If the Hyundai Sonata was a picture book, its story is one that paces indecisively between the realms of convention and radical designs. It’s essentially the four-wheeled equivalent of a K-pop idol that’s constantly trying to reinvent itself. The good news for shoppers eyeballing the D-segment aisle is that the latest iteration of Hyundai’s answer to the likes of the Honda Accord and Volkswagen Passat is currently in the visually brazen stage of its bipolar lifecycle; one that doubles up as the creative benchmark for the recently-launched Elantra and similarly daring next-gen Tucson.
The trio is what you get when the former design director of Bentley and Lamborghini is given free rein to work his magic. The ‘Sensuous Sportiness’ design language is the brainchild of Luc Donckerwolke, Hyundai’s chief creative officer who is also credited with penning the Kona. Being the first recipient of this cosmetic treatment, the Sonata certainly doesn’t disappoint. Its chrome window frame that stretches the length of the car to join the daytime-running LEDs and ultra-sleek taillights topped with Mitsubishi Evo VIII-style vortex generators and a Porsche-rivalling light strip won’t look out of place on a million-Ringgit ride. That they’re accessible for just a fifth that sum, CBU fees included, is remarkably impressive.
That said, RM206,888 (inclusive of SST) for the sole variant of South Korea’s alternative to the Toyota Camry is still the highest entry fee in a segment that used to host some serious sub-RM150k contenders not too many years ago; the outgoing Sonata LF 2.0 got the ball rolling from just under RM140k when it was first launched in 2014. So there’s clearly some inflation at play. The bright side here is you can spin that meaning quite literally to other aspects of the new Sonata however you choose to size it up, be it from the inside, outside or under the hood.
Measuring 4,900mm from nose to tail, the 2020 Sonata edges ahead of the Honda Accord as the longest D-segment entry by 8mm. At well over five inches longer than the Volkswagen Passat, it’s easily one of the biggest cars in its class. Much of that lateral growth takes place in the mid-section, with a 35mm longer wheelbase adding oodles of legroom to a well-appointed cabin which upholds the exterior’s sophisticated aesthetic with the help of fluid lines, soft-touch panels and some really cool tech (more on that later). The 510-litre boot accessible via a ‘Smart Trunk’ is quite the storage unit too.
Things are similarly sizeable in the engine bay, which houses a 2.5-litre naturally-aspirated four-cylinder unit for the first time in a Malaysian-spec Sonata. It’s a surprisingly old-school approach from a hunk of metal that shouts buzzwords like ‘futuristic’, ‘convention-defying’ and ‘disruptor’ from every other angle; one that could cost you up to RM787 more in annual road tax costs than increasingly trendy downsized mills such as Honda’s 1.5-litre VTEC Turbo engine at that. But as far as its application is concerned, Hyundai has certainly hit the sweet spot.
Without needing to wait for anything to spool, the comparatively high-displacement Smartstream engine feeds its 180PS/232Nm output to the front wheels in a delightfully smooth and linear fashion that force-inducted mills can never replicate no matter how hard they try. The Ferrari-style P, R, N and D buttons on the centre console might suggest some cutting-edge gadgetry at play. But the space-age control panel is merely a front to a tried-and-tested six-speed automatic transmission, one that reiterates how simple the ingredients to driving refinement can – or rather should – be.
The six-speed automatic transmission reiterates how simple the ingredients to driving refinement can – or rather should – be
The silky powertrain pairs nicely with the similarly comfort-biased suspension, which is made up of a MacPherson strut up front and multi links in the rear for fuss-free damping with proven effect on Malaysian roads. Hyundai is one of few carmakers that still offers a motor-driven power steering instead of an EPS, but it doesn’t really draw any attention away from the Sonata’s passenger-oriented priorities, such is its composure on the move. Even Sport mode – one of four driving presets – struggles to shift the tone, with the changes in instrument cluster graphics being more obvious than any perceptible performance gains.
It’s hard not to notice what’s going on through the gap of Hyundai’s new-look four-spoke steering given how vivid and inviting the 12.3-inch LCD panel is. It plays the neatest trick up its sleeve once you hit the indicator stalk, as the digital dials double up as directionally-correct displays for the wing mirror camera feed to help alleviate fears of oncoming motorcyclists when changing lanes in traffic; Honda’s pixelated and lop-sided LaneWatch has got nothing on this bit of ingenuity.
A surround view monitor, dual-zone climate control, electrically-adjustable front seats, wireless charger and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto-ready infotainment bolster a package that’s technologically fit for a car that looks light years ahead of its competition. That said, things could be improved on the safety front, with the lack of semi-autonomous driver aids looking a tad jarring on the surface given their availability in cars costing half the Sonata’s asking price these days. It’s certainly no deal breaker for us, though; six airbags and traction control sounds about right for a car that’s effectively paving the way forward by going back to basics, and nailing them to a tee.
Therein lies the source of charisma in a car you half-expect to have electric propulsion or a two-digit gear count at first glance; there's just a likeable air of effortlessness in the way the Sonata breaks new ground while staying true to its core demographic by finetuning the qualities they not only seek, but have grown fond of thanks to the finest cars to have ever graced this corner of the market over the generations. We won't go as far as calling it the out-and-out champ of the current D-segment just yet – a comprehensive group test is probably needed before such conclusions can be drawn. But it's safe to say that Hyundai's eighth attempt at a Sonata is its best one yet; one of 2020's standouts as far as mainstream passenger cars go which definitely deserves your time and attention before placing a downpayment you may live to regret.
Hyundai Sonata 2.5 Premium
Price: RM206,888 (with SST)
Engine: 2.5L 4cyl NA, 180PS, 232Nm
Transmission: 6spd auto, FWD
Economy: 8.5L per 100km approx. (tested)
The Sonata's concept car styling stuns in the real world; a statement of intent from a brand that has imbued its latest attempt to disrupt the D-segment with impressive tech and a beautiful balance between driving refinement and passenger comfort.
Though effective on the road, the 2.5-litre nat-asp mill will cost more to run than smaller turbocharged alternatives. The steep CBU pricing also exposes some gaps in the spec sheet, but those in the market for a large and competent family exec can rest assured knowing that all the right boxes have been ticked.