Hyundai roars back into the midsize sedan segment
Full disclosure: For the 2020 Sonata’s design background presentation, Hyundai Motor Group flew me and a small group of journalists to Seoul, South Korea and put us up in the Signiel Hotel that occupies the upper floors of the fifth tallest building in the world (and tallest in the country).
As Top 5 tall buildings go, the Signiel is an impressive testament to man’s singular focus on conquering the surrounding landscape. It also looks like God’s own tweezers jammed into the ground, business end up. Inside, it’s cool, curved and modern, but also sterile and a bit antiseptic. Aside from the stunning views that tall windows at any great height will provide, Signiel is singularly lacking in drama. In short, it’s almost nothing like the 2020 Hyundai Sonata.
Hyundai’s new global head of design SangYup Lee hosted this trip, one of the first to bring international journalists inside Hyundai’s new design center. His aim was to introduce us not only to the new, eighth-generation Sonata, but to communicate how it would be the flagship for Hyundai’s new “Sensuous Sportiness” design language.
In a high-walled interior courtyard meant for examining exteriors in the full light of day, Lee’s team pulled back silk drapes on a pair of 2020 Sonatas, a red car equipped with a 1.6-liter turbo-four “Smartstream” engine, and a gray car powered by Hyundai’s new Atkinson-cycle 2.5-liter four-cylinder, also dubbed Smartstream.
The sheet slid off to reveal a very smooth looking vehicle—and one that draws immediate comparisons to the latest Aston Martin styling, and specific models from Audi (A7) and Mercedes-Benz (CLS), particularly when viewed from the side.
Yes, I’m serious. These were the first brands and models that popped in my head when I saw the car in the metal. If you disagree, it’s because the pictures don’t do the car justice. When viewed in person, in a shade of gray (so all the lines and curves are quietly apparent), the Sonata reveals itself as a monumental achievement of proportion and linework.
Lee and his team massaged the silhouette of the five-seater, shifting the passenger compartment rearward, shortening the front overhang and adding length to the rear overhang, so that it has the appearance of a rear-drive car’s dash-to-axle ratio.
The look is striking, yet very sophisticated. It’s also surprisingly subtle when you review the numbers. Hyundai provided us the following dimensions it used to benchmark itself and the competition:
|Dimensions (inches)||2011 Hyundai Sonata||Difference||2020 Hyundai Sonata||2020 Honda Accord||2020 Toyota Camry|
Compared to the sixth-generation 2011 Sonata that Hyundai considers a landmark for its Fluidic Design language, Lee’s team added 1.7 inches in overall length to the 2020 Sonata along with nearly an inch in width. Height drops by 1.2 inches and wheelbase increases by 1.4. In the front, 0.8 inches of overhang is lopped off and added to the 1.2-inch increase in rear overhang. These are significant inches, but also reflect the category’s increase in size over the intervening years. The 2020 Sonata is now easily within an inch of contemporary competitors Honda Accord and Toyota Camry in every key dimension. And yet it looks so different. How?
Lee’s boss and head of design for Hyundai Motor Group, Luc Donckerwolke has the answer: “Designing sedans is not easy; you fight for every millimeter. This creates a lot of pressure for designers.”
Well the pressure paid off because it’s clear that Lee’s team didn’t just sweat the 2020 Sonata’s sensuous and sporty proportions with millimetric precision, they put lots of thought and effort into the lines and open spaces. The main character line (or A-line in design speak) from the 2018 Le Fil Rouge concept car has been ported over, fully intact, and accentuates the Coke-bottle curves massaged into the Sonata’s bodysides.
As in previous generations, the metal in the Sonata body is all steel; no aluminum here, despite potential weight savings, because one of Hyundai’s corporate cousins (alongside Hyundai shipping, construction and banking/finance) is Hyundai Steel.
“We have good competency in steel, so we will use it,” says Hyundai’s chief engineer, Albert Biermann. To improve crash performance, Biermann says high strength steels and other reinforcements have been placed in three load paths—low, medium, and high—under the Sonata’s shapely skin to help protect occupants by absorbing or redirecting forces around the cabin.
Hyundai designers spent lots of time thinking about how the needs of design and safety can work together. Consider the Sonata’s sleek front end, which is 1.4 inches lower than the previous generation. Nearly all modern cars have hoods that terminate in a bumper containing the grille, more often than not with an obvious/ugly shut line. What distinguishes the Sonata is how the steel (not composite) hood flows all the way to the front of the car ending in an edge above the grille. Lee is quick to mention that the only other car makers that currently do this are Aston Martin and Bentley, his previous employer.
But the story goes much deeper than looks. Engineering such a low and sexy hood to meet pedestrian impact standards meant the engine needed to be pushed down and back. Then there are the sculpted steel front fenders and dazzling headlight array.
“See the deep draw of the front fender and very complicated headlight execution?” asks Lee. “You normally want the [headlight] lens to be as upright as possible for the best optics [and] minimal distortion. And you want the bumper upright for heat dissipation. DN8 [internal code for Sonata] has neither and is not compromised for crash, etc. [The fender and headlights are] very fast, without compromise.”
The most striking element is the strip of bright metal that starts at the base of the headlights and curves around the passenger compartment, before returning to the A-pillar. It’s a nearly unbroken strip of chrome so thoughtfully considered, you wonder why there is a break in it at all. Then the daytime running lights switch on, and the genius is revealed. As you approach the top of the headlight from the base of the windshield, the strip of chrome reflected light gradually gives way to LED lumens. This metal-to-light gradient is achieved by a series of tiny laser-etched holes in the chrome plating that covers the translucent strip of plastic. The holes increase in size toward the headlight cluster, until all the chrome is gone and only light remains.
An aggressive mix of steel, composite and polycarbonate is used for the dramatic rear. The trunk lid and supports are all steel, but the sharp-edge of the rear deck is composite. “Aero fins” atop the polycarbonate taillights emphasize another new design directive. “We’re not doing styling anymore. Every design input also has a functional output,” says Donckerwolke. To that end, the aero fins apparently help add a few pounds of downforce.
Side by side, the 2020 Sonata 1.6T and 2.5 models reveal some hints about what we’ll see in the North America-bound production cars. At least two different front and rear bumpers will be on offer. From the Le Fil Rouge concept comes the “parametric jewel” grille seen on the Sonata 1.6T in red. This spicier, sportier version has slightly more aggressive vents in its bumpers, as well as sideskirts, and 19-inch wheels. The gray Sonata has a more conservative chrome grille and 18-inch wheels, which match its entry-level aspirations. Biermann hints that there will definitely be something sportier on the way.
Inside, Hyundai’s most significant accomplishment is stuffing a comfortable and accessible rear seating compartment into the 2020 Sonata’s sleek silhouette. Your humble scribe stands nearly six feet tall, yet could sit comfortable behind the driver’s seat (set for someone his height), with good knee room and thigh support (to mid femur), and acceptable headroom (hair just grazing the headliner.)
Front seat occupants are treated to horizontally oriented displays and air conditioning vents. Control surfaces have been updated according to purpose; knobs and touch controls for the infotainment screen and toggle switches for easy adjustment of the climate control system. Options include quilted leather seating surfaces and a 12.3-inch digital screen that spans the instrument cluster. Standard across the Sonata line is the deletion of the transmission lever in favor of PRND transmission buttons similar to what we’ve seen in recent Hondas and Acuras. Next to this button array is small deck designed to hold and wirelessly charge the latest mobile phones.
Smartphone integration and other advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) were top priorities, which is why the 2020 Sonata comes with an entire alphabet soup of upgraded safety, security, and driver convenience electronics. One of the most interesting is the ability to use your smartphone as a digital key to gain entry to and drive the 2020 Sonata. This option works via the Near Field Communication (NFC) standard that comes standard with nearly all current smartphones. For Sonata, a user must have Hyundai’s app downloaded to a smartphone and sync’d with the vehicle. Then, all a driver needs to do is touch the phone to the Sonata’s door handle to gain access. Laying the phone on charging mat allows the car to be started and driven. Really handy is that permissions can be remotely granted to others interested in accessing the vehicle. Hyundai claims it will be possible to give permanent digital key access to up to three different smartphones. Digital keys can also be granted on a temporary, timebound basis or restricted to just parts of the car, such as the trunk for delivery of goods.
So the 2020 Sonata is definitely sexy and stuffed with high tech goodies. But is it enough? Hyundai’s own research confirms that the midsize family sedan market is shrinking fast; the segment hit a high in 2013 with sales of 2.4 million, but is quickly losing steam. Hyundai has a projection showing sales could hit only 1 million units in 2023.
SangYup Lee and his team know the argument well. “We all know this market segment is shrinking,” said Lee. “But the sedan will never die; we know this. So we asked a question: Can we make this one right, to make a statement? Hyundai makes the value car, but this is not enough for the future of Hyundai. Design is the key enabler that will take Hyundai to the next level.”
We shall see.
But how does it drive? We got a very brief taste you can read about here…