2020 Hyundai Sonata and Sonata N-Line Review

Christian Wardlaw | Dec 10, 2019

Introduction

Several of Hyundai’s competitors are abandoning the traditional sedan market, and the automaker thinks the trend is an opportunity. Hyundai expects nearly 2.9 million sedan loyalists who own now-discontinued models to buy a replacement in the years ahead, and the automaker predicts that its redesigned 2020 Sonata midsize car will attract new customers to the brand.

Dig into the details of the 2020 Hyundai Sonata, and it’s easy to conclude that the company is right to plan for new customers. From its stylish design and high-tech equipment to its roomy interior and pleasing driving dynamics, the 2020 Sonata is improved in every way. Not only that, but the fresh styling should prove more popular with younger buyers, this family car’s safety engineering and equipment is better than ever, and the Sonata remains an impressive value.

But what’s it like to drive, ride in, and use? I headed to Phoenix to find out first hand, spending a day with a 2020 Hyundai Sonata Limited dipped in unique Hampton Gray paint and equipped with floor mats, which are optional for all Hyundais. The price of the test car came to $34,365, including the $930 destination charge.

In order to set the stage, know Limited trim is the top version of the 2020 Sonata (for now). The base model is called the SE, the next rung up the ladder is the SEL, and then the SEL Plus adds a turbocharged engine and a sporty interior. Limited trim is the upscale model.

2020 Hyundai Sonata Limited Hampton Gray Front ViewFuture plans include an efficient Sonata Hybrid and a performance-tuned Sonata N-Line. During this trip to Arizona, Hyundai offered a brief drive in a fully camouflaged version of the N-Line. Driving impressions of that model are included in the review below.

What Owners Say…

Before we discuss the results of our evaluation of the new Hyundai Sonata, it is helpful to understand who buys this midsize car, and what they like most and least about their vehicles.

Compared to the segment, Sonata owners are more frequently male (66% vs. 63%) and they are older (59 years vs. 54 years). In fact, according to J.D. Power data, 59% of Sonata owners identify as members of the Baby Boomer or Pre-Boomer generation. Sonata also owners enjoy less annual household income, on average, at $80,556 (vs. $85,976 for the segment).

Though the Sonata is built in Hyundai’s Montgomery, Alabama factory, owners are less likely to agree that they prefer to buy a new vehicle from a domestic company (40% vs. 48% for the segment). They aren’t as knowledgeable about autos, with 55% agreeing that friends and family think they know a great deal about the subject (vs. 61% for the segment).

Fewer Sonata owners agree that a first consideration in choosing a vehicle is miles per gallon (72% vs. 77%), and they are less willing to pay extra for a vehicle that is environmentally friendly (49% vs. 60%). Sonata owners are also less likely to agree that they need a versatile vehicle to accommodate a busy lifestyle (69% vs. 75%), and they are less likely to agree that they like a vehicle that stands out from the crowd (63% vs. 70%).

Owners say their favorite things about the previous-generation Sonata are (in descending order) the interior design; the exterior design, storage and space, and visibility and safety all in a tie; and the driving dynamics. Owners indicate their least favorite things about the previous generation Sonata are (in descending order) the engine/transmission and the seats (in a tie), the infotainment system, the climate system, and fuel economy.

What Our Expert Says… 

In the sections that follow, our expert provides his own perceptions about how the 2020 Sonata measures up in each of the 10 categories that comprise the 2019 J.D. Power Automotive Performance, Execution, and Layout (APEAL) Study.

Exterior

Low, blunt, and unusual, the 2020 Hyundai Sonata’s front styling is polarizing. You either like it, or you don’t. And that goes for the unusual lighting element that bleeds into the chrome running up each side of the hood. This isn’t the first time Hyundai has used bold design to differentiate its midsize family sedan, and the company plainly states that it seeks to replicate the success of that 2011 redesign with the all-new 2020 model.

From the front wheels back, the new Sonata is a handsome car with an upscale appearance, especially in Limited trim. The test vehicle’s Hampton Gray paint, a flat gray with a subtle green tint to it, addresses a recent consumer preference trend but may not be the car’s most flattering hue.

Previous-generation Sonata owners weren’t as interested as all midsize car buyers in owning a vehicle that stands out from the crowd. Buyers of this new Sonata won’t have a choice: the car is distinctive.

Interior

Inside the 2020 Sonata, Hyundai takes a minimalist approach to design, eliminating as many buttons and knobs as possible. The end result produces a cleaner and more modern cabin, the only misstep the elimination of a radio tuning knob.

Materials are the expected mix of soft touch and hard plastic surfaces. Hyundai uses the latter material to trim the front seat backs, which easily scuffs and scratches and is uncomfortable to the knees of taller passengers.

Color choices include Black, Dark Gray, and Camel (tan). The warmest and most appealing of them is Camel, which creates an upscale 2-tone appearance within the new Sonata SEL and Limited. Hyundai offers all three interior colors with each exterior paint color, a thoughtful approach that more automakers should emulate. However, SEL Plus trim comes only with a Black interior in leatherette and simulated suede, while SE trim offers Black or Dark Gray cloth seating.

High-tech interior upgrades include wireless smartphone charging, a head-up display, a 12.3-inch digital instrumentation display, and Hyundai Digital Key. Through Near Field Communications (NFC), Hyundai Digital Key allows Sonata owners to lock and unlock the car, and to start the engine and drive it, using their Android smartphone.

Hyundai Digital Key also includes a digital keycard similar to a hotel room key to use instead of the smartphone app, which is helpful for iPhone users. Hyundai says it is waiting for Apple to make NFC available for products outside of the company’s universe.

Seats

Premium-grade leather is unavailable in the new Sonata, which remains a strong value in its segment. The basic-grade leather that’s optional in SEL trim and standard in Limited trim won’t produce many complaints, though. The Sonata Limited also includes heated and ventilated front seats, and a heated steering wheel.

Hyundai assures driver’s seat comfort through 8-way power adjustment. The front passenger, however, does not benefit from seat height or cushion angle adjustment, making it better to drive a Sonata than to ride in one.

Rear seat room is excellent, but perhaps in order to preserve headroom beneath the Sonata’s rakish new roofline, the cushion is mounted rather low in the car, reducing thigh support. Most versions of the Sonata include rear air conditioning vents.

Climate Control System

The Sonata Limited’s dual-zone climate control system offers a collection of temperature knobs and setting switches, and functions well even if the markings are small. During testing on a partly cloudy day with temperatures in the low 70s, ideal weather conditions did not tax the system so I cannot comment on performance in cold or hot temperatures.

Infotainment System

Hyundai’s latest touch-sensing widescreen infotainment system is used in the new Sonata Limited, replacing the car’s standard 8-inch display. Thoroughly modern in terms of appearance and operation, it includes effective voice recognition technology that breezed through my standard battery of natural commands. The only stumble came when trying to change a radio station, but a prompt on the display guided me to use the proper method.

Every 2020 Sonata has Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. Satellite radio and Blue Link connected services are standard with SEL trim and higher, while navigation is restricted to Limited trim.

With the 2020 Sonata redesign, Hyundai offers an available 12-speaker Bose premium sound system. This, in my opinion, is a step backward from the previous Infinity system, which offered greater sound clarity and depth.

Storage and Space

There is no shortage of interior storage within the new 2020 Sonata. From the large center console bin underneath the armrest to the deftly integrated trays tucked into the middle of each door panel, it’s easy to find places in which to stash your stuff.

Around back, a 16 cubic-foot trunk offers plenty of room for luggage. Unfortunately, there isn’t a grab handle or a grip to use for closing the lid without putting your hands on the outside of it. Anyone who lives where the weather is frequently nasty won’t like that.

Visibility and Safety

Loaded with technology designed to enhance visibility and keep its occupants safe, the 2020 Sonata impresses in these areas.

A reversing camera is standard, with both a surround-view camera and a camera-based blind spot viewing system included with Limited trim. Even without these driving aids, it’s easy to see out of the Sonata thanks to thin windshield pillars, expansive side glass, and large door-mounted side mirrors.

For 2020, the Sonata gets a big crash protection upgrade thanks to its new platform and engineering specifically designed to change the way the car behaves in small overlap frontal-impact collisions. Rather than pivot after impact, the car’s structure deflects and slides away from the point of impact, which Hyundai claims will reduce neck injuries.

Every Sonata is equipped with the company’s SmartSense package of advanced driving assistance systems (ADAS). Hyundai includes a radar-based blind spot monitoring system with rear cross-traffic alert on every Sonata except the base SE trim, and makes its Highway Driving Assist technology available for the SEL Plus and standard for the Limited.

In use, the Sonata’s ADAS works with impressive refinement and accuracy. However, unlike the best lane following and lane centering systems, Highway Driving Assist does not react to prolonged driver inattention with a controlled stop, hazard light activation, and a call placed to emergency responders.

Hyundai also offers a Remote Smart Parking Assist (RPAS) system as standard equipment with Limited trim. This allows a driver to move the Sonata forward and backward while standing outside of the vehicle, but it does not include a self-parking function like similar technology in Hyundai’s Nexo fuel cell vehicle. And that makes it less impressive than it sounds.

Engine/Transmission

Initially, the 2020 Sonata will offer two new engines. The 191-horsepower, 2.5-liter 4-cylinder is standard with SE and SEL trim, while the 180-hp, 1.6-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder is standard with SEL Plus and Limited trim. Though it makes less horsepower, the turbocharged engine generates more torque starting at a low 1,500 rpm, making it feel more powerful overall.

Gratefully, Hyundai does not use a continuously variable transmission in the new Sonata. Instead, you get an 8-speed automatic. All Sonatas have front-wheel drive; all-wheel drive is not available. Standard Drive Mode Select offers Sonata owners a choice between Smart, Normal, Sport, and Custom settings that impact powertrain response and steering weight.

For the 2021 model year, expect a new Sonata Hybrid to arrive along with a performance-tuned Sonata N-Line. The N-Line includes a turbocharged 2.5-liter 4-cylinder generating an estimated 290 hp and 310 lb.-ft. of torque, and an 8-speed wet dual-clutch transmission delivers the power to the front wheels.

I spent the majority of the day driving the Sonata Limited with the turbocharged 1.6-liter engine. With peak torque arriving at 1,500 rpm and remaining available to 4,500 rpm, this engine produces satisfying acceleration and around-town responsiveness while easily maintaining an 80 mph cruising speed on the freeway. Even with three adults aboard the car at all time, it proved satisfactory except when trying to gather extra momentum to pass slower vehicles. The transmission is excellent, drawing no undue attention to shifts, and when the car is in Sport mode it feels more eager to respond.

Hyundai offered a brief opportunity to gather 2021 Sonata N-Line driving impressions. Without AWD, it has trouble getting the power to the pavement, the traction control system called into action to limit wheelspin. Nevertheless, the car is quite quick, sounds terrific when accelerating, and includes satisfying paddle shifters that execute decisive upshifts and rev-matched downshifts. The overall takeaway from my short 2021 Hyundai Sonata N-Line road test is that the car needs AWD, and nothing more.

Fuel Economy

According to Hyundai, a Sonata SEL Plus or Limited with the turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine should get 31 mpg in combined driving.

During my driving, half in Smart mode and half in Custom mode with Sport-tuned powertrain response, the car averaged 31.4 mpg. It is worth noting that the majority of my driving was on highways northeast of metropolitan Phoenix.

Driving Dynamics

Hyundai’s driving route did not include twisty two lane roads. Instead, we drove through Scottsdale, Arizona to the scenic Beeline Highway north toward Payson. Good thing I whipped around a few corners as we made our way out of town, revealing the Sonata’s flat urban cornering attitude and nimble athleticism.

Dual-pane laminated front glass helps contribute to a quiet cabin on the smooth roads in and around Phoenix, but on rougher aggregate pavement some road roar and boom filtered into the car from the rear quarters. On the highway, the Sonata feels stable, with good on-center feel and confidence-inspiring emergency lane-change behavior.

Similarly, Hyundai has done a great job of calibrating the Sonata’s brakes. Pedal application produces prompt, natural response and it’s easy to modulate pressure one you’re stepping on it. There were no opportunities to tax the brakes to evaluate fade, but during a simulated panic stop they effortlessly hauled the Sonata down from 70 mph.

Of course, the Sonata N-Line feels much different than the Sonata Limited. Equipped with a thicker steering wheel and better bolstered front seats, complete with front passenger height and cushion angle adjustments, the car immediately feels more robust and better connected. Hyundai upgrades the steering, brakes, and suspension, resulting in the sportiest feeling Sonata in history.

Again, though, wheelspin is an issue when accelerating out of corners. Hyundai will need to address this before the Sonata N-Line arrives for the 2021 model year, perhaps by limiting power in certain situations similar to how Mazda did in the now defunct Mazdaspeed 3.

Final Impressions

Offering both style and substance, the new 2020 Hyundai Sonata is a better midsize sedan than the car it replaces.

Technologically advanced yet still the incredible value it’s always been, you get plenty for your money when you buy a Sonata Limited. And the Sonata N-Line promises to deliver genuinely thrilling driving character when it arrives in the fall of 2020.

No doubt, consumers who still want a sedan will find plenty to like about the redesigned 2020 Hyundai Sonata.

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