By Chuck Giametta
Very little, because this front-wheel-drive midsize sedan is coming off a model-year 2020 redesign that re-established it as a family-car style leader. The 2021 Sonata will retain the arresting new look and gas- and hybrid engine choices that arrived with the redesign, as well as technology like remote-control parking and a smartphone app that replaces the keyfob.
One feature the ’21 probably won’t offer is all-wheel drive (AWD), an asset available on the rival Ford Fusion, Buick Regal, Nissan Altima, Toyota Camry, Volkswagen Arteon and standard on the Subaru Legacy. AWD also is rumored for the redesigned 2021 Optima sedan, Sonata’s underskin twin from Hyundai’s corporate cousin, Kia. Some sources, however, say Sonata will receive a sooner-than-usual midcycle refresh. It could come as early as model-year 2022 and include both AWD and a plug-in-hybrid option.
Should I wait for the 2021 Hyundai Sonata or buy a 2020?
Little incentive to wait. Hyundai could shuffle a feature or two among trim levels, but the ’21 Sonata would otherwise be a virtual rerun of the 2020. It almost certainly will cost more, though. Waiting for the ’21 would also mean paying for a car is a year closer to its midcyle refresh. Whether for model-year ’22 or ’23, it won’t drastically change Sonata’s appearance but could introduce AWD and the plug-in hybrid.
Expect the 2021 Sonata lineup to return gas-only models in base-engine SE 2.5L and SEL 2.5L trim and in turbocharged SEL Plus 1.6T and Limited 1.6T form. The 2021 Sonata Hybrid should again offer three grades: super-economy Blue, midrange SEL, and top-line Limited. Expect the Blue to return class-leading EPA ratings of 52 mpg city-highway combined and for the Limited to again come with solar roof panels claimed to capture enough energy to drive 2 extra miles per day.
Will 2021 Hyundai Sonata styling be different?
No. It’ll reprise the racy look of the 2020 redesign, one that reasserted a brashness Hyundai abandoned with the 2015-2019 Sonata. A fastback profile and strong body-side character lines will return, along with unique LED lighting signatures underlining the headlamps and continuing up the fenders, appearing as chrome with the lights off.
This fourth-generation Sonata is about an inch longer and lower than its predecessor and depending on model, as much as 100 pounds lighter. The ’21 will again be among the roomier cars in the segment, with a comfortable rear seat reminding us of the role of a well-packaged midsize sedan. That holds for the above-average 16-cubic-foot trunk. You open its lid by touching the Hyundai logo: cool. But penny-pinching exposed hinges dictate situating luggage to avoid crunching.
Clean lines and contemporary forms define the cabin. The SEL Plus model should again upgrade from cloth upholstery to a leatherette/faux-suede combo. Leather should again be optional for the SEL 1.6T and standard for the Limited models. A retro-looking four-spoke steering wheel and pushbutton transmission controls on a piano-black pod will remain among intriguing design decisions.
A 10.3-inch touchscreen navigation system teamed with a Bose audio upgrade should again be standard on the Limited models and optional for SEL and SEL Plus in place of their 8-inch monitor. The screen is exceptionally bright and crisp, as is the 12.3-inch digital-gauge cluster. Same for the Limiteds’ informative head-up display and their cluster’s live video of left and right blind spots when you activate a turn signal. Expect a wireless phone-charging pad that incorporates a cooling fan to return as standard on the Limiteds and SEL Plus and optional on SEL models.
Will the 2021 Hyundai Sonata have mechanical changes?
No. The ’21 Sonata SE 2.5L and SEL 2.5L will return with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine of 191 horsepower and 181 pound-feet of torque. The SEL Plus 1.6T and Limited 1.6T will again use a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 180 horsepower and 195 pound-feet of torque. All 2.5L and 1.6T models will continue with an eight-speed automatic transmission augmented with steering-wheel paddle shifters on the SEL Plus and Limited.
Every 2021 Sonata Hybrid will combine a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine with an electric motor for a net 192 horsepower (Hyundai doesn’t list net torque). This is not a plug-in hybrid, capable of running on an initial charge from the power grid. Instead, it recharges its lithium-ion battery pack by recapturing energy otherwise lost during deceleration and coasting. Sensors determine the optimal mix of gas, electric, or combined power. All Sonata Hybrids will again use a six-speed automatic transmission augmented with paddle shifters.
Expect gas-only models to each have their virtues. The ’21 SE 2.5L and SEL 2.5L should again provide perfectly adequate acceleration in a more linear fashion than the turbocharged SEL Plus and Limited. The 1.6T duo delivers stronger merging and passing punch but suffers lazy throttle response off the line and from modest speeds. We had not tested a Sonata Hybrid in time for this report.
While the ‘21 Sonata will stand out for styling and for wicked Super Bowl-commercial-worthy gizmos, don’t expect distinguished road manners. Handling is decidedly midpack: predictable and settled, but without the eagerness to tackle turns that makes class leaders like the Honda Accord, Mazda 6, and Altima so rewarding even in everyday driving. Similarly, cabin quietness, ride comfort, and overall mechanical refinement should remain acceptable but not selling points. Wheel and tire sizes should repeat at 16 inches on the SE and Hybrid Blue, 18s on SEL Plus and Limited 1.6T, and 17s on the other models.
Will 2021 Hyundai Sonata fuel economy improve?
No. Expect 2021 Sonata EPA ratings to repeat those of the 2020 model. That should maintain gas-only versions among the highest-mileage cars in their competitive set and the ’21 Sonata Hybrid as one of the most efficient gas-burning cars on the road.
The 2021 Sonata SE 2.5L should again rate 28/38/21 mpg city/highway/combined, the SEL 2.5L 27/37/31 mpg. Look for the ’21 SEL Plus and Limited 1.6T to return at 27/36/31 mpg.
EPA ratings should again be 50/54/52 mpg city/highway/combined for the ’21 Sonata Hybrid Blue model, 45/51/47 for the Hybrid SEL and Limited. The Hybrid Limited should return with a solar-panel roof that outputs 205 watts of electricity to charge the conventional 12-volt battery and the lithium-ion pack. Hyundai says the supplemental charge can add 2 miles per day of driving range, or 700 “free” miles annually.
Will the 2021 Hyundai Sonata have new features?
Very unlikely, given the range of safety and convenience items already offered. However, we’d urge Hyundai to expand some driver assists from gas-only models to their hybrid counterparts.
Every ’21 Sonata will return with Hyundai Smartsense. It comprises autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection; lane-maintaining automatic steering; and adaptive cruise control to maintain a set distance from traffic ahead, even in stop-and-go driving.
Blind-spot and rear cross-traffic detection should return as standard on all but the SE, with Limiteds again adding autonomous rear braking and a surround-view monitor. Hyundai’s Highway Driving Assist lends subtle steering assist to maintain the car in the center of the lane but requires contact with the steering wheel. Expect it to again be standard on the Limited 1.6T and optional on the SEL 2.5L and SEL Plus.
The South Korean automaker’s Remote Smart Parking Assist was featured in its Boston-themed Super Bowl LIV commercial. It automatically controls steering, throttle and brakes to move the Sonata into or out of a parallel or perpendicular space. The driver can remain in the car or stand outside and use keyfob controls to guide it. Remote Smart Parking Assist was a Limited-model exclusive for model-year ‘20.
Hyundai Digital Key lets you leave your keyfob at home but still unlock, start, and drive your Sonata. It employs Near Field Communication (NFC), allows you to share functions with others, and comes with an NFC card for valets. For model-year-’20, Digital Key was an Android-only smartphone app standard with 1.6T models and the Hybrid SEL and Limited and was optional for the SEL 2.5L.
Every ’21 Sonata will again come with Apple Carplay and Android Auto. Standard on all but the SE is expected to be three free years of Hyundai Blue Link smartphone-controlled locking, remote start (but not driving), and notification of conditions such as windows left open.
Will 2021 Hyundai Sonata prices be different?
They’ll likely increase, but modestly since Hyundai and every other automaker faces falling demand for cars of all types. For reference, here are 2020 Sonata prices; base prices include a $955 destination fee.
Base prices were $24,555 for the ’20 Sonata SE 2.5L and $26,655 for the SEL 2.5L. The ’20 SEL Plus started at $28,605, the Limited 1.6T at $34,455. Pricing for the 2020 Sonata Hybrid was not announced in time for this report but expect a roughly $3,100 premium over gas-only counterparts.
Notable standard features should again include dual automatic climate control, heated front seats on all but the SE and Hybrid Blue models, and a heated steering wheel and ventilated front seats on the Limiteds. Expect a panoramic sunroof to remain exclusive to gas-only models, as standard on the Limited and optional on the SEL and SEL Plus.
Among key options, look for the SEL Premium Package ($1,850 for 2020) to again include many features standard on the Limited, such as leather upholstery, Digital Key, wireless charging, and heated steering wheel. The Tech Package for the SEL Plus ($2,750) should return with the panoramic roof, imbedded navigation, and Highway Drive Assist among its content.
Continuing as part of the Hyundai value equation should be a generous warranty. For 2020, it was 5-years/60,000-miles bumper-to-bumper and 10/100,000 powertrain, supplemented by 3/36,000 of complimentary scheduled oil changes and tire rotations.
When does the 2021 Hyundai Sonata come out?
Expect a fall 2020 release date for the 2021 Hyundai Sonata