When you can’t sell practical anymore, it’s time to start selling something pretty.
Mid-size sedans like the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Hyundai Sonata used to be top sellers largely on the strength of their family car credentials. But crossovers, with their two or three-times-as-much cargo room and (usually) available all-wheel-drive, have made huge inroads into the family car market.
What to do?
Sell looks—and luxury.
For about the same as you’d pay for a crossover.
What It Is
Like its primary rivals (the Camry and Accord) the “mid-size” Sonata almost a full-sized sedan in terms of its overall length.
Also like them, it’s been restyled to summon passion and engineered to deliver more performance to try to recover sales that have been lost to crossovers.
It’s also not an electric car or even a hybrid.
Hyundai is one of the few car companies that have not gulped down the Electric Car Kool Aid. Hybrids haven’t been selling well lately because gas prices have gone down.
So Hyundai is sticking with what does sell — internal combustion — and lots of it!
Prices start at $23,400 for the SE trim, which comes with a larger (and stronger) 2.5 liter engine vs. last year’s Sonata. There’s also a new eight-speed automatic transmission, which replaces the six-speed used last year.
A top-of-the-line Limited stickers for $33,300.
It comes standard with an updated version of the 1.6 liter turbocharged engine that’s the same size as the optional engine in last year’s Sonata, but bumped up to 180 hp from last year’s 178.
All trims sit more than an inch lower and look much sleeker than the old Sonata.
Everything. Pretty much the only thing that carries over the same is the name.
Stretch legs; the Sonata has more legroom for the driver and front seat passenger than a limo-sized Mercedes S-Class.
Luxury car features, including an available 12.3 inch LCD instrument cluster, at a family car price.
What’s Not So Good
About an inch less backseat legroom than last year.
Much less space for cargo than a same-size crossover.
Not as powerful as Camry/Accord with their optional engines for the moment.
Under The Hood
The horsepower numbers of the Sonata’s standard 2.5 liter engine (no turbo) and its optional 1.6 liter engine (with a turbo) are so close—191 and 180 hp, respectively—you might wonder why not just offer one or the other?
Because of the torque.
The optional 1.6 liter engine makes more (195 ft.-lbs. vs. 181 ft.-lbs.) and sooner (1,500 RPM vs 4,000 for the 2.5 engine). This translates into more forceful acceleration, sooner.
Without burning more gas.
The turbo makes the smaller 1.6 liter engine bigger and more powerful when more power is wanted. But when more power isn’t needed, it reverts to being a smaller, less thirsty engine.
Official figures for the 2020 Sonata weren’t available when this review was written in early December of 2019, but should be in the ballpark of 28 city, 37 highway (the stats for the ’19 Sonata with the 1.6 engine).
Hyundai says the ’20 Sonata with the 2.5 liter engine should pull down 28 city, 38 highway. But it won’t get to 60 as quickly, and as easily, as the ’20 Sonata with the torquier 1.6 liter engine.
With either engine, the new Sonata gets to 60 in about 8 seconds but the 1.6-equipped Hyundai feels stronger because its torque swells sooner. The larger engine sounds like it’s working harder, too because it has to rev higher to produce its maximum thrust potential.
But, which will last longer over the long haul?
Not the next ten years (during which you’ll be covered by Hyundai’s class-best drivetrain warranty anyhow) but over the next 15 or 20? Modern cars last that long routinely.
But will modern, heavily turbocharged, engines?
We will have to wait and see.
One thing that’s for sure right now is that the ’20 Sonata needs more engine. Or at least, more power. Both of its available engines are outclassed by the optional engines in the Camry and Accord, each of which offers (respectively) a 3.5 liter V6 with 301 horsepower or a turbo 2.0 four with 252 hp.
The V6 Camry can get to 60 in about 5 seconds, which is about three seconds sooner than the 1.6 Turbo Sonata.
But there is good news in the pipeline. By spring, you’ll be able to order the new Sonata with a third engine. A turbocharged version of the 2.5 liter engine that makes 290 horsepower and 310 ft.-lbs. of torque.
This one ought to close the gap.
On the Road
One of the draws of crossovers is that you sit higher up, which used to be a visibility advantage, until crossovers became as common as sedans used to be. It’s no longer much of an advantage because you’re surrounded by other crossovers, also high-riding.
And you’ve lost the handling/stability advantage of being closer to the road.
The Sonata has the superior stability that comes with being several inches closer to the pavement as well as the superior visibility of its fastback rear glass and lower trunk line. It’s at least as nice to be able to see what’s behind you as well as what’s ahead of you.
It also makes parking easier, without depending as much on a back-up camera.
The electric-assisted power steering feels a bit disconnected but it’s accurate and more importantly, the rest of the car isn’t electric. It can travel 400-plus miles on a tank of gas and you can conveniently refill that tank to full in less than five minutes, without spending $1,000 to install a “fast” charger in your garage that instills an 80 percent charge in 45 minutes, enabling you to travel maybe 200 miles.
The Sonata, like most of the cars in its class, doesn’t offer all-wheel-drive. But it’s arguable that AWD has been oversold, by playing on people’s fear of snow-driving and by convincing them that it’s “unsafe” to drive in the snow without AWD.
In fact, it’s mostly a question of being able to drive that’s determinative.
A front-wheel-drive car is actually a great material for a snow-day drive, if you have the right tires for snow-day driving. A FWD car shoed with snow tires will do better in the snow than an AWD car riding on sport tires, which many of them do.
That’s the real key as far as not getting stuck, but a set of snow tires costs a lot less than AWD, so guess which gets hard-sold as the gotta-have-it?
At the Curb
The new Sonata is longer, wider, and much roomier.
And it’s a looker.
Or rather, it doesn’t look like everything else, high praise these days.
The fastback punctuates in a beveled ducktail trunk lid that interestingly integrates the lip spoiler with the tail/brake lights.
Viewed head-on, it has the mien of a puff-adder. One almost expects it to hiss.
It also has 46.1 inches of legroom up front which is almost five inches more legroom than a Mercedes S-Class, with 41.4 inches.
The Sonata also has some other things you wouldn’t have found in anything less than a six-figure Mercedes just a few years ago, including an available 12.3 inch flatscreen instrument cluster paired with a 10.3 inch touchscreen off to its right for the car’s secondary systems, a Heads-Up Display on top of that. A key-fob remote-park feature that maneuvers the car into place without you behind the wheel.
This latter system is designed to let you make use of very tight parking spots you otherwise couldn’t get into and be able to get out of the car. This level of tech was the stuff of science fiction as recently as 2010.
And now it’s available in a Hyundai.
One of the functionally useful aspects of the LCD main display is that multiple displays can be displayed in the same space. In this case, the digitized speed toggles to your rearward view, which is preferable because it’s in the driver’s line of sight rather than off to the right (in the center stack, where most cars display it).
One of the downsides is that everything is displayed (or not, if and when the LCD display croaks). But just as air conditioning and heated seats went from being high-end luxury car features to givens in almost every car, so have also flatscreen displays are replacing physical/individual needle-type gauges.
Within a few years, it’s probable finding a new car without a flatscreen cluster will be as hard as finding a new car with an ashtray and cigarette lighter is today.
Just a few negatives detract from this otherwise appealing package.
One is that there’s less backseat legroom than before (34.8 inches vs. 35.6 inches). Another is that Hyundai inexplicably elected not to offer a heated steering wheel—a luxury feature that’s becoming an expected feature in new cars, for all the obvious reasons.
But otherwise, it’s hats off and a pat on that pretty hood.
The Bottom Line
If looks could kill — this one ought to sell!
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos
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The Eric Peters Car Review is sponsored by the NMA Foundation, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting your interests as a motorist and citizen through the multi-faceted approach of research, education, and litigation. The Foundation is able to offer this assistance through tax-deductible contributions.