Payne: The Hyundai Sonata will open your eyes, not your wallet

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Well, it seems we enthusiasts weren’t the only folks who missed Hyundai’s curvaceous 2011 Sonata hottie.

Hyundai missed it, too.

Eight years after it scandalized the tired, mid-size appliance aisle with the sixth-generation Sonata “Fluidic Sculpture” design, the Korean maker is back with Hottie II — the 2020 Sonata.

Not only is the new Sonata a knockout, but it’s borrowed some high-tech tricks from Tesla. This Alabama-made model hit the catwalk at the New York Auto Show last spring and actually made us think about sedans again.

With its pouty mouth, wildly decorated peepers, streamlined hood, “dynamic lasso” greenhouse and rippled bod, the 2020 Sonata rekindles memories of the car that opened the decade — and our hearts. After the 2011 sedan’s wild success, Hyundai apparently got embarrassed by all the attention and retreated to a more conservative wardrobe for its 2015 model remake. Customers retreated, too.

New chassis. The 2020 Hyundai Sonata is tighter, lower and swifter than the previous generation.

The plain-Jane 2015 model was also ill-timed as the market was ignoring cars for SUVs. Other automakers like Honda, Mazda and Nissan realized that to make sedans more attractive, you had to make them more sedan-y. That is, emphasize coupe-like shapes (compared to boxy utes), athletic bods (compared to high-center-of-gravity utes), and lean fascias (compared to jowly, upright utes).

Sonata got the message for 2020. As Ken Miles says in "Ford v Ferrari": “Ohhhhhh, yes! More of that, please!”

But it's not just the exterior that gets more lovin’.

Flip the turn signal and you can see cars in your 2020 Hyundai Sonata's blindspot in the instrument display.

The chassis is all-new as well, compliments of that German-in-the-Korean henhouse, Albert Biermann. The ex-BMW M-brand wizard has whipped Sonata into shape. I pined for some sport-utility tricks like a hatchback or all-wheel drive, but Hyundai balanced its determination to make a more nimble sedan with the Korean brand’s well-earned reputation for value. Adding an expensive hatch (less rear rigidity) or all-wheel drive system (more weight) would compromise both.

I felt Sonata’s athletic aspirations as soon as I turned onto Arizona’s mountainous roads along Roosevelt Lake north of Phoenix.

The steering wheel, fat and rooted to the asphalt, encouraged me to have fun. Lighter, stiffer and lower by 1.4 inches, the Sonata wants to play. But just as you plant your foot out of a corner, you think ... that’s all there is?

The mid-size Sonata offers two engines like its segment competitors, but Sonata’s 245-horse, 2.0-liter turbo-4 is gone. Instead, a standard 190-horse normally aspirated 2.5-liter and eco-friendly 180-horse turbocharged 1.6-liter are right on top of each other spec-wise. That is, they are compact hamster wheels inside a sleek, land shark’s body.

That’s an issue for Hyundai in this ferociously competitive midsize shark tank.

Spend over $30,000 and the Mazda 6 gains a 250-horse turbo-4, the Toyota Camry a 301-horse V-6, and the Honda Accord a 252-horse turbo-4. Not Sonata. Its top-line 1.6-liter turbo has pep at low revs, but so does the $22,000 Honda Civic 1.5-liter turbo-4 with the same horsepower and similar interior legroom. Heck, even the conservatively styled Subaru Legacy gets 260 horses for $28,000 along with all-wheel drive that Mrs. Payne covets and Sonata doesn’t offer.

But the Sonata has other things than my heavy lead-foot on its mind.

The 2020 Hyundai Sonata can be optioned with a panoramic roof.

Slip into the $28,000 SEL or $34,000 Limited interiors and you think you're sitting in a $50,000 luxury car. From the 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster to head-up display to the gorgeous 8-inch infotainment tablet, you might as well be staring at the horizontal dash of a BMW 3-series. The detail is that good.

The tablet infotainment screen even features swipe-able pages like the BMW, and the Apple CarPlay function won’t set you back $80 a year.

Below the raised the tablet is a roomy center console with an electronic push-button shifter out of a Hyundai Palisade — the eye-catching, three-row SUV that people are crowding around over in the SUV aisle.

Obsession with detail reaches into the most remote corners of the car: Rear seats are heated and cooled. Soft armrests have phone storage baked in. When I flick on the turn signal, cameras under the mirrors let me monitor the cars in my blind spot in the instrument panel. Clever.

Safety features like adaptive cruise-control, automatic emergency-braking and blind-spot assist — pricey options on luxury vehicles costing $20,000 more — all come standard on the Sonata’s high-volume $26,000 SEL trim just like they do on the Honda Accord, Subaru Legacy and Mazda 6.

I’d like to add the Ford Fusion and Chevy Malibu to that list, but Ford is abandoning sedans and Chevy has been slow to offer standard safety devices. You have to climb well north of $30,000 with the Malibu Premier trim to find tech goodies like adaptive cruise and blind-spot assist.

Separating itself from the competition, Sonata even dips into Tesla’s bag of tricks with a Summon-like feature and key card.

Boxed into a parking garage space? The Sonata will drive to you with the push of a button. Don’t like carrying a key in your pocket? Stash Sonata’s card key in your wallet or purse, and the car will recognize you upon approach.

But still my left foot twitches. An antidote is in the works.

Next fall Hyundai will unveil the Sonata N-line. Yes, N as in the crazed, three-door Veloster N. Inspired by their compact pocket rocket, Hyundai will extend its capability into the mid-size sedan segment.

Normally reserved for the compact class, high-horsepower sedan variants have been rare (the recent Ford Fusion Sport and VW Passat R-Line were limited entries). I got a taste of the Sonata N-line in full camouflage in Phoenix , and kept my lead foot buried the whole time.

Though specs are still preliminary, the N-line estimates a whopping 290 ponies from an all-new turbocharged, 2.5-liter engine four-cylinder. With a Sonata chassis developed from the ground up for this kind of adventure, the N-line gains significant suspension and brake upgrades while losing none of the high-tech goo-gaws.

Expect the Sonata N-line to start about $3,000 above the top-line, $33,500 Sonata Limited I cruised around in. That would make it competitive with upper trims like the Accord Touring and Camry Sport.

The N-line won’t be shy just like the rest of Sonata’s sexy lineup. Welcome back to the catwalk, Hyundai.

2020 Hyundai Sonata

Vehicle type: Front engine, front-wheel drive, 5-passenger sedan

Price: $24,330 including $930 destination charge ($31,265 SEL Plus and $34,365 Limited as tested)

Powerplant: 2.5-liter inline 4-cylinder, 1.6-liter turbo 4-cylinder

Power: 191 horsepower, 181 pound-feet torque (inline-4); 180 horsepower, 195 pound-feet torque (turbo-4)

Transmission: 8-speed automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 7.3 seconds (Car and Driver); top speed, 135 mph

Weight: 3,230 pounds (SEL Plus)

Fuel economy: EPA est. 27 city/36 highway/31 combined

Report card

Highs: Head-turning bod; loaded with standard features

Lows: More power, please; no AWD option

Overall: 4 stars

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.