Review: 2020 Hyundai Sonata Ultimate
This Sonata has clearly come to play
As I look back on the story that’s brought us here, to the 2020 Hyundai Sonata, I’m intrigued.
Here was a car that – along with its smaller Elantra sibling – many credited for spearheading the resurgence – actually, more the arrival – of Hyundai in North America. Until the new Sonata launched in that faithful year, 2010, Hyundai had been known for the now almost cult-like Pony and a handful of other compact hatches and SUVs that had “affordability” as their calling card. They looked unexcitingly inoffensive, had room enough inside to over-justify their piece tags and that was about it.
Then the 2011 Sonata came, and all bets were off. It looked unlike anything in its segment (which is, admittedly, a pretty vanilla segment in the styling sense) and came with all sorts of great interior goodies but still managed to keep the cost of entry low. It was cool, it soon became more powerful with the addition of a turbo motor and in my eyes, it was what mid-sized sedans should aspire to be.
Thing is, the battle wasn’t over yet; the segment had become stagnant and was losing buyers to crossovers by the hundreds, and the Sonata had the very good Santa Fe SUV to contend with. Even after all those great strides were made the Sonata found itself once again fighting a battle, just on a much grander scale. Sedans weren’t the go tos anymore when it came to comfortable cruising, especially in Canada.
So, once again, it was time to reset a little which brings us to the 2020 Sonata, an all-new car that sits lower and wider than previous and has increased to 4,900 mm in length – that makes it nigh-on a full-size sedan, but Hyundai will tell you that it sits firmly in the mid-size category.
To really stake a claim, Hyundai has gone all-out in the styling department. The front grille is shaped to reflect that which is seen on its upmarket Genesis G70 and G80 cousins and LED DRL strips at the base of the headlights continue on to a chrome strip that stretches all the way to the back of the hood. I had to look closely to see that this wasn’t just my eyes playing tricks on me, because it’s not something regularly seen on cars, especially in non-luxury segments like this. Hyundai went there, though, and I have to applaud the guts they displayed in doing so. It’s also cool how the effect is repeated on the door cards and the taillights.
I’m not as sold on the grille – it’s a little too big for my liking – but the rest of the styling is well-proportioned and detailed; I’m especially a fan of the “Sonata” scripting all across the rear deck. Very Lincoln-esque, and it works.
A quick note on the airblade-type inserts above the taillamps: they are there to reduce drag and improve fuel efficiency, but I found another use for them. They are actually a really good place to put your hand as you close the trunk; less risk of scratching your paint with a ringed finger or what have you, and they also provide kind of a grip to make closing the trunk a little easier. Minor? Maybe, but opening and closing a trunk is something one tends to do quite often, so why not make it a little easier?
Inside, my “Ultimate”-trimmed model has a properly luxurious interior with high-quality leather seating and cossetting ambient lighting while the button-activated transmission and low profile dash vents and climate controls make for a less cluttered interior overall. It’s properly airy in here, which is surprising considering how aggressive that roofline is. That roofline, meanwhile, does affect rear headroom a little, but the seats are deep enough back there that you can slide your butt forward a little in order to ensure your hairdo stays intact. Even with the large sunroof my tester had, I had no quarrel with the headroom up front though I did find the seating position just a titch to high. Seats are a little on the firm side, as well, so when testing the Sonata, be sure to play with the lumbar adjustment before you set off.
I am a little conflicted about that centre stack, however. Normally, I would be happy to have traditional buttons instead of a newfangled all-touch surface, but here I found myself missing the buttons almost every time I went for them because I was pressing the black space in-between them. Those silver slivers you see there? Those are the actual buttons and they are easy to miss, especially when not looking or while wearing gloves.
Otherwise, though, the cockpit is aces and all topped off by a nice, wide infotainment display (with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto as standard) that gets kind of a tiled set-up so you can easily navigate between apps. My tester also had wireless charging and premium Bose audio. Oh, and like that great Super Bowl ad demonstrates: it can park itself once you get it all lined up into a spot, through plipping the keyfob. Take that, Tesla!
I even like the button-operated transmission; it doesn’t lag like button operated systems have since pretty much the Edsel era (yes. Edsels had this) and it’s shaped just so, making it easy to know which button to press. Very slick.
Equally slick is the blind spot system.
Far beyond your typical warning system that flashes a light housed near your wing mirrors when you activate the turn signal, the Sonata provides a camera for both the left- and right-side blind spots. It’s housed within the gauge cluster so it’s easily in your line of sight, and it is very handy. I wouldn’t say that I’m “all about the driver aids”, but this is one I’d definitely like to see more of.
Power for my tester comes courtesy of a 180 hp, 195 lb-ft turbo four-banger paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission. It’s a slick affair with great response times and a wide powerband, but it is down quite a bit on last year’s 2.0L turbo model. There are a myriad of reasons for this, but I think chief among them is the fact that for the first time ever, we’re going to see a Sonata N Line model (N Line being Hyundai’s performance line that debuted in Canada with last year’s Elantra GT N Line) that will pick up the bootstraps in terms of power. That’s a nice surprise. Less nice is the fact that there are no plans for a PHEV Sonata as of yet; those considering purchasing this generation will have to look to a standard hybrid model for their Greenthumb credentials.
Even with the lower power figures, the Sonata is no slouch. Power delivery is smooth and immediate, with peak torque arriving and a lowly 1,500 rpm. It’s a smooth surge forward at that point as the eight-speed auto moves through its ratios with very little power interruption; the car does have paddle shifters, but I found less and less of a need to use them as my test continued. I was perfectly content to let the computers work their magic as I let this surprisingly luxurious non-luxury sedan whisk me along.
Yes, I use the “whisk” adjective there. It’s not just the smooth powertrain, but also the low-drag styling and the well-dampened chassis. It really does feel like Hyundai got the jounce and rebound rates just right, and I can only imagine some work has gone into the suspension bushings to make sure as little is felt in the cockpit as possible. Somehow, even with all these ride quality enhancements, the Sonata remains a planted and able handler, exhibiting little body roll or fore-aft pitch under braking and acceleration. The wide, low build makes for a low centre of gravity, which means the body is more easily kept in-check by the chassis. With handling like this, I’m really looking forward to how the N Line version will improve on things.
Indeed, the only time I really found myself second-guessing the ride quality was when I really delved deep into the throttle for some more aggressive acceleration. It gets a little metallic and harsh in these circumstances, but it only really occurred at extremes that I feel will rarely be attempted by most Sonata owners.
Indeed, they’d be much happier knowing that they have power enough on-tap to keep the drama down on average trips, a comfortable drive (both in the ride and interior sense) and enough tech to make your local Best Buy blush. That last one may be a bit extreme, but this Sonata has clearly come to play. It’s had to re-invent itself again (well, Hyundai’s had to re-invent it, anyway) and it’s done so in fine form. Will it be able to reverse the CUV/SUV bias we’re seeing today? Across the board, of course not. If there are any fence sitters, though, then the Sonata in its current form will definitely give them something to think about.
2020 Hyundai Sonata Ultimate
BODY STYLE: Four-door sedan
DRIVE METHOD: Front engine, front-wheel drive
ENGINE: I4 turbocharged, 180 hp, 195 lb-ft of torque
TRANSMISSION: eight-speed automatic
Pricing: $26,999 (base); $38,599 (as tested)
WEBSITE: Hyundai Sonata