Hot dogs. Wine. Chainsaws. Jewelry.
That’s what the sign read outside a gas station in rural Alabama, not long after setting off from the Hyundai manufacturing facility, just off the I-65 in Montgomery. It put the exclamation point on how a single shop can wear many hats. A commentary about how those four items might be the ideal party pack for a fun Saturday night in rural Alabama went untouched.
The modern four-door sedan has also worn different hats over the years. Once the darling of every suburban driveway, the segment has fallen out of favor in deference to crossovers and SUVs. Some companies have (short-sightedly, in your author’s opinion) chosen to abandon the market altogether, putting all their eggs in a decidedly crossover-shaped basket. Hyundai is not one of those companies. For 2020, the mid-size Sonata sedan will enjoy a complete makeover, gifted a new set of clothes to wear and powertrains with which to propel itself.
It’s a unique looking car, the Sonata taking design cues from the La Fil Rouge concept car that popped up on the auto show circuit 18 months ago. The familial resemblance is especially pronounced in the rear three-quarter view, where an angry body crease cuts prominently into the taillights. And no, your eyes aren’t deceiving you – those nubbins atop the brake light are indeed designed to look like vortex generators, a surprising touch on a mainstream family sedan.
Also of note? The absolutely tremendous decision to incorporate lighting into the car’s chrome trim on its hood. Part of what Hyundai styling boffins are calling a ‘dynamic lasso’, it creates the most distinctive lighting signature this side of a fully kitted battleship. Stylists also did away with the hood cut line, a design feature that’s crept across the automotive market like a noxious weed, allowing the hood’s lip to extend unimpeded to the edge of the car.
Speaking of the Sonata’s styling, it’s no accident that the car looks markedly different than last year’s model. In fact, if one looks all the way back to the first-gen Sonata which appeared on these shores as a 1989 model, each iteration of the car looks wildly dissimilar from the one which came before it. Lawrence Hamilton, director of marketing at the company, explained to your author that the Korean preference – nay, expectation – is for a new vehicle to be immediately recognizable as such. An evolutionary change on styling wouldn’t fly, he said. This assures us that it’s unlikely Hyundai will ever hew to the Audi ‘different lengths of sausage’ approach to styling its cars. Good.
We had plenty of seat time in the new Sonata, blitzing over 300 miles across two state lines in the span of an afternoon. Hyundai has crafted a smartly styled interior, as is their recent won’t, complete with a large touchscreen infotainment billboard and ventilation control that have a deliciously tactile response when pressed, to the point where your author’s hand lingered unnecessarily over the A/C controls all the way through the state of Mississippi.
That ventilation is forcefully exhaled through very slim vents. This trend is popping up in many cars, with registers slimmed to the point of invisibility either in a nod to design or to make room for a big infotainment screen. The problem with this approach is that it generally stifles airflow, with a couple of other cars in Sonata’s segment offering but a slight breeze as if an asthmatic is wheezing at you through a straw. Hyundai has cracked this puzzle by simply fitting stout HVAC blowers. Job done.
On the road, Sonata did reveal a loquacious nature along the anterior edge of its front doors where more-than-expected wind noise intruded on an otherwise silent cabin. Depending on trim, buyers will find one of two infotainment screens, both of which include CarPlay and neither of which looks cheap. The 12.3-inch LCD instrument cluster found in the top two trims is wonderfully animated, including a too-cool circular blind spot camera that pops up when signaling for a turn, and is totally worth the cash. All Sonatas are fitted with a steering wheel that looks like a frowning anime character.
One great party trick is Hyundai’s so-called Remote Parking Assist, also showing up on top-spec trim. Using the car’s key fob, it permits owners to move their vehicle straight forward or backward out of a tight parking space after that inconsiderate jamoke in the clapped-out Econoline parks over the line. One has to fire up the car with its remote starter and stay within 12 feet of the thing in order for it to work and prevent annoying siblings from playing tricks on you in the next room. Forward and backward buttons on the key fob act like the remote control on your favorite R/C car, and the system is smart enough to apply the brakes if it detects a person or slightly steers around a small obstacle. It’s a great addition to help this sedan stand out in a sea of me-too crossovers. Will this gee-whiz feature make it to other Hyundai products? Spox on-site were reluctant to say but it seems like too good of a party trick not to share.
Hyundai has chosen to introduce this iteration of its Sonata with a selection of two engines. Found in entry-level cars is a naturally-aspirated 2.5L four-cylinder, good for 191 horsepower and 181lb.-ft of torque. Further up the chain is a 1.6L turbocharged unit which essentially swaps power stats with the higher displacement engine – 180 ponies and 195lb.-ft of twist. Every Sonata gets an 8-speed automatic. All-wheel drive was deemed by Hyundai suits to not be a necessary option, despite Camry and Altima offering power to all four wheels. It’s worth noting that engineers did say that this platform can accept AWD bits, so perhaps Hyundai is taking a wait-and-see approach to the take rate at other automakers.
These are, erm, adequate numbers and the Sonata certainly acquitted itself well around rural America and her interstates. It certainly had no trouble cruising at the posted limit of 70mph, playing well with the 8-speed ‘box that simply worked invisibly in the background like a dutiful butler. However, in a world where the Camry and Accord can be fitted with nearly 300 horsepower, these numbers seem small. Hyundai seems to know this, promising an N-Line variant of the Sonata in the not-too-distant future. We averaged an indicated 34.5mpg over a two-hour freeway slog at 70mph in the turbo, if you’re wondering.
The company from Korea built its foundation on providing yaffles of value in whatever segment it decided to play. They’ve been evolving that message in recent years to support the fact they’re building snazzier and more contemporary vehicles while not abandoning their core values. Their recent dealership overhauls are proof of the point. This Sonata, now swapping hats to provide a funky style and stretch-em-out interior, is a great foot forward into that plan.
You’re on your own if you forget to pick up a chainsaw to go with your wine, though.