The 2020 Hyundai Sonata—which we’ve just driven—is long, low, and wide, like Detroit’s cars of the late 1950s. Even as its maker concedes the need to expand its crossover and SUV lineup in order to keep up with the move away from sedans in most global markets, design vice president SangYup Lee and his boss, design chief Luc Donckerwolke, are using the stunning new look for the car as the “keystone” for the Hyundai brand by taking its dimensions in the opposite direction of popular trends.
Hyundai has established the Sonata and its other models as “value cars” that offer a lot of features for the money, Lee notes, adding, “That is not enough for the future, competitively.” Design, Lee says, is “a key enabler to take Hyundai to the next level. Design is about creating value for everyone.”
Lee cites Apple as design inspiration for aspirational products that mainstream consumers can afford, although he could also be referring to one of his previous employers, General Motors’ Chevrolet division, which from 1955 to the ’80s was known for delivering surprisingly elegant designs at entry-level prices. Lee designed the 2004 Buick Velite rear-wheel-drive concept for GM before he was assigned to the all-new 2010 Chevy Camaro, and later penned the gorgeous Bentley EXP 10 Speed 6 while at Volkswagen Group, though his last major project before leaving for Hyundai was the Bentayga SUV.
Hyundai’s local market seems to be converting to SUVs at a slower pace than other countries. When I first visited Seoul in 1999, foreign imports were all but absent, and the nascent Korean domestic market already preferred three-box, midsize sedans like the third- and fourth-generation Sonata to the compact hatchbacks more common in Japan. South Korea’s automotive preferences were more like the U.S. market, and the emerging Chinese market.
The eight-generation Sonata—internally called DN8—is the first Hyundai model to benefit from the automaker’s new digital design process, in which designers begin work on a car or SUV with the vehicle platform’s data in place. Work began on this car “about three years ago,” says Donckerwolke, who replaced Peter Schreyer as design chief in early 2016 when the latter was promoted to president and chief design officer for the entire Hyundai Motor Group. Lee joined Hyundai from Bentley in May of that year, so both designers were in on the DN8 project from the early stages.
“Sonata was the first car to deliver the new process,” Donckerwolke says, explaining how it works. “If you’re designing everything without knowing where the shock tower is, you lose that design.”
“We’re half-engineers, as well,” Lee says. Donckerwolke adds, “Design engineers are the lawyers of design. We are present at the very beginning of the definition of a platform.”
Regarding the dramatic dimensions, the DN8 Hyundai Sonata is 1.8 inches longer, 1.2 inches lower and 1.0 inch wider than the 2015–18 LF Sonata it replaces later this fall (Hyundai will deliver home-market cars by April; U.S. versions of the new model will begin being assembled at the company’s Alabama plant by October). The wheelbase is 1.4 inches longer, and the car’s short overhangs almost suggest rear-wheel-drive proportions, although not so dramatically as the Le Fil Rouge concept shown at the Geneva Motor Show in 2018.
Like Le Fil Rouge, DN8’s design brief called for “sensuousness” and “sportiness.” The production Sonata sedan has its front turn signals hidden in the distinctively shaped eggcrate grille, and its daytime running lamps trace the bottoms of the headlamp units before flowing up the front in parallel with the hoodlines. The lenses of the lighting elements running up the fenders have chrome under the laser-burned LEDs. Of two cars we saw, a red Sonata Sport with its 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder has a black grille and blacked-out window trim, as well as optional 19-inch wheels and tires; the 2.5-liter model has chrome exterior trim and a two-tone gray and saddle leather interior.
The hood—made from steel (Hyundai Steel is part of the chaebol) instead of the aluminum now common in modern cars—features a Jaguar-esque hood bulge, and the front fenders have a very deep draw that’s almost unheard of in sub-$100,000 cars. “The plan view has a lot of Coke bottle, and at the same time, a lot of tension,” Lee says.
Engineers pulled the powertrain back over the front axle, and lowered it in the chassis, allowing Donckerwolke, Lee, and their team to drop the hoodline for better outward visibility. At the B-pillar at the bottom of the side window, the beltline is 0.8 inch lower than the outgoing model’s, Lee says, which allowed designers to gently raise the beltline from there to the C-pillar to enhance the Sonata’s “four-door coupe” profile without sequestering rear-seat passengers in a cavelike cocoon. The fast, but graceful rear sail panel rakes downward after the head-point of the rear passengers. Rear leg- and shoulder room is impressive, and the decent headroom is maintained on sunroof-equipped cars by a sculpted headliner.
The 2020 Sonata’s eight-speed automatic is operated via push buttons integrated into a thoughtfully placed handrest for the driver, and the dash has a clean, horizontal design that recalls the first era of “longer, lower, wider.” (Mad men and women rejoice!) The trunk opening is very wide, and the thin loop of taillights is covered in polycarbonate and topped by aerodynamic strakes. The concave rear fascia is topped by a subtle integrated spoiler.
Lee refers to the overall look as “everyday exotic,” and as hyperbolic as that may sound, it serves as a reminder that the largely lookalike SUV boxes congesting our roads can never look quite as special. Central to Hyundai’s new design strategy is that it will design specific models to match their image and intent with a general brand image, more like chess pieces than Russian dolls.
“We all know this market segment is shrinking,” Lee says. “We’re asking, ‘Can we make this [Sonata] make a statement?’ The sedan will never die, we know. Designing an SUV is easy. Designing a sedan is not as easy.”