Namyang, South Korea—Once we’d laid eyes on the 2020 Hyundai Sonata, we could only hope that it would drive as fabulously as it looked, being a sleek piece of wheeled sculpture imbued with what design chief SungYup Lee and his team called a “four-door sport coupe” profile. Of course, that was unlikely for a few reasons. One, because the car retained its transverse-engine, front-wheel-drive platform, a layout not exactly known for racy dynamics; two, because sedans with rakish, coupe-like aesthetics usually trade more on image than anything else; and three, because the new Sonata rides on a chassis that’s a tweaked—albeit upgraded—version of the outgoing car’s, with a premium still placed on ride comfort.
Still, one could argue that any modern sedan is actually a sport sedan, given their far superior dynamics and lower centers of gravity when compared with the sport-utilities pushing them toward endangered-species status. (Lee and his boss, Luc Donckerwolke, would argue as much.) And so we remained optimistic as we traveled halfway around the world to get behind the wheel of early production prototypes for a limited afternoon of driving. We slid first into an example powered by Hyundai’s 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder—the sportiest model—for laps around the small, handling circuit at the Namyang proving grounds.
Famous as the former head engineer of BMW’s M division, Hyundai Motor R&D head Albert Biermann previews our short drive by telling us the 2020 Sonata’s “steering ratio is a little bit quicker” and its “chassis is a little bit stiffer” than those of the outgoing 2015–19 model.
On the Road
The 1.6 neatly carves its way around the handling circuit with moderate body roll and minimal understeer; there’s no apparent torque steer when we dip into the power coming out of corners, and the course’s minor elevation changes do little to upset the car’s balance. Based on this short drive with a Hyundai minder in the passenger seat to prevent us from pushing too hard—although we went hard enough to make the non-factory performance tires squeal in protest—it seems that among family cars, the Sonata hews closer to the Honda Accord’s side of the fun-to-drive spectrum.
We spent our first few laps in Sport mode—it changes throttle, steering, and transmission calibrations—using the steering-wheel-mounted shift paddles to control the standard Hyundai-designed eight-speed automatic before testing Comfort mode and letting the car shift for itself in both settings. The paddles weren’t worth the effort on the tight course, where we operated almost entirely in second and third gear, but Sport mode does indeed feel a bit crisper and more controllable on turn-in and it holds gears a bit deeper on the tachometer, although the effect is very subtle and measured.
A Hyundai representative told us the steering is tuned to be heavier on the sportier 1.6 than on other versions, especially when in Sport mode, but it didn’t feel artificially so. If anything, the 1.6’s steering feels light and at the same time quick and precise, with no detriment to feedback, which is actually delivers some of.
We next spent one lap on each of two longer, oval loops in a 2.5-liter four-cylinder-powered example; this engine is a heavily reworked version of last year’s naturally aspirated Theta 2.4. The first loop was on a bumpy highway route, the second on a high-speed oval where we were unfortunately limited to the third lane and a 62-mph top speed.
Driving the 2.5-liter on Pirelli all-season tires on the inner road revealed a precisely damped chassis, with good wheel control and measured jounce and rebound characteristics. The body control on the rough surface was excellent; while the suspension is on the softer side in pursuit of the aforementioned comfort, it’s not the least bit floaty in regular driving.
The naturally aspirated 2.5-liter has a bit more horsepower and a bit less torque than the 1.6, as was the case with the old 2.4. Also as before, the smaller, turbo powerplant is the more spirited one, enough so that no buyer should lament the lack of a V-6 option. Hyundai was among the first to eradicate six-cylinder engines from its entry in this segment a couple of generations ago, and most competitors have since followed suit.
For North America, the ’20 Hyundai Sonata launches this fall with these two engines, and Biermann says hybrid and plug-in-hybrid versions will once again be added later.
Both U.S. engines are updated versions of those from the previous car, making them the most significant carry-over components by far. The 2.5 is Atkinson-cycle-capable and features both direct- and port fuel injection, as before, with improved oil cooling and water cooling.
With the 2020 model, the Hyundai Sonata also extends the brand’s progress on advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) with its latest lane-keeping assist and lane-follow, and smart adaptive cruise control, though hands off the wheel is allowed for no more than a few seconds. There is a self-parking ADAS system in which the driver can get out of the car and park it into a straight line, in and out of a tight parking space with vehicles on each side, using the key fob. The feature will be legal for sale (in upper trim levels) in the U.S., Biermann says. We did not sample this function.
Both models feel tight and composed, with a cosseting ride and handling good enough to invite comparisons with the best-driving competitors. Biermann and his team have honed this new model’s dynamics to the point that it’s easy to believe him when he says a higher-performance Sonata N hasn’t been approved—yet.
This is no small thing. A few generations ago, Hyundai’s chassis engineering broke out of its soft and wallowy funk that came as a result of its insular domestic market and its long, straight, and meticulously maintained roads. Call the 2020 Sonata a midsize sedan or a sport sedan—either way it looks to be a contender to lead its segment.
2020 Hyundai Sonata Specifications
|ENGINE||1.6L DOHC 16-valve turbocharged inline-4, 180 hp @ 5500 rpm, 195 lb-ft @ 1,500 rpm; 2.5L DOHC 16-valve inline-4; 191 hp @ 6100 rpm, 181 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm|
|LAYOUT||4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD sedan|
|EPA MILEAGE||31–33 mpg combined (mfr est)|
|L x W x H||192.9 x 73.2 x 56.9 in|
|WEIGHT||3,150 lb (est)|
|0–60 MPH||8.4–8.6 sec (est)|