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Driven: Sonata scores in design and dynamics

This latest iteration is not your elderly aunt’s family sedan


It’s been more than a decade since the last time I drove a Hyundai Sonata, and more than three times that span since a group of American automotive writers were invited to South Korea to drive the mid-size sedans that were about to begin exportation to the US automotive marketplace.

What I remember most from that trip wasn’t driving the car, though the Korean coastline was California-gorgeous, well, except for the military bunkers placed should North Korea invade, but how Hyundai first took us on a tour of its shipbuilding facilities. 

There, but without saying so in so many words, a message was delivered: We know we aren’t building wonderful world-class automobiles yet, but look at the big ocean-going cargo ships we build and how successful they are, so give us some time and we’ll be doing the same thing with passenger cars.

It took a few years longer than the decade we anticipated for the diversified South Korean company to catch up with the world’s leading automakers, but it did, and then some, and has become a major player in the global automotive industry. 

Sonata, Driven: Sonata scores in design and dynamics, ClassicCars.com Journal

As evidence, consider the week I just spent driving a 2021 Hyundai Sonata SEL Plus, a vehicle that seemingly can more than hold its own in the $30,000 family sedan competition.

Seriously, I had to remind myself as I drove that this car was, indeed, a Sonata, from Hyundai, not a Lexus or Acura. Well, at least until one surprisingly (for southern Nevada) cold and very wet afternoon when the car’s navigation system, radio and backup camera failed to work for a couple of hours. 

But everything was fine when I restarted the car after volleyball practice (my granddaughter’s, not mine), and the rest of the week went smoothly. I found the car to be something I would eagerly recommend to a young family that wanted a sedan that could be fun to drive and eye-catching in which to be seen.

About all that the original US-market Sonata had going for it in the 1990s was its exterior design, done by none other than Italy’s acclaimed Giorgetto Giugiaro. But not much else. 

Sonata, Driven: Sonata scores in design and dynamics, ClassicCars.com Journal

Not so with this newest iteration of Hyundai’s mid-size sedan. Now in its eighth generation, Hyundai redesigned the sedan for the 2020 model year. At the time, it said the new design followed a theme of “sensuous sportiness.”  It also introduced a new “Smartstream” G2.5 GDI 4-cylinder engine. The sedan could be opened and operated via an Android smartphone digital key so the traditional metal door and ignition key could be left at home.

The styling belies the fact that this is a 4-door sedan. The car appears low and long, much more sporty than the typical family sedan. Inside, the car doesn’t try to impress with faux wood and such, but rather employs high-quality components and intuitive design to provide a pleasant and comfortable travel environment.

For the 2021 model year, the SEL Plus like I drove rides on 19-inch allow wheels with grippy Pirelli PZero tires. The SEL, SEL Plus and Limited versions also get a Safe Exit Warning system that uses blind-spot sensors to alert those exiting the car on the driver’s side of any oncoming traffic.

Instead of the new 2.5-liter engine, our SEL Plus had the turbocharged 1.6-liter, which provides nearly as much horsepower, 180 vs. 191 for the 2.5, but even more torque, 195 pound-feet at just 1,500 rpm compared with 181 at 4,000 for the larger but naturally aspirated powerplant.

Equipment for 2021 includes a power-opening trunk, wireless smartphone charging pad, Apple and Android connectivity, including text-to-speech, and heated and ventilated front seats. The car we drove also was equipped with an optional tech package that included a panoramic, Bose audio and wide-screen navigation display.

Sonata, Driven: Sonata scores in design and dynamics, ClassicCars.com Journal

Of particular interest to enthusiast drivers are the design of the steering wheel, with proper grips in the right places, and a Sport mode that not only changes the appearance of the digital dashboard, but actually alters the car’s dynamic performance. 

In Sport mode with an automatic transmission, you can use the paddle shifters to keep the car in the gear you desire to get the most out of the willing turbocharged engine. I’ll claim the 5th Amendment in regard to one of my favorite winding 2-lane roads in southern Nevada.

Most buyers of midsize family sedans, buyers for vehicles such as the Honda Accord or Toyota Camry, are unlikely to want to explore the Sonata’s potential, but for enthusiast drivers who require such a practical car, Hyundai’s longest-running nameplate provides grip and grins.

Sonata, Driven: Sonata scores in design and dynamics, ClassicCars.com Journal

2021 Hyundai Sonata SEL Plus

Vehicle type: 5-passenger, 4-door sedan, -wheel drive

Base price: $28,200 Price as tested: $32,050

Engine: Turbocharged 1.6-liter 4-cylinder, 180 horsepower at 5,500 rpm, 195 pound-feet of torque @ 1,500 rpm Transmission: Continuously variable

Wheelbase: 111.8 inches Overall length/width: 192.9 inches / 73.2 inches

Curb weight: 3,230 pounds

EPA mileage estimates: 27 city / 37 highway / 30 combined

Assembled in: Montgomery, Alabama

For more information, Visit the Hyundai USA website

Larry Edsall
Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


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