.25-inch center stack navigation system, the Bose audio, and Highway Driving Assist.

The Limited is $34,230, or $3,100 more than the SEL Plus and tech package. And its a one-price car, rolling in all the SEL Plus features plus head-up display, front/rear parking sensors, parking collision avoidance assistance, surround monitors (around-view surround cameras), the Blind Spot View Monitor, and Remote Smart Parking Assist.

Hyundai had one more version on hand: a prototype of the Sonata N Line, a performance variant with a 2.5-liter turbo engine that will generate about 300 hp, use a double shift clutch gearbox (DSG), and spread a performance aura over the entire Sonata line.

The N Line will be the sport-tuned Sonata with almost 300 hp on tap.

Should you buy? If youre the type whos happy in a sedan, the Sonata is a must-drive possibility. For the past decade, the Honda Accord has been the midsize sedan of choice, especially if you like sporty, along with the Toyota Camry. The Nissan Altima, recently renewed in 2018, is quite competent and a good value. The Mazda6 has been the drivers car in this segment. But theres a new sheriff in town in the form of the Sonata.

Of the four trim lines, the SEL with or without the options packages will be a good value, and the Limited gives the buyer a fabulous car with a lot of technology for about $35K. The 2020 Sonata rocks. And it makes Hyundai SUV buyers Santa Fe and Tucson especially wonder how soon this level of craftsmanship and cockpit style reaches them. This is the best sedan that came to market in 2019 and the argument can be made that it may be the best car of 2019.

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