First drive review: 2020 Hyundai Sonata Limited does the work of two cars

October 6, 2019

The Hyundai Sonata already worked overtime at its day job, providing efficient and safe wheels for families unconvinced by the whole crossover-SUV conflamma.

Now has two jobs: the base sedans keep that pace, while the 2020 Sonata Limited ascends a few steps to become a replacement for the former flagship, the Hyundai Azera, with all the flagship touches, technology, and turbo power that implies.

With the new Sonata, Hyundai has reshaped its mid-size sedan into something much more evocative, too—something well-suited to tackle the likes of the Toyota Camry, Nissan Altima, and Kia Optima, but in particular, the Honda Accord.

I drove the 2020 Sonata Limited last week, and here’s how it fares against those boulder-strong rivals. 

American beauty

Hyundai sculpts its cars in South Korea, but the Alabama-built Sonata taps a counter-revolution taking place in family sedans. While crossovers take over the chores, sedans are beginning to play more with form: witness the extravagant shapes of the latest Camry and Accord.

Add the 2020 Sonata to that list. It drops the prosaic look of the 2015-2019 sedan and pulls and tapers and carves its shape at every opportunity. It’s as if the prior car never existed, as if it were 2011 again, when Hyundai first imbued the Sonata with visual urgency. 

Where an upright nose and simple headlights once took up room, the 2020 Sonata cinches down with a dramatically shaped and textured grille, framed by boomerang LED strips that meld seamlessly into the car’s beltline. Hyundai stamps the hood with deep character lines, as if to underscore the drama.

Down the body sides, the 2020 Sonata looks more like a sport-backed German sedan or a fastback, consciously so. The roofline swells and descends with aerodynamic elegance, until it dissolves into the car’s short trunk. The sides have deep cuts and valleys that form a six-pack among family-car dad bods. 

It’s a truly beautiful car with very few, minor “huh?” moments. The finned aero foils on its taillights look odd, but smooth airflow at the rear. The Aston-ish mouth frowns up close; pull back, and it hoovers up the pavement like the world’s best-dressed anteater.

A graceful new interior banishes the more drab surroundings of the last Sonata. There’s a lightness to its horizontal theme that compiles from very slim air vents, climate controls, and on expensive models, a dash-mounted high-resolution touchscreen that pairs with digital gauges that use explosive graphics to indicate changes in drive modes. The wing-like dash mixes higher-grade materials to great effect, and the piano-key climate switches work effortlessly. Quilted seats in the Limited model add a touch of peripheral beauty. The console-mounted transmission switches lump up a cleanly designed space, but otherwise, the Sonata’s interior feels perfectly on moment, nothing too cutting-edge, nothing remotely out of date. 

2020 Hyundai Sonata

2020 Hyundai Sonata

Show some leg (room)

Nothing gets in the way of a functional, comfortable interior, either. It’s an anti-crossover SUV, with a low roofline and a low-slung seating position. 

By the spec sheet, the 2020 Sonata takes up 192.9 inches to tell its styling story; 111.8 inches of that happens between its wheels. Dimensionally it’s a dead ringer for every other best-selling mid-size sedan named here. Still that makes it 1.2 inches longer in wheelbase, and more than an inch lower, than the car it replaces.

Drivers and front passengers won’t notice much difference. The 2020 Sonata Limited offers up a power driver seat adjustable for rake, position, and cushion tilt. Covered in a fine bolt of leather, heated and cooled (thanks given, on our 100-degree test day), the front seats support as you’d expect a family car to, but not much more. The bottom cushions felt somewhat short, and cooled seats always feel flatter at the bottom thanks to their baked-in air vents. Passengers get manual seats on most Sonatas, and even on the Limited, they’re limited to four-way power adjustment, none for seat height.

Head room is swell, and leg room excels, at 46.1 inches. That’s the biggest spec in the class, while the 2020 Sonata’s 34.8 rear-seat leg-room dimension is the shortest. Hyundai puts the interior-space bias to the front, while back seats get thinner, lower cushions. Like the fold-away seats on some minivans, the Sonata’s back bench matters less, Hyundai reasons—and that makes sense. I fit fine, at about six feet tall.

The Sonata’s storage space nets out to a deep glovebox, a very deep center console with room for smartphone charging, a useful console bin, and door pockets with water-bottle room. The trunk has 16.0 cubic feet, and though it’s unadorned—the hinges aren’t covered—it doesn’t scream cheap.

I drove a prototype, which is in theory rough around the edges as full production nears. I scoured for sore points and found none. The 2020 Sonata Limited’s quieter than a Camry or an Accord, Hyundai says, and it’s tightly fitted too, even before it’s compelled to be.

2020 Hyundai Sonata

2020 Hyundai Sonata

(Turbo) charge it

If there’s an aspect where the 2020 Sonata seems content, it’s in straight-line performance.

Hyundai will sell a base Sonata SE and Sonata SEL with a 2.5-liter inline-4. It’s rated at 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque, has port and direct injection for better efficiency, and when coupled to an 8-speed automatic, may reach an EPA combined figure of 33 mpg. 

Hyundai didn’t provide that test car for our first drive. The 2020 Sonata SEL Plus and Limited tap a different engine for power, a 1.6-liter turbo-4 rated at 180 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque and at an estimated 31 mpg combined.

The 4-cylinders land on top of each other on the spec sheet, but in tuning, the turbo-4 arrives at peak torque much more quickly, and stays there. With the effortless 8-speed shifts (paddle-controlled, for those who care), it’s capable of perfectly ample acceleration, accompanied by a pleasant growl that only fills the cabin when it’s at full-bore. Three decades of test experience indicates to me a 0-60 mph time of about eight seconds, but Hyundai doesn’t publish its own figures.

The 8-speed transmission can be paddle-shifted, but its actual lever has been chucked in favor of switch-style controls like those in the Honda family. The change drops the part count and complexity and frees up storage under the switches—and it’s perfectly in touch with the 2020 Sonata’s emphasis on controlled, composed behavior.

Hyundai fits a drive mode selector on the console. The Sonata’s powertrain and steering effort can be toggled through Smart (constantly adaptive), Normal, Sport, and Custom modes for quicker transmission and throttle response, or less steering weight. But it’s most happy to scoot around central Alabama in Normal mode, clicking off shifts and settling into wide sweepers with a slightly light touch to the steering wheel. Sport mode doles out more heft in the steering and more attentive shifts; neither ever becomes problematic.

The Sonata’s front struts and rear multi-link suspension ace the suspension test. They provide a smoother ride than the prior car. The improvement in body structure pays off more clearly: The Sonata’s quiver-free over railroad tracks, deflects bumps through its steering less frequently and with less of a jolt. Its calm, fuss-free ride is its strongest asset, especially when fresh drives of the late, lamented Ford Fusion are still within memory.

2020 Hyundai Sonata

2020 Hyundai Sonata

Alabama strong

There’s every reason to expect the 2020 Sonata will fare very well in crash tests, since it’s done so with each passing generation. This time, every sedan gets standard automatic emergency braking, as well as adaptive cruise control, active lane control, and a driver-attention monitor. Parking sensors are walled off into top models, along with a surround-view camera system, as well as blind-spot monitors rigged with cameras that project those views into the gauge cluster. 

Along with those safety features, the 2020 Sonata SE gets the base engine and standard 16-inch wheels, cloth upholstery, LED headlights, Bluetooth, and an 8.0-inch touchscreen with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto compatibility. The base model is well-equipped, and it only gets better as the price goes higher. The Sonata SEL shares that powertrain and adds 17-inch wheels, blind-spot monitors, a handsfree trunk lid, keyless ignition, synthetic leather upholstery, a power driver seat, automatic climate control, heated front seats, and satellite radio. Its options include the digital gauges, wireless smartphone charging, and a digital key—a system that allows Android phones (and soon, Apple phones) to unlock and start the car, using NFC and Bluetooth connections.

A Premium package tops it off with Bose audio, leather upholstery, and a heated steering wheel—but that requires a Convenience package that includes the digital gauges, digital key, and smartphone charger. Stand-alone options include a 10.25-inch touchscreen interface with navigation, a panoramic sunroof, LED ambient lighting, and highway drive assist, which lets the car’s cruise control follow posted speed limits.

At that point, the Sonata SEL Plus may be a better choice, with its standard turbo-4 engine on board. It also gets 18-inch wheels with Michelin or Pirelli tires, LED taillights, and the digital doodads.

Finally, our 2020 Sonata Limited gains all the safety and technology discussed here, as well as a wrapped dash, paddle shifters, a power passenger seat, cooled front seats, a head-up display, parking sensors, a surround-view camera system, and remote smart parking, which lets drivers use the key fob to move the car out of tight parking spaces. No model has been priced, but the Sonata Limited will exceed last year’s Limited, which tops out at more than $33,000. 

Mid-size sedans may be a shrinking force on the American road, but the 2020 Sonata won’t hear that down-talking. It has the work of two cars to get down to.

The new 2020 Hyundai Sonata will go on sale in the spring. Stay tuned for prices, EPA fuel economy, and base-car driving impressions.


Hyundai paid for lodging so that we could bring you this review.

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